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Sunkissed Orange Shovel
Bronze, patina 2008

We often dismiss the craft and inventiveness of Saskatchewan’s pioneers in art, music and house building. The same province that gave us Artists like Victor Cicansky, Russell Yuristy and Joe Fafard – Musicians like Joni Mitchell and Buffy St Maire – has also produced building design pioneers like Robert Besant, Oliver Drerup, Rob Dumont, David Eyre, and Harold Orr. With the creation of the Saskatchewan Conservation House, the concept of Passivhaus was actually born here in Saskatchewan.

Future Proofing pioneers

In June 1979 — almost thirty years ago — William Shurcliff issued a historic press release.

Consider the Saskatchewan Energy Conserving Demonstration House. Or consider the Leger House in Pepperell, Mass. They fit none of the … listed categories [of solar houses]. The essence of the new category is:

 1. Truly superb insulation. Not just thick, but clever and thorough. Excellent insulation is provided even at the most difficult places: sills, headers, foundation walls, windows, electric outlet boxes, etc.

2. Envelope of house is practically airtight. Even on the windiest days the rate of air change is very low.

3. No provision of extra-large thermal mass. (concepts like Trombe walls, water-filled drums and thick concrete floors)

4. No provision of extra-large south windows. Use normal number and size of south windows — say 100 square feet.

5. No conventional furnace. Merely steal a little heat, when and if needed, from the domestic hot water system. Or use a minuscule amount of electrical heating.

6. No conventional distribution system for such auxiliary heat. Inject the heat at one spot and let it diffuse throughout the house.

7. No weird shape of house, no weird architecture.

8. No big added expense. The costs of the extra insulation and extra care in construction are largely offset by the savings realized from not having huge areas of expensive Thermopane [windows], not having huge well-sealed insulating shutters for huge south windows, and not having a furnace or a big heat distribution system

Built in 1977, the Saskatchewan Conservation House
had R-40 walls and an R-60 ceiling.

9. The passive solar heating is very modest — almost incidental.

10. Room humidity remains near 50 percent all winter. No need for humidifiers.

11. In summer the house stays cool automatically. There is no tendency for the south side to become too hot — because the south window area is small and the windows are shaded by eaves.

What name should be given to this new system? Superinsulated passive? Super-save passive? Mini-need passive? Micro-load passive? I lean toward ‘micro-load passive.’ Whatever it is called, it has (I predict) a big future.

It took a long time for the concept to get a name that people would remember ‘micro-load passive’ just wasn’t that sexy. It took eleven years for the method to get its cool German moniker ‘Passivhaus’… ya baby now we’re talking. Dr. Wolfgang Feist added a few more specs and came up with the German word. In a January 2008 interview, Feist acknowledged, “The building process for the first Passivhaus prototype started in 1990. At the time we knew about other similar buildings — buildings made by William Schurcliff and Harold Orr — and we relied on these ideas.” Feist and his colleague Bo Adamson went on to champion the Passivhaus concept in several European countries.

In North America, however, the lessons of the Saskatchewan Conservation House were basically dismissed and even forgotten. Since then tens of millions of energy wasting new homes, most with 2×4 walls haphazardly filled with fiberglass batts were built, and it became the norm for Saskatchewan too. If not for Wolfgang Feist and his German revival of the concept, the insights gained from the Saskatchewan Conservation House in Regina might have been lost and we would start all over, forgetting the wisdom of those like Robert Dumont who came before.

The consumer needs to know what to demand and expect from builders – and their homes. The consumer is often distracted by amenities and fancy trim, rather the performance of the home they wish to buy. If you understand this and the principles within “How to Future Proof Your Home: A Guide to Building with Energy Intelligence in Cold Climates” then you too can cost effectively build a home to meet the low energy requirements of the Passive House standard which is now gaining ground in North America.

On the wide open plains of Saskatchewan the horizon meets the sky and we can see what is coming.. education and applied building science as well as technological innovation for Future Proofing our homes from energy shocks, wicked storms and petro states of confusion. We need to look to our pioneers of innovation and craft, there are a lot of great ideas waiting to be rediscovered. Ideas like using less energy is much easier and less radical that oil recovery methods that use almost a third of the energy they produce and are based on ideas that maximize production and consumption rather than conservation and the wisdom of those who came before.

Ultimately we need to learn from the land itself, it is no coincidence that the prairies are also producing another renaissance of pride in the wisdom of those who have been here 10,000 years ago and more in the Idle no more movement. We are learning that building for the climate and long term economic viewpoint is good sense. By Future Proofing our buildings, we begin to Future Proof™ our World.

Daeran Gall