Friday, 31 May 2013

We hereby Permit you!

Time is a funny thing. It goes by so quickly when you're soaking up life and enjoying every moment but it goes ever so slowly when you are anticipating a future moment you long to be enjoying.

June 17th will mark the 2nd anniversary of owning Turtle Falls...where did that time go? On the other end of it, it seems like we have been working on designing this house for an eternity! One year and one week after signing contracts to get this ball rolling I am happy to finally say...

We have the building permit!

Kudos to the team that made it possible to approach the township building department with plans, the likes of which they have never seen before, and have the permit issued after the first kick at it. As far as I know, this is the first passive house to be built in this township. Big thanks to Architect Chris, Contractor Mark (who did some fancy talking at the meeting with the building inspector) and Homesol guys, Ross and Stephen.

Even more exciting than finally getting the building permit is watching the surveyors marking out the exact location of the house within the excavation. This house needs to be dead-on true south for our PHPP numbers to work for us.

Surveyors are marking the line that runs true East-West. The South elevation of the house will follow this line.

In the fall, we did some preliminary excavating to eliminate any surprises that the rocky ground inevitably holds in this area. In doing this we would be ready to go once the building permit was issued. During the wait from December to now, there has been much worrying (mostly on contractor Mark's part) about whether the excavation is on the right orientation. Trying to figure out where true (rather than magnetic) south lies, can be confusing when there is a declination to be factored in.

If we calculated wrong with our little hand held compasses back in the fall, it could mean the house would have to sit on more of the disturbed soil than the undisturbed. That would mean heaps more engineered fill to be packed in that corner where the disturbed soil is...more we need more of that! It could mean having to orient the house away from true south...not good for our PHPP numbers. It could mean more hoe guessed it...more expense!

Exhale. Contractor Mark is not just a pretty face...he is master of the Mark-hole! Apparently, around here, a Mark-hole is an excavation in tricky ground that everyone else thought to be impossible, except for Mark...hence Mark-hole. Anyway, although this particular excavation does not score enough difficulty points to be a bonafide Mark-hole, we consider it to be so for its magical ability to be spot on the correct orientation when all compasses on the land at dig time showed different readings. Simply reMarkable!!

Next up...engineered fill in the south-east corner of the lot and well drilling in the opposite corner. Aaah...the sounds of summer at Turtle Falls!

More later,

Monday, 6 May 2013

A New Name...and the Canadian Cold Climate Heat Pump

Ohm my God...watts been happening?

Lots has happened since I last posted. The house in the city finally sold, after 10 long months of showings and keeping the house showroom immaculate. I have been spending my time over the last 60 days, prior to the May 1st closing, packing and moving the house contents to the rental condo (or the pied-a-terre as a good friend has named it) and packing and moving my woodshop to the storage locker where it will remain until the new house is finally built What will I ever do without my tools for that length of time? I'm hoping contractor Mark will be ok with me worming my way onto his crew so I can at least get my tool and wood fix by helping out with the build.

Before I get to the telling of what's happening with the new house I must take a moment to thank you all for your weird and wonderful suggestions for the blog's new name. It was really hard to decide what the final name should be. I finally went with a name that would make at least some sense sitting at the top of each post. Some suggestions were very clever but were only relevant for that one post where I asked for help renaming the blog. Some suggestions were just cryptic enough that, I have to admit, I didn't get them. Some were excellent but already taken...such as Casa Costalotta. And all of them I completely appreciated. Thank you for your interest and participation in my little blog. And Doris...thank you for your winning suggestion! (Joe & Flora, one of your suggestions I used in the opening was a contender). I have added the "passive" edit mark to the new header sketch a bit prematurely I suppose. Same goes for the past tense "built" but we are definitely on target to make these pending characteristics a most certain reality. There's no turning back now...there's a big hole in the ground at Turtle Falls and we no longer have a house, of any kind, to live in at the moment! We must forge on!!

