Clayton Community centre Surrey

Passive House poised for institutional uptake

Surrey community centre among projects targeting energy-efficiency standard
Thursday, April 26, 2018
By Michelle Ervin

Passive House, a voluntary standard for achieving extremely energy-efficient buildings, appears to be poised for wider uptake in institutional projects in Canada. After being largely limited to residential applications, small institutional projects are starting to reach completion and a handful of requests for proposals (RFPs) issued within the last year suggest that large institutional projects are soon to follow.

“It really feels like we’re on the cusp of a big explosion of Passive House buildings, and interest in Passive House, as the standard gets rolled out across all of our building stock, and not just residential-scaled projects,” said Jon Loewen, architect, Perkins+Will’s Toronto office.

Large institutional projects anticipated

Loewen was one in a cohort of his colleagues to become a Certified Passive House Designer last summer as the architecture firm anticipates the standard gaining traction.

Perkins+Will, which specializes in civic and institutional buildings, is already vying to work on some large projects that could be among the first of their size and type to pursue this certification. In one recent design competition, the architecture firm pitched the standard as a pathway to achieving net zero energy.

Passive House is expected to become an increasingly attractive proposition as governments roll out policies aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to combat climate change. Loewen pointed to the arrival of provincial carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs as well as tightening municipal energy standards as compelling factors in the case for pursuing the standard.

“Institutions are much more sensitive to the cost of energy than they used to be, and Passive House lines up really well with that, because it’s all about reducing your energy consumption,” he said. “There are hurdles for clients to overcome in the way you think about building the building, and the way you think about operating the building, but it’s very easy for us to quantify the benefits.”

Loewen explained that achieving the Passive House standard means front-loading spending to realize long-term savings and tilting investments toward the building envelope and away from the mechanical equipment.

“We’re creating this high-quality envelope that can be maintained with smaller equipment, rather than a relatively weak envelope that requires a high level of mechanical equipment and complexity in order to maintain a comfortable interior environment,” said Rob Bernhardt, CEO of Passive House Canada.

“For things like the cooling load, for example — that’s the result of solar heat gain — the approach within Passive House is to ensure that the heat doesn’t get into the building — perhaps [using] external shading devices — rather than cooling the building once the sun has been allowed to enter.”

Passive House in Canada

The adoption of the Passive House standard has been geographically uneven since it rolled out in Canada in 2010 after being formalized in Germany in the 1990s (although a house in Saskatchewan has been recognized as one of the earliest examples of this approach). Bernhardt said Toronto and Vancouver are currently leading the pack as the certification builds momentum across the country following slow uptake dominated by residential applications during its early years.

The Anglicization of Passivhaus to Passive House has contributed to the common misconception that the standard is strictly for homes, he said — the German word “haus” directly translates to “building” in English.

As institutions start to eye the standard for large projects, they may face some temporary challenges. Loewen noted that the Canadian market for high-performance building equipment and products is less mature than the European market, making certain items, such as triple-glazed curtain wall, more difficult to source locally.

However, big buildings have some advantages over small homes in pursuing the Passive House standard. For example, said Loewen, big buildings do not require as much insulation as small homes thanks to a lower surface-to-volume ratio. They also stand to have a greater positive environmental impact on the basis of sheer size.

In Penticton, B.C., the less than 5,000-square-foot Okanagan College Daycare has achieved Passive House certification, and a more than 5,000-square-foot community church, slated for construction in Doig River First Nation, B.C., is targeting certification. So is a more than 9,000-square-foot town hall containing offices, meeting rooms and support spaces under construction in Valleyview, Alberta.

B.C.-based HCMA Architecture + Design, which has completed a handful of residential Passive House projects, is now working on even larger institutional projects. Vancouver Fire Hall No. 17, a more than 20,000-square-foot facility, is slated to open before the year is out, and Clayton Community Centre, a more than 75,000-square-foot facility featuring arts and recreation programming is slated to open in Surrey next year. Once complete, Clayton Community Centre (pictured in the rendering above) is expected to become Canada’s largest Passive House facility to date.

“A lot of the institutional buildings are built and operated by municipalities,” said Adam Fawkes, associate at HCMA Architecture + Design. “That’s where the owner-operators are going to see the benefit of paying a bit more on the capital costs, and then having lower operational costs.”

Fawkes added that they are likely to see lower maintenance costs as well, due to the durability of the building envelope produced through the application of Passive House.

Procurement critical to success

Kearns Mancini Architects, which has more than one million square feet of Passive House projects in the pipeline this year, are the compliance architect and Passive House designer for project output specifications for a large building planned for University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. The 280,000-square-foot, mixed-use student residence stands to become the first of its building typology in the world to be completed and certified as Passive House.

Jonathan Kearns, co-founder and principal of Kearns Mancini, cautioned that it’s critical to get procurement right if Passive House certification is to be achieved. He identified construction management, design-build and IPD as preferred methods of delivery for projects targeting the standard.

Kearns said that high-performance buildings require a new procurement process, even for the design team.

“With the front-end design, typical procurement documents and scoring do not permit alternate design paths strategies which offer design success for the rigourous design standard,” said Kearns. “Also, until Passive House becomes more established in the marketplace, and you have lots of builders who know what Passive House is and know how to build it, we’re averse to stip sum (stipulated sum).”

Establishing an integrated team at the outset of such a project prevents the kinds of errors in execution that can occur when designs are handed off to contractors who are unfamiliar with the standard.

“All it needs is one careless tradesperson to put a hole in the air seal,” Kearns explained. “Then, you fail the air pressure test, and it might take days to find where that hole is if it’s a big building.”

He said that tender documents for projects that are proceeding as stipulated sum should prescribe Passive House training for supervisory staff and trades to avoid this risk.

Institutions interested in pursuing the energy-efficiency building standard on large projects will soon have further guidance. Kearns Mancini is in the process of writing a white paper on how to procure Passive House projects, which it expects to release this spring.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

Rendering of Clayton Community Centre courtesy of HCMA Architecture + Design.

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