One year in: what I love about living in our Passive House (part 1) 💙💙💙

The blurry effect the house has had on our children.  

The blurry effect the house has had on our children.  

In spirit of our Canadian thanksgiving, I wanted to follow up my previous post with some house love.

It is an eye-opening reminder of how good we’ve got it when I think back to some of our previous living environs. Over the past 10 years together, we’ve lived in 7 different homes (not including the 18 months we spent globetrotting), including some with electric baseboard heaters, and some with the highest-efficiency gas furnaces; some with AC, and some without;  some with mold in the walls, and some with bugs in the walls. In Ottawa, there’s no doubt that winter puts the performance of a house to the test. The air is dry, and it’s cold...freezing cold. We’ve employed all sorts of active strategies to thwart winter discomfort. To name a few:

  • Hot water bottles and flannel sheets in bed
  • Blankets, sweaters and slippers
  • Humidifiers to keep us breathing easy
  • Weather stripping and window plastic to improve the r-value of our windows (looking outside be-damned!)
  • Programmable thermostats to help manage time-of-use consumption costs

I still recall a time when Mark and I were living in an old Victorian home, which was renovated in the 80s, with electric baseboard heating (when electricity was cheap in Ontario). We were still recent’ish graduates, living paycheque to paycheque, with student loans up to our necks. We were terrified at the site of our hydro bill. We were looking at ~$700/month to heat our 2 bedroom apartment in the heart of winter. Of course we didn’t realize what we in for prior to signing the lease... The house was always cold — we stockpiled slippers and sweaters for all who came to visit. We purchased a cord of firewood for our fireplace to help counter our electricity demands. On the coldest nights, we moved our mattress out in front of the fire to sleep and keep warm. It was fun, and romantic, but a lot of work and a major pain in the ass. In hindsight, the fire was probably making our heating costs go up vs. down, knowing what we know now about building performance. We tapped out after one winter.

What was it like then living in our passive house, one winter and one summer in? Mark has a couple more technical posts on the heating patterns observed in our home, I’m just speaking anecdotally, from what my experience living in the house was. The best compliment I could give it is: I didn’t notice. The house didn’t affront me, the way the previous ones did. I wasn’t bothered by cold bedsheets, bathtubs or drafts coming through the walls and windows. I could sit in our book-nook and read to the kids an inch away from a large window. My daughters eczema improved, there were no nosebleeds, and less colds and runny noses – an attest to the air quality, I'm sure. When it came to the thermostat: we set it and forget it. The performance of the house faded to the background.

Also of note: our behaviour didn’t have to change, other than to open the curtains during the day; thus enabling us to simply live, and be, in the house. We took long showers and baths, frequently ran the washer and dryer, kept our espresso machine turned on, as well as the computer + backup drives, and kept our thermostat at an even 22°C throughout winter – we like being warm :) Our annual consumption (energy required to heat and power our house) was 47.5 GJ. This is less than half the energy of a typical new house in Ontario (107 GJ), without even trying. (That’s a new house, if we looked at average energy consumptions, the number would be much higher).

We feel as though our lives have been dramatically upgraded. We are living a more luxurious lifestyle in our new home, using a fraction of the energy to do so. People shouldn't have to give up or sacrifice in order to live in a passive house. At least that’s not the philosophy we’ve ascribed to. In order for it to become more mainstream, that’s hopefully how more people will come to see it too. The success of the Tesla isn’t because it’s the eco-friendly option (although those government incentives don’t hurt…). It’s because it performs waaaaaaay better than other cars, even other performance cars. It’s also beautifully designed, which is of equal importance IMHO. As I’m sure I’ve written before, if something performs well, but doesn’t look good or feel good, you won’t love it. And if you don’t love it, you won’t keep it or take care of it.

All this to say: I love my house. One year in, and all the aspects of the house that make it passive house, are actually what makes it 100% livable.

I’ll be sharing more 🏠❤️ and lessons learned.

One year in: lessons learned from building our passive house (part 1)

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Valuable elements may be easier to experience in art and in anticipation than in reality. The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress, they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments and, without either lying or embellishing, thus lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting woolliness of the present.
— Alain de Botton

It’s been almost a year since I’ve written. And just over a year since we’ve moved into our new home. Quite the hiatus from someone who promised ‘many posts to come...’. After the big milestone of moving in, I needed to catch my breath and simplify, part of which meant time off from writing, and time off from the house.

