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How A Charity Became Ontario’s Leading Passive House Developer: An Interview with Indwell

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

Indwell, a Christian charity creating affordable housing for vulnerable communities, now provides supportive housing to more than 570 households across Hamilton, Woodstock, Simcoe, and London. In 2018, Indwell made the commitment to build to the Passive House standard and that choice has coincidentally led to them becoming the leading Passive House developer in Ontario with three projects occupied, four under construction and plans for an additional five properties in the works. Graham Cubitt, Director of Projects & Development at Indwell for over 15 years talks with PBC about what it has been like to transition the charity into the Passive House Movement.

On What it has Been Like Building to the Passive House Standard

“Adopting Passive House grew out of our existing commitment to and experience of building high quality and energy efficient buildings. We now have experience building to both Passive House standards, because we really wanted to explore the differences and similarities. We’re pursuing certification for three of our first few buildings. Two are PHI and one is PHIUS. On future builds, we might not certify, but we will still build to that level. Parkdale Landing, Blossom Park and North End Landing/James North Baptist Church are all built using Passive House International. McQueston Lofts, 425 Lakeshore, and Royal Oak Dairy are currently under construction using PHIUS. I can say neither standard is easier. There is more insulation under the footings with PHI and suite air-tightness testing and domestic hot water delivery times are requirements with PHIUS. So far we haven’t seen a significant price difference between the upfront costs of the two approaches. With energy monitoring, we’ll be able to compare how they perform.

We choose our projects somewhat opportunistically, as good sites present themselves. The site and program help to determine which certification approach we should use; is it a new build or a renovation? A constricted site or with more flexibility? Most of our Passive House projects have been new builds, but we have church and bar conversions in the works as well. We’ve used the pre-fabricated BuildSMART system for Blossom Park, and site-built work for the rest of our projects; building assemblies are determined by each project’s needs. Each project just gets easier and quicker because we can now reference our own portfolio design-wise.”

Parkdale Landing. Image Courtesy of Indwell.

On Aesthetics and Community Building

“Affordable supported housing continues to be stigmatized. Whether it supports tenants with addiction or mental health issues, or even seniors, people often say, we don’t want those people in our neighbourhood. There’s also the impression that affordable housing is cheaply built and poorly maintained. Those sentiments can reflect reality, and we don’t want our buildings to be attached to that. So how do we combat that? We build buildings that anyone would want to live in, including everyone involved in the development of that project. Our attention to detail is very intentional. The beauty and aesthetics of our projects are prioritized as a way to add value to the neighbourhoods they are built in.

And it’s more than aesthetics, we want the communities where we build to be nourished by our projects’ presence. The North End Landing project is above a church on the ground floor, while McQueston Lofts will have a branch of the Hamilton Public Library. It does take special consideration when doing the energy modeling for these community spaces while maintaining Passive House. How do you plan for occupancy loads of 500 people, or a restaurant and retail uses, and not go over your energy threshold? But it can be doable.

We also have a high unit count per building with modestly sized apartments, so there is a big penalty for high energy loads/m2 with PHI. It is not necessarily a modelling approach inclusive to people living in poverty. PHIUS might be better, but we don’t have enough experience with it yet to make the call.

In terms of community building, we have been expanding outside of Hamilton for fourteen years now. Mississauga had very open arms and was very excited to work with us, but we have also expanded into communities where loud voices spoke out against our projects, but often we are invited into communities because they have growing issues with homelessness, or they don’t have supportive housing for people leaving shelters, hospitals, etc.

We are supported by faith communities, but we are not tied to any one church organization, in fact we are supported by over 100 of them! Churches, community groups, service clubs, social services and agencies, they help share our newsletters and get our messaging out that supportive housing solutions are possible. And even though we are faith-based, our services are open to anyone regardless of their beliefs.”

Rendering of Indwell’s first Port Credit/Mississauga project, currently under construction. Image Courtesy of Indwell.

On Hopes for the Future of the Movement

“We have learned so much from our Passive House journey. We hope to promote more locally made Passive House materials, playing our part in spurring on the industry here. I also really hope that more people working in the Passive House community begin to share information, especially design details, what works, costs, and operating results. We really appreciate when people share and so we do too, it builds community and transparency. Without information sharing, it makes learning, comparing, and improving much harder. We need reporting on Passive House builds after occupancy and how they are effectively being commissioned, it seems everyone models, but nobody monitors or reports on energy use. We really hope to be able to do that in the future as well.”

So How Did a Christian Charity Become One of the Leading Passive House Developers in Ontario?

“I think becoming a leading Passive House organization is related to our Christian beliefs. I think it is precisely because we are care-based, and are committed to guaranteed affordability over time, to permanent housing, to long term solutions to community issues. We are always rooted in ethical motivation, in the conviction to love our neighbours as ourselves and that includes environmental responsibility. So when we develop buildings that use minimal energy and cut GHG emissions, we’re reflecting love for our neighbours today, as well as for future generations.”