Thursday, February 11, 2010

Austria House - Whistler

I was just watching an episode of Daily Planet which showcased the Austria House - a Passive House that has been built at Whistler. It looked very interesting, stating that it only uses about 10% of the energy used in North American homes. It does not have a furnace at all, it cools and heats itself. It was interesting to see how they set up the windows for maximum sun exposure, see how thick the walls and doors are, etc. Believe me, with my current heating bills from having sooooo much -20C weather lately, it kept my attention. The insulation in my house sucks rocks.

But - and yes there is always a BUT..... I also made mental note of what materials were used, and thought about the cost of it. First off, the walls were super duper thick and all wood. It looked to be about 10 times more wood than we normally use to frame a home. Instead of having a stud every 16 inches or so, they are lined up all together, all the way around. That is one hell of a lot of WOOD. You know - Save The Trees comes to mind after watching the construction of that place! I also noted that the subfloor was very thick styrofoam. What is styrofoam? Oh yes it's polystyrene which is made from - drum roll please - Petroleum. It is ---- plastic! So anyway, you have a ton of wood, cement, special styrofoam, glass all over the place, etc etc. How GREEN is that really? How much energy was used up to make all of those items, put them together, ship them (the wood was shipped 12000 km from Austria for this particular house), etc etc.

I didn't quite catch the cost of the house, I believe they said 600,000 but it didn't sound like she said 'dollars', perhaps she said Euro. If it was euro, that's over $870,000C (based on Feb 11, 2010 rate). Wooooooie. Let's just all go out and get one of those homes! Pretty darn cheap! I bet we will start seeing the results of saving 90% in energy costs when we finally pay it off in 30 or 60 years lol.

Seriously though, it was a cool house, awesome idea -- but again still using products that cost far too much for most people to be able to afford. I would LOVE not to have a furnace, massive heating bill, lovely big windows. But that is just not attainable for most people. I noticed that the article I linked to above did not mention anything about 'wood' being used. It said 8 inch thick cement walls. Maybe I dozed off during that part lol, but all we saw was a ton of wood being slotted together, and a huge thick wad of pinkish fuzzy insulation. But whatever, maybe that was for the roof and I was ZZZZing lol. Still - cement, wood, styrofoam, pink insulation --- green? Energy saving? In theory, yes. But what about the energy used to MAKE that stuff? It just made me giggle. I know, once the house is built it won't use up much more energy unlike our current homes. But my walls are not 8 inches thick and last time I checked, I could not afford a nearly 1 million dollar home.

So for now, I will curl up and sleep in my natural gas heated home and listen to the furnace kick in every hour. If I win the lottery, I promise to look into buying a Green home ;)
I found some more info.... I noticed in the austria house blog that they have an FAQ section, so while reading that I came across a part about being cost-effective: "A passive house is cost-effective when the combined capitalized costs (construction, including design and installed equipment, plus operating costs for 30 years) do not exceed those of an average new home."

My question would be: how much energy is used to create all of the items for this passive house, compared to an average new home in north america? Don't we have to take that into account too if we are 'really being green'?

And another FAQ: "Q: Do we have the material and capacity in Canada to build Passive Houses?
A: The raw material is available, Canada just needs to acquire the necessary technology. Canada has wood - an important component (although passive houses could also be built in concrete - but who wants to do that?). Pine beetle wood works for this kind of building. Most important is the airtight wood shell."

Okay so it might be a good idea to use up some pine beetle wood. Those little buggers are running rampant in BC and AB. But I think about if a whole ton of people start building these homes, is that not scary to anyone? I am a forest ranger's daughter, I can't help it! Just because I don't fall for AGW and the whole Green Hype doesn't mean I want to run around destroying every resource we have. It worries me that even though forests are considered a renewable resource, it takes a long time for the trees to grow back and this house sure uses a lot of wood. Imagine if every new home was built this way - that bothers me. Anyway that's just my father talking through my fingers right now ;)

But are they not valid ideas? If the amount of energy used to create these new homes is a lot more than our average homes, how many years does it take to even things out? How many years to make up the extra money it costs to build/buy one in the first place? It seems like all of these current plans are aimed at the elite, while the regular working class people are left behind to feel guilty about their humble homes belching out fumes and sucking up gas and ruining our planet.


  1. I have been playing with the idea of building one of those Straw Bale houses,(cottage,future retirement type place.) looking into the plans and waiting for them to become a wee bit more family friendly. This construction and a ground source heat pump which would help keep it at 58 degrees. a wood stove or two. Add some sort of solar or wind turbine and your off the grid...well it is a dream worth having isn't it? I just really want off the grid.

