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

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.


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. 

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.

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.

Passive House Appliances

Exciting times – appliance showrooms

Exciting times – appliance showrooms

Choosing our Passive House appliances was no simple task. Our decisions we were largely garnered by a couple very important Passive House principles, in addition to the normal stuff you’d look for in an appliance: cost, performance, reliability, aesthetics, noise level, etc.

1. Low energy use

We have to ensure that our house’s energy demands are under a certain value in order to meet the Passive House standard. We calculate this with the help of the energy modeling software, which requires many different input values. Some, of which, are the EnerGuide ratings for our appliances. They tell you the annual energy consumption of the model in kilowatt hours. The EnergyStar program publishes a ‘most efficient’ list every year, which is a good place to start looking.

2. No external ducting

Here’s where our list of options gets dramatically reduced. With our house, we are not venting to the outside (heaven forbid we penetrate the air barrier). As a result, we must find recirculating options for appliances that otherwise would (vent to the outside), such as the range hood ventilator and our clothes dryer. Oh, and since we have no external ventilation, this precludes us from considering a gas cooktop because open flames without external ventilation is a ‘no-no’ for building code.

At first these may sound like Passive House trade-offs, but in fact, Mark and I are seeing them more as ‘trade-ups’. Because why would you want to throw all that warm air (aka. Heat, aka. Energy) out of the house when you could recycle it and feed the energy needs of our house from within rather than pull from the grid? I sure wouldn’t.

With that in mind, here’s what we decided to go with:


Whirlpool 7.3 cu ft. HybridCare™ Ventless Duet® Dryer with Heat Pump Technology

The most efficient dryer on the market also happens to use ventless heat pump technology. The same heat pump technology that operates our domestic hot water tank. Bam.


We’re simply getting the matching Whirlpool washing machine.


Bosch 500 series - SHP65T52UC

Bosch dishwashers also use heat pump technology, making them pretty darn efficient. This one is whisper quiet, which we like, especially considering our main floor is rather open-plan.


Bosch 500 Series 30” Induction Cooktop

We are so excited that induction technology has made it to the consumer world! There are so many great things to say about induction. It uses magnetic conduction, which is instant, consistent, precise and significantly more energy-efficient than ol’ thermal conducting cooktops (gas and electric) which throw away much of the heat they produce. And best of all, you can put your hand on the burner immediately after taking the pot away. Who hasn’t wanted to do that before?! Well now you can.

Wall oven

Whirlpool convection 30” white - WOS 92EC0AS


Best Cattura Downdraft 30” - D49M30SB

This was by far our most complicated appliance to figure out. Our cooktop is in the island — we like to cook and be part of the action. We have a very large, very beautiful window spanning the length of our kitchen. The last thing we wanted to do was to put a space-aged, over-the-island range hood hanging down from the ceiling, disrupting our lines and views out the window. In order to avoid this, we needed to find a downdraft ventilator — one that sits in the island itself — with a recirculating kit.

Downdraft ventilators are widely regarded as inferior to mounted-above styles because they aren’t able to catch as much of the steam, smoke, and heat, that naturally rises. Even though downdrafts are not quite as effective at removing air, this is less of an issue for us thanks to our induction cooktop. A gas cooktop uses combustion to heat, a natural byproduct of which is smoke (which is why you’re required to vent to the outside with a gas cooktop). With induction, smoke and other pollutants are only a byproduct of forgetting the pot of boiling pasta on the stove too long, which reduces the number of contaminants our blower has to extract from the air. For the most part, our ventilator will only have to remove steam and smells. Any pollutants will be cleared, prior to recirculation, with a charcoal filter.

There are several companies that make these downdraft ventilators, with recirculation kits, that actually pop-up out of the counter to heights as high as 18”. They are all luxury brands. I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that our downdraft vent, which is inferior to overhead vents, was going to cost as much as the cooktop and wall oven combined. This is one case where design has trumped all other options.

On the ‘up’ side, however, we can take advantage of the recirculated air and improve the overall experience of working in our kitchen. How, you ask?

We will be mounting the fan blower and charcoal filter in our mechanical room, effectively removing any noise from the kitchen itself. No more shouting over a noisy fan motor. And by moving the warm cooking air into the mechanical room, we will be augmenting the energy source for our domestic hot water heater. Our domestic hot water tank is a heat pump model, which pulls heat in from the surrounding air through a compressor and into our water. The surrounding air (in our mechanical room) becomes slightly cooler as a result. Our downdraft air supply will help make-up some of that heat lost to the hot water tank, and reduce our requirement to pull from the grid.

Make sense? I’m not surprised if it doesn’t. I’ll be posting a video of Mark explaining this to me with helpful diagrams likely tomorrow....

So there you have it. Some big decisions made. Each decision turns out to be more of an ordeal then at first glance. I know more about dishwashers now than I ever thought I needed to know. But I'm glad I took the time to do the research and understand. As we are doing with every aspect of our build.

