There’s a super-energy-efficient 85-unit apartment building being built the corner of Skeena and East Hastings streets. On its website, 8th Avenue Development Group describes the rental project as the “largest passive house building” in Canada.

The description is bound to confuse those who wonder how a multifamily complex could ever be characterized as a “house”.

In fact, the term passive house comes from the German wordPassivhaus and does not refer exclusively to single-family homes.

It’s a voluntary standard for achieving outstanding energy efficiency in all buildings, including institutional and commercial structures. It has caught on in Europe and is undergoing serious scrutiny by officials in Vancouver.

Sean Pander, manager of the city’s green-building program, enthusiastically discussed the concept in an interview with theGeorgia Straight at Vancouver City Hall.

“We are looking to encourage passive house,” Pander said. “We have been doing some research of best practices around the globe. We’re really quite interested in the approach that they took in Brussels.”

Buildings are a major source of greenhouse gases

The City of Vancouver has reported that a majority of greenhouse-gas emissions within its boundaries come from buildings, mostly through the use of natural gas and electricity. And Pander suggested that buildings constructed with the passive-house standard have 75 to 90 percent lower emissions than traditional bulidings.

Pander noted that in the Belgian capital, municipal officials didn’t demand a prescriptive approach. Instead, Brussels offered incentives.

According to Pander, tradespeople, builders, and architects there all told him the same story: once they understood the passive-house standard, they paid more attention to details, like insulating around areas to avoid heat loss.

“They took most of those lessons and just changed how they did things,” Pander said.

Across B.C., buildings account for 11 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions, according to a report by the provincial climate leadership team.

The document cited Brussels—which went “from amongst the worst in Europe to amongst the best over an eight-year period”—to suggest that B.C. could reduce emissions in this sector by 50 percent by 2030.

“Our recommendations would see increasing use of wood products and a rapid transition to buildings that are energy efficient enough to be able to meet most of their energy needs with on-site renewable energy (e.g., equivalent to net zero ready or Passive House standards),” the report noted.

The call for more wood construction was echoed by Pander, so long as it meets fire- and seismic-safety standards. “Wood is a great carbon-capture technology,” he said.

Passive house saves massive amounts of energy

The six-storey building at 388 Skeena Street has been designed with five storeys of wood, which reduces heat leakage. The structure’s design, building envelope, high-quality windows, and heat-recovery system also help achieve that objective.

This likely won’t be the last multifamily rental building developed to the passive-house standard.

Pander revealed that his staff are preparing a report for council early next year. It will outline how to achieve an audacious goal in the Greenest City Action Plan: requiring that all buildings constructed from 2020 onward be “carbon neutral in operations”.

Pander emphasized that “carbon neutral in operations” does not account for greenhouse-gas emissions in the production of building materials or the construction process. Those add up to 15 to 20 percent of overall emissions, with the remainder occurring during the operation of the building over its lifetime.

“That’s primarily the use of natural gas,” he said. “Electricity is largely renewable in B.C.”

BCUC rejects application from district-heating company 

One way to reduce natural-gas consumption will be if the downtown Vancouver district-heating company Creative Energy follows through on its objective of switching its fuel stock from natural gas to a renewable source.

Creative Energy, which is controlled by developer Ian Gillespie, provides heat to more than 210 buildings, including B.C. Place Stadium and St. Paul’s Hospital.

On December 8 Creative Energy suffered a setback when the B.C. Utilities Commissiondenied its application for a neighbourhood energy agreement with the City of Vancouver. This arrangment would have given the company an exclusive franchise to supply district heating in Northeast False Creek and Chinatown.

Pander said that it’s still possible to achieve carbon neutrality in operations of new buildings even if Creative Energy didn’t achieve its objective of switching to more sustainable fuel source. But he noted that ithis would likely change the economics and the time frame for this to occur.

He also acknowledged that not all new buildings will be zero-emission in 2020. As a result, the city will likely consider the use of carbon offsets as a bridging strategy. Ordinarily, that can involve planting trees or doing something else to capture or reduce carbon emissions.

