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Are High R-value Wall Assemblies Risky for Ontario?

Building Science Corp’s recent study on humidity in walls in the North East was interesting, but it only looked at “…relatively vapor open Class III vapor retarder (latex paint on gypsum board) as the interior vapor control layer.” Unfortunately for Ontarians, the building code requires a vapour barrier in many cases, so the results of that study aren’t really applicable.

Adding insult to injury, Ontarians don’t really know what IECC climate zone they’re in. What we do know is that Ontario’s climate is both “cold” and “wet” which means high R-value wall assemblies have a lower drying potential in cold months, which can make them prone to condensation.

 

IECC climate zone map

IECC climate zone map doesn’t cross political boundaries…

 

 

Now the good news…

The Canadian Wood Council and  Chris Timusk of George Brown College have teamed up to assemble a data base of hundreds of wall assembly variations with WUFI analysis for each scenario. This is a brilliant resource for energy modelers as it gives a WUFI simulated durability analysis and the composite R-value of the wall assembly – a fantastic resource!

Below is but one sample of hundreds of variations:

Wall Asembly eg

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Graham Finch on Moist Attics

Over the years, we’ve documented many attic failures due to issues of condensation and ice damming. We thought we had the market cornered on horror pictures until I came across Graham Finch‘s presentation (below) on ventilated attics.

If you have 25 minutes and a bowl of popcorn, this is a good presentation that covers the topic thoroughly.

 

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Most Air Tight Home in Canada!?

We’re not sure, but we think we stumbled on the most air tight in Canada. Last year I threw down the gauntlet on LinkedIn suggesting we may have tested the most air tight house in Canada first in Saugeen Shores, then in Oakville Ontario. I put my money where my mouth was by betting a pint to anyone who bested our score.

My temerity was quickly rewarded with a rebuke from Shaun St-Amour in Vancouver of Footprint Sustainable Housing, followed by Gath Hood of Thoughtful Dwellings in Fredericton, who informed me his test trumped ours – resoundingly.

Gath was referring to a house he had the good fortune to 3rd party test, the Naugler House. This Fredericton home was designed and built by Tim Naugler of Southern Exposure Construction Inc. With an ELA of a mere 27.6cm2 and an ACH50 of 0.21 (average result of a de+pressurisation tests), it’s ELA beat our best by nearly 50 cm2. He had to use the ‘E’ ring! So jealous, I have one but its sitting in a glass case waiting to be called into action…

Anyhow, a big and hearty Congrats goes to Tim and the crew that assembled the home – you might consider offering your repair services to the Canadian Navy’s sub fleet.

Naugler House Prize (Custom)

Its not much of a reward, on an old x-mas card to boot, but we’re keeping our promise of buying a ‘pint’… of coffee. It’s not that the local Tim’s won’t redeem this gift certificate card because its branded with the Maple Leafs… but ‘er we hope you don’t get beat up in Fredericton.

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Toronto’s Blarney Stone Nearly Gone

 

Queen and Spadina

If you ever though you’d see the day when the sandstone column holding up this old building on the south east side of Queen St West and Spadina Ave needed replacing – the hour has come! Thanks Google Streetview!

I love Toronto’s old buildings and as I walk I pay close attention to them. For those of you who’ve not been around the Victorian era buildings of Toronto for a while, you might be interested to know that the original sandstone column at 441 Queen Street West is now on life support. Time to say good bye!

Sandstone

The column on life support, your chance to get one last rub of the weakest piece of sandstone in the city!

Over the years I’ve watched the column at this very busy pedestrian intersection erode and rightly so it has to go. Every time I passed, I imagined the building owner was holding on the the past to keep it there as long as possible and was glad someone had the notion to allow us to witness this slow crumbling over so many years. It took on a bit a bit of a mythical status for me – kind of like Toronto’s Blarney Stone I imagined. Though I never touched it for fear of precipitating collapse, I always wondered if it had any magic in it! I mean somebody was rubbing this thing like a goat with a serious itch while no one was looking!

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With maybe only 25 square inches of weak sandstone holding up the stone above, it will go soon. I wonder what they’ll put in it’s place… Maybe I should give it a rub to see if there’s some magic in it!

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PH Above the Crease in NY Times!

Sadly, you won’t find it in Canadian newspapers. Nope you have to go south of the border to read news about the building method that’s taking off south of the 49th and the New York Times’ Alison Gregor nails it in her article last month about Passive House in New York. NYPH covers what the Real Estate section article got right, including the fact that vintage buildings are being successfully retrofitted to the standard. Even without and Environment section the paper, the NY Times still plugs passive house in the Home & Garden Section with this fresh article on Passive Homes. Clearly the Editor sees a trend in NY that Canadian news papers don’t see in Canada.

