Transcript - Active House
Active House Podcast (August 2, 2017)
Welcome to Building Genius, a podcast from Icynene. Icynene offers a complete portfolio of innovative, high-performance spray foam insulation solutions, which are sold in more than 30 countries around the world.
In this podcast series, we speak to building science experts, and share ideas and advancements in the building industry. We also touch on some interesting projects where spray foam insulation has been used to help address design issues – and other topics of interest to architects and design professionals.
In this episode, we speak to Russell Ibbotson. Russell is the Technical Manager at VELUX Canada, a manufacturer of residential and commercial skylights. He is a professional engineer with more than 15 years’ experience as a supplier in the high-performance housing sector. Russell volunteers with several industry associations and is on the board of directors for the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, CHBA and RCI Inc.’s Ontario Chapter.
Russell and his family were the test family in the Great Gulf Home’s project, Active House Centennial Park. In this conversation, Russell talks about the concept of an active house, and shares his own experience living in one.
We hope you enjoy listening.
Interviewer: Russell, we'd love to hear about the concept of an active house and what it is. Can you just explain that for us?
Russell: Yes, of course. The active house specification is an international high-performance house specification. It's a set of standards that are based on the experience of the house and primarily focusing on comfort, energy and environment.
Interviewer: What is the difference between an active house and a passive house?
Russell: Passive house is another high-performance program that focuses solely on energy efficiency and has some very key metrics for that. Active house brings in more elements of the environment, but what I think is more interesting is it brings in elements of comfort for the experience of the space.
Interviewer: Can you expand on that?
Russell: Active house has comfort metrics, so it's looking at daylight, thermal environment and indoor air quality. It's measuring based on design and modeling to predict how comfortable the space of the home will be.
Interviewer: People can really feel the difference in a house like that?
Russell: Oh yes.
Interviewer: Are architects able to acquire credits toward LEED Certification when they build an active house or a passive house?
Russell: There are some elements within the design metrics that could be applied to credits as well. For instance, active house has daylight design, and there can be day lighting credits available for LEED Certification.
Interviewer: Apparently active house has a really big following in Europe where, I understand, is where it originated. How popular has active house been in a concept in North America? Do you think that more architects and designers are looking at active house as a design approach for the North American market?
Russell: You're correct. It's really new in North America. It's only been here a few years, and we've had a great response about active house. I think as we see the energy codes nearing net zero in the next 15 years or so a lot of designers who are doing high-performance projects are looking at what other elements can they bring in to differentiate themselves. Talking about environment and comfort kind of looks like the next thing.
Interviewer: Do you think there is much perception of this among people who are buying homes these days?
Russell: I think so. I think we're in a process of trying to differentiate a high-performance house from a typical house, so there's always some challenges in educating people. The big thing is trying to create some contrast between a typical code house and the experience of a high-performance house. I think that element is what is bringing the design community towards active house.
Interviewer: Going way beyond just what the code requires you to do?
Russell: That's correct.
Interviewer: You mentioned net zero. Can you talk about the relationship between the net zero approach and the active or passive house design?
Russell: In the North American context, there's two ways to look at net zero, net zero energy or net zero carbon. They're very similar relationships, but the building community – so the home builders – are typically going after energy. When you look at passive house, you look at active house both of them have metrics to achieve very high levels of energy efficiency. All those programs, net zero passive house, active house, are converging on the same target of an extremely energy-efficient house. You could design a house to one of these programs, and if you met the highest energy efficiency it could be very similar if you designed to one of the other programs.
Interviewer: When we talk about passive house we usually mention things like super insulation. Can you talk about that a bit?
Russell: Sure. Super insulation was really invented in Canada about 40 years ago, so it's wonderful to see it picking up momentum. In passive house's case, they're looking at the insulation or the effect of insulation of the whole building. Higher-performance windows, higher-performance walls and as a result you get better thermal comfort. All these programs are kind of converging on the same thing of we're going to have high-performance homes with super insulation. That's where code's going to end up. Active house is very new in North America, and as a result we're still in the process of adapting the metrics and the reference standards to North American standards to make it easier for designers and builders to work with the product.
Interviewer: What trend are you seeing? How do you think this is going to play out in the world of building?
Russell: When I look at the world of building and I see new programs emerge like the Well Standard which complements the LEED Standard but for non-residential buildings. The Well Standard is looking at the indoor air quality and daylight in a different way than the LEED Standard did, but they're complementing one another. I think active house is going to fill that same gap on the low-rise residential side.
Interviewer: Let's talk a little bit more about this super insulation. What is the role that it plays in active house design, and do you think it could play similar or a larger role in the performance of the house or the building?
