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The Gospel According to PHAB: The Trials and Triumphs of the Passive House Movement in Alberta

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

There is no doubt that the Passive House movement is taking hold across Canada, not just in Ontario and British Columbia, but Alberta too. Passive House Alberta, or PHAB is an organization that operates as a resource, created to ensure that the Passive House movement continues to spread in Alberta by offering free webinars, newsletters, and courses through their website. The courses are cleverly divided into two channels, a technical course for building professionals as well as a course suited to the general public.

Oscar Flechas, Chair of the Passive House Alberta board and owner of Flechas Architecture, says PHAB was born in 2017, while working on the development of the Valley View Town Hall, a project Flechas’ firm was hired to undertake. The building was comprised of an approximately 850 m2, two-storey building with a basement, as well as offices, meeting rooms and support spaces. Completed in 2018, it was able to attain the first Passive House Plus Certification (PHI) for a commercial building in a northern climate and remote location. The municipality was in need of a new building and although they were politically conservative, they were also fiscally responsible and so, economically speaking, Passive House was a great fit. “It’s not that Passive House has to appeal to hippies,” says Oscar, “it can appeal to those with a concern for operation costs by paying a premium upfront and saving money down the road.” Just before the project began, Oscar started a small social group that met monthly, but soon it shifted. They decided they needed to get officially organized, access grants and really spread the gospel. PHAB was born.

Image courtesy of Flechas Architecture

But if the Passive House movement is based on energy reduction, can it survive in the burning gas and oil industry hub of the nation? “I totally don’t see them as opposing ideas,” says Chris de Laforest, an engineer who has worked in the oil and gas industry as well as a founding board member at Passive House Alberta. “There is no reason that we can’t have both. People in oil and gas have no issue with the Passive House movement. I am a spokesperson for Passive House even to my friends in the oil and gas industry. Building better, building to last, using our resources wisely and building efficiently is good. Quality and efficiency is good, its great, no matter what your profession is.” This is a sentiment echoed by Steven Cox, building technician and Vice-Chair on the board at Passive House Alberta, “a lot of times in Alberta, educating people on the Passive House movement isn’t about appealing to their social consciousness, its about appealing to the mathematical mind. Even if you are an engineer in northern Alberta, the numbers and benefits of passive house make it a no brainer.”

Flechas notes however that because energy can be so cheap in Alberta, Passive House marketed solely on the reduction of energy costs can be a tough sell. Building on de Laforest’s perspective, Flechas sees Passive House as a way to focus more on waste and energy management. He says after all oil and gas isn’t just an energy source, its needed for cell phones, computers, and plastics of all kind. If we make economic and environmental choices like Passive House now, we can better manage our resources for future generations. The oil reserves are a money-making industry and so total elimination of their use anytime soon is severely unlikely, but there are more sustainable and conscious ways of using them. De Laforest’s says “We have to be innovative and efficient on all fronts, Passive House is just another way to apply our innovative nature to another industry.”

The beauty of the expanding Passive House movement in Canada, a country so geographically diverse, is observing the ways in which Passive House principles are applied to various climates. Compared to other regions in Canada, Alberta is windy and sunny most of the time, even when its cold, making it a great place for the Passive House movement to take advantage of wind farms and solar gains. But in order to even begin to compete with the burning gas and oil based energy that is so cheap in the province, Kim Walton, Founder of Bow Crow Design, Passive Buildings Canada President and Passive House Alberta board member says “Wind and solar power needs to be stored, so it becomes an uninterrupted source which is consistently available like electricity.” There are times when the chinook winds bring cloudy skies and the vast solar gains that make the province unique can be disrupted. Storing sustainable energy sources would definitely combat that and many innovative companies in the province are currently developing those very storage systems.

After Ontario and Quebec, Alberta has the most wind farms in Canada. Image Courtesy Mario Caruso and Unsplash

But more than sunny days, the Alberta climate has its challenges too. Much of the province is zone 7 and 8 which means that insulation levels and window and door performance must be very high to meet the PH standard. As Walton notes, “A certified product doesn’t mean its certified to work anywhere, in any climate, under any conditions.”

And if Passive House Design has to adapt to climate, then it also has to adapt to climate change. Traditionally when building in southern Alberta, air conditioning has not been necessary because night flushing would suffice for cooling, but now, because there are a lot more forest fires in British Columbia due to climate change, Alberta can often be covered in smoke as a result, making night flushing impossible. Air conditioning and mini splits are becoming a common addition to PH projects as a result.

Politically, the movement has also hit a few roadblocks. Alberta is the only province that currently does not offer any rebates or incentives for energy efficient homes. The creation of PHAB coincided with the provinces first NDP government between 2015 and 2019, but with the current Conservative party in power, opportunities for funding sustainable initiatives like Passive House Alberta has dwindled.

But PHAB is hopeful. Currently none of the larger builders in Canada are making the push for Passive House, but PHAB hopes that if they continue to educate the general public, maybe they can be the ones to make the push for it themselves.

“If we educate the public, we can push to make building code better. We want to see Passive House as the minimum code in Alberta. Its about getting people educated, so they know they have choices.” -Chris de Laforest

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