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Living in a Passive House

Four months ago my family and I moved into our new Passive home in Victoria, BC. It is always exciting moving into a new house, but with it being a Passive House, we really didn't know what to expect. We were told many great things about it, but there are fewer than ten of these houses in BC at the moment, so we didn't know anyone who actually knew what it was like to live in one.

So far, the hardest part of living in the house has been explaining what it is. When people describe their homes, it's usually easy: bungalow-style, split-level, condo, townhouse, duplex. The general public does not (yet) know what a Passive House is. It's hard not to get too excited, and go into a detailed explanation of 0.48 air-changes per hour blower door tests, HRVs, etc. I have found the best explanation to be the simplest: "It's an energy-efficient home that allows you to live in fresh air." Thicker windows and walls, heated by passive sources (items that are hot on their own, such as sunlight, stoves and dryers)—there are many ways we can describe our house. It's just not always easy to.

People often assume that we had huge amounts of money to burn, which is why we chose to build one of the Island's most efficient homes. It is the exact opposite: we did it because we are cheap. It didn't cost much extra to build, and for the last few months we have been saving about $50 a month in utilities compared to our old place across the valley. That is the summer savings; I expect it to be in the $500 range in winter, even in ‘warm’ Victoria.

When I to talk about our Passive House, it is easy for others to understand that the power bill is less, but that isn't the main reason we chose to build a Passive House. That’s much harder to explain, since most Canadians have no idea what it's like to live in a high performance building.

Our old house was a 1940s character home, which we loved at the time. We knew there was mildew and mold in the walls, but we never noticed it, except maybe after vacations when the house had been sitting empty for a week. Then we moved into our Passive House and discovered what it is like to live in fresh air, without any mildew from condensation. Now whenever we enter a home or a restaurant, the first thing we notice is the smell. It might be that day's lunch, the lingering baked cheese or chicken noodle soup; or it might be mildew. A Passive home spoils you. With air changes of 0.4 per hour odors such as curry and fish—even bacon—disappear. And forget mold and mildew: the design eliminates cold surfaces for condensation and mildew growth. Our noses are clearer and we breathe easier.

We are also spoiled for noise. You know that click and whoosh when the furnace kicks on? The noise that is sometimes so loud, you have to turn up the volume of the TV? When the Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) switches to high, it is still too quiet to notice. No more need for a deafening fan in the bathroom; the steamy mirror is clear in minutes. I often lie in bed enjoying the beautiful silence of our Passive House, and notice sounds that we have never heard before: the refrigerator's low hum, our computer's whirring. When we had a furnace, these sounds never existed. We are now plotting ways to remove even them. Your definition of silence will be forever different, and you will become spoiled because of it. 

A fire in the hearth in winter, an open bedroom window for fresh air when it gets stuffy: these are unnecessary in this house. It takes a while to get used to the fact that you already have fresh air, that you are warm and toasty, and that you don't need to warm your feet in front of a fire. And sometimes we open a window anyway, just to test the tilting function of our triple-glazed, vault-door windows.

We have always tried to be an energy-conscious family, and that was part of our decision to build the house. But now we have a monitoring system that tells us exactly how many watts of power we are using, by the hour. The house has a resting heart rate of about 230 watts, costing us about 2 cents per hour, or just over $3 a week. Our LED lights burn about 10 watts an hour, a wattage you would never notice in most houses, but now we see our power consumption jump by 5% every time we use a light. We find that our house is training us to use less. The immediate feedback is making us change our habits. 

Our next Passive House project will be a 6-unit rental building in Victoria. When complete, it will allow more families to share the pleasures of our Passive House experience.

Mark Bernhardt

 

Mark and his father Rob have designed and built Greater Victoria’s and Vancouver Island’s first Passive House, a 3,800 square foot duplex in Saanich. Complete details of the house, including full technical details, are here. Their budget is here

Their company website, Bernhardt Contracting, is here