Archive for the ‘Windows and Doors’ category

Skylights’ Function in The Active House

March 12th, 2014
Velux skylight operable with blinds

Velux skylight with blinds and operable glazing

Some green builders and energy auditors would argue that skylights have no place in a “green” home. After all, skylights puncture the building envelope allowing heat to escape in the winter and enter in the summer. Improper installation of skylights can add problems such as condensation build-up inside and ice damming outside.

However, in a house built to Active House standards, energy is an incorporated into the design but is not the driving component.  An Active House balances energy efficiency and human comfort by allowing natural daylight, fresh air and summer cross breezes into a building, while excluding excessive heat, cold, and glare from direct sunlight. This goal naturally means the home will have an abundance of windows and skylights — a direct contradiction of building philosophies such as Passive House which requires extremely tight building envelopes.

There have been many studies done on the positive effects of natural daylight on people’s health, and for those of us who live in northern climates and have suffered, even a little, from seasonal affective disorder, they will recognize the value of natural light, especially in the winter months. So while building envelopes are compromised with the addition of skylights, other green building goals are more than satisfied.

VELUX, a company established in Europe over 70 years ago, is well-known for its high-quality skylights. It has been involved with the Active House philosophy since its inception. I spoke with Nels Moxness and Russell Ibbotson of VELUX about the roles of skylights and their pros and cons in any building.

There are four major issues/concerns people have with skylights: air tightness, insulation value, solar heat gain and glare.

Air tightness: It’s no secret that many people who have lived in a house with skylights have experienced leaking at some point. While it can be due to faulty installation, often it is because the original skylights were installed using tar as the sealer around the flashing. Nels told me that after a few years of exposure to weather elements such as heat, cold, sunlight, water, snow, etc., the tar shrinks and cracks allowing water to infiltrate and find its way into the house. VELUX has always used a an engineered flashing which does not require sealants to maintain water tightness.  Their current product has the addition of  a rubber based membrane, which provides a shield from ice and water that often outlasts the roof’s shingles and prevents leaking. Further, to ensure proper installation of its skylights, VELUX certified installers  are required to attend a comprehensive installation training as well as have a job site inspected upon completion.

Insulation: With respect to insulation values, VELUX skylights are double-paned, flat glass, LoE³  that are filled with argon gas. This provides for a better insulation value than uninsulated skylights. The U-value for the installed skylights in the Active House in Thorold, Ontario is rated at 0.4 in Energy Star zones A, B and C (most of Canada’s population lives within these climate zones, Zone D, the coldest, covers the Arctic).  Note that there are 14 skylights in the Thorold house and the house achieved 1.6 air changes per hour. To give you an idea of how that compares to building code, the upgraded Ontario Building Code, 2012, and the newest Novoclimat (Quebec) building code require a minimum of 2.5 air changes per hour for a detached home.

Solar Heat Gain and Glare: Often, even in winter, if the sun is beating down on a house, without the protection trees or other buildings, the area under the skylight within the house will become so hot or bright that you avoid it completely. This effect is particularly brutal in the summer and will have the added consequence of forcing your air conditioner to work overtime. In fact, solar heat gain and direct glare from poorly placed skylights can negate any natural daylight advantage there is to installing them in the first place. Nels mentioned that with respect to solar heat gain, in the latest VELUX skylights, there is three times less solar heat gain than there was even ten years ago.  Further, VELUX is developing an exterior awning system to prevent solar heat gain and help block glare even more. As it is, you can add an interior blind system, operated by remote control, this is particularly relevant in a bedroom if you don’t like waking up with the summer sun (in Montreal in June, dawn starts around 4:30am and sunrise is at 5am). In fact the addition of a light-blocking blind to a skylight can increase energy performance by as much as 45%.

As the technology of skylights continuously improves, skylights’ importance  in a home’s design and functioning becomes increasingly valuable and homes built to Active House standards take full advantage of the newest skylights’ multi-functional qualities.

The multi-functional skylight:  The Thorold house is designed with 14 skylights which are used to bring daylight into areas that might not receive it otherwise such as bathrooms and stairwells. With increased daylight, demand for electric lighting is significantly decreased versus a standard house.

