When Amanda Thackray and her husband purchased a home on Niagara Street, they intended to renovate the old farm house on the property and live there.
However, once they realized the scope of the work that needed to be done, and the decision was made to tear it down and start anew, Thackray became immersed in researching what kind of house they could build, and found herself “on a trip down a rabbit hole” that led to building the best house possible for the environment.
“I started watching building and science videos, and that led me slowly to passive houses,” she says.
“This has been quite a journey. I was just looking for a good building, but each step made me more aware of climate change. When I found this was possible, I wondered why everyone isn’t building this way.”
Since starting the build, she has discovered, as she talks to others, “I have to explain it to about nine out of 10 people.”
Her research began about three years ago, and last week, with the COP26 conference underway and the issue of climate change leading the news, she was excited to talk about their Passive House, a home that is not only good for the environment, but comfortable and healthy to live in, and one which in five days
went from being just a foundation with a platform to a house with prefabricated walls and roof in place, ready for the interior construction.
Thackray says she knew nothing about a Passive House when she began her research, but by the end of last week, she was somewhat of an expert, not only on the advantages of such a home but with a full understanding of how they are built and why they are so good for the environment and healthy for those who live in them.
Buildings, she discovered, are the source of 17 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from heating and cooling. A Passive House does not have a furnace or a large centralized heating system. Most of the heat comes passively from direct sunlight through the triple-paned windows, with southern exposure, and it doesn’t leak out. The house doesn’t need a constant mechanical supply of heat that is usually powered by fossil fuels, she explains — rather than a large central mechanical heat source, there is a heat recovery ventilation system that uses the heat of the air being expelled to warm the fresh, filtered air coming into the house. This system recovers up to 90 per cent of the heat in the house and requires very little energy to run.
And although the construction of the house costs about 10 per cent more than a traditional build the same size, lower utility bills will more than make up for the extra expense over time, she says. “The payoff will be two- or three-fold.”
“All of this, of course, is excellent for the environment. But there is more good news.”
Because the house is heavily insulated — the walls have nine inches of insulation, well above the regular building standard — and is airtight, it is comfortable, quiet, with no draughts, and the temperature is consistent throughout. The heat recovery ventilation system also means that, with a MERV 13 (an air filter with a high measure of how well it filters contaminants), the fresh air coming into the house is free of viruses, bacteria, dust and pollen — a well-ventilated building that has become so important during COVID, says Thackray.
Once the decision was made to build a Passive House, she found herself part of a team helping to design and build her home, including engineer Natalie Leonard, founder of Passive Designs Solutions, which specializes in designing net zero homes.
Thackray explains the term Passive House is an energy performance standard for a building with a reduced ecological footprint, which originated in Germany.
Leonard continues to provide support during the construction phase, says Thackray, which is being handled by two companies.
Simple Life Homes, out of Port Hope and led by founder Jeremy Clarke, installed the high-efficiency prefabricated wall and roof panels that were made in a large, efficient warehouse, creating the super-insulated, airtight building envelope, and leaving about three to five per cent waste, where a traditional build would be about 15 per cent he says.
Clarke, who began with traditional construction, says he’s built about 15 of what he calls “high-performance building enclosures,” with the Niagara Street home the first one in the region.
It took three trucks to unload the prefabricated pieces, with thick walls and the roof pieces providing R-40 to R-64 insulation.
Although his company was installing the sections, the goal is to eventually be able to send a couple of people to work with local builders on the installation, Clarke says.
On this house, Tucker Homes, a local builder, is responsible for finishing the project, “and making sure all the remaining interior work adheres to the Passive House specs,” says Thackray. The builder finishing the inside has to understand and be aware of the differences in the airtight construction of the house, so as not to cause any damage, she explained.
“We hired Tucker Homes because they were already educated in the Passive House principles, and are passionate about implementing the standard.”
Some of the elements of the original farm house were saved — local Drew Chapman took up the original wide plank flooring to be reused in another home of a similar age. And a stone wall on the property has been retained to be used as part of a garden feature.
During the build Thackray, who lives not far from her new house, has been popping by often to watch, and to ask questions and further learn about her passive home. Late last week, with the walls up, she still wasn’t sure about the exterior finish — she was leaning toward wood.
With the Niagara Street property two separate lots, the house now under construction, at 2,700 square feet, is larger than she and her husband need, says Thackray. The plan is to live in it for a couple of years, have a chance to try it out and enjoy it, then sell it to another couple who can benefit from its advantages.
She and her husband plan to build a second, smaller house next door. She’s hoping by the time they’re ready to sell, more people will understand the concept. “It’s uncommon now, but it’s becoming less so. I’d like to see it become normal, but I don’t know how long that will take.”