Koko and Robert Saar began researching passive homes in 2016 before beginning to build one of their own in Wasaga Beach, Ont.
“We came from Mississauga, we had a business for 25 years, our three kids are all out of the house, so we thought this would be a good time to explore,” Koko, 54, told Global News.
The couple knew they wanted to move somewhere outside the GTA that was peaceful, with more fresh air, trees and less traffic. “We wanted to build a house, our dream house,” Koko said. “We wanted to leave some kind of legacy, we wanted to reduce our carbon footprint.”
After deciding on Wasaga Beach, Koko and Robert’s niece suggested they check out passive house, a building that uses up to 90 per cent less heating and cooling energy.
“Just like everybody else in the world, we’re like, ‘What is passive house?’ Koko said. “So we started doing a lot of research.”
The first passive house building was constructed in Germany in 1991. According to Passive House Canada’s CEO Rob Bernhardt, passive house arose from an EU-funded academic research project that was tasked with determining how efficient a building should be.
“Based on that academic research, a standard developed and evolved in the 1990s,” Bernhardt said. “What that research determined by looking at projects around the world was that as one gets efficient enough, the actual cost of a building drops.”
A passive house building effectively insulates a structure’s interior, Bernhardt said, keeping the warm air inside during the winter and the cool air inside during the summer.
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As a result, a passive house doesn’t need a full-size furnace — it uses energy sources within the building, including body heat from its occupants and solar heat coming through the windows.
“You can draw an analogy to a Thermos. When you have an insulated Thermos, it takes a long time for the heat to be lost,” Andrew Peel, the principal of Peel Passive House Consulting, said. “That’s basically what we’re doing with the passive house.”
A balance of heat sources creates comfortable conditions for people inside the building, Bernhardt added.
“There’s a constant temperature in the house and that is incredible,” Koko said. “In Mississauga, we had this basement that was always cold and our second floor was super hot in the summer. I didn’t even want to sleep in it. It was like a 10-degree variance. You don’t have that in passive house.”
In addition to there being a stable temperature, Bernhardt said there are no drafts or cold spots in a passive house — for example, people are able to sit by windows in the winter and not feel cold.
There’s also a lower energy demand, meaning lower energy bills, low noise transferred from the outside and low dust levels, Peel said.
“You’re going to feel more uncomfortable in other people’s homes,” he added. “You’ll notice the difference.”
When the Saars set out to build a passive house, the process didn’t come without a few hurdles.
“We designed this incredible house and then we checked the building cost ‘No way, we can’t build it, it’s too expensive,'” Koko said. The couple then had to go back to the drawing board to design a house that would better suit their budget.
“According to the literature, it says the building costs will be about five to 10 per cent higher than regular building costs and that your payback will be within 10 to 14 years easily if you’re living in it,” Koko said. “I think ours is going to be like 20 to 25 per cent higher, and I think it’s to do with the finishes we put in.”
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In Canada, the number of passive house buildings are growing. The first passive house in Canada was built in Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics, and the building model has since expanded across the country.
“It continued to grow and then as climate change became a big driver of public policy, government started to recognize what this level of performance would do for the built environment, and it became more and more supported by public policy,” Bernhardt said.
According to Bernhardt, if a built environment performs at the passive-house level, nations could meet their Paris climate commitments.
“That’s why we support the development of building codes and standards in Canada that can ensure that all Canadians enjoy the benefits of this level of performance,” he added.
The Saars’ Wasaga Beach passive house is expected to be completed in the summer. They’re planning to live there when it’s done and then hope to build one passive house a year for 10 years.
“We really didn’t think of this as a business,” Robert, 59, said. “We wanted to build our own home and just have the experience of building our own home, but then it sort of grew on us.”
“We’re building three houses for sure,” Koko added.
The couple’s new business, CedarValley Passive Homes, will also educate people about the passive house building design and will help people to build their own homes.
The Saars have also started hosting tours aimed to inform people about passive homes.
“What we’ve seen is that the experiences have been challenging, frustrating,” Robert said. “What we hope to do is using those experiences and learning from this is to take that away or flatten the learning curve for people that want to have a passive house built for them.”
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