The ability of VELUX skylights to open to let in fresh air and let interior hot air escape allows architects who promote natural over mechanical ventilation to make use of stairwells as heat stacks.  When the cooler night air advances, ground floor windows can be opened along with skylights. As the hot air escapes through the skylights, the cooler night air gets sucked into the house to replace it. Cooling down a house is much more rapid, easing pressure on air conditioning and the electrical load.  Further, VELUX has just incorporated a solar panel into its skylight to operate it, so there is no need to add to the electrical load.

Rain Sensor: Because the skylights are operable, they include a rain sensor so if you aren’t home and it rains, they will close automatically.

Effectively placed and properly installed skylights can be a positive addition to any building, providing natural daylight in hard to reach spaces, lowering electrical lighting loads and improving occupants’ overall well being.

To find a Velux dealer near you visit the Velux website.


SageGlass — Energy Efficiency Using Tinted Dynamic Glass

January 19th, 2012

For architects and builders concerned with a building’s energy efficiency, windows have always been a double-edged sword. On the one hand they offer views, natural light, and heat in the winter when the sun is shining. On the other hand, they’re holes in the building’s envelope allowing for heat transfer in the wrong direction and glare when the sun’s rays are low. In south-facing rooms in particular it’s always a challenge to offer a comfortable environment, and natural daylight during midday without drawing blinds or having the air conditioner work overtime. One technology that offers a solution but is still relatively new is electrothermal glass, also known as tintable or dynamic glass.

Ball State University -- Untinted glass


Ball State University -- Tinted Glass

SageGlass was founded in 1989 but took 14 years of research and development before launching its electrothermal glass product. This glass is able to change its tinting to block or allow the sun to enter a building. If you’ve ever been in a building which is enveloped in glass, you might have had the uncomfortable experience of having the sun beat down on you. It’s worse than being outside because there’s no breeze to combat the heat, and the only way to avoid glare is to use sunglasses, which, if you’re inside, isn’t really a great solution.

Kirksey Architecture, Houston, TX


Advantages:  Tintable glass cuts glare and heat during the hottest times of the day and year but also allows the sun to enter during colder times of the year. The advantages are increased energy efficiency for both the heating and cooling system, as well as permitting  natural daylight without the glare which helps plug load. It also means that blinds aren’t needed, except in areas where privacy is a concern.  A study of increased energy consumption saw that windows with SageGlass increased a building’s energy efficiency  21% over ASHRAE baseline building requirements. Heating and cooling systems will work better, particularly on extremely hot days.

Applications: This glass has been installed in several commercial and institutional building projects but also has applications in high-end residential setting. The advantage of tintable glass is that it permits views while preventing excess heat and glare.  The glass can be specified by any window company, currently for residential applications, Marvin Windows and Doors uses this glass.

Regarding overall energy efficiency of the glass, not only does it allow or prevent radiant heat (heat from the sun) passing through, but it is also treated with a low-emissivity coating to increase the glass’s thermal rating. SageGlass works very closely with all window manufacturers using its glass to make sure it is installed into the window frames correctly. In residential applications, it has been combined with both double and triple glazed windows.

Solar Heat Gain Coefficient: One of the measurements of energy efficient windows is the solar heat gain coefficient. It is the amount of heat that passes through a window from the sun’s rays and is measured on a scaled from 0-1. The average low-e double glazed window has a solar heat gain coefficient of .47, meaning that it lets in 47% of the sun’s heat that is hitting the window. A window coated with SageGlass has a variable solar heat gain coefficient that ranges between 0.09 and 0.49. When the window is fully tinted, only 9% of the sun’s heat gets through. The solar heat gain coefficient of regular glass is static.

Technology: The technology SageGlass developed involves five layers of nano-ceramic coatings. When a small current of electricity is applied to the glass lithium ions and electrons transfer from one layer to another causing the glass to darken. It can be controlled manually or built into a building automation system. In case you’re wondering about whether the electricity applied offsets the gains in energy efficiency, the voltage applied is very small and the benefits of the tinted glass far outweigh the costs.

When used in residential applications, regarding the electrical requirements, the same person installing your internet cables is the one specified for installing this glass.

Cost: While the company couldn’t give a cost for this glass because it depends on so many factors, it is definitely a product intended for high-end residential applications. However, I can see plenty of residential applications for this glass — especially in Toronto where there is a significant number of high-end condos being constructed. Most of these condos are made out of glass, and the upper floors are all about the views. This glass would be a perfect application.