    Sort of like these here:

  2. A passive house is not significantly more expensive to build using conventional techniques. I'm currently involved in a project to build several much larger sustainable buildings.
    A big difference to be aware of was the Austria House is post&beam construction which tends to be more expensive.
    There are two issues with passive solar in Canada.
    First, most of the country is too cold and gets too little sun for passive-only to be viable. No matter how well you seal a structure, you still have heat losses. The other problem is the house needs unobstructed sun exposure, so packing houses together in subdivisions as we do negates passive or active solar as an option.
    Second, for the degree of insulation efficiency required, I highly doubt it could be achieved except in custom construction. The workmanship in most subdivision projects here just isn't up to the necessary standards.
    I'm looking at building a new home for retirement and expect I will use a combination of passive/active with gas boost. I should be able to reduce our current heating costs by about 70-80% and cooling by 50-60%, but construction costs will increase by about $30,000.

  3. If you're interested in effecient housing, perhaps thinking outside the box (the accepted shape of Canadian housing) and look at They have probably the best dome system. Domes have 1/3 less surface area through which to lose heat per sq/ft as compared to the box. There are also no 90 degree corners which are so difficult to to insulate. They can be insulated to R83 with fiberglass or higher with icynene or urethane, and this is the entire house envelope. This also uses 1/3 less structural material to hold the house up.

  4. Hi KEZ OK cool site. Just some info (EPS) Expanded polystyrene is actually more environmental friendly that cotton, paper, wool, nylon, polyester and many more things that would take too long to get into.
    now the Austria House was built with a lot of wood but that was for show because its beautiful. the proper and most affective way to build them or any other house is with an product thats new well really not around now for about 50 some years and they are called SIP's structural insulated panels oh and there are basically EPS sandwiched between two sheets of strand board / plywood. this system will use 70% less wood than convectional stick frame construction. The wood thats used is from quick growth harvest trees.
    If you really like to find out about a Passivhaus super energy efficient affordable homes, check my website out.
    makes for a good read.
    Cheers Mark

  5. thanks for all the tips :)

    My fizzle with that Daily Planet show is they kept dropping in little comments about people hopefully doing things 'The Right Way'. A little shot of that here and there while watching this home get surrounded in far more wood than an average house would use. It was just stupid to me. If they would play both sides and ALSO show how this was just an example and you should use different things to be even more efficient, it wouldn't bother me so much.

    I believe the home is very efficient and not getting a heating bill would thrill me to death LOL. However, my issue with these types of ideas is always taking into account what energy was used BEFORE the home was even constructed. What amount of energy, and what kind, was used to MAKE the items. And how does it compare to an average home. I think that is a valid investigation to get into because if an average home's materials use less energy to create than the Green Home, you have to look at how long the green home would be running (like this austria house) before it broke-even with an average home's construction materials. THEN you can start calculating how much energy it saves.

    I looked at several Passive Homes online and the amount of concrete and/or would was astonishing -- how much fossil fuel energy went into mixing, creating, installing that concrete? Compared to an average home? The special styrofoam itself may be very very environmentally friendly, but how much energy was used to MAKE it? That's the kind of thing I also look for because if more and more people start doing this, and it becomes more affordable to make a home like that so it really catches on, are we actually going to be expending the SAME or MORE energy to build the homes? Why is that considered Green?

    There is a Green home in my city, built a year or two ago, and we watched the cement trucks filing in and there were more vehicles around that thing during construction than we had seen around any other home going up in the same estate. Homes the same size, in other words. So we wondered how much gas/diesel/oil was being burned away in all those trucks compared to building a new home.

    I do think we have to take that into account. It's not like the homes magically build themselves obviously so we have to think about how much energy goes into making the materials for these homes, and the energy expended during construction. If it goes ABOVE what it takes to build and average home, how Green is that? How long does it take to bring the home to par and then finally add up the REAL savings of energy?

  6. The embodied energy used in the construction of a house is a very small percentage of the energy used to heat and operate a typical house over an assumed 30 year life span. Since sustainable design requires we prioritize and make choices, the priority issue is currently energy use. Pilot projects like the Austria Passive house design are important steps in a difficult path, but a good step in transforming the way our buildings use energy.

    Dialog is important and unless people voice opinions and others chime in too, we won't make progress so your insights are valuable.

  7. I love passivhauses and I enjoyed reading your post. I appreciate how you are so self-aware of your inherent biases(thats a compliment btw) with regards to the amount of wood being used.

    The sad fact is that the mountain pine beetle has already exterminated so many forests it would take decades of concentrating our entire logging industry on cutting down the standing waste that is already there, without cutting down a single live tree. That doesn't take into account further devastation by the mpb, imminent forest fires, or the fact that the wood is only suitable for use for 5-10 years after it is dead depending on local conditions.

    The way to save this waste is here: The wood is also 50% carbon by weight after being kiln dried, and if sequestered in a protected place like the walls of your home, it will make your home net carbon positive for years after its construction. After that it is simply the most efficient home you can live in, safer against earthquakes, MUCH more fire resistant, more comfortable acoustically and thermally, and you get a license to be smug. And isn't that all we really want?



These are my views and opinions. If you don't agree or think I am sadly misguided, that is your view. Feel free to share your thoughts but I also reserve my right to moderate content (IE foul language, excessive flaming, etc).

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