Russell: There are some key elements to super insulation that both play into active house and the direction of high-performance housing. The first is the obvious, the energy efficiency, making sure that the building is using less and less energy to heat and cool the space. The second is the air tightness. Super insulation is often complemented by a very airtight building envelope, and this allows for measured ventilation which also reduces the energy requirements of the building. The other side of that, which many programs imply but active house is more explicit about it, is the comfort element. That's that consistency of temperature throughout the building. Air temperature, surface temperatures are very close to one another, and that creates the thermal comfort of the space.
Interviewer: Both LEED and net zero design approaches can be applied to larger buildings like multi-residential and commercial structures. Can you talk about how the active house or passive house concept could be applied in the same way?
Russell: Sure. Let me start with passive house, because passive house has already successfully made that leap to multi-unit residential projects. They're looking at apartment buildings, and there's several successful projects already complete. Active house is now starting to look at this as the next application, so very early days. It's something that we're talking about. I think it's important as we look at different building types on how we're going to make all buildings high performance.
Interviewer: You think we'll get there someday that all new buildings will be high-performance buildings?
Russell: Yes, I think so. I think the trajectory that we're on today is that we're going to see it in the next decade or two.
Interviewer: Russell, is active house only for a new build?
Russell: No actually in Belgium they're developing the reno active standard, and the pilot project is working with the government on a large number of social housing. Low-income subsidized housing to retrofit existing building stock to make it active house. They're going to bring that health and comfort to existing buildings. It's like a deep retrofit.
Interviewer: In the end it would be more comfortable for the people living there, and I imagine the cost of heating and cooling would be reduced?
Russell: Exactly so less cost for the landlords, the government in this case and a better experience for the inhabitants.
Interviewer: Russell, I would love to hear about your personal experience with an active house.
Russell: Last year my family and I, my wife and my three daughters, were invited to be a test family in the world's first labeled active house. This active house was built in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto, and we spent six months living in the house. The whole house was monitored for energy, indoor air quality, daylight and we also took measurements on how we felt. We documented how we felt at different times and are working with a couple different groups to try and correlate that information and share that experience.
Interviewer: How did you and your family find that it was different being in this house?
Russell: For us the differences were very apparent. We live in a century Victorian brick house, so the contrast between this high-performance house and an old low-performance house was quite large for us. We were able to make a lot of observations. The kids were probably the best for that. In our old house, they had to wear slippers and sweaters in the wintertime. The active house, they could run around in bare feet when it was minus 20 out. They were able to play beside the windows when it was minus 20 out. Where they would stick back three feet or a meter from the windows in our old house, because they were uncomfortable being close to a cold surface.
Interviewer: What about you and your wife? How did you perceive the differences – besides watching the kids in their bare feet?
Russell: For my wife, her big thing was the daylight and the views. She's at home with the kids right now, and not having to turn on the electric lights but also being connected to the outdoors. It was a very hot summer in 2016 in Toronto, and she was able to stay inside on some of those very hot days with the kids. They still felt connected with the outdoors. They had that subtle variation of light from the daylight in the space as well as the view to a lot of green space. For myself it was really the indoor air quality that surprised me, because I was monitoring the CO2 as a reference to the indoor air quality I was able to graph it on my smartphone and see when the air quality was good and bad. As a result realized that it really affects my alertness as well as how I sleep. I didn't realize how much influence it had on me in the moment.
Interviewer: That's so interesting, because many of us are probably affected by something like that but we don't have that measurement, right?
Russell: Exactly. Fifteen years in the industry, and I hadn't really appreciated how important that was.
Interviewer: You were in the house for six months, right?
Interviewer: What was it like going back to a regular house?
Russell: There was some adjustment. When we moved back to our old house we found we were going outside a lot more regardless of conditions, because we were starved for fresh air and daylight. As a consolation, we did do a large renovation, and we brought in more daylight and tried to as much thermal efficiency improvements as we could in our own home while we were out of the house for six months.
Interviewer: That's good. You had the charm of the older home with some of the modern features that make it more comfortable.
Russell: We're attempting that. We're working towards that target. It's still an old home, but it's much more comfortable than it was.
Interviewer: I understand you also have some experience with spray foam insulation.