For more information on SageGlass and electrothermal glass, visit




Inline Fiberglass Windows — Warm on the Inside Even When it’s -11 Celsius Outside

May 3rd, 2011

Haliburton Cottage

It’s no exaggeration to say “you had me at -11″ when I think of Inline Fiberglass windows. If you’ve read my article on the First Certified Passive House Residence in Canada then you might remember the part about putting my hand up to the windows and the glass feeling warm even though it was -11 outside! (Sorry about the finger prints.) In my house I’d know where the windows were located even if I were blindfolded because of the sharp temperature drop as I approached them.

Fiberglass is one of the best materials on the market for windows, in fact, it might even be considered the best material for windows. It has many qualities about it which make it an excellent choice for window materials, and Inline Fiberglass windows are known as some of the highest quality fiberglass windows made in North America. In fact, they’re made right here in Toronto.

Here are some of the attributes of Inline Fiberglass windows that make them so appealing for a “green build” or renovation:

Shawanaga Bay Cottage

1. Stability. Fiberglass, made from 60% glass, expands and contracts at the same rate as the window panes. This means that the seal between the frame and panes stays solid.

2. Insulation. The frames are well-insulated and there is no thermal bridging so heat can’t find its way out of the windows through the frames.

3. Manufacturing control. The fiberglass frame is manufactured in-house through a method called pultrusion, so the company can maintain complete control over the entire process.

4. Durability. These windows last and last and last. They are unaffected by arctic cold or dessert sun. They are also non-corrosive which makes them attractive for oceanside locations.

5. Low embodied energy: fiberglass is considered one of the lowest embodied energy materials compared to other common window frame materials.

Mnjikaning First Nation Early Childhood Education Centre

6. Recyclable: At end of life, the fiberglass can be ground up into a fine powder to be used in common building components, as well as fill in the fiberglass resin before it is put through the pultruder.

7. Low maintenance. In general, fiberglass windows need very little attention. Their frames don’t fade and don’t need repainting, repairing, or refinishing.

8. Customization. Windows are available in five standard colour shades, can be made as “inserts” or “full frames” in any size, with many different insulation options available. Further, there options for double glazing (two window panes), or triple glazing (three window panes) available and different insulating gas combinations including argon and krypton (krypton is an even better insulating gas than argon). Note: window “inserts” might be preferred if you live in an historical home and want to preserve the wood frame.

9. Flexibility: windows are available in casement, tilt ‘n turn, double and single hung with tilt ‘n turn options.

10. Warranty: windows come with a Limited 20 year warranty on the frame.

Front and back of Toronto residence with Inline Fiberglass windows

11. Pricing: It’s impossible to price out windows because of all the different combinations and customization features. It’s best to contact the company directly.

For more information on Inline Fiberglass windows, visit their website.

Phone: 1-866-566-5656


(Photos courtesy of Inline Fiberglass.)

Accoya Wood: Durable, Stable, Modified Without Toxins

April 26th, 2011

Bridge made from Accoya

I was at a presentation, hosted by Upper Canada Forest Products, to hear about the features of Accoya wood. This is a wood product which looks really interesting specifically for any outdoor use. Matt Roberts is the Technical Sales Manager for the Americas for Accoya, and he presented on this product.

The product  was introduced in 2007 in The Netherlands. Accoya is a pressure-treated wood, however, it is treated with non-toxic ingredients, and it will last 50 years or more when exposed to outdoor weather elements. The entire wood piece is treated with an acetylation process so that every fiber of the wood is exposed to the acetylation process, not just the outside layer. What that means is that cut ends exposed to harsh weather will stand up just as well as the rest of the wood. The treatment process used actually changes the molecular structure of the wood and makes it more durable. Unlike traditional pressure-treated wood, however, it is completely non-toxic. The chemical used is acetic anhydride, a derivative of acetic acid, which is the base of vinegar. In fact, Matt told us that the wood gives off a faint vinegar smell when it’s being worked with.

Durability: It has an above ground outdoor guarantee of 50 years and a below ground and fresh water guarantee of 25 years. This is a pretty amazing guarantee for a wood product that will be exposed to all the weather elements.

swellometer measures absorption of water

Swellometer measure absorption of water by Accoya and untreated wood

Stability: Because the acetylation process keeps wood from bonding with water, it is hardly affected by the changes in temperature or humidity. In fact, at the beginning of the presentation, Matt put a piece of Accoya and an untreated piece of wood in a small tank of water and measured their ability to absorb moisture over the length of the presentation (about an hour). At the end there was a significant amount of swelling observed in the untreated wood, and barely any in the Accoya wood. Note the measurement was performed by a — I kid you not — “swellometer.”

