The active role passive homes play in a healthy, liveable future

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      By Cedric Burgers

      In 1977—the same year the first Star Wars film opened in cinemas—a precocious second-grade classmate of mine named Chris did a presentation on greenhouse gasses and their effect on global warming. At the time, I’d only been occupied with learning cursive and how to jump from a moving swing, yet here he was already teaching us about the impact of human development on the earth’s climate. That moment has lingered with me ever since, rolling around in the back of my brain and forcing me to question decisions.

      Since becoming an architect, I have grown increasingly aware of the impact buildings have on our climate and health. Aesthetics had always primarily driven architects forward—how things look being more important than how things function. But in the long run, durability and functionality are what create the value in our structures. Roman architect Vitruvius wrote about this in the 1st century BCE when he described the three pillars of architecture being commodity, firmness, and delight—or, in other words, comfort, solidity, and joy. The synthesis of the three, of how they are put together in our built environment, still represents the greatest achievement in architecture. In our modern era, we are more preoccupied with appearance than function, durability, or comfort, yet we expect at least 50 years of viable life out of our structures.

      In this light, I began looking at the approaches European architects were taking; buildings there are expected to last centuries, not decades. I visited my parents’ home country of The Netherlands, as well as Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and Slovenia, and observed that they had all adopted a high-performance, high-efficiency standard in their own countries. These systems of measurement and accreditation are all very rigorous and accountable. We call them passive houses.

      Passive houses, also known as high-performance or net-zero homes, have risen to prominence in the green design world for their simplicity. In a nutshell, this design standard is achieved when a home uses less than 15 kilowatt hours of energy annually per square metre of floor area. This is approximately one-tenth the energy utilized by current code-built homes in British Columbia. These houses are ultra efficient, achieved by focusing on five elements: insulated walls; really good windows; efficient air recovery systems for constant warm, fresh air; a tight, leak-proof building envelope; and no thermal bridges (such as steel beams going inside to out). Additionally, orienting windows south allows for passive solar heat gain, which is where the “passive” in passive houses originates.

      Yet, in my work, these things rarely inspire clients; it's hard to get excited about more insulation in a wall. Instead, the discussion turns to the lifestyle and health benefits, which everyone can relate to, and which are ultimately what our buildings should be about. So let’s talk about wellness.

      To begin with, sunlight. A passive home has large windows with big overhangs facing south. More sunlight in the living environment has enormous psychological and health benefits. The modern architectural movement can be traced back to the sanatoriums of northern Europe, where chronic lung infections like tuberculosis were treated with clean outdoor air and bathing in sunlight. These buildings tended to be white, with large windows, good ventilation, and south-facing exposure.

      Next, air quality. Because of their super tight, leak-proof building envelopes, passive homes require ventilation systems that assure a constant supply of fresh, warm air all year long. Poor air quality is a silent killer—high levels of carbon dioxide and moisture (the product of our breathing) in our indoor air causes drowsiness and fatigue. Fresher air allows us to stay alert and alive. Other gasses, VOCs, and fumes that linger in poorly-ventilated homes are also banished. Nitrogen dioxide from unventilated gas appliances has been linked to a host of adverse health effects, including asthma and attention deficit disorder. Additionally, the filtration systems remove outdoor air pollutants, such as smoke, pollen, and dust, from indoor air.

      Then there’s comfort. We’ve all been in older homes with thin walls and single-pane windows, feeling the effects of sitting next to a wall on a cold night—how that wall saps your body of heat. Conversely, these walls radiate heat inside on hot days. With comfort greatly diminished in poorly-insulated homes, so too is wellbeing. Now imagine a home with no cold spots: where every square inch hovers around a reasonable temperature of 21 degrees Celsius year round. That’s a high-performance, passive home.

      Photo courtesy of Burgers Architecture.

      Importantly, there is also the fact that noise is drastically reduced. A passive house with its thick walls and triple-pane windows is utterly silent inside—no mechanical ventilation noise, no street noise. This silence can be unsettling at first but, over time, it becomes a great joy: a much-needed respite from our cacophonous world. 

      The path to building our own passive home made my wife and me question so many other things—transportation, food, and the footprint we leave behind—and little by little we are shifting how we live. This summer, I spent a good deal of my spare time putting solar panels on our roof and learning how they work. While I recognize as a designer that I stand to benefit from being on the leading edge of industry changes, it’s not my singular choices that will change the world; rather, the compounding effect of these ideas spreading is what will make a real, lasting difference. In honour of the seven-year-old kid that enlightened me on global warming all those years ago, let’s keep the conversation going and the solutions coming. Our health depends on it.

      Cedric Burgers is the principal of Burgers Architecture. He will be speaking about passive homes and high-performance design at IDS Vancouver, taking place at the Vancouver Convention Centre, on September 22 at 3:30pm.