I should also note that we purchased a Consumer Reports Online subscription for the duration of the build to help us with some of our research. It’s been most helpful so far in choosing our appliances.

Construction week 30 – siding

After 30 weeks of construction, our interior wall cavities are nearly complete. They will contain our electrical and plumbing 'behind the scenes' as to not breach our Passive House air barrier. But before we can call up the electrician and plumber, The Cornelis Grey crew has a few more interior jobs to finish up first. We also need to make some key lighting and plumbing decisions. Decisions decisions. 

On that note, we crept a little closer towards making some other big decisions. The biggest of which is our siding materials and install. We’re going with black hardie panel on the inside core, and natural cedar on the enveloping sleeve.

Our cladding choices

Our cladding choices

We want this inside core to feel as if it were rising from the earth, as one monolithic shape. Mark is typically not a huge fan of hardie board, especially in our case, because the standard flashing details (at the corners and between boards) can feel clunky and disjointed, which works against the unbroken, monolithic shape we were hoping for. But the price and practicality of hardie panel is hard to beat (vs. cement board). Never one to compromise, Mark has designed some custom flashing for between the boards and corners. He’s also craftily designed our electrical panel (where the meter sits on the outside of the house) and eavestrough system as well. We’re getting it bent and cut out of matching black metal. Metal is pretty cheap, even when it’s custom. It’s details like this that we hope will shine through in our house.

The cedar sleeve is the protective wrapper hugging the house. It echoes our living space and forces inward focus, which stems from our love of courtyard architecture. The black hardie-paneled core grounds the house, while the cedar screen lifts it. 

We drove out to Smiths Falls this weekend to take a look at some cedar. There are so many benefits to cedar siding. We plan on allowing ours to age naturally, which will turn it from a warm blond wood to an soft silver colour. It’s super no maintenance, is water and insect resistant, and lasts a lifetime in its natural state. It’s also grown locally and milled to our specs. What’s not to love?

Eastern white cedar, aging gracefully like Meryl Streep

Eastern white cedar, aging gracefully like Meryl Streep

Before: logs of easter white cedar 

Before: logs of easter white cedar 

After: milled 4" eastern white cedar with 'v' groove

After: milled 4" eastern white cedar with 'v' groove

I've explained a bit of the 'why' behind our siding choices. But there were certainly many other factors that played unto our decision-making. You may have noticed we have two brightly coloured neighbours? If you haven’t, one is canary yellow while the other is straight-up orange. On the one hand, we could have followed suit and painted it a wacky bright colour, becoming Ottawa’s very own ‘painted ladies’. But on the other...we’ve decided to contrast them by keeping things natural and neutral, while complementing them with a solid ultramarine blue door. We’ll be introducing more colour with our front yard planter boxes and decking, which will incorporate some rusty-coloured weathering steel. The house will probably recede as it ages gracefully and settles into it’s new home on the street.

And last but not least:

Drumroll please….

The preliminary air test was completed. 


Stay tuned for the results, hehe. 






Hint: we passed with flying colours.





Construction week 20: 3rd floor framing

There's snow in the house. We always liked the idea of bringing the outside - in. But this is taking it too far. Wah-wah.

There's snow in the house. We always liked the idea of bringing the outside - in. But this is taking it too far. Wah-wah.

Our second floor (third if you include the walk-out basement) has been framed in. The cold temps have definitely come with challenges. We're using an adhesive on the edges of the wood fibre board that needs to be warm to be malleable. So we've rented space heaters to keep a small section of the basement warm for the adhesives. And there's snow on everything.

It's so bloody cold. Went out there for half an hour last week and my toes almost fell off. Props to construction workers in this city. It's unreal. And then I go sit in my cushy, warm office job, feeling slightly unworthy. Respect.

We took some friends on a tour of the house this past weekend. They had their children with them. The five year old said, "Mina's house looks like Elsa's* castle because it's tall and there was snow inside".

* For those of you who don't have a child, Elsa is a snow queen from Disney's film Frozen.

The third floor joists should be going in this week. In the meantime, Mark and I are trying to work out some design details for the inside, of which there are many. He's working on our kitchen & bath layouts so we can get them priced out to make decisions. We're agreeing on all the big picture items, so hopefully that bodes well for when we have to start selecting finishes.

He's also working on our HRV design. Where the fresh air and exhaust vents will be located. It's fascinating stuff. I'm working on a post with fancy visuals to help illustrate the concepts. I'm also doing a bit of research in to automated home technologies – ways to make the house smart. If anyone has any knowledge in this, please share! Just because the house is low-tech (crudely-speaking), doesn't mean other areas of the house have to be. Lights that learn? Maybe.

Dwindling winter daylight. Pano of the second floor.

Dwindling winter daylight. Pano of the second floor.

Rear elevation.

Rear elevation.

Views of the city beyond the tree and rooftops.

Views of the city beyond the tree and rooftops.