For the 6th year now, North America’s building science gurus Joseph Lstiburek (U of T engineering grad) and Betsy Pettit hold an open house and generously welcome building scientist and efficiency practitioners into their home and hold an intimate tête-à-tête in the basement while sipping away on some fine reds. Again, this year Peter Troast brought back the transcript from the crypt and posted it on the Energy Circle Blog.
The short text is worth a read but we offer a contextualised take on Dr. Joe’s views like we did last year and it should start with the histrionics of the Passive House movement. With high utility costs and the scientific evidence pointing towards anthropogenic climate change, Chernobyl‘s cloudy threats to the German people were the coup de grâce that triggered government funded research on conservation and efficiency. Funding in hand, the Germans promptly started by scooping all the great building science developed in North America following the 1973 Oil Crisis.
The Saskatchewan government funded technology that developed the Conservation House lay languishing once the crisis subsided and with continued low utility cost and the fact that NA is a resource resource rich continent, there was no incentive to develop efficiency or conservation as an energy strategy. So the Germans and Swedes picked up where we left off, refined the concepts and made it their own. To paraphrase Dr. Joe’s words, the Germans “built, pushed, broke and fixed” and now North America is poised to finally start catching up to the EU and arguably, will produce a more climatically responsive standard than the one size fits all approach developed by the Germans in the early 1990s.
It should be noted that Dr. Joe is working with PHIUS to develop a comprehensive, climate specific North American Passive House standard. So he’s close to the cause, which is a nice bout face from where he was in the late 2000s. The PH movement needs allies like Lstiburek and he needs the boundary pushing its dedicated adherents are doing to keep Building Science Corp focused and relevant on the housing side.
When asked “are we making progress” Dr. Joe optimistically responds “There is a backlash against complexity. The coming together of the architects and engineers is what will take us to the next level. The training of architects and engineers is leading to simplicity and elegance.” But the sad truth is that what’s being built is still complex in both residential and commercial sectors and if there is a backlash its miniscule, but growing as fast as those niche developers, small builders and architects can push.
In a blog posted last week, I wrote about the trend to build complicated new homes that resemble origami and high-rise residential is no better with nearly 100% glass façades and projecting balcony slabs that aren’t thermally broken. The same goes for mechanical systems – they are a technological zoos and homes with furnaceless rooms like the one’s Ed Marion builds are not as common as inferred. So yes, we agree that #BoxyButBeautiful should be trending, but the reality is that many architects are still designing structures that bleed energy through their complex structures and are generally over mechanised.
When asked where he sees innovation, he said “I continue to be amazed at passive house, and the fringe sustainability movement. I’m impressed at the technology. You can’t always model and calculate. You need to build, push, break and fix. I’m amazed at how much good stuff is coming from people who use this approach.”
He’s right about the amazing people around PH that are building, pushing, sharing experiences and breaking new ground which evolves into the next iteration of more refined buildings. It is very exciting, but sadly only a few builders and architects are pushing for high performance but is trending up. Building codes and ensuing municipalities still allow you to build a house that doesn’t perform optimally, isn’t tested and often poorly ventilated.
On energy modeling, to get valuable information, a professional needs to know the software’s limitations and be able to interpret results, and of course, as the old saying goes; garbage in garbage out. So we’re not sure where Dr. Joe was going with “You can’t always model and calculate.” But we suspect what he meant was that the final built product may not reflect the detailed intent of the energy model and in that regard, he’s right. Planning is given short shrift and yet, so many problems could be avoided by testing the building, by hiring qualified people and hiring a good architect that brings a team together though an Integrated Design Process. Detailed energy modeling is the best we have for optimising building enclosures so ditch the ASHRAE tables and use a computer.
When asked about his thoughts on minisplit heat pumps, he replied “I don’t like mini splits. They’re ugly and ineffective. They’re a passing fad.” We agree, they do take wall real estate but the highly effective ‘fad’ has been growing globally for the last 20 years and is just starting to make headway in NA. They work, are very quiet, are brilliant for old houses and work in both heating and cooling seasons; a small aesthetic price to pay for convenience, performance and comfort.
Mini splits’ growing popularity with the high performance crowd is due to their vastly superior energy performance which can’t be matched by the traditional NA “cobbled in place systems”. Marc Rosenbaum argues that mini splits deliver performance ‘out of the box’ and points out that that traditional HVAC systems – according to Energy STAR in the US – require commissioning because they lag in performance so severely.
Lstiburek’s main point of contention with duct-less systems is that “At some point, you’re going to have to move air in ducts. It’s only a question of how big and where. You have to move air around your building for contaminant control. If you’re good you don’t need to move it for thermal control. But there are going to be ducts. There is going to be mixing.” and we agree that good ventilation design includes a fully ducted HRV!
The real insights Dr. Lstiburek’s given us these past few years are gems and he’s distilled the message down to “sucking is stupid, blowing is better, balance is best.” or “The principal water and air control should be on the outside.” The first is a powerful insight and bears contemplation, the latter just makes total sense.
Inclosing, its nice to hear the collaborative, conciliatory approach Dr. Joe’s taking and we can only hope that his message that “Simplicity and elegance are winning. We’re very close to having buildings so simple that everyone will know how they work.” comes true, but without a cohesive, national strategy on energy efficiency we’ll have to rely on the countless small builders and boutique architecture firms that push high performance to the next level with their sweat equity.