This might sound crazy, because from the outside: we did it! We accomplished what we set out to do and we have a beautiful house, that’s built so well it would standup against the apocalypse, and is performing to Passive House standards. But it was a lot to take on, more than we could appreciate at the time, or if we did, we just didn’t have the time to process any of it. So when we were actually settled in, and things started to slow down, instead of feeling relaxed and grateful, I had itchy feet and was looking for the next thing to tackle. Which was difficult for Mark, especially, who wanted to feel relaxed and grateful, and fully deserved to.

I knew that the big rocks were in place, and the rest would settle. It was a struggle for me to settle into this knowledge, however. I just wanted to move in and be done with it already! We had walls and running water, but there was still landscaping to be done, railings needed to be designed and installed, doors to go up, paint to get applied, basement finished, garage built: the list goes on and on. Not to mention artwork, furniture, and the other nice-to-haves in a house. I did not relish the idea of putting our dingy old second-hand furniture and ikea as-is finds in our new, designery modern house. For all our efforts, we’ve been living in a mostly finished house, even after one year of living in it.

This past year, I’ve needed time to connect with the house, in real life, and come to terms with the anticipation and expectations I had placed on it, versus the reality of a house being just a house.

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What were some of the expectations I had placed on our home? At the outset, it was going to:

  • Be one of the ‘greenest’ (low energy) homes in Canada.

  • Disrupt the building industry and get built entirely unconventionally.

  • Reflect our shared design sensibilities and the embody quality to the touch and space.

  • Have integrity. And modest restraint.

  • It would jump start Mark’s architecture firm. Because who doesn’t dream about being their own client?

  • Make us excited about living in Ottawa, somewhere, frankly, we never saw ourselves settling.

  • Act as an ode to my father. He passed away shortly before we got married and started our family. Our house, in spirit, would be a monument to him — something that would make him proud. For it was he who introduced Mark to building science, which unbeknownst to him at the time, set him on a course to find his passion — houses like ours.

  • Cost less than a traditional custom build. I wanted to prove to the internet that regular folks could do what we were doing. With a little gumption and a lot of will, that you could do it too!

Our expectations read more like aspirational goals. It’s in our nature (Mark and I) to aim high. Something’s not worth doing, unless it’s done right...and then some. I’m glad we had such high expectations for our house. In differing ways, and to varying degrees, we feel we actually achieved all of them.

I’m not sure what value you, as a reader, may have garnered from this post. It’s mostly just been therapeutic for me to write. It’s recognition for me that we took on a lot, and managed to survive, family intact, with a truly incredible house. I’m able to appreciate it more now, one year in.

Key takeaways

  • Don’t say to yourself ‘when ___________, then things will be fine’. Because they won’t be. Find a way to make the ‘now’ enjoyable. It will make enjoying the ‘then’ much easier. Accept and enjoy the ongoing process of building.

  • Let go of perfect. Houses are never square. The entire finishing process of a house is an act of deceit—masking the scars and imperfections that lie beneath. No one else will notice the details that keep you up at night. (And if they do, they’re not worth inviting back!)

  • Don’t expect to get everything 100% on your first try. Even though we knew this, in theory, reality was that we also saw this house as our one-shot—our big opportunity to get everything right. We wanted to go all in, with little compromise.

  • Reframe failures into learnings (duh - right?). Consider a next time. And if there is no next time, simply what did you learn? For example, we learned that building a 2’ thick wall is much more difficult to make square, because you need to square it in 3D vs. 2D. Good to know.

  • Rome wasn't built in a day. Your house will not be finished when you move in. It probably never will be. Thinking that if you build or buy a house brand new means you have less maintenance and TODOs is foolhardy. If you own a home, there will always be jobs to be done.

  • Let a house be a house. Building is an all-consuming process. It’s great to shoot for the moon, but at the end of the day: remember that your house is not your life! Don’t put pressure on it to be anything more than that.

There will definitely be a 'next time' for us. 

Earth Hour 2017

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We celebrated a very peaceful and quiet candle-lit Earth Hour last night. We used our Sense Energy Monitor to watch consumption drop as we went around and turned off lights and appliances. We went so far as to turn off the fridge and the ERV (normally we would never turn these off, but we wanted to see how much energy they were actually using). We got as low as 83W of baseline load, which we attribute to the small plug loads made up of things like the modem and router, alarm clock, tv and receiver (plugged in but off). Our normal baseline is about 200-250W, which includes the ERV running 24/7.

