Not Much to See in Vancouver's First Passive House Apartment Block

CC BY 2.0. The Heights/ Lloyd Alter

And that's just the way the architect and developer like it.

Earlier this year we noted the completion of The Heights, an apartment building in Vancouver designed by Scott Kennedy of Cornerstone Architects. At the time I quoted the developer, 8th Avenue, who described the basic principles of Passive House design:

The building is a simple super insulated “dumb building”. No technology or complicated mechanical systems, just a simple envelope, high quality windows and high quality air control through Heat Recovery Ventilation. Walk in and set your heat......that’s it! The money is spent on its simple well-built design, not technology.

Not much to see...

While in Vancouver recently I visited The Heights with the architect and really, there wasn't much to see. There were no big mechanical rooms filled fancy heat pumps; Passive House buildings are so well insulated that all they need is a teensy bit of electric resistance heat that will probably never get turned on. There was no smart technology or fancy smart thermostats; there is nothing for them to do. There was not a lot of fancy articulation of the building, no jogs or bumps; they just cause more heat loss. There was none of the floor to ceiling glass you see all over Vancouver; just carefully placed windows. Really, not much to see at all.

HRV closet

HRV closet/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The fanciest technology in the joint was the heat recovery ventilation system; off-the-shelf Zehnder HRV units feed down vertically to the units below with fire dampers at each floor level.

closeup of bris soleil on the Heights

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Unlike the jazzy shipping container inspired building up the street, the exterior has no floor to ceiling glass or very many pushes and pulls and jogs to add interest; it is just flat. That's because in Passive House design, every jog and bump adds surface area and can be a thermal bridge or a source of air leakage, so Passive House buildings want to be boxy. But the facade is enlivened by the bris-soleil that cut down the solar gain in summer; you can actually see them working quite effectively in the photo. The Juliet balconies add a little colour too.

Interior of unit

Interior of unit/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Not much to hear, either...

The building only felt different when you went into the unit (only one has not yet been occupied) where it was remarkably quiet. That's because the walls are well insulated but mainly it is because of the quality of the windows and doors, all fancy European tilt-and-turn Passive House rated. Tilt and turns are so rare in the North American building world that they had to put a special sticker on them to show people how to use them. But they are so solid that they give a real feeling of quality to the building.

Scott kennedy

Scott Kennedy/ Photo Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I should have taken more photos of the windows and doors, but here is one with the architect, Scott Kennedy, in the way.

PHI suite

The PassivHaus International Suite/CC BY 2.0

The Heights was the first Passive House apartment block in Vancouver, but there are many more on the boards. For developers, it makes a lot of sense; the cost premium on the windows is mostly offset by the savings in mechanical systems, and long-term the operating costs are much lower. There is probably a significant marketing edge too; in many cities, the zoning bylaws are being revised to allow greater density on the noisiest, busiest and dirtiest streets; Passive House buildings have the quiet and the air quality that makes them more comfortable. I suspect we will be writing about a lot more dumb buildings.