Exploring the Passive House Concept with Sarika Nahal
Sarika Nahal is a Senior Building Envelope Specialist based out of our Edmonton office. Recently, she achieved her Passive House certification. We sat down with her to talk about Passive House in a bit more detail.
Thanks for sitting down with us today, Sarika. What made you want to pursue the Passive House designation?
Earlier in my career I was working in Vancouver and working on LEED certified buildings was the big thing. The city had the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan at the time, so everyone was talking about ways to achieve the initiative.
Around 2015, I made a trip to Belgium. It was in Belgium that I first learned about Passive House. At that time, I wasn’t sure if I was going to pursue building envelope but seeing how the façade at Molenbeek Mariemont-Bonne in Brussels was being constructed nudged me in the direction of envelope systems. It was very exciting to see that Passive House projects weren’t limited to single family homes but ranged from multi-family and institutional to commercial buildings.
Interestingly, at the start of the 2000s, buildings in Brussels were among the worst energy performing buildings in Europe. Moving towards using Passive House standards, the city found significant improvement in building performance which led to Brussels being frontrunners to achieving energy efficient buildings. Passive House was made mandatory in 2015 for all new construction in Brussels.
When I began working in Alberta in 2018, net-zero emission design was gaining popularity in the province. I thought my work in envelope and my interest in Passive House would connect well with the net-zero concept.
How popular are Passive House projects currently in Alberta?
In all of Alberta, there are approximately four Passive House buildings. One in Edmonton, one in Red Deer, one in Valleyview, and one in Calgary. The concept is really new to the Alberta market, but I think there will be a big push in the next few years following the Canadian Net Zero Emissions Accountability Act becoming law, key to Canada’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
We’re now seeing provincial and municipal government incentive programs such as the Affordable Housing Energy Savings Program and Edmonton’s Building Energy Retrofit Accelerator, both of which provide energy efficiency upgrade rebates to existing buildings. The city is also starting to pursue net-zero targets for their buildings.
Last year was the first time I had requests from the city to consider net-zero and energy efficient envelope design above the standards set by the National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings. It was surprising since we were working on a small modular building for the Police Seized Vehicle Storage Facility. We were asked if we could incorporate an envelope design to achieve net-zero in roughly five years by integrating solar panels and providing minor upgrades. We’re currently in schematic design, discussing envelope design with the potential of incorporating Passive House principles.
Conversations in Alberta are finally starting and I’m looking forward to beginning work on my first Passive House project.
What are your goals for future Passive House projects?
I’m hoping that we can start encouraging some of our clients to explore Passive House as a way to achieve energy performance close to net-zero on both new construction and existing buildings.
I’m also aiming to educate clients on what Passive House is, since there are often many misconceptions on the standard as it’s not widely used in Alberta. Passive House not only prioritizes energy efficiency, but also focuses on occupant comfort and affordability. I’m hoping clients will want to incorporate some of the Passive House principles such as airtight envelope systems and thermal bridge free detailing as a stepping stone toward certified Passive House buildings.
What are some misconceptions about Passive House?
One of the biggest misconceptions of Passive House is cost which often results in Passive House not being considered as a standard to pursue. However, without conducting a life cycle analysis of a building, it’s hard to analyze the complete cost.
Passive House reduces the mechanical loads substantially, in addition, the building envelope is high performing which results in reducing the ecological footprint and improving energy savings. The returns on energy savings in Passive House need to be accounted for as this often outweighs the initial costs.
Another misconception associated to costs is that you can only use Passive House certified products within Passive House projects. In reality, you can use a multitude of locally available products or materials that you would use on other buildings. You just have to ensure the products chosen are reviewed to meet design specifications and detailed to meet the five Passive House principles: super insulated envelopes, airtight construction, high-performing glazing, thermal bridge free detailing, and heat recovery ventilation.
One thing that often gets forgotten is that other standards can leverage Passive to further improve building performance. For example, a building can gain performance credits from a Passive House to achieve a LEED® certification.
There are so many more misconceptions, but I’ve found that once you investigate further, there’s always an answer.
How has achieving your Passive House certification informed your career path at Entuitive?
The objective of my career was always to contribute to building a more sustainable world. It was one of the reasons I chose building envelope as my career path. I’ve always had an interest in existing buildings, especially since these buildings often get forgotten but they play a big role in producing GHG emissions and account for high energy use.
The great thing about Passive House is that the standard is not just for new buildings; you can retrofit existing buildings for a better performing future. Demolition of existing buildings to build new sustainable buildings isn’t always the right answer. And, often, the most sustainable building is the one that’s already been built. You just need to spend the time improving performance.
I’m hoping I can target these existing buildings and use Passive House principles to pursue sustainable retrofits and improve the performance of these buildings.
How has Entuitive supported you on this journey?
The way I got involved with achieving my Passive House certification was through a call from our Sustainable Performance Group to see if anyone at the firm was interested in pursuing any sustainability related designations or learning opportunities.
After responding with interest, I quickly found a support system behind me in the form of the SPG group to help me achieve my Passive House Certification.
I was able to reach out to others within Entuitive who had already received their certification. It was great to receive feedback and it felt good to have someone take time out of their day to help, especially when we’re all so busy.
There are also a couple of Passive House projects that Entuitive’s Vancouver team are working on that seem really interesting. I’m hoping we can leverage some of our learnings and use our One Company approach to define a common Passive House strategy across our offices.
What are your final thoughts on Passive House?
Passive House is something the Alberta buildings industry really needs to start looking into. In the short term, I believe if it’s not feasible to go full Passive House on projects, we can at least start applying some of the principles and continue our efforts to educate clients.
Thanks for answering our questions, Sarika! We learned a lot.
If you’d like to discuss Passive House with Sarika, you can reach out to her here.