Is Passive House a panacea for the environment?

The quest for net zero carbon buildings requires more than one standard
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
by Cheryl Mah

Interest in the Passive House standard has increased significantly in the last two to three years throughout North America and especially in Western Canada. It is setting a new benchmark for energy efficient building design and construction and offers a roadmap to achieving carbon reductions.

With all levels of government in Canada setting a timeline for climate change commitments, the building industry is looking at the Passive House standard as a tool to achieve net zero carbon and healthy buildings – two current key green building trends.

“Passive House is primarily focused on achieving deep energy reduction consumption in buildings through a science based approach with proven results,” said Kamilia Vaneck, project manager, sustainability and energy, WSP. “Passive House can be used as a roadmap to help us take those first steps of reducing, optimizing and even generating.”

Vaneck was one of three industry experts speaking at the CaGBC 2017 conference in Vancouver. The session focused on evaluating the Passive House Standard as a means to achieving net zero carbon and healthy buildings.

In pursuing solutions, there is “no one size fits all to CO2 reductions,” noted James Woodall, sustainable design specialist at HCMA Architecture + Design. “A balanced approach is critical to charting a course to a more sustainable built environment.”

While buildings are the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also an opportunity for change, said Vaneck. Canada has committed to a carbon emissions reduction target of 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and similarly, the City of Vancouver will eliminate emissions from all of its new buildings by 2030. For existing buildings, energy use labelling could be adopted as early as 2019, said Vaneck.

The City of Vancouver also released a new rezoning policy in May that requires all applications to meet near zero or low emissions buildings and has suggested Passive House as a path for achieving those carbon reductions.

While Passive House provides a proven roadmap for achieving deep energy consumption reduction in buildings, certification does not guarantee net zero carbon. If Passive House is used to create net zero carbon building right now, additional considerate are needed…it’s not quite there yet, advised Vaneck.

She continued to say that Passive House has introduced new certification requirements that make renewable energy production mandatory in two new classes: plus and premium.

“Passive House addresses carbon by reimagining a future with 100 per cent renewable grid,” she said.

Kaitlyn Gillis, director of wellbeing and sustainability at the Light House Sustainable Building Centre discussed Passive House in relation to health and wellbeing. Gillis, along with Woodall, reviewed the gaps and opportunities in the standard by focusing on four impact areas: indoor air quality, lighting, acoustic and thermal comfort.

The focus on health and wellbeing is not new but there is “a new interest and focus today that looks at the issue more holistically and how the built environment engages with humans – socially, psychologically and physiologically,” she said.

Passive House covers thermal comfort well but falls short on requirements in the other three areas, according to Gillis. Healthy buildings have many design requirements. “So other strategies need to be considered if we’re actually designing for people. What we can do with a Passive House design project is to create an environment that gives us this opportunity to be healthy.”

Vanek noted that Passive house is not a zero carbon building standard nor is it a healthy building standard. But Passive House has a role and can provide a foundation for achieving both of those goals.

“We can have a healthy net zero building that’s certified to Passive House standard but that may not necessarily achieve those goals by just following the standard – have to go beyond the foundation to achieve those goals,” she concluded.

Cheryl Mah is managing editor of Design Quarterly

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