Challenges with building a Passive House!

By Koko Saar

I have a new virtual mentor — is that even a thing? — after reading, and chuckling a lot at, this terrific Canadian Architect article by Ann Cavlovic. Recently, I have been trying to keep my frustrations in perspective while building the first Passive House in Wasaga Beach, because I know the end result will be worth it. The title of her article summarizes how I’ve felt throughout this process: The Passive-Aggressive House – Our History of a Passivhaus Build.

Rob and I are constantly reminding ourselves of the reasons we’re building a Passive House, and they’re good reasons. We’re trying to be environmentally conscious, do our part in saving the world, be leaders in new building techniques, and reap the health benefits of living in a Passive House. This photo that I recently saw on Facebook from Climate Action Iowa shows the seriousness of the situation.  

It’s been almost a year since we sold our house in Mississauga, and our move-in date for our Passive House is nowhere on the horizon. The fact that we have a comfortable “ski chalet/townhouse” to stay in half an hour away from the building site is very convenient; but what’s not is paying for four storage lockers for 12 months and counting, feeling like we can’t settle in, and having a tremendous amount of money tied up in this venture. So in the midst of all the chaos we have to sometimes give ourselves a friendly reminder: we are trying to save the world.

Our original plan was to get the external walls, windows and doors up before Christmas, which would allow the trades to work in the warm comfort of a Passive House in the winter — a season they’re usually not very busy. But it did not happen. Instead the foundation was started with snow around, and the wall panels were craned into place in the middle of a Canadian winter. The hard-working carpenters got used to frigid temperatures, and we toured people around our freezing cold Passive House. But at least the photos of the construction process look beautiful with crisp white snow in the background! 

 

Let’s backtrack a little: as with Ann’s Passive House project, our first design wasn’t built, for the same reason of having too high of a building price. Unlike Ann’s scenario, where she had conflicts between architect and builder, we had employed a company to give us a certified turn-key house. This means there’s an in-house designer who could resolve issues with their own building crew. It sounded like a great strategy! 

However, we had other problems and road bumps. When I originally met the builder and asked him what his territory was, and he said “all of Ontario,” red flags started popping up in my head and I imagined a logistical nightmare. But we were aligned in a lot of other things and we were only 2.5 hours away from their offices and wall panel factory — so that wasn’t too far, right? Wrong! Each meeting (and there are a lot of them) is a full day outing, and it’s not a good use of time when the building crew has a 2.5 hour commute to the building site, work for 3-4 hours, and then turn around. The neighbouring builders were having a good laugh.

Another issue is with the local subtrades. Will there be attention to detail? Are they going to make holes in our precious sealed 19-inch outer walls? And are they going to show up? Or quit? (we had a tiler quit in the 11th hour). 

And then who is overseeing the process? In her article, Ann mentions the importance of supervising the sub-trades since the construction process of building a Passive House is very specific. My husband, who is a newbie in the construction world, was often left to supervise. But we had planned a big trip to enjoy our “early retirement,” which was not going to be a big deal with our original timeline —  after all, we were supposed to be all moved in by then. But with everything getting pushed back, we were off gallivanting around the globe, with our unofficial “supervisor” off-site, leaving the building process without one. 

Ann mentioned the stresses put on a relationship throughout the building process: “There should be therapists specializing in ‘construction-related couples’ counselling. Building, like renovating, tests every trigger point in a relationship: money, burden sharing, and stress management.” She hit the nail on the head with this truth, especially with the financial burden. And decision-fatigue is real. Suddenly, we needed to make split-second decisions on external siding, flooring, paint colours, door styles, etc. Continuous disappointments of our perceived timelines not being met makes the state of living in limbo even more irritating. Not to mention the learning curves of the trades, and mistakes needing to be corrected. And to add to all of this we’re getting the house certified by International Passive House in Germany! Thousands of dollars being spent on “proving” that our home will meet all the stringent requirements of the Germans. If we are going to go through all the effort of building an innovative Passive House, we need to be able to prove it to ourselves (and others), right?

What are the causes of the delays, you might ask?  This is what I know: windows and doors need to be ordered from Europe (maybe someday there will be Passive-Certified window and door companies in Ontario), delays in ordering, delays in the delivery, production mistakes, and the front door needs to be remade. Problems with assigning a construction manager to the building project (we are currently on our third manager), and when we do have one the manager not being onsite. Communication problems: who is responsible for what? Lack of a proper timeline. Problems with the builder’s computer program (they changed systems midstream). Problems with finding good tradespeople in the summer when the construction season is busy. Delays in the builder sending required information to the certifier (if there is a next house to be certified, the certification process needs to be well underway BEFORE breaking ground). And if all else fails, remember we can always blame the weather.  

At this point, for sanity sake, the continuous detailed questions are being answered by my husband. Or so we say. Since my German genes can never quite relinquish total control, my husband wisely consults me on issues he feels I might like to have a say in: door handle colours, tile selection, kitchen finishes. That is the role of a very astute partner, and the continued future of being happily married.   

We realize there are frustrations with being the leader and blazing a trail in the Canadian Passive House building scenario. Thanks Ann, for making me step back and chuckle at the Passive House building process, and reminding me there is an endpoint where we can live happily and HEALTHILY ever after (and, of course, do our part to save the world). 

As always, if you want to see more photos from our build, and Passive House references/links, please refer to CedarValleyPH.com

2 Comments

  1. MattN on September 4, 2019 at 12:28 pm

    Sorry to hear that Koko! It is not easy blazing a trail and trying something new. We are proceeding with timidness regarding our build, so all we can do is hope to minimize the issues you’re going through. Interestingly enough, my parents are experiencing the same sort of delays with a local builder due to ordering mistakes – and that’s a code-built home!

    • Koko Saar on September 4, 2019 at 1:19 pm

      Thanks Matt for the kind words. I wrote the article to let people know about potential pitfalls to try to avoid. As my mother used to say, “forewarned is forearmed” … Not to worry, I’m almost at the stage where I can see the humour.

Leave a Comment