Now, back to what's going on with the house.

Several weeks back we had a meeting with the HVAC supplier for Casa Tortuga, Encore Geothermal Inc. Ras and I have never been known as very conventional, so what we have decided on for our mechanical system is also not conventional, at least not for a passive house. Let me explain.

Passive houses, typically, are primarily heated using the solar gain from the triple-glazed windows strategically sized and placed on the south side of the house. The amount of insulation and the air-sealing is critical for keeping the warm air inside the house in winter and outside the house in summer. The required HRV or ERV helps to condition and distribute the air. A secondary heat source typically only needs to be small, such as a mini-split heat pump or a small amount of electric heat to name only two options. The idea is that by not having to buy a conventional furnace you can put that money into the extra insulation, air sealing and windows. The temperatures in a passive house are supposed to be fairly consistent and slow to fluctuate. Much has been written about whether the criteria developed for passive house for the European market are right for the North American market. The Canadian climate offers up a bit more severity for us to deal with when trying to reach the numbers necessary for passive house certification.

Passive House is in its infancy in North America. Builders of passive houses here, more often than they would like, are having to resort to buying European made HRV/ERV systems and windows because they are not available in the numbers or qualities they are in Europe. That is starting to change, but at a snail's pace. Architect Chris has mentioned that at least one of the Canadian window manufacturers he has approached for our project is striving to produce windows that are good enough for passive house certification.

There's all kinds of info about building a passive house here in Canada and the USA. Many builders of passive houses feel compelled to blog about it to get the word out...exactly the reason why I blather on at great length. There's not a lot of info yet about the experience of living in a passive house, particularly in my area of interest - Canada. The little bit of information I have been able to find makes me a bit apprehensive. It seems temperatures within some of these passive houses fluctuate more than the marketing blurbs say is typical. It's hard for me to determine if this is because of the difference in climate, our relative lack of experience in building passive house here in North America, or the fact that the materials and systems we have to choose from are not the quality with which the European passive house is built.

Admissions of cold bedrooms when doors are closed, temperature differentials from room to room, temperature fluctuations wider than expected, and constant tweaking of mini-split and HRV performance to balance out these characteristics make me wonder. I may have mentioned once or twice how I absolutely dislike the cold. One of my other pet peeves is overly obtrusive sound levels of heating and cooling systems. Loud mechanical systems are simply annoying! All that being said, I'm very sure the mini-split option (the most common secondary heat source of choice) for heating and cooling our passive house is not the way to go for us. Electric heat is quiet but not efficient. Electric cooling...not very quiet. Radiant floor heat is too much heat for a passive house for the expense and it's not very helpful at cooling in the summer. These were not the only options we looked at. We looked at them all. Confusing and unsatisfactory options...each and every one!

So off we go to see Encore Geothermal...and the world made sense once again with our introduction to the Cold Climate Heat Pump.

Oh...the joys of winter in Canada!
A mini-split is an air to air heat pump that usually comes with a specification that it will work with some degree of efficiency to temperatures as low as -10°C, some to -15C. Minus 10°C is the temperature at which most Canadian postal workers start wearing their long pants rather than shorts to deliver the mail and it's certainly nowhere near as cold as it can get in many parts of Canada in the winter.

That's why the good people at Ecologix, a Canadian company from Cambridge Ontario, have developed a cold climate heat pump meant for the Canadian climate. These cold climate heat pumps operate efficiently down to a -25°C outdoor temperature. That -25°C is the efficient operating temperature that is guaranteed with these heat pumps and not just the oftentimes exaggerated marketing hype target. You know the hype I mean...I'll use the car industry as an example. This new car uses 6 litres/100kms. But what isn't stated are the conditions needed to get that actual fuel efficiency, like the outdoor temperature needs to be a constant 15°C, you must never exceed the speed of 80km/h, you must never use your brakes or idle at a stop light, and accelerate only as if you are a member of Gas Savers. Ok, I digress and exaggerate just a bit, but my point is these cold climate heat pumps will work at temperatures of -25°C, day after day. Although the literature for these heat pumps states -25°C, word is that at -40°C they still won't freeze up. It's refreshing when a company actually under-promises and over-delivers. My kind of company...Canadian and modest.