As much as we’d like to blame the Toronto Star, or the Globe and Mail for not covering Passive House and for continuously pushing the status-quo on ‘green’, it might have something to do with the fact that Canadians have lower energy costs and live in a country that currently sees itself as a resource-based economy and consequently, some Canadians aren’t building high performance homes as few homes in the GTA meet the Passive House Standard.

There are bright spots though. Places where high performance homes are being built tend to be places where no access to natural gas for heating exists and the hot bed in Canada is Nova Scotia, where regular home owners want good affordable built houses that don’t cost an arm and a leg to condition the living space. Natalie Leonard of Passive House E-Design has built the most Passive Homes in the country and she keeps churning them out like hot cakes.

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Why TO Should Love Passive House

475 High Performance Building Supply tells it all in this short video where Floris Keverling Buisman gives a brief example of the amazing sound damping abilities of a home that is airtight and highly insulated. This is a historic masonry home in Park Slope, Brooklyn that has retrofitted to Passive House level of quality. Are there any historic brick buildings in Toronto that could benefit from the same?

Why New Yorkers Love Passive House from 475 HPBS on Vimeo.

 

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Home Ratings have Nothing on Fish Sticks

I picked up some frozen fish n’ chips’ for dinner the other day and was astonished, nay aghast at how detailed and thorough the pedigree on frozen fish sticks were!

It was actually for the box, not the sticks inside, but either way, it was good marketing for food packaging. If only we could get this kind of data on the waste associated with each renovation project or new build!

Fish sticks!

 

 

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Just in: Climate-Specific Passive Building Standards

Producing energy optimised designs and construction assembly details for high performance buildings is too urgent and important to fight over who’s name gets on the wall plaque. In wanting to accelerate wide adoption of a significantly higher than building code energy performance standard for the North American market, the  Passive House Institute United States (PHIUS) tasked a volunteer Technical Committee in 2011. They have just released their highly anticipated Climate-Specific Passive Building Standards in conjunction with Building Science Corp through Building America.

Called PHIUS + 2015 , the technical document aims to find the “climate-specific sweet spot where aggressive energy and carbon reduction overlap with cost effectiveness” as opposed to the ‘one-size fits all’ PHI approach which highly respected industry professionals like GBA’s Editor Martin Holladay openly muse if some of the Passivhaus requirements are logical perhaps even arbitrary .

In a nutshell, the changes proposed for the new PHIUS standard follow the three pillars:

1. The air-tightness requirement was reconsidered on the basis of avoiding moisture and mold risk. The proposed change is from a limit of 0.6 ACH50 to 0.05 CFM50 per square foot of gross envelope area (or 0.08 CFM75). This allows the airtightness requirement to scale appropriately based on building size.
2. The source energy limit was reconsidered on the basis of the global CO2 emission budget. The following changes are proposed to make the scoring more fair and the calculation more accurate:

  • Change to a per-person limit rather than per square foot of floor area, for residential projects.
  • Correct the source energy factor for grid electricity in the calculation protocol to 3.16, consistent with the US national average.
  • Adopt lighting and miscellaneous-plug-load defaults at 80% of the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) standard.
  • Set the source energy limit to 6200 kWh per person per year, tightening to 4200 within a few years TBD.
  • Apply the limit to the source energy calculated net of the estimated fraction of onsite photovoltaic (PV) or other renewable electricity generation that is used onsite as it is produced. This accounts for PV the same way solar hot water is accounted for.

3. The space conditioning criteria were reconsidered on the basis of economic feasibility. The proposed change is to:

  • Shift to mandatory thresholds on annual heating and cooling demands and peak heating and cooling loads, climate-specific to a project’s location, which aim for a near-optimal “sweet spot” with slightly more energy savings than BEopt’s calculated cost optimum. This ensures efficiency measures will be reasonably cost-competitive, while providing some increased resilience benefits.
  • Adopt a simplified reference floor area – an inclusive interior-dimension floor area.

‘Passivhaus’ vs ‘Passive House’?

Influential eco-starchitects like Daniel Pearl of l’Oeuf have come full circle after 20 years of practice in admitting that the Passive House approach is where we need to go as a society in designing and building the next generation of buildings. The facts remain:

  • Germans and Americans don’t look at payback in the same way and they’re philosophical approaches to construction in general are an ocean apart.
  • In the EU, and Germany in particular, very few homes are actually certified as “Passive House” by PHI. There’s no need, home owners don’t need the plaque, they just want the performance.
  • Climate change is here and there’s an urgent call for higher building efficiency; that means the price of building materials and construction techniques needs to be ‘more’ competitive and the ‘one-size fits all climates’ PHI approach may be too rigid.
  • The great irony in all of this infighting is that even PHI is adding water to the wine with the introduction of three new certification standards  ostensibly to ‘certify’ more homes in America.
  • Meanwhile, NESEA’s Pretty Good House makes compelling arguments against PHI’s dogmatic approach if we want rapid adoption of a significantly higher performing homes to be built now.