Insect resistance:, Termites and other insects will stay away from it if there are alternative food choices (ie., other available wood sources), for it to eat.

Finish: The wood comes “rough hewn” and needs to be finished and sanded. Stain and paint last longer on Accoya than on regular untreated wood because of its stability. There is no contracting or expanding, which means paint and stain don’t wear as quickly.

Type of wood used: The wood used is a soft wood called Radiata Pine. It acetylates well which is why Accoya has started out with this wood. Although once it has been treated with this procedure the wood becomes 50% harder than in its original condition.

Decking made from Accoya

FSC certified: The wood used for this treatment is sourced out of well-managed, FSC-certified forests in Chile and New Zealand and treated at the main facility in The Netherlands. Eventually, the company will be licensing out the technology to wood treatment facilities worldwide to make logging, milling and manufacturing close to local markets.

Applications: Accoya is an excellent wood choice for a variety of residential applications: In addition to windows and doors, Accoya can be used for exterior siding, decking, shutters, fences, sound barriers, outdoor furniture…. (Two window and door manufacturers already use Accoya, Bonneville and Dynamic.)

One thing to note: because of the acidic nature of the wood, it was suggested that a few hardware materials such as zinc or galvanized steel be avoided because of their likelihood of being oxidized. Better choices are stainless steel, anodized aluminum, brass, any epoxy or ceramic coated hardware.

Wood frame made from Accoya. Note mitred corners will always remain stable

Cost: The cost of Accoya is the equivalent of a tropical hardwood, however, longevity of the product should be taken into account when considering pricing. This wood is ideal for specialty products with long-term exposure to the elements: windows, doors, shutters, wood trim, etc.

Accoya is available through Upper Canada Forest Products and is sent to manufacturers for further applications.

(Note: photos courtesy of  Accsys Technologies, PLC)

A Tour of the First “Passive House Certified” Residence in Canada

March 8th, 2011

First Certified Passive House Residence in Canada

We went to Ottawa for Family Day weekend to visit my husband’s family. A few weeks before this, I received a press notice that an Ottawa house had become the first Passive House certified in Canada. “Say,” I thought, “wouldn’t it be great if I could arrange for a tour of the house while I was in Ottawa?” So I did.

If you’re not familiar with the Passive House movement, houses are designed and built so that they only use 15 kwh/m2 of energy for heating and cooling and 120 kwh of electricity per month for lighting, appliances and other household uses. To give you an idea of what this means, the typical new home built in Ontario today uses about 10 times the amount of energy consumed by a Passive House certified building. If you’d like to know more about the Passive House movement in Canada, you can read about it here.

Chris Stratka of Vert Design was intent on building a super-insulated home when he bought the property in the New Edinburgh neighbourhood of Ottawa. However, when he took the design to a Passive House consultant he was told it probably wouldn’t qualify because the building materials and systems available in Canada that he had specified were seen by the consultant as inferior to those available in Europe. Although Chris was disappointed, he decided that he’d build the “best” house possible and leave it at that. Specifically, Chris is aiming for a Platinum LEED for Homes rating, with a particular emphasis on the Energy and Atmosphere section of the certification.

Chris decided that the best way to achieve his home’s performance targets was to use a modular home builder, and located one just outside Ottawa who would build to his insulation specifications. As I’ve written about before, modular home building has several environmental advantages such as the materials being protected from the elements (moisture, heat, cold, etc.), less waste in production, and less disruption to the local neighbourhood because the final product is put up so much faster. Chris’ home was assembled on site in three weeks. Yes, there was still the need for electricians, HVAC installers etc., but the major construction vehicles were on the street for a short period of time and there was never a dumpster on site.

Once the walls were assembled, insulation was added to the ceiling, caulking and sealing was done, Chris called in green building specialist, Ross Elliott from Homesol Building Solutions, a building performance consulting company that provides third-party inspection, testing and verification services. Ross performed the blower door test to identify any leaks that might have escaped the caulking and sealing. Chris said that if you’re going for energy efficiency in a new or renovated home, it’s essential to bring in the energy auditor a few times while the house is under construction. It’s much easier to fix leaks and holes in a partially built home than once the drywall is up and everything is already in place, and it will save you money in the long-run through lower energy bills. It was after the initial test that Chris and Ross believed that they just might be able to qualify for Passive House certification after all.