“To continue to maximize the benefits, we’ll be looking at offsets within the city boundaries,” Pander said.

Greenest City Action Plan has financial implications

The action plan aims to reduce 2020 energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions in existing buildings to 20 percent below 2007 levels. One of the cochairs of Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Team, environmental lawyer David Boyd, included a chapter on green buildings in his recent book, The Optimistic Environmentalist: Progressing Towards a Greener Future.

He pointed out that the average Canadian home uses 170 kilowatt-hours of energy per square metre per year for heating and cooling. Boyd reported that a passive-house certified home can use a maximum of 15 kilowatt-hours of energy per square metre per year for these purposes.

“A 90 percent reduction in energy use takes a tremendous amount of pressure off the environment—reducing air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and harm to biodiversity, while maximizing the homeowner’s savings,” Boyd wrote.

Pander acknowledged that green initiatives might increase construction costs by two to five percent, but suggested that this is more than offset in operating savings over the building’s lifetime. “In the zero-emissions new building plan that we’re developing, we’re also going to start looking at financing tools.”

LEED tracks far more than energy consumption

Traditionally, the building industry has relied on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system to assess building sustainability. Pander, however, said that LEED’s broad checklist isn’t as effective as passive house in promoting energy efficiency. That’s because LEED enables builders to collect points for such things as access to transit, indoor air quality, and proximity to a good cycling network.

“LEED was largely for air-conditioned climates, commercial buildings, office buildings, malls, and that sort of thing,” Pander said. “We don’t have an air-conditioning-dominated climate.”

Pander emphasized that passive house differs from “passive design”, which has no “controlled definition”. To clarify this point, Pander said that passive design involves applying principles such as maintaining effective insulation or orienting the building to make the best use of sunshine. Placing an awning over a window, for example, might enable a home to capture the winter sun while reflecting back heat in the summer when the sun is higher in the sky.

Another aspect of passive design is interrupting “thermal bridges” that enable heat to escape. According to Pander, concrete balconies on high-rises act like “big radiator fins” that pull heat out of a unit. Even metal studs can conduct heat, which can be addressed by adding insulation in the construction process.

“Passive house is actually an international standard for energy efficiency, whereas passive design is the approach,” Pander said. Mayor Gregor Robertson—in an interview before he left for the COP21 climate summit in Paris­—told the Straight that mayors want to promote an international standard for the transparent reporting of greenhouse-gas emissions. “We’re already close to 100 percent electricity—renewable electricity—from B.C. Hydro,” he said. “But we burn lots of natural gas to heat our homes.”

He pointed out that the city has direct tools, including its own building code, to reduce emissions from buildings. So will developers receive additional density for adding solar panels on the roof?

“We’re looking at streamlining the approvals and creating incentives for renewables, solar in particular,” the mayor responded. “We want to be supporting the entrepreneurial efforts to demonstrate new technology.”

Pembina Institute likes approach of City of Vancouver

The director of the Pembina Institute’s buildings and urban solutions program, Karen Tam Wu, told the Straight by phone that there are more than 10,000 green buildings in B.C. They range from century-old homes to the state-of-the-art Telus Garden office tower to a prison in the Okanagan.

Because Vancouver is a hub for commercial and institutional structures, it has a disproportionate number of green buildings. In part, that’s because it’s governed by the Vancouver Charter, which enables it to adopt a higher standard than other municipalities.

She added that the province can learn from Vancouver putting forth “aggressive measures” to achieve its vision of becoming the world’s greenest city by 2020.

Tam Wu said she is particularly impressed that the city is considering incorporating passive house for new buildings. In Brussels, she noted, 3,000 buildings have come online under this standard, and it’s been the catalyst for the rise of domestic producers of green-building products.

“As the marketplace is receiving signals about what the demand is—and if there are government incentives to encourage research and development—the manufacturing supply side will catch up,” Tam Wu predicted.