Passive House Commercial Buildings Find Economic Sweet Spot

Most Canadian real estate professionals have heard about the Passive House construction standard – originally developed in Germany – and the super energy efficient homes it has spawned; however few are likely aware the extent to which it can apply to commercial buildings. There are over 30,000 buildings constructed to the passive house standard in Europe, both residential and commercial, and now it is catching on in North America.

Not only do passive house buildings consume very little energy, they also have what Ross Elliott, Certified Energy Consultant and founder of Homesol Building Solutions Inc. refers to as ‘an economic sweet spot’ that produces a remarkably short return on investment for the cost of additional energy conserving features.

Passive House combines performance standards with energy modeling and construction technique to achieve 80% to 90% reductions in energy consumption compared to a building constructed to the 2012 OBC and National Building Code. The word ‘passive’ is used because there is no traditional furnace although there are often heat-recovery ventilators that captures warmth in the stale outbound air and transfer it to the incoming fresh air.

Third party verification of a passive house by a trained consultant results in certification of buildings, a label that Ross Elliott calls a ‘miles per gallon sticker’.

Passive House For All Types of Commercial Buildings

There are no size or shape limitations and almost any type of building can be built to the Passive House. A large or small office building would qualify and Elliott speculates that a larger volume building would likely be more efficient. Only special use buildings such as hospitals, with high levels of ventilation might not meet the criteria, otherwise most other types of commercial buildings are suitable. Numerous schools, office buildings, apartment blocks and even supermarkets have been built to the Passive House standard in Europe.

Testament to the flexibility of the passive house standard are three very different commercial buildings that are pioneering the concept in Canada and at various stages of development; a small office building, a 200 unit apartment with ancillary buildings and a special events centre.

Special Events Centre, Le Belvedere, Wakefield, Quebec

Categorized as a small commercial building by the Passive House Institute the 8,000 square foot special events centre is located at Le Belvedere in Wakefield, Quebec, with seating for over 150 dinner guestsand will serve 23,000 dinners a year. It is expected to be finished in the spring of 2012, with owner Brian Fewster booking the first weddings at the centre for May.

Ross Elliott, of Homesol Building Solutions Inc., is the PHI-Certified Passive House Consultant for the project, and it is being built by Mike Urichuck, Wakefield Construction. It has the following features:

– R100 cellulose (recycled newpaper) insulation in the attic, twice the 2012 building code
– 18 inch thick walls, R71 walls (insulated with rock wool, pre-fabricated by DAC International)
– Super energy efficient European Passive House Certified triple glazed windows
– Special cold weather Mitsubishi air source heat pump for heating and cooling
– Less than 0.6 ACH50 airtightness, or about 7X tighter than typical new construction
– Super energy efficient custom built 2000 cfm Recoupaerator heat recovery ventilator (ERV), 90%+ heat recovery
– Recovered heat (from kitchen exhaust hood, coolers etc.) is recycled for hot water for dishwashing and other things (handwashing, etc.)
– Energy saving is expected to be at least 80% over National Building Code
– LED lighting will save the owner $4,000 per year in electricity even a Quebec's low rates
– There is no active solar energy generation currently because with such low energy use there is little financial incentive. Over half of the building’s heating requirements are met by passive solar

Station Pointe Greens, St. Albert, Alberta

Station Pointe Greens is a 209-unit development in northeast Edmonton that consists of a mixture of town homes, mid-rise buildings, high-rise towers, commercial facilities and a community facility.

An objective for the project is to create an affordable, socially mixed community that is also designed to be as close to net-zero as possible by first building to the European passive house standard. When completed the complex will exhibit a 90% reduction in heating costs, use no fossil fuels on site, and divert all water waste from City infrastructure, saving its residents thousands of dollars a year.

The project is being developed by the Communitas Group in Edmonton, with aid from passive house consultant Stuart Fix of ReNü Building Science.

Valley Waste-Resource Management Office, Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia

The Annapolis Valley Waste-Resource Management new 8,000-square-foot administration building is under construction and expected to be completed in the spring of 2012 according to an article in the Chronicle Herald, February 16, 2012.

The office building is going to be the first small commercial building in Canada certified under the international Passive House energy standard. In addition to being highly energy efficient it also is being built using many recycled materials, including old tires, broken glass, asphalt, plastic, reclaimed wood, gypsum and discarded asphalt roofing shingles.

It was designed by Solterre Design of Halifax and built by a local company Roscoe Construction. It is describe in this YouTube video Passive is the Future.

Passive House Makes For An Economic Sweet Spot

Not only do passive house buildings save energy they also make you money, claims Ross Elliott, Energy consultant and founder of Homesol Building Solutions Inc. It is a simple economic calculation that justifies the 10% additional cost of construction for these highly energy efficient structures.

Using Elliott’s formula, an additional $30,000 invested in a $300,000 building to achieve an 80% energy saving would be paid back in 12.5 years when compared to a ‘building code’ quality structure that consumes $3000 per year in energy. This payback time takes into account a 4% borrowing cost and generates a positive annual return of 4%. Extrapolating Elliott’s math out 20 years a building owner generates a $30,000 net saving over Code.

“It’s actually much cheaper to own the better building, strangely enough,” said Elliott explaining why the ‘smart money’ will pursue the passive house standard. “There is an economic sweet spot for every new construction project and it is never code.”

Comparison of Return on Investment of Rating System Standards

Rating System Energy Savings Upgrade Cost Annual Return on Investment Borrowing Costs Positive Annual Returns Actual Cash in Pocket after 20 years*
ENERGY Star 20% 2% 10% (10 year payback) 4% 6% $9,600
R-2000 40% 4% 10% (10 year payback) 4% 6% $19,200
Passive House 80% 10% 8% (12.5 year payback) 4% 4% $30,000

** Based on a $300,000 building with Code-level energy bills at $3000/yr.

The Passive House Standard is Catching On in North America

The original standard was developed by the Germany based PassivHaus Institut, which maintains a very strict policy that energy usage can be no more than 15 kw/ms/yr. The American Passive House Institute recently broke off from the European organization to pursue a similar though more flexible interpretation of passive house. There is a fledgling Canadian organization that is still getting established.

One of a handful of people in Canada qualified by the European and American Passive House Institutes to certify buildings Elliott has had a 30-year career as an energy auditor. He is also qualified to certify R-2000, Energy Star and LEED. For the second time in five years he was recently awarded top energy evaluator for 2011 by EnerQuality an organization established by the Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance and the Ontario Home Builders' Association to promote energy conservation practices.

A nine-day Certified Passive House Consultant Training course, taught by Russell Richman of RRCL and Ross Elliott, is being offered at Ryerson University in Toronto starting on May 29. For more information and to register contact Homesol Building Solutions Inc. at 613-278-0467 or e-mail [email protected]

Industry Events