Fort St John – Municipalities leading the way to a Low-Energy Building Future

What can happen when a municipality becomes the owner and builder of a Passive House project?

by Ayme Sharma and Marty Paradine

Marken Projects Design Studio joined forces with a small group of motivated individuals from the City of Fort St John in northern British Columbia in 2012 to build a Passive House that would serve as a demonstration project for future developments in the city.  This project is not only among the first completed Passive Houses in British Columbia, but at 56 degrees north latitude, it is the most northern in Canada, matched only by one in Finland. This project serves as an example of the important role that municipalities can play in introducing new ways of building and new technologies. 

Fort St. John Passive House, BC, Canada

Fort St. John Passive House, BC, Canada

By taking on the role of General Contractor during the construction of the Passive House, the City of Fort St John faced challenges that lead to increased costs and longer construction timelines but the practical knowledge they gained from building the project themselves outweighed these challenges.

The City did not begin the process with the intention of becoming the builder. After we completed the construction documents, they issued a Request for Proposals, but received only one respondent. The construction market is so busy in Fort St. John that there were not many builders interested in taking on the challenge of building something new. Developers in Fort St. John are most often focused on constructing single-family homes as quickly as possible to accommodate job growth in the oil and gas sector. This of course fueled the desire of the City to demonstrate to builders that Passive House construction is feasible in northern B.C. and that offering this kind of construction could be a competitive advantage over time, as the province becomes even more proactive on climate action.

Fort St. John Passive House, BC, Canada - from north east

Fort St. John Passive House, BC, Canada – from north east

Upon completion of the home in the summer of 2014, the City will retain ownership for one year in order to complete the building commissioning, monitor its energy performance and hold open houses for the community to experience this house and learn more about it.  The house will eventually be sold at market value making this a break-even project for the City.  When complete, the City plans to officially communicate lessons learned and best practices observed through constructing and monitoring the project themselves and to validate technologies not typically used in Fort St. John. 

Fort St. John Passive House, BC, Canada - southwall

Fort St. John Passive House, BC, Canada – southwall

During construction, the project has already been used as a demonstration to teach the local building community about Passive House construction and low-energy building design.  There have already been signs of success in breaking down local pre-conceptions about energy efficient homes.  The sub-trades on site expressed that they saw the value in ideas such as a service wall and pre-fabricated thermal envelope.  One contractor has even decided to build his own Passive House for his family. Smaller builders liked the prefabricated walls since they could be erected quickly in Fort St. John’s short building season and were more manageable for smaller crews, making it possible to compete with bigger construction companies. 

Fort St. John Passive House, BC, Canada - upper floor

Fort St. John Passive House, BC, Canada – upper floor

A City Building Inspector has taken on a large part of the GC responsibilities.  During the process he saw the benefit of becoming a Certified Energy Advisor to help facilitate future lower energy building projects.  When he completes his training, he will be the first CEA in Fort St. John.  As 1 of only 3 city building inspectors, this type of training will offer him great insight into evaluating and improving the energy performance of construction in Fort St. John. 

As the project nears completion, the City’s energy manager and visionary behind this project is saying goodbye to Fort St John and moving on to another position in Alberta.  This will be a loss for the City but he leaves behind the groundwork for a bright passive house future.  This type of municipal leadership that we were fortunate to witness can go a long way towards changing the type of building that happens in our communities. We will continue to watch with interest to see what the project impacts will be in the future.

Fort St. John Passive House, BC, Canada - entry porch

Fort St. John Passive House, BC, Canada – entry porch

 PROJECT STATS  

Floor Plan 2000 sqft of living space (2679 ft2 external) /3 bedroom/2.5 bath/1 flex room/2-storey Universally accessible

Carbon – 99% reduction in Green House Gas emissions compared to typical code built house

The home is 100% electric, utilizing BC’s clean predominately hydro-electric power. Using air-source heat pumps in the house with backup heatmats installed throughout, the house will emit 0.05 tonnes of GHGs per year — over a 99% reduction in tonnes of GHGs relative to a typical single-family detached dwelling.  A single-family detached dwelling emits around 10 tonnes of CO2 per year, on average. 

Performance Rating

  • Energuide Rating – Sitting at Energuide 90 at the moment, pending the blower door test results
  • LEED  – On track to achieve LEED Platinum (should dual certification be sought)
  • Passive House – Pre-certification achieved through PHIUS

Specific Space Heating Demand: 15 kWh/(m2a)

Specific Primary Energy Demand: 112 kWh/(m2a)

(Pending) Airtightness levels of 0.6 Air Changes per Hour @ 50pa or below (an average home built in the 2000s would be 3-4 ACH@50pa)  

Thermal Envelope – All wood construction  

Thermal Envelope Thickness Assembly Effective R-Value
Walls 18.75” 11’ 7/8” TJI prefabricated wall system paired with a 2X4 Service Wall 56
Roof 21.25” 16” TJI prefabricated roof system 2X3 service ceiling 70
Floor 16” ICF perimeter, backfilled, 12” XPS R52, 4” concrete top slab on grade 52
Windows   Optiwin Al2Wood Windows (aluminum exterior and wood interior) 8
Doors   Euroline triple paned entry doors with thermal inserts and exterior cladding  8

Mechanical System

Consumes ~90% less energy than a typical code built house due to an extremely energy efficient building envelope;

Heating/cooling cost for the year is estimated to be $200-$400

Heat Recovery Ventilator

Backup Heating/Cooling:

  • Air source heat pumps (one on each level)
  • Electric Heat mats throughout for backup heat and zoning control

Domestic Hot Water

  • Hybrid Heat Pump

Energy

  • 2.82kWp solar photovoltaic (PV) system that will produce about 3500 kWhr/year (~25-30% of the homes total energy requirements)The remaining southern portion of the roof is prewired for future PV expansion
  • Net-zero energy ready (which is a building that is ultra-efficient and has the option to be net-zero energy at a later date through implementation of renewable energy technologies on site)
  • Energy monitoring equipment and on-line analytics subscription for monitoring usage

Team

  • Passive House Design & Consulting: Ayme Sharma, Alex Maurer, Marken Projects Design Studio
  • Mechanical Engineer & Consultant: Stuart Fix, Renu Building Science
  • Building Contractor: Paul Gillis, Design Smart BC
  • Prefab System: BC Passive House

International Platform: Ayme Sharma’s abstract submission for this project to the international PLEA organization was accepted as presentation at this years conference to take place in December in Ahmedabad, India. Find more info about this conference click here.   If you would like to see more pictures of this project, please visit our webpage.