Russell: That's correct. On my own renovation, the biggest part of the renovation was taking an unused attic space and making it into a master bedroom suite. We chose to use the Icynene Spray Foam product for a couple of reasons. The main reason though was that we wanted to do an unvented attic. My role with the company that I work with gives me a lot of insight into the potential issues doing cathedral ceilings and skylights. As a result I really want to make sure that we had the high-performance energy efficiency roof but also reduce the risk of any issues happening due to poor ventilation in the attic. We went with Icynene, and the big part the decision maker for me was how big of a supporter and participant that Icynene is in the industry. I sit on several committees with Icynene employees and have a high level of trust in their expertise and product quality.
Interviewer: So that room is finished now?
Russell: It's extremely close to being finished. It's dry walled and mudded. I pick the paint up in a couple days.
Interviewer: How are you expecting the ambience of that room to be now that you'll have that nice spray foam insulation there?
Russell: It's going to be extremely comfortable, and it's going to be a little pocket of active house for us with the brightness from the skylights as well as the thermal comfort from having that high quality of insulation and worry free because we know we're not going to have condensation issues within that attic cavity.
Interviewer: It sounds like a nice combination to have the natural light but to be comfortable temperature wise in this climate in southern Ontario.
Russell: That's right and active house is so much part of that combining the thermal comfort with the daylight and making sure that you feel good in the space.
Interviewer: The active house that you were living in for six months was in a city environment, right?
Interviewer: Would the performance be noticeably different in a suburban or a rural area as opposed to an inner city or an urban environment? What's your take on that?
Russell: The performance could be slightly different if you had less solar exposure or sun exposure, but for the most part the exterior temperatures are going to be very similar. I think the experience would be very similar.
Interviewer: Looking back now, what would you say if you met someone at a party and they said, “What was it like living in that house?” How would you sum up the main features or maybe things that you didn't like about it?
Russell: I found the whole experience enlightening – pun intended. It really gave me an in-depth understanding about the experience. I'm an engineer. I've been in this industry for 15 years. I've talked about energy efficiency, indoor air quality, high-performance buildings, but I never spent that much time in one. I'd never monitored one that I could correlate the experience with the data. For me, it just gave me such an in-depth understanding. I would tell somebody that there is a real difference between spending time in high-performance space versus a typical home.
Interviewer: You were the experiment in a way, weren't you?
Russell: We were the guinea pigs.
Interviewer: It's interesting to hear about your experience in your own home with Icynene Spray Foam Insulation. Have you used the product on other projects that you've been involved in?
Russell: I certainly recommend using it when I'm doing installer training or when my team is doing installer training. There are several applications where our product is installed that the geometry is a little bit complex. Having a foam insulation like Icynene would greatly simplify the total installation, making sure you've got a good quality of insulation. You've got your air barrier and everything's in place the way it should be. Using a product like Icynene Insulation increases the likelihood of proper performance in the product that I'm selling.
Interviewer: Of course you could talk about your own experience with it too, which is a benefit.
Russell: I love talking about my own experience when I'm talking to people about product use. Whether I'm talking to an architect, designer, builder or a homeowner, that relevant experience becomes the center point of our conversation.
Interviewer: Would you do it again?
Russell: I would consider doing it again. I don't know if my wife would want to take the kids out of school and move 60 km down the highway to do this again. It was a great experience, and I loved it.
Interviewer: Let's talk more about the trend toward active house becoming more popular in North America and how architects perceive that and what they see as some of the benefits?
Russell: Let me share a quick anecdote on that. I recently gave a tour of the active house that I lived in to a group of architects, and one of the architects invited me to meet her colleague for coffee. We met, and we were talking. When she explained active house to her colleague, she said active house really captures several elements of good design in metrics trying to quantify elements of good design. This was a really quick way for her to explain the benefit of the program, and they both acknowledged it. We were able to continue the conversation based on that.
Interviewer: That's interesting, because good design sounds subjective. But in this case you could actually have measurements that are quite objective, right?
Russell: That was the whole idea I think that she was trying to capture is that you can talk about daylight and thermal comfort but when you can actually put numbers to it and measure it and then explain it to someone why this is better. It makes it easier to promote good design.
Interviewer: Can you imagine some day seeing a house marketed with those kinds of numbers? We see the insulation numbers. Actually, I don't see them as often as we use to, but if we had those kind of numbers about daylight or thermal comfort.
Russell: In the active house gives you those numbers. The radar gives you nine measurements on the house performance, so you can compare that to a typical house.
Interviewer: What are those nine measurements?
Russell: There are nine metrics that active house looks at put into three groups. Three metrics per group. Comfort looks at daylight, thermal environment and indoor air quality. Energy looks at energy demand, energy supply and primary energy performance. Finally environment looks at environment load, fresh water consumption and sustainable construction.
Interviewer: Maybe some day we will see those numbers when people are looking at new builds.
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