Prairie Innovation in Energy Conservation

I discovered a strange new passion this past year.  It began in August, during the hottest day of 2014 in Regina, Saskatchewan (it was over 40-some degrees Celsius), when I opened the first bag of mineral wool insulation and began placing it in our upper floor attic.  Little did I know that I was engaging in a practice we can now call a ‘lost innovation’ of home building on the Saskatchewan prairies. In our house, my husband and I had completely ripped out drywall and the thin batts of mildewed yellow fiber glass we referred to as insulation and were starting from scratch.  We  already had some experience with mineral wool insulation, having placed it in the rim joists in our last house (a new build) to discover that the floors were immediately warmer in the winter, and the sounds of the neighbours’ screaming no longer awoke us nightly at 3 a.m..  Aside from the immediate comfort of mineral wool, there are the long-term gains:  it is also a fire retardant product, impervious to water it won’t support mold growth, and because it is inert it does not off-gas.

mineral wool insulation applied for sound-reducing and fire suppression to interior walls – easy to cut for plumbing
before

So, long story short, we did a quick and dirty estimate of heating costs so far this year.  We’ll do a better analysis later in the year to see if our memory is as accurate as we think it is, but we’ve estimated our heating and cooling costs have decreased by about 30%, and this is only after half the roof and one third the exterior walls have received replacement insulation. We’ve also created a proper vapour seal to prevent air penetration through the walls and ceiling.  Previously, the 1969 house we bought had a thin layer of plastic sheeting in the walls, which was not sealed in any way.  It made the insulation look like this: A common condition in old homes or improperly built new ones, in which air leakage has turned the batts from an insulation product to a dirt filtration system.  You can see the dark spots in the yellow batts, which is collected dirt. I do love insulating, even if this admission earns me side-ways glances from most people I share this with.  It’s a little scratchy, this mineral wool stuff, but it’s not as irritating as fiberglass insulation, and it is easier to manage.  I felt like I was crafting an exquisite work of art, one which we can feel and hear, even if we don’t see.  (Perhaps that is a bit grandiose.)

exterior wall ready for electrical inspection
exterior wall ready for electrical inspection; prepared for vapour sealing

In a few months we’ll begin an exterior renovation of the house.  Here we intend to remove the old cedar siding, add more insulation, a breathable water-proofing membrane, and replace the siding with a new cement board.  In the process of deciding which insulation to use–a polystyrene which most people in this area are using–or a breathable compressed mineral wool, my husband stumbled upon “Forgotten Pioneers of Energy Efficiency” in Green Building Advisor. How Regina Was the World’s Hot Spot for Energy Conservation The article describes the first energy efficient demonstration house in North America, built in Regina in 1977.  Who knew?  Not many of us, apparently; the article calls the build ‘forgotten.’ When Elke Stangl wrote about the extreme climate in Regina, Saskatchewan little did we know that she would anticipate us finding this historical reference. (!!) From The Saskatchewan Encyclopedia:

An energy-efficient home built in northwest Regina in 1977 is believed to be one of the first conservation demonstration houses constructed in North America.

photo source:  http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/musings/forgotten-pioneers-energy-efficiency

The experimental home, by reducing energy consumption up to 85% of other houses built at the time, is credited with changing the Canadian building code, introducing requirements for full vapour-sealed houses and better insulation.  But outside these first changes to