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


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. 

The construction hangover is easing...

After our move-in last fall, we've been enjoying the house immensely, and have been slowly letting our post-construction hangovers fall away a little at a time. Last night we hosted the Ottawa Green Energy Doors Open 2017 kick-off celebration, and welcomed about 50 people into our home for a tour and a presentation by city councillor David Chernushenko. It was great to see the enthusiasm in the room.

With spring on the horizon we are feeling a fresh bit of motivation to pick up the blog again and start sharing our experiences from the first winter in our new Passive House. Watch this space — I'll be posting some of our monitored data soon, as well as sharing some of our observations and experiences from day-to-day life in the house.

Building for the long term

I recently gave a talk to some of my UX (user experience) peers at Shopify, the company I work for. We are a bunch of designers, researchers, content writers, and developers, who work together to build a product and a brand. The following is the script for the talk I gave.


I want to talk to you about building for the long term, through a personal project of mine — my home.

The home I designed, with some help from my husband (who happens to be both an architect and a building scientist). We not only designed it, but also managed construction, negotiated with the city, navigated our way through construction mortgages, maintained neighbourly relations, swung hammers and hung drywall, as well as lobbied with government organizations and documented the entire journey.

But since this is a UX talk, and I don’t have all week, I will stick mostly to talking about the design process.

With that...

For each of us [point to crowd], a lifetime of experience dictates what we think we need in a home. We started out by coming up with a functional plan – the things we thought we needed in our home. Our list looked like a fairly typical realtor spec sheet for a single family home (three bedrooms, two and a half baths). Throughout the design process, we’d challenge our assumptions, but they helped lay the groundwork.

When you decide to rent, or to buy a house, you probably have a vision on how to make it your own. What colours you’ll paint the walls. The artwork you’ll hang on them. Or even what walls you may want to take down one day. You’re likely already building, or decorating, within a box.

But what if you had no box? Where do you begin? How do you define your box?

We started by defining our parti, which is architectural lingo, for a concept. It became quite introspective. Who am I? Who are we? This was actually dead easy for my husband and I to agree on. In a previous life, we had spent the better part of two years as wandering vagabonds, traveling the world together slowly, overland, with no destination in mind (and no airplanes). We were onboard with the idea that the journey is part-in-parcel with discovery. We wanted to imbue the house with that same ‘wandering spirit’.

Great, our visions aligned for the parti. But how do you capture ‘wandering’ in a fixed, static, object. The two are seemingly at odds.

Along our travels, we made notes on spaces, lighting, moods, and objects that we were drawn to. We loved the courtyard architecture of southern Spain and Morocco. The way the hallways and staircases wrapped around the pen courtyard, which became the heart of the house. We loved Moroccan lanterns and Moorish patterns. The connection to the outdoors and rooftop gardens. The sense of discovery and chaos wandering through a souq followed by the sense of safety and calm as you passed through the threshold, leaving the outside world behind.

But we don’t live in Morocco. We live in Ottawa.

We channeled this inspiration into something that fits our climate, our lives, our land, our modern aesthetic, and our budget. A design concept started to emerge, with what we named ‘the void’—our monument to wandering. The void became our interior courtyard and grounded the home, while the surrounding living and circulation spaces lifted it upwards, providing unique views and discoveries along the way.

Concept was crucial at the outset for grounding future decision making. It is THE THING that ensures the final product is cohesive. It’s not that you need to be able to guess the concept if you were to walk into my home, but you should just see that it works. The concept results in a cohesive and subliminal continuity that can be felt even before it’s understood.

Now let’s bring this back to ‘building for the long term’.

If you love something, like a favourite pair of jeans, you’ll hang on to them longer. What makes you love those jeans? The style. The fit. Probably. But if the quality doesn’t hold up, no matter how good they look, you’re just not going to keep them.

What you want is a pair of jeans that you love AND that are well built. They will last longer because of their quality, but they will also last longer because you take care of them. The front ass-thetic end and the back end need to hold up.

Having a deep understanding of the back end – how our house would perform and get built, was integral and complimentary to our design process. Again, we live in Ottawa. It’s an extreme environment. Energy prices are skyrocketing. And we are killing our planet. Building for the long term also means building sustainably and reducing our energy dependencies, so there’s some planet left for our kids and our kids’ kids. This is very important to us. Which is why we decided to build to the Passive House standard.

What does that mean? It’s quite simple really, which is why I’m so on board with it. It involves making your house super insulated and airtight. So that the heat you generate, stays inside the house. Then you add to this a super high efficiency ventilation system that provides fresh air but still retains the heat in the house. Essentially, that’s it - that’s Passive House!