The Ecologix CCHP pulls heat from the outdoor air to heat the home in
winter and pumps heat to the outside to cool the home in summer.
The CCHP adjusts capacity to meet the immediate need, delivering
only what the home needs without waste.
In the configuration we have chosen, the heat pump is coupled with a ducted air handler that will distribute the conditioned air in 3 separate zones in the house. What a fantastic concept...heat/cool only the areas that need it rather than heat/cool the whole house. I know this sounds like overkill and, yes, we are spending the money on a
"furnace" when we are not supposed to need it but it is the best solution we have found to have everything that we want...quiet, efficient and even secondary heat in the winter and cooling in the summer.

This exercise of planning to build a passive house has raised so many questions that seem almost impossible to answer. Much thought and revision, on many levels, has gone into designing this house. Let me back up a little, to explain one of those more esoteric levels.

The house in the city that we just sold was a very interesting and unique little house..."one-of-a-kind" as all the real estate agents described it. Over the years we have done some crazy things to it, like turning it into, essentially, a one bedroom house, removing the closets because they were so small anyway what was the point of keeping them, removing any semblance of a "yard" and replacing the grass with meandering walkways and low-maintenance perennial gardens, over-spending on the renovation we added in 2010...all because we truly thought we would never move from this house so what did it matter that the house was not suitable for anybody else with clothes, children or dogs...and we would be able to amortize the cost of the reno over the rest of our lives. As always, life finds a way to throw you a curve ball when you get too deep into it. And our plans to stay in that crazy little house forever, ultimately, were severely revised.

That is, for the most part, why our house took so long to sell. We had to wait for a similarly unique buyer with enough money to pay for an over-improved, under-sized house but was neither a clothes horse nor responsible for several dependents of either the 2 or 4-legged about seriously limiting our market! You can only hear potential buyers say, "too small, no closets, no garage" so many times before you want to throw in the towel.

Ras and I agreed not to make the same mistakes with our next house. Therefore, this house is bigger than we want it or need it to be. And although we are choosing this cold climate heat pump, first and foremost, because we want the benefits it offers us, it is also a consideration for the next people that will eventually own this house. We may be all gung-ho about passive house and willing to live with its inherent characteristics but the next people may not. We really don't like thinking of resale when designing this house but the thought of trying to sell another crazy one-of-a-kind house sends shivers down both our spines. This secondary heat source solution will not only completely satisfy us but, with its conventional furnace look, will put the future owners of this house at ease. Hopefully, by the time we are ready to pass this house along, passive house and cold climate heat pumps will be the norm.

In some way, I truly believe that passive house in North America needs to find its own way. What works in Europe may not be the best approach here...just my opinion. We are trying an approach that we believe we can live with comfortably and efficiently into the future. (Edit May 12: It seems I am not the only one with this opinion. This Green Building Advisor article,"Passivehaus Buildings Don't Heat Themselves", was posted four days after I wrote my post. Confirms, for me, our decision to go for the cold climate heat pump).

Now...if only we could get the building permit! We're apparently just waiting for a few engineers' stamps on some documents. Once we have those...we'll be madly off in all directions. Can't wait! Soon we'll be Living La Vida Ohm Free (Thanks for that suggestion, Kaye. It was also a contender).

That's it for now,

For those interested in more info about the Ecologix Cold Climate Heat Pump, see the following:
Ecologix Inc.
University of Waterloo researchers change the face of home heating and cooling in Canada
Canadian Federal Government announce $4 million in support from the Clean Energy Fund for cold climate heat pump development