There are two other aspects about the house that were of primary importance to Chris:

1. He built it using only North American supplied materials in order to demonstrate that we North Americans have the resources and the technology to build super-insulated homes. All the major building materials,  hot water heaters, geothermal heating/cooling, and windows are manufactured in Canada and the US.

2. Testing for air leaks at several stages of building was essential to achieving the home’s air tightness.

In order to build a Passive House certified residence, there are several elements in addition to air-tightness that are essential to take into consideration:


Inline Fiberglass Windows

Orientation: Part of the Passive House formula is the ability to take advantage of the free heat a house can receive in the winter by orienting windows to absorb the light. In this case the house if perfectly situated, facing due south, and backs onto conservation land next to the river. It means he’ll never have to worry about another building going up that would eventually block his sunlight and heat source. The canopy in place protects the room from the heat in the summer when the sun is high in the sky.  The shading system that is currently being installed protects the rooms from the heat of the low winter sun.  In this building the issue is not getting enough heat – it is getting too much!

"Tilt" feature of "Tilt and Turn" windows

Windows: All windows are “tilt and turn” windows provided byInline Fiberglass, a window manufacturer based in Toronto, ON. They are triple-glazed, Low emissivity, argon gas filled, and the fiberglass frames themselves are insulated. The day I visited it was -15, but when I put my hand to the window pane, the glass was warm. When I do the same thing on my own home’s windows, the glass is always chilly; in fact, it’s just plain cold anywhere around any window in our house.

A nifty feature of the windows is the “tilt and turn” aspect. They tilt open at the top to let air flow in or out, or can be opened completely as a door on side hinges. This is a great feature to quickly cool down a room in the summer time, if the hot air has risen to the third floor.

Heating and Cooling System: In hindsight, Chris says, the geothermal heating and cooling system he had installed wasn’t necessary. However, when first designing the place, and being told that it would never pass Passive House certification, he figured he’d use the least intrusive HVAC system he knew of — geothermal. His particular system is made by Maritime Georthermal from New Brunswick. In future passive house designs, he would use baseboard heating in each room as Passive House homes are designed so that traditional heating methods such as central furnaces, aren’t necessary. He’s also added a Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV), from Airia Brands from London, ON. When I asked him why he hadn’t chosen an Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV), he replied that ERVs are more suited to humid climates where moisture is present year round.

For a complete breakdown of the specifications of the wall composition and HVAC, hotwater and windows used, please see Chris’ PDF document on his website.

Other “eco features.” Passive House certification’s focus is on energy use for heating, cooling and plug load. It does not look at other factors such as indoor air quality, water use, or minimizing the use of building materials. Chris referred to LEED criteria for these areas. Some of the more eco-friendly features of his house are:

  • Green Roof garden. Essentially his house takes up the entire plot of land, with only a small patch of property out back. Since he would like to grow some of his own food, he has designed the roof so that it can hold a substantial garden with herbs, tomatoes, beans and other vine plants, and maybe some crooked carrots (the depth of the soil will be about a foot). The green roof will also add further insulation to the home.
  • Rainwater recycling. There is a space built into the second floor that is awaiting rain barrels which will capture run-off from the eavestroughs and will be stored inside the home to feed toilets with water. The point of putting the rain barrels on the second floor is that the water is fed to the toilets through the use of gravity. That way they are unaffected if the electricity goes off.
  • Energy Star Appliances. All appliances, including washer/dryer, are Energy Star rated. The cooktop by Kenmore, uses induction heating, which is also quicker than gas.
  • No gas line to the house. Chris says that there are two reasons he relies on electricity for heating and cooling, cooking and hotwater: the first is that gas doesn’t fully combust and is not indoor air quality friendly, and secondly, to become dependent on gas means that you can never convert your home to 100% renewable electricity. Chris has plans for solar panels on the roof.

For more information on this project, visit

For more information on Passive House certification, visit the Passive House Institute US.

In Canada see: Passive Buildings, and Canadian Passive House Institute.

The Timeless Material Company Saves Architectural Artifacts From Demolition

November 1st, 2010

Timeless Materials

When I first stepped into The Timeless Material Company’s main showroom, I felt that little thrill I get whenever I’ve stumbled on to a place where my imagination can run wild. In this case, the barn that houses some of the many salvaged historical artifacts, holds enough material that I started mentally constructing my new “historical” dream house. “I’ll use this as my front door….here are some stunning lead-paned, diamond shaped windows….I’ll take the claw foot bathtub, and of course, the beautiful, Crane kitchen sink in mint condition.”….my heart sings.