My husband uses a really good winter coat analogy when describing Passive House principles. Think about winter here in Ottawa. Now think about wearing a spring coat outside, during winter. In order to stay warm in your K-way, you’ll have to work really hard and run your little heart out. Now think about wearing a Canada Goose parka instead. It makes more sense, doesn’t it? The K-way spring coat is a house built to code. Our house is the Canada Goose parka.

Our walls are rated at a nominal R-96. The newest building code is only R-24. They are 2’ thick. We will heat our home through solar gain and by simply living in it: showering, cooking, and being human. Because the heat will stay in the house. Any makeup heat will be produced by a heater with the equivalent output of a toaster oven.

One of the other ‘measures’ for Passive House is comfort. Have you ever thought about what makes a space feel comfortable? Well the Germans have. They actually have calculations for this.

One of the things they’ve taken into account are thermal gradients. There shouldn’t be any. Meaning the surface temperatures of everything in our house should be even. We will be able to sit an inch away from a window, naked, on a -30• day and say ‘f you’ to winter.

Another comfort measure is the velocity of air movement. You shouldn’t be able to detect it. No drafts.

As added bonuses to building this way, the air quality and sound quality are super quality. Because our house is so air-tight, the air we intentionally circulate passes through three controlled filtres, ensuring my family is breathing clean air at all times. No more air leaking in through rotting wood, allergens, dust or whatever else might be stuffed inside wall cavities. And because our walls are so thick and insulated, even in downtown Ottawa, next to busy roads, our house is as quiet as a mouse. When we close our windows, it feels like we’ve left the city behind.

Passive House. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it? It just makes so much sense to us. Understanding that this was the best possible way to build was key at the outset of our design and enabled us not to see it as an obstacle, but as an opportunity.

Passive House became our framework to design within. The architecture needed to operate within this framework, not against it, yet not afraid to push against the ‘rules’ of the standard.

When design concept and engineering came against each other, these were the opportunities for greatest creativity. For example, instead of thinking of our 2’ thick walls as lost square footage, we started thinking about window seats, and counter tops and ways to use them to our advantage. Some of our most creative details are the result of our 2’ thick walls.

The success of the house, and what makes it built for the long term, is this harmonious marriage.

The build has paralleled my start of my journey with Shopify. We broke ground on the house about a year ago, and have been living in the house for a few weeks now. Somehow we survived. And are beginning to feel the benefits of our hard work. There are still many things that need doing. We have no doors. We need landscaping. Lots to unpack. We have yet to hang things on walls and take the magazine photos. None of that really seems to matter at the moment though.

The real payoff is seeing our kids in the space. The house is like one giant, indoor jungle gym for them. The instant we moved in, they were at home. Moving through the spaces, up and down the stairs with ease, filling it with their creativity and energy. For them, to be able to grow up in a house like this, is where we’ll really see the benefits in building for the long-term.


Construction week 52: occupancy

The empty state prior to move-in

The empty state prior to move-in

On September 2nd, exactly one year after the city granted us our building permit, they granted us occupancy. It was a roller coaster leading up to it, which has left us completely shattered, yet elated to finally be living in our home. Two and a half years after the land purchase, our long journey is winding down. Sure there are still outstanding tasks, like trim and doors, but I’m feeling very little motivation to take action on them just yet. I think we need some room to breathe and reflect on the fact that we’re in, and that we actually did it. Was there every any doubt? (Yes...lots of it...).

This post won’t have too many pics because of how crazy the week was. And how cluttered the house is with moving boxes and Ikea Pax boxes hijacking the spaces. We’ll do a proper photoshoot once we’re fully moved in and set up. For now, if you’re curious, come to the open house this weekend. We’re busy assembling these Pax closets to shove the aforementioned moving boxes inside of, to give the illusion of settled. Even with the outstanding finishes, the house shines through. Details for the event can be found here:

So what happened in the final week? It’s still a bit of a blur, but I’ll attempt to recount.

The floors were oiled with a one-coat product called Rubio monocoat, in a clear finish. It went on well but meant no one could walk on the floors for 24 hours. So we didn’t! It really brings out the character and grain of our white ash. And matches our brown ash cabinets remarkably well. We were keeping our fingers crossed they would. 

Clean up
We hired a post-construction clean up crew to get rid of the construction dust and make our windows sparkly clean. Even though our house remains somewhat of a construction site. 

Ground source heat loop
We had it charged by a heating contractor from R&B Heating. Meaning he filled our loop with a glycol solution, the loop we lay prior to foundation. We’re still calibrating and trying to get our entire heating and cooling system sorted. Mark will elaborate on this for us eventually.

