Lessons from a passive house newbie

By Toby Davine

I came into this work with PBC as a passive house neophyte. My background had been in climate change, food systems, and higher education; my knowledge of the technical aspects of building an airtight, energy efficient home was limited, but I was eager to learn. 

It turns out I learned a whole lot. In the past 8 weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with dozens of people--architects, builders, government officials, professors, and indigenous leaders--who have shared their own perspectives. 

While I certainly have more to learn, I think my perspective as a passive house newbie could be of interest to the community -- a view of passive house from the outside. 

In no particular order, here are my main learnings: 

  1. Passive House has a marketing problem. Whether discussions of airtightness and thermal bridging are too esoteric or members of the lay public simply don’t care about these technical details, I think passive house proponents need to focus on the day-to-day lived experience of being in a passive building. Comfort and air quality are things that people can really feel and I think that this could be a better selling point. 

  2. I am concerned about my dinky kitchen fan/indoor air quality. Every time I cook in my kitchen now, I put my hood fan on full-blast and open a window. The research I read about the ineffectiveness of hood fans and its consequent effect on indoor air quality was enough to stop me in my tracks. Yikes. 

  3. I am mad about the baseboard heating/poor insulation in my Montreal apartment. After living in an old, drafty apartment in Montreal for years, I always knew that the insulation was poor. My monthly hydro bill was very high and it never seemed to get warm enough when the temperatures dipped to minus 25 C. This is common for many old buildings in Montreal and even though the hydroelectricity in Quebec isn’t releasing as many GHGs, it still seems like a colossal waste. 

  4. Like in any movement, divisions/differences in opinion can hamper progress. Diversity of tactics is key. One of the first things I learned upon starting my work was the difference between PHI and PHIUS. Though I know many people are strong believers in one standard over the other, to me, it seems the passive house movement has benefited from both. Since the movement is only strengthened by more people knowing about passive house, I think people in both camps should work together to spread the word. Ultimately, it seems like we all want the same thing -- the technical details shouldn’t get in the way. 

  5. Plus en français, s’il vous plaît! While there is a burgeoning passive house community in Quebec, there needs to be more communication in French from national-level passive house organizations. The expertise and resources available in English-speaking Canada could be a real boon to Francophones if translated. 

  6. I think passive house has amazing potential for addressing the twin crises of climate and housing. I was particularly inspired by the affordable housing passive house projects that are popping up across Canada. Eco-living is so often only accessible to wealthy people, but to really address the climate crisis, we need larger-scale changes for the many, not the few. Good quality, healthy homes are what we all deserve. I hope more provinces mandate passive house standards for multi-unit dwellings, similar to BC’s Energy Step Code, to really get the wheels in motion. 

  7. Passive house also has limits. It cannot solve the climate crisis, heal wounds of colonialism, or correct income inequality, but it can people some people live healthier, more dignified lives. I think passive house fits really well within a larger toolbelt to address some of our more deep-seated issues.