Diamond Shaped Lead Paned Windows

When you look around Timeless Materials’ substantial property you’ll see acres of building material that’s been saved from buildings slated for demolition. In fact, as Ken Kieswetter puts it, “The salvage business was a natural outcome from the demolition business.” You see, Timeless Materials, a salvage business, exists because Ken and his family also own a demolition company, Kieswetter Demolition. Ken saw the potential of all the beautiful old building structures, and now salvages what he can before he takes the building down. They also own a construction company, Timeless Timber Structures, that uses salvaged beams to build timber frame homes.

Restored claw foot bathtubs

Original Crane Enamel Kitchen Sink

In Ken’s mind, new products just don’t hold a candle to the materials of old. “These materials will outlast the new “green” products because there are no glues used and the materials are denser so the products don’t deteriorate at the same rate.” For example, he points out that the wood he salvages is from buildings one hundred years old or more, and therefore from first growth forests. What this means is that wood planks are wider, denser and stronger than wood used for products today. Another thing to keep in mind is that the wood has been “seasoned” — for more than one hundred years in some cases — meaning that it will be little affected by changes in humidity throughout the year.

Timeless Materials has meters and meters of reclaimed wood flooring. They take it from barns, factories, school houses, and whatever other buildings that are destined for demolition. They have maple, clear fir, pine, etc., there are plenty of different flooring options available. All wood flooring is solid, no engineered wood flooring is available — nothing with glues.

Fireplace Mantel Room

As Ken and I toured through the converted barn that holds all these beautiful treasures, he told me about the history of the barn itself. In fact, in the “mantel” room (housing one of their most popular products), Ken tells me that it’s the place where JM Schneider’s grown son was gored by a bull. It’s part of the barn’s history. On the second floor he shows me a winding, narrow staircase and I ask where it’s from, thinking of a “Tara-like” residence on a miniature scale, but it turns out it’s from an old church in Quebec, and the nuns used it. They’d have to be pretty thin because it can’t be more than two feet wide.

Staircase from an 18th Century church in Quebec

When you’re looking at all these products, including windows, doors, stairways, etc., it is the craftsmanship that takes your breath away. The intricate carving and detail that went into these products still stands out today. It’s quite something to see, and even better to incorporate into a new home.

“So,” I asked Ken, “How do people use these pieces?”  Ken nodded and said that the most popular item they have are their fireplace mantels, in part because they can be added after a renovation has been done. Of course the best way to incorporate things like the doors, windows, kitchen and bathroom fixtures, is to design around the pieces. That means, pick out the pieces you like first, so visit Timeless Materials with your designer/contractor/architect. Because every piece was made by hand in the old days, sizes aren’t standard. Measurements need to be taken as the design is developed.

Old doors, restored

A variety of flooring including clear fir

Ken has great plans for his property: The building next to the barn is currently being renovated to house a new interior design studio and he’s looking for a registered interior designer to take up residence and run their business out of the space. If you’re a designer, and you have an interest in immersing yourself in the old, while gazing, past the open pasture, at the brand new RIM buildings (filled with plenty of potential customers!), contact Ken Kieswetter at

Timeless Materials -- Acres of Building Materials

For more information on the Timeless Material Company, visit their website. For directions and hours, see below:

The Timeless Material Company

305 Northfield Dr. E.
Waterloo, Ontario
N2V 2N4


Phone: 519-883-8683
Toll Free: 1-800-609-9633
Fax: 519-883-4016

Hours of Operation
Monday – Friday: 8:00am – 6:00pm
Saturday: 10:00am – 5:00pm
Sunday: 11:00am – 5:00pm

Visit their second location in Southampton:

Timeless Materials North

194 North Rankin Street
Southampton, Ontario
N0H 2L0

Phone: 519-797-9994

Hours of Operation
Tuesday – Saturday: 9:00am – 5:00pm

Passive House Design in a Canadian Climate

June 23rd, 2010

I mentioned in an earlier post that Terrell Wong was retrofitting her husband’s family home to have a building envelope that’s almost as tight as a Passive House’s home. While I was visiting the Rosedale House, I became intrigued by the whole idea of Passive House design and its possibilities in a Canadian climate. Terrell took time out of her (extremely) busy schedule to talk to me about Passive House design and its relevance in our Canadian climate.