On Monday, an inspector came out and did a walk-through. He failed us on a few points, including temporary railings, hand rails, bathroom doors and exposed ICF foam. We spent the following few days addressing the deficiencies. Reinforcing our lower deck railings and blocking access to our rooftop. Extending handrails. Installing a temporary bathroom door. And installing drywall in our future basement suite.

On Thursday, a different inspector came for the revisit. The new inspector mostly looked at the list of outstanding items provided by the previous inspector. He was also going to conduct the plumbing final. This new inspector required our plumber, Nathan, to run a bowl test. According to Nathan, bowl tests are an Ottawa anomaly. The test required Nathan to start punching holes in our drywall. He couldn’t find what he was looking for and eventually had to climb up on our roof to conduct the test. The inspector didn’t stick around the 10 minutes it took Nathan to do this, so we had to get both of them back the following day, Friday.

Prior to the revisit-revisit by inspector number 2, there was a brief moment where Nathan was worried that someone punctured one of his pipes because they weren’t maintaining pressure. At this point, I tuned out because I didn’t want to know. I was busy directing the movers on where to put things, while dealing with pangs of fear that my family would be looking for a hotel room for the weekend. That’s right — we moved in on Friday morning, without our occupancy permit in hand. While I was moving, Mark and Nathan were hurriedly running around the house. I’m not really sure what happened in the end (Mark and Nathan figured out there was not enough water in one of the traps, and once corrected everything was good), but when the inspector returned that afternoon, and we finally got our permit. 

Move in
Suffice to say, we are moved in. And a million pounds lighter. The pain and torture of working back-to-back-to-back-to-back 16-hour days is slowly fading. (Yes, Mark and Graham worked these kinds of hours, staying until 3:30 am installing the final set of stairs.) Of me feeling like a house widow/single parent for the past two and a half years. The financial and emotional toll of building a house is incalculable, but so is the joy and sense of accomplishment that it brings us to finally be in it. As is the experience and growth Mark has gained as a professional. And most of all, the benefit to our children as they grow up in a healthy home, designed for them. You can’t put a price tag on that, and you might just say it was worth it. This house certainly was. 

It feels so good to be home. 

For once, I can say that I’m looking forward to winter. To see if this Passive House thing really works...


Construction week 51: the final countdown

The one week (less than!) countdown begins. Our official move day is Friday, September 2nd. My daughter's 4th bday. Sure to be a memorable one.

Our ceilings aren’t the only destination for wood in our house. Wood on the outside, wood on the inside. I’m starting to think of our house as the ‘wood box’: where a simple, honest shape meets a simple, honest material. Anyways, this week was focused on floors and stairs. Both receiving the full white ash treatment. 

Our super-awesome-carpenter-guy Graham was tackling stairs. The stairs are three inch thick slabs of white ash (from the Wood Source). They have been designed to be supported by the stair metal brackets Mark had made and installed. The wood requires a small channel carved into its ends, so it can slide onto the bracket, sandwiching it, and hiding it so that the wood ‘floats’.

And this is where I segue over to Graham praise. He goes above and beyond. We are incredibly lucky to have him on our project. He possesses the same passion and care for quality and craftsmanship as does Mark. For instance, in order to carve our stair channels, he needed a better tool for the job, a Festool. He couldn’t find one in Ottawa, so he drove to Kingston to purchase it (hour and a half drive), drove back, and took a lesson on how to properly use it that same night. He was on site the next day figuring our how to precisely carve these channels at varying subtle angles, in order to get them just right. And he did. He also makes a great DJ. No Chez 106 on our site.

The only stair hiccup was a small mistake made by Mark with measurements. One floor riser was ⅜” taller than others, which apparently isn’t ‘to code’. I’d bet none would be the wiser if we kept the ⅜” difference, but to the uncompromising Mark Rosen, this surely wouldn’t do. So we had all the stairs planed down ¼” so that each step is now at 100% equal height. Unfortunately, we had to bring them back to the Wood Source to get them done. So all the work on the stairs won’t pay off until early next week and the temporary stairs had to get reinstalled. Wah-wah.

Stairs go in

Stairs go in

Stairs come out

Stairs come out







No squeaks! Rejoice rejoice! 

A full glue down was the trick for our 5” white ash, site finished hardwood. We used two different polyurethane flooring glue because the local supplier, Dragona, didn’t have enough in stock to do all in one brand. We used both Maipei ultrabond eco 995, and Roberts 1540. We also stapled, but only when necessary to keep the boards toight. 

Mark, Graham and Sebastian have been working on the floors, burning the midnight oil. Working until midnight the last three nights in a row. We rented some machines to sand the floors down ourselves too. We were going to hire out the finishing job, but we’d have to wait until Wednesday to do so. And with our September 1st move-in coming up, we just couldn’t. 

