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Passive House or Hard Pass Part 2: Recognizing and Utilizing Drivers for Passive House Uptake

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

In a previous article, we discussed the psychological and market barriers for potential passive house clients. Despite the urgent need to reform our residential sector, many industry professionals recognize the slow uptake of passive and deep-energy retrofitting (DER) projects here in Canada. After exploring some of the hurdles hindering clients, we will now examine the common drivers for uptake of passive and DER projects. This article will heavily focus on incentives, education, and reframing as tools to aid clients in overcoming these obstacles.

We've already explored how the common misconception that a passive house is much more expensive to build affects consumer uptake. However, it's been shown that building to passive house certification can cost as little as 0.9-3% more than a traditional build. It’s also been noted that 90% of the total costs of owning a building occur once the construction has been completed. In addition, passive houses have 30-40% lower building ownership costs compared to a conventional build, this means homeowners consistently save money in the long-term. While marketing failures have hindered the uptake of passive houses, correcting these misconceptions through aggressive public education and marketing strategies is essential. Presenting such negligible increases in upfront costs and the long-term energy savings and reduced maintenance fees draws a strong argument for investment in these high-performance buildings.

Removing this initial barrier will allow consumers to confidently explore potential energy-efficient strategies for their homes. Of course, this is under the assumption that a passive build is within the financial means of the household. Consumers already considering a new building project typically have savings or financial aid to fund it. For them, a passive build, depicted through the discussed benefits above, is an obvious choice. For other homeowners, inaccessible financial assistance brings an end to their desire for a passive home.

Photo by Michael Longmire

Unfortunately, government grants and green loans in Canada are... underwhelming. Despite recognizing the impacts of residential emissions, the Canadian government has not provided practical tools for consumers to reduce these emissions besides a $5000 grant incentive and low/no-interest green loans. To give context, a shallow retrofit ( i.e., lighting & caulking) can be achieved within the $5000 (PDF) government incentive. This will allow for a 10-20% energy saving but will not increase the dwelling's thermal comfort or air quality. Deeper retrofits and passive certification standards can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000, depending on the house size and location.

Low-income households are less likely to qualify for green loans, despite being the primary demographic suffering from energy poverty. Comprehensive and long-term incentives like those offered in Europe are needed to increase the uptake of energy-efficient technologies dramatically. Similar policies must be adopted in Canada before emission reduction targets can be met for the residential sector.

While financial incentives bear significant weight for low-income households, utilization of other identified drivers is key to growing the sector in its current state. Our last article identified information asymmetry and time required to research as strong barriers for potential clients. Addressing these barriers requires sufficient, accessible, and credible information resources for homeowners. It's important to note that the supply of generic information for passive and deep energy retrofitting is a missed opportunity for efficient market segmentation (PDF).

Photo by Canva

Environmental, thermal and health concerns are also significant drivers (PDF) for the uptake of energy-efficient residential technology. These drivers are emotional and experience-based, which can overthrow financial and psychological hurdles. For example, it's been noted that direct experience - such as enduring a harsh winter in a thermally inefficient house - is more effective for promoting adaptive behavior than learning about the benefits of energy-efficient technologies. In this case, negative experience is a strong motivator and an important selling point for passive and energy-efficient homes.

Similarly, concerns over indoor air quality - mold, particulate matter, microbes, allergens, etc.- are strong drivers to invest in a passive house. The combination of air-tightness and balanced HVAC systems in these homes allows for higher indoor air quality when compared to a code-built house. While the strength and costs of the filters vary, this aspect is highly marketable to both public and private investors. Through effective investment incentives, the government can reap the rewards of lower residential GHG emissions while reducing pressure on the public health system (PDF). For example, public expenditure for respiratory illness is deemed the highest for any disease in Canada. Also, considering that the average North American spends 90% of their time indoors, marketing passive houses as an essential health measure is imperative to its uptake.

Concerns for thermal comfort and air quality are intertwined with trigger points. This term refers to an unexpected point in the life of a house (PDF) (e.g., boiler breakdown) or major human-lifecycle events (e.g., marriage, new baby, retirement). Reframing trigger points as an opportunity to invest in passive and energy-efficient retrofitting removes several barriers identified in our last article. As the homeowner is already engaging in renovations, there is ample opportunity to remove information, disruption, and cost obstacles. Buildings professionals can disseminate information on suitable retrofitting technologies and encouraging upgrades while the household is already being disrupted.

Photo by Roselyn Tirado

In 2020, 30% of Canadians renovated for aesthetic reasons and another 29% for maintenance purposes. It is important to note that passive house standard builds and renovations can be framed as future-proofing your home, protecting homeowners from the changing climate. Combating excess moisture, outdoor air pollution, and temperature fluctuations while ensuring energy independence means passive houses will stand up better against climate change vs. homes built to the current code. Specific marketing and public education can help capture this untapped market turning trigger points into a significant driver for passive and DER uptake.

Our final driver is substantial but, unfortunately, does not appeal to all homeowners. Nevertheless, environmental concerns and green prestige contribute to consumer investment in passive and DER projects. Many homeowners wish to reduce their carbon footprint