The most important step towards energy efficiency and long-term affordability in buildings is good insulation. However, the effectiveness of an insulating material goes way beyond its thermal conductivity (R-Value, U-Value): a building’s design and technical installation knowledge work hand-in-hand to ensure insulation will live up to expectations. Air-tight design with few thermal bridges helps ensure that insulation will provide the expected benefits. Nonetheless, while R-values are enforced by the Alberta Building Code, designing air-tight buildings that also avoid thermal bridges remains a voluntary practice. This situation is especially concerning when it comes to affordable housing, where there is no room for waste on a tight budget. What’s the point of spending on insulation that is not going to be effective in the long-run?
Alberta is the province with the highest energy consumption per household in Canada (1). Furthermore, while energy intensity per household is 20% higher than Canada’s average (2), 63% of this energy is used for heating (3). These rates of energy usage translate into high utility bills for lower income families. In Calgary, 55% of low income families spend >30% of their income on shelter (4), while 10% of their shelter-related expenses go to pay electricity and gas bills (5). In this context, having adequate insulation is not just to achieve a certification or standard, it is about protecting people’s wellbeing.
There are countless strategies aimed to reduce energy consumption and costs: from Energy Star certified low-consumption appliances and LED lights, to cleaning furnace filters regularly and keeping thermostats under 20ºC. However, regardless of a building’s type and function, insulation remains the most important, cost-effective component for energy efficiency in Canada’s cold climate — especially in a province that relies heavily on fossil fuels for energy production.
Adhering to Alberta’s building code’s minimum requirements is not enough to reach optimum levels of efficiency. Compared to the average home in Alberta, Passive House represents big energy savings in the long term, as the standard can ensure a building envelope that is as energy efficient as possible. This is achieved by enforcing high levels of air-tightness, eliminating thermal bridges, and promoting compact layout designs. On average, Albertan homes use 1.03 GJ/m2 in a year for heating, while a passive house certified building should use under 0.045 GJ/m2 (6).
Furthermore, placing the same amount of care during installation as it is put into design specifications is also key to ensure optimum performance. Oftentimes, despite following the best design principles, construction staff lack the experience necessary to meet the Passive House standard, as for example drilling is not allowed on-site. This is the reason why choosing a design-build firm is important — and why we teamed up with Scott Buildersfor the Valleyview Town Hall.
In the long run, going beyond code minimums will save money to the building manager, tenants or homeowners and, more importantly, it will ensure a building remains affordable while also supporting the quality of life of its occupants.
Table 153–0161 — Household energy consumption, Canada and provinces, every 2 years, CANSIM (database). (accessed: March 27, 2018).
Natural Resources Canada. http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/corporate/statistics/neud/dpa/menus/trends/comprehensive_tables/list.cfm
Energy Efficiency Alberta.
University of Calgary, School of Public Policy. https://www.policyschool.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Social-Trends-Affordability-June-Final.pdf
Table 203–0022 — Survey of household spending (SHS), household spending, Canada, regions and provinces, by household income quintile, annual (dollars), CANSIM (database). (accessed: March 27, 2018)