Everyone unanimously vows, repeatedly, that this would be their first and last glue-down hardwood floor + finishing install. The glue was the worst. Thankfully, they are also in unison upon the fact that they look bloody fantastic. 


Oiling the floors happens this week.

With the exception of our laundry machines (because the wood floor has to come first), all our appliances have been installed! So what appliances did we choose for our Passive House build? I’ll write a separate post on this. For now, just know they are in. Mark was boiling water every 10 minutes, and timing it, on our new induction cooktop. He even took video to show me, on the first night in was installed, and now I’m posting it here for everyone to see. It's just about the least exciting 4 minutes of your life, but not for Mark. lol.

Our downdraft ductwork. Yowzers!

Our downdraft ductwork. Yowzers!

Temporary railings
We had to install some temporary railings to get occupancy. Must admit, we cried a little on the inside putting the hideous, weathered plywood up on our mostly finished house. But at least it’s safe and will get us to permit. It should only be a few weeks of us living with them in this state until the permanent railings are ordered and installed.

It hurts!

It hurts!

Yard cleanup
I wish I had thought of Kijiji earlier on in the build. I used it to get rid of all our extra building material. And it was so easy! People will take anything. Especially if you say it’s free. It would have saved us a whole dumpster of waste, at least. Lesson learned. Now that most of the extra building material is off the lawn, it’s starting to feel like a proper house (our landscaping is on hold, so it’s a massive weed garden, but it’s better than a building supply lot).

Toilets, faucets, showers, bathtubs, drains, heat exchanger connections, floor drains, condensation traps, backflow valves. We’re ready to pass our plumbing final inspection, which will take place on Monday. Our diswasher and espresso machine still need to be hooked up, but aren’t required for occupancy. I’d like to take a moment to admire Nathan’s skills. Our mechanical room is a work of art. Look at all the cool copper handiwork. It really adds to the engine room feeling of the house. Of all the beautiful spaces in our house, it might just be Mark’s fave :)

Check out our sweet stack

Check out our sweet stack

And finally, our occupancy. We called for the city to come on Tuesday. Usually they are required to come within 24 hours of a request. But for some reason, they were overbooked, and we couldn’t get anyone out this week. So someone should be coming on Monday. We were really hoping for someone to come on Friday, to give us an idea on what our weekend ‘occupancy to-do’ list would but unfortunately, no dice. 

Meanwhile, while Mark’s working on site into the late hours, I’m at home packing boxes. I pulled the trigger and managed to find a moving company less than a week in advance of the move date. The thought of moving all the boxes and furniture ourselves, with all the work remaining at the house and all the work to date, was enough to shatter me into a million pieces. Phew! When my mom was visiting last week, she was with her Australian boyfriend, who trained with their military once-upon-a-time. He expressed concern that we were starting to show signs of severe exhaustion akin to his military training where they push you until you break, and then keep pushing. Maybe. But at least we have our new spa to unwind in at the end of the long day :)



Construction week 50: the sistine chapel


The majority of our week was spent on the 7-step wood ceiling (see last weeks post). With our move-in date looming, and tasks remaining, I wanted to cut corners and time (patience is not one of my virtues). But thank goodness we didn’t (and thank Mark and Graham’s overruling expertise). It looks so damn good. It brings sense of nature and warmth to all the man-made, hard lines on the inside. It rewards you at the end of your winding staircase journey. And I get to wake up each morning looking at it. Much nicer than a boring ol’ white ceiling.

Track lighting has been installed where you see the larger black gaps. We’ll be hanging several pendants off the tracks over the void. Once we get the fixture order in.

Apart from the ceiling, I painted the girls rooms. They chose their colours, and I surprisingly love them! Purple and green. Our plumbing fixture install continued. And our tiling is 98% complete. The kids had their first bath in the house over the weekend. And we had our first dinner party with my mom. Take out pizza on the roof deck.

We did a major cleanup over the weekend in prep for the week ahead. Stairs and wood floors. Hoping third time’s a charm.

Green Energy Doors Open — Sept 10th and 11th


We are participating in this years Green Energy Doors Open, taking place over the weekend of September 10th and 11th. This is a great chance to get out and see some Passive House builds near Ottawa! Not just ours. There are 7 with their doors open. Including a multi-unit community housing project on the CCOC bike tour and the Chelsea Passive House that plotnonplot designed, both of which Mark acted as Passive House advisor. If you're interested in Passive House, and building science, it's a great opportunity to see the various approaches and talk to the people who built them. RMA Architects also has its office doors open, where you can see some cross-laminated timber (CLT) in use.

Our house will be open for touring Sat afternoon and all day Sunday.