Passive House designation was developed in Germany twenty years ago. While it is just gaining attention here in North America, it has been the standard of choice in Germany since its inception. There are a few reasons for this: one is that electricity, and energy in general, is far more expensive in Europe than it is here so it’s in the homeowner’s best interest to build the tightest building envelope technology can offer. Another reason is that in Germany’s milder climate, it is more technically feasible to build a house that uses only 15 kwh/m2 of energy for heat. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, building codes are much tougher in Germany and require higher levels of insulation and energy conservation than we have here in Canada (hint, hint Canadian building code writers).

The reason that 15 kwh/m2 was chosen as the passive house standard is that a boiler or furnace is no longer required to heat a home at that level. In fact, home orientation with south-facing windows, an energy recovery ventilator and occupant body heat can be enough to keep a home warm except for on the coldest of days.

Building orientation and insulationrequirements: Here in Canada, particularly in an urban setting where property choice and development is restricted, building a passively heated home is a challenge. As a contractor I know says “Anything’s possible, it’s just a matter of how much money you’re willing to spend.” In Terrell’s case, she was restricted by the fact that her home is east facing, something that was completely out of her control. Passive homes are designed, when possible, to take advantage of the sun’s rays in the winter with south-facing windows that allow for heat absorption during the day. In the summer, the planting of deciduous trees and awnings can help block the sun.

Insulation reuirements: Sometimes getting the insulation levels to where they need to be for passive heating doesn’t make financial or spatial sense.  Naturally, colder requirements require much more insulation and sometimes, giving up the space due to thicker walls can be an issue. For example, depending on the climate in which you live, if your home requires R60 in the walls to meet the standard, your wall may need 10 inches of R6 insulation which can take up to 2 feet of space away from your living area by the time you’ve added exterior and interior walls (not to mention the cost!).

But working towards building a tighter, well-insulated envelope has the advantages of providing significantly lower heating bills. As energy prices rise, a well-insulated home can also insulate the homeowner from sky-rocketing energy prices.

Thermal Bridging: In addition to building orientation (to take full advantage of the sun),  building envelope tightness and insulation, passive house design also addresses thermal bridging. Thermal bridging occurs when heat finds a path to escape out of its enclosure. Thermal bridging occurs around  and through windows and doors, as well as floor and wall studs which are attached to the outside part of the building envelope.  Eliminating these thermal bridges is a key element in passive home design. Homes are designed with as few if any electrical wiring running up the outside walls.

Windows: In Germany there are Passive House certified windows. Because Passive House design has existed in Germany for so long, the window manufacturers’ technology has evolved to match the requirements. While there are distributors of these windows in Canada, getting a contractor who understands how to properly install them is essential for a sealed fit.

I came across an article on windows for passive house design by Martin Holladay, from Green Building Advisor. There are five Canadian companies that manufacture high quality thermal windows that, while not Passive House certified, offer superior insulation properties as well as fiberglass frames.  Fiberglass is considered to be one of the best materials for window frames as it expands and contracts at the same rate as glass helping to reduce thermal bridging. For an excellent explanation on windows  for Passive House design, see Martin Holladay’s blog post in Green Building Advisor: Passivehaus Windows: Cold Climate Builders Look for the Best Available Windows.

Modeling: If you’re at all interested in pursuing Passive House design, the first thing you need to do is input your home’s design (including orientation) through the Passive House Planning Package. This is an energy-simulated model run in Excel that will provide you with your heating load/m2 based on the figures you input. It will also calculate your overall costs assuming you know your costs/m2, so you can make informed decisions about whether it’s more economical to increase your insulation or invest in better windows. Note: this is NOT a do-it-yourself kit. It takes considerable  specialized training and engineering knowledge to use this software properly and understand the results.  It’s best to work with a certified Passive House designer, consultant or architect or engineer who is familiar with passive house design and modeling  if you’re interested in building a passive house.

Building, or even retrofitting a home to passive house standards may not be realistic for most of us, but if we can strive to increase the insulation in our homes, recognize and avoid thermal bridging and invest in the highest quality windows our budget can afford, the upfront costs might be higher but the pay-off will continue for years to come.

For more information on Passive House design see:

Canadian Passive House Institute

Passive House Institute US

Passive House Institute Germany

Thanks again Terrell for your time and expert knowledge!

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