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episode # 314

The Tipping Point of a Housing Revolution with Chris Ballard

How we build across the country is at the forefront of conversations around climate change and it’s changing a lot quicker than you think. So quickly that it almost goes without saying that whatever you live in is already outdated. So how do you avoid buying a gas car in a world moving towards electric and what does this mean for the properties you already own? This week, Chris Ballard, CEO of Passive House Canada and Ontario’s former Minister of Environment and Climate Change, sits down with Matt & Adam to discuss the alarming truth of the housing industry and why we need to act urgently. How can your build or purchase habits ensure your investments are protected? What new measures are coming to the housing market? And why is how we build as important as what we build? This episode should redefine your property goals. Level up!

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Episode Summary


Who is Chris Ballard?

I’ve been the CEO of Passive House Canada for the last two years and have a background in politics, public affairs and journalism. I was the Minister of Environment and Climate Change and the Minister of Housing in Ontario. How housing and climate change interact is very important to us.

Why is climate change important in real estate? 

We know that buildings represent 30-35% of greenhouse gas emissions that are emitted. And it can be as high as 54% in big cities. We know we can do better. 

How did Passive House Canada get its start?

In the 1970s, there was an oil embargo. As oil supplies were choked up, the Canadian government began to look into science to help buildings resist the cold Canadian winters with less fuel. And so, the Saskatchewan Conservation House was built to withstand cold winters with very small amounts of fuel. That house is still lived in today and laid the foundation for passive house building.

A few years later, the EU was looking to reduce their energy consumption and found the Saskatchewan Conservation House. They visited and gathered information from around the world. That became the Passive House Institute standard for building. We now use that standard internationally.

When the Winter Olympics were in Vancouver in 2010, the Vancouver Mayor was inspired by an Austrian passive house and vowed to bring Vancouver to that standard. There has been a lot of work by different industries and levels of government to make that happen.

What are passive houses? 

Passive houses are about building a healthy environment that is comfortable and uses small amounts of energy. 

How do passive houses work? How are passive houses heated? 

In Vancouver, the sun is the main source of heating in the winter time for passive houses. You try to locate buildings so you can get as much sun as possible in the colder seasons. And in the summer, you want the windows to reflect the heat back out so you’re not overheating.

One of the key principles of passive houses is lots of insulations; our walls are very thick. That’s how you stay warm. We also look at air tightness in passive houses. You shouldn’t spend any money heating or cooling air only to have it leak from the building. Air quality is also very important. A passive house will have a heating ventilation system that is very energy efficient and conditions fresh incoming air. 

In a passive house, the air is fresh and you’re never too hot or too cold. In a place like Vancouver, you don’t even need a natural gas furnace for heating. 

Are HRV systems different in passive houses? 

Heat recovery ventilation (HRV) systems are not that much more sophisticated in a passive house than in any other kind of house. But they’re better constructed, which results in less leaking. There are sensors in the house to ensure you have the right level of humidity. 

Do passive houses look aesthetically different? Are there design constraints for passive houses?

Architects love building passive houses because we’re only prescriptive when it comes to outcomes. Passive houses don’t have to look a certain way and many of the first ones were custom built quite beautifully. 

The hallmarks of a passive house are thicker walls and better quality windows. But it can be hard to tell the difference between a passive house and any other house. With a passive house, you’re not constrained by a design standard, but rather an operating standard. 

What challenges have you faced in getting people on board with passive houses?

The biggest challenge to passive house building has been getting the government and the building industry to change. We’ve addressed a lot of the issues the building industry has brought us over the years. We have 20 years of data to show that passive houses work. 

They said no one knows how to build a passive house. And so we fixed that. We train 2000 people per year – architects and engineers – who know how to build passive houses. We hear people talk about the additional cost of building green but those costs are going down. 

We need people to know there’s a different way of doing things. It’s not a foreign concept; passive houses started here in Canada. The technology exists and we have people who know how to build passive houses. 

Are there incentive programs for passive house building? 

I think there are and will be incentives to build to net zero high performance, to which Passive House is one of those standards. I imagine we’ll see a number of incentives from governments for this. Passive house is already an approved pathway to net zero in Vancouver, which can help to expedite your building. As the BC Step Code moves along, we’re essentially looking at passive houses as the end goal. 

We have to make it easier for builders to build to the Passive House standard, whether that’s expediting the approval process or offering a financial incentive.

Can you retrofit buildings to the Passive House standard? 

Yes, there is a high standard for retrofitting buildings. Ours is called Inner Fit Renovation Standard to reduce energy consumption by 70-75% compared to the previous building. In our new builds, energy reduction is more than 90%.

We have a lot of towers across Canada that are at a stage of life where they need a lot of work. Owners are having to put in millions of dollars to update their buildings anyway. For a little bit more money, they can take it to the Inner Fit standard and have a building that will cost them way less to operate. We’re seeing more and more building owners look into Inner Fit. In Hamilton, they just redid one of their social housing towers and it’s the largest Inner Fit project in Canada. It’s a great place to live.

We don’t have to leave these old buildings behind. There are easy ways to bring these buildings up to standard. It’s exciting when you think of the new industries this work is creating. 

What is the future of building? 

Passive House is always about thinking differently. With the skilled trades shortage and increasing costs of lumber, you have to think differently. All new ideas need to be explored. 

We can’t continue to build the way we have for the past 100 years. We have to find innovative ways to build. The beauty of Passive House is you can look into panelization, modular houses, 3D printing, etc. as long as you meet the passive house outcomes. BC is home to a lot of these innovative companies and I look forward to working with them. 

Why is building green in real estate so important? 

We know climate change is here to stay and will be getting worse. But we also know what needs to be done. I’m convinced a lot of good work is happening. Passive House is the perfect building standard to build to in our fight against climate change. 

You won’t overheat and you won’t freeze in a passive house; they call it thermal safety or thermal comfort. Passive House is big on air quality. So when a thick smoke engulfs a city, you’re not breathing that inside your home. This is great for people with asthma or other lung issues. And the fact that you don’t have to burn natural gas in a passive house helps to mitigate against climate change. 

Climate change is here and the effects will continue to worsen. This green building standard needs to be adopted across Canada. The future is Passive House because they are climate resilient buildings.

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