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AustriaHaus Brings Passive House to Canada

Credits: ©2010 Austria Passive House Group

AustriaHaus is a Passiv Haus that uses approximately one-tenth the energy of a similar-sized building that uses standard North American construction techniques. The energy usage translates into less than half of the energy consumption of a Platinum LEED house - Canada's current high standard for "green"building.


AustriaHaus Construction

The patented Holzbau Sohm DD Diagonal Dowel wood elements which were used to build the Austria House are securely joined with diagonally-inserted hard-wood dowels, without the use of toxic glues or chemicals. ©2010 APHG

Adapted from JANE ARMSTRONG’s article in

Globe and Mail

When the 2010 Winter Games got under way in Whistler, the gathering spot for Austrian athletes, media and Olympic officials was a simple, two-storey, A-frame house that might be the most energy-efficient dwelling in Canada.

When the Games were done and the Austrians went home, its designers left behind the dwelling, which uses a whopping 90 per cent less energy than a regular Canadian home.

It is wrapped, like a gift, in swaths of sturdy insulation and triple-paned, floor-to-ceiling windows.

Architect Guido Wimmers said he hopes the structure, which is heated entirely without a furnace and cooled without air conditioning, will inspire Canadians to reform some wasteful construction habits.

"I think it can be a showcase," said Mr. Wimmers, who was among a group of Austrian builders who pitched the idea of constructing the energy-efficient building to officials in the Olympic resort town.

"People can touch it, feel it, see it and say: 'Okay, it's possible.' "

Austria House is the first home in Canada to meet the rigorous design standards of a passive house. (The German designers who developed the energy-efficient building called it a "passive" house because it requires no active heating or cooling systems.) Its Austrian promoters hope it won't be the last.

If properly designed and built, a passive house dramatically improves a building's energy efficiency - even in the coldest climates - by encasing it in an airtight shell that keeps out the cold and retains the heat already generated inside.

The concept originated in Germany in the early 1990s. There are about 17,000 buildings in Europe - mainly in Germany and Austria - which meet the passive-house standards.

Yet the design has failed to catch on in North America. Mr. Wimmers, who moved to Canada two years ago, noticed the different mindset immediately. Lower energy costs and a sparse population on this side of the Atlantic haven't fuelled the same kind of fervent desire to reduce energy consumption, he said.

When Vancouver-Whistler won the bid for the 2010 Winter Games, a group of Austrian builders gathered some sponsors and pitched the idea to Whistler town officials, offering to leave the building intact as a parting gift to Canada.

After the Games, the passive house became a day lodge for skiers.

The first hurdle? The needed materials weren't available in Canada. Eventually, every scrap of wood and glass and insulation was shipped by sea and rail to British Columbia in six containers. An Austrian construction crew was also imported.

The design is simple. A thick band of insulation encases the house from the roof to beneath the basement floor, to a depth of three to four times the amount of insulation in most Canadian homes.

The house sits atop an insulation pan, separating the basement floor from the ground.

Triple-paned windows, facing south and encased in wood and cork-insulated frames, draw heat from the sun in and don't let it out. In most Canadian homes, flimsy window frames account for about 60 per cent of a home's heat loss.

Heat is generated largely through these window panels. The airtight construction also helps retain the heat generated from lights and appliances and human occupants.

The temperature is controlled by an elaborate heat exchange system that warms cold air drawn from the outside with hot air from inside that is being vented to the outside.

The overall cost of the project was approximately $1.3 million.

Key Insulation Components
A key component of the Austria House is the building envelope, which uses 25-centimetres of dense polystyrene foam to encase the exterior walls as well as Isoquick foam under the flooring. The specifically designed insulation material, supplied by the PassiveHouse sponsor Isoquick, of Bechtolsheim, was installed under the eye of CEO, Peter Schroeder, who flew from Germany to oversee the operation. This insulation process is a key aspect of Passive House construction. These modules, made of Peripor® manufactured by BASF, are strong enough to sustain the weight of the building and therefore are installed under the load bearing slab. These interlocking modules prevent the cold from the ground to move up into the house. The connection it forms is a key factor in Passive House construction techniques and makes the whole structure more energy efficient. Insiders call it the "sock" of the building because it’s this material that keeps the floor and residents’ feet warm. The Isoquick insulation was shipped from Germany, to Montreal, then trucked to Whistler in less than three days, as time was of the essence in getting the material installed.

Located on the main entrance to Lost Lake Park, between the upper and lower villages and a short-walk from the Village Stroll, the building was home to the Austrian Olympic Committee and Austrian Public Broadcasting, which broadcast live Games coverage to audiences back home during the 2010 Winter Games. With low maintenance costs, the Austrian Passive House provides a lasting legacy to recreational users in the Lost Lake area.

After the Games, AustriaHaus was given to Whistler for community use, potentially to become a rental shop for cross-country ski gear in winter and bicycles in summer, as well as a public indoor gathering space and club space for the Whistler Off Road Cycling Association (WORCA) and the Whistler Nordics ski club.

The project aligned with the priorities outlined in Whistler2020: a Passive House is a building in which a comfortable interior climate can be maintained using little to no energy for heating and cooling, using a combination of super insulation, thick walls and windows, solar retention, ground heat and other technology. The technology is based on highly sophisticated concepts for air exchange and circulation, thermal insulation, high efficiency windows and wood structure construction.

Whistler-based Durfeld Log Construction provided assistance to assemble the building. Austria’s Sohm Holzbautechnik (wood technology) supplied the design and manufactured wood products for the project.

Energy Efficient Homes
Passive houses are well established in Europe with more than 17,000 existing passive units, of which 4,000 homes and other facilities are in Austria. There are less than a dozen Passive Houses in North America.

The "passive house" has long set the standard for energy efficiency in Europe. North America has its own green construction standards, although European builders say it lags far behind. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system offers a set of standards for environmentally sustainable construction, as does Net-Zero Energy Homes.

Architect Guido Wimmers said the passive house goes further than LEED because it dramatically reduces a building's energy consumption, by up to 90 per cent. "Eighty-five per cent of the environmental impact of a building is caused by its energy consumption over the lifetime of the building," Mr. Wimmers said. "The LEED system gives just 25 per cent of its certification points to energy efficiency. If you have a good LEED rating, that does not necessarily mean that your building is energy-efficient." LEED, which was developed in the U.S., ranks a building's performance in five categories: sustainable site development, water efficiency, energy efficiency, materials selection and environmental quality.

Another green construction initiative is the Net-Zero Energy Home, or Equilibrium home, an initiative sponsored by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. CMHC defines a Net-Zero home as one that produces as much energy as it consumes, through installing solar panels, for example.

Related books:
The Passive Solar Primer

Precedents in Zero-Energy Design



  The Passive House (Passivhaus) Standard—A comparison to other cold climate low-energy houses (531 kb)


Building Evolution (Canada)

AustriaHaus Videos Link

Austrian Passive House Group

PassivHaus Database of Projects (Austria)

Passive House (USA)