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The future is passive

Speaker pitches solar homes

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Saturday, Mar 03, 2012 06:00 am

CONCEPTUAL DRAWING - Station Pointe Greens is a proposed condo complex in Edmonton that, if built, would clean its own wastewater and get almost all its heat from the sun. Local residents heard about this complex at a free community planning talk this week in St. Albert.
CONCEPTUAL DRAWING - Station Pointe Greens is a proposed condo complex in Edmonton that, if built, would clean its own wastewater and get almost all its heat from the sun. Local residents heard about this complex at a free community planning talk this week in St. Albert.
SUPPLIED IMAGE/Communitas Group

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Passive homes can help St. Albert slash its greenhouse gas emissions, but building the homes will only happen if residents start lobbying developers to build them, says an Edmonton consultant.

About 15 residents gathered at the St. Albert Senior Citizens' Club Wednesday for a free talk on Station Pointe Greens — a condo complex in Edmonton that, if built, would clean its own water and get almost all its heat from the sun. The talk was part of the city's ongoing series on community planning.

Most homes built today are based on 1980s standards and technologies and waste a lot of energy, said speaker Brian Scott, vice-president of the Communitas Group, a consulting group that has worked on several co-ops in St. Albert. That waste can be cut by building homes to the passive house standard, he said.

Passive house is a German campaign to build homes that use as little energy as possible.

Scott said passive houses are so well insulated that bodies contribute to the heat of the home, with the rest coming from sunlight and appliances.

Scott and his team are working on a 200-unit, two-acre passive house co-op complex in northeast Edmonton that should start construction next year. When built, the complex should require no natural gas and produce near-zero greenhouse gas emissions, saving its residents thousands of dollars a year.

This is the future of housing, said Coun. Cam MacKay, and should offer residents more control over their utilities.

“It's really great to see it just in our backyard.”

Simple concept, big results

Passive homes are homes that are about as efficient as they can get without on-site energy generation, said Stuart Fix, an engineer with St. Albert's ReNü Building Science and one of the designers of Station Pointe Greens.

“The house could be heated by a couple of hairdryers.” Add solar or wind power, and they become net-zero homes.

Passive homes typically require about 90 per cent less energy to heat and cool each year compared to typical Alberta ones, Scott said. They do so by having excellent insulation and air-tightness. All the leaks in a regular home add up to a hole the size of a basketball, for example; in a passive home, that hole is the size of a baseball.

It should cost about $12 a month to heat and cool a unit in Station Pointe Green, Scott estimated, compared to about $108 for an equivalent regular unit. That works out to about $1,708 saved per unit per year, once the savings from not needing a natural gas line is added.

Getting green homes

There are about 30,000 passive homes in Europe, Fix said, but just two in Canada.

One reason is obscurity, he said. The concept only arrived in Canada about a decade ago and he's one of the few engineers in the country trained to build passive homes.

“It's not simple to do.”

Another is cost. Passive homes cost about seven per cent more than regular ones, Scott said, which turns off buyers who don't look ahead at the energy savings.

Education can help. Europe now requires all buildings to indicate their energy efficiency using a letter grade, Scott noted, and buyers seem to be willing to pay more when they see a higher grade.

Green loans can also offset the higher cost, Scott said. These loans let builders borrow more money when they build buildings that save energy, as those savings go towards paying off the loan.

Fix hoped consumer demand would pick up once people see what passive homes can do.

“Once we have some of these buildings in town that people can look at, it sells itself.”

It's all about thinking long term, Fix said. “If you want to have a home or building that's comfortable and low cost in the long run, that's why you'd turn to passive housing.”


Clarification: Engineer Stuart Fix was working for Vital Engineering of Sherwood Park when he did design work for Station Pointe Greens. Fix now works for St. Albert's ReNü Building Science, which was not involved with the project.


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