The elephant in the room

Here’s what I know, German architect Katrin Klingenberg has been singularly focused-on and doggedly pushing the PH approach in the USA and Canada since the early 2000′s because she believes there’s an urgent call to action in building and retrofitting better. I’d attend most of her talks at Affordable Comfort Inc. and in the early days the audience was small, but over the years I watched her build and nurture an audience interested in what she had to say. This is well before a divisive Canadian helped trigger the current North American vs European schism, the result of which, is confusion in the marketplace and unnecessary division. Ironically, it may eventually might lead to wider adoption of a high performance standard that swings conventional builders over to the sustainable, high performance side and away from prescriptive code minimums.

The infighting in North America between the euro-centric approach versus the dynamic ideas offered by PHIUS does a huge dis-service to the rapid adoption and implementation of the principles of Passive House – both produce incredibly efficient buildings. I certainly understand the allure for American builders and architects wanting to differentiate their brand as “the sexy German sports car equivalent”, but let’s not forget the huge benefits of the old “Made in America” slogan.

The duplication is most hurtful in that both hold separate conferences in the US that are timed to divide allegiance. Thankfully, the Canadian NGO PBC has been steadily and magnanimously trying to push for an inclusive adoption of the principles of Passive House irrespective of the certifying agency, be it PHIUS or PHI.

The mudslinging goes on and until the kids can play in the sandbox together, they will be seen by the status quo as what they are – building nerds who are willing to split hairs over a few kWh, the messy exclusion of floor cavities and who’s name gets on the wall plaque. The world needs unity on tackling the effects of climate change – let’s build better with or without a certification, now!

 

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Daniels’ Pearls of Wisdom at UofT B.E.S.T.

Daniel Pearl, co-founder of L’ŒUF (l’Office de l’Éclectisme Urbain et Fonctionnel), spoke to a receptive, standing room only audience of alumni, students and building professionals this past March 12 at UofT Daniels for B.E.S.T. Lecture. His talk was engaging, fresh and almost unexpected coming from the haloed ancient halls of UofT.

As evidence suggests, the schools pushing the envelope on energy efficiency include the University of Waterloo and Ryerson University, but maybe now, U of T can pick up its game with Mr. Pearl’s pearls of wisdom.

In the building sector, Toronto lags behind other North American cities in its push for high efficiency buildings. Suppliers seem to sell high performance materials to the rest of Ontario, but the city itself is stogy and stuck in its ways it seems. So too with its namesake university. In our experience, the architects pushing building envelope efficiency to the next level almost always come from Waterloo – perhaps because the school of architecture was born of shared roots with the department of the environment. But we digress!

Mr. Pearl tried to succinctly drive the point that after 20 years of trying to increase building energy performance from wild mechanical systems, to sophisticated envelope features – nothing beats the Passive House approach. Period. “People are not our Guinea Pigs!” he said of building public housing.

His insights were prescient in that he derives his opinions on data. He monitors his builds scientifically for performance and solicits information on comfort and use from the building occupants and with that information he’s come to the stark conclusion that people are too busy to manage or understand complicated mechanicals systems. Of course, the Passive House approach seeks to minimise mechanical equipment and emphasise superb building envelope design that’s simple, durable and elegant.

In closing he urged his UofT audience “We need to be re-educated.”  Which came as a bit of a shock, but was pointedly delivered to the people of his almamater.

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Happy Persian New Year!

To all the Persians out there who have a punishing schedule this weekend vising relatives, eating kebabs and drinking; Sale no mobarak! To everyone else, Happy Spring! With mere minutes to spare before the exact (astronomically observed) vernal equinox and the sun at our backs, Friday afternoon seemed the perfect opportunity to uncork and drink the dregs of our office stash.

It’s a big event and the one tradition that brings Shervin the most happines. Shamefully, I have never done the jumping over the fire ceremony with Shervin (he never misses this dangerous feat) which just sound like the right thing to do leaving your worries, fears behind in the fire in preparation for the new year.

 

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Shervin and I raise a glass* (sorry I couldn’t do the selfie thing and raise a glass at the same time!) to all of you wishing peace, happiness and prosperity.                                                       *This moment brought to you by Ed Marion who bought us the Bushmills (Black).

 

 

 

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