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Rate of winter heat loss in our Passive House (why I'm sleeping better at night)

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For those of you who have been following us for a while, you may remember this post from last winter in our old rental house. I was noticing in that post that our rental unit (an older semi-detached house in central Ottawa) was losing 1 to 2 degrees Celsius in 8 minutes, causing our furnace to short cycle like crazy (it was about -8C outside at the time). 

This morning I looked at our temperature chart from last night. It took our Passive House 3.5 hours to drop from 22C to 21C. The temp outside during that same period dropped from -6.5C to -8C. Our heater didn't come on at all during this time!

Indoor temperature over 4 hours last night

Indoor temperature over 4 hours last night

Outdoor temperature over the same 4 hours last night

Outdoor temperature over the same 4 hours last night

What's really cool about this is it demonstrates how protected our house is from power outages or a broken furnace. The old house would have dropped from 21C to -8C in under four hours . Our Passive House would take 101.5 hours for the same drop (4.25 days)—but this wouldn't even be possible because the sun would come out and heat us back up during the daylight hours (we've even noticed moderate heat gains from solar energy on overcast days).

What do you think? It's pretty comforting to know our pipes won't ever freeze while we are away, and that even if he power fails in the winter we would be able to stay in our home for a long time.

1 month with the Sense Energy Monitor

Our Sense Energy Monitor installed beside our panel

We've had our new Sense Energy Monitor installed for nearly a month now, so I thought I'd share some first impressions.   

First, a bit about the monitor we chose. Sense is a new product that has only been on the market for a few months, and isn't currently available in Canada (we ordered ours to Ogdensburg and drove down to pick it up). The purpose of the product is to monitor and track our electricity usage — and since our home is all-electric, it in fact tracks our total energy usage. The monitor installs with two clamps on the electrical mains leading in to the panel. While the install was quick and straightforward, I had the assistance of my electrician since the mains are always live (and if you're thinking of getting one, I'd recommend you do the same!).  This type of electricity meter installed on the mains is fairly common, but what Sense claims to be able to do is to recognize different signatures and break out the electricity usage for each individual appliance in the house. 

After install, the monitor takes several weeks or months before it learns everything in the house (for more information on how and why check out their website), but it will give you immediate feedback on total consumption. After nearly a month, it has learned our espresso machine, oven, and fridge and freezer lights. Even though this doesn't seem like much, it's been very interesting to look at the energy usage chart and figure out usage trends by deduction!

I'm hopeful the Sense Monitor will continue to add more devices soon, but in the meantime check out this chart showing from midnight to midnight last Friday. I've indicated some of the big spikes and what we figure they were. 

24 hours of monitoring from March 17th

Cold and sunny: temperature and kWh consumption

When designing a Passive House, we use the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) to model the energy performance of the project. The PHPP considers two different design days: clear/cold and overcast/mild. Ottawa winter days follow these patterns very consistently. Yesterday was a prime example of a clear/cold day. As I mentioned in the last post, our heater shut off for 11.5 hrs during the day, even though the temperature outside never got above -12˚C.

Here is the chart of yesterday's temperatures. There are 2 indoor temperatures being monitored: the Book Nook is on the east side of the house outside of the master bedroom, and the Loft is on the top floor of the house. You can see that the temperature in the loft starts to rise noticeably as the sun gets around to the West, and starts to come in through the large lift-and-slide door in the loft.

And here is the electricity consumption (downloaded hourly from Hydro Ottawa's website). You can see the drop at 9am and the ride at about 9pm — this is the 4kW heater turning off then back on. It's interesting to notice how, even as the heater shuts off at 9am, the temperature in the house climbs steadily from 7am through to about 4pm! 

Life in a Passive House: 2017-03-04

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Our brief flirt with spring weather has ended (for now). This morning we woke up to -18 on the thermometer, and it's been below -14C all day (it's 2pm as I right this). 

Our "furnace" (the 4kW duct heater that heats our home) turned itself off at 9am, and has been off ever since. That's 5 hours at -14C or colder without any heat on! What's more, the temperature has been slowly climbing all day thanks to the sunny weather—it was 20C when the heater stopped, and its 22C now. 

I'll comment later to let you know what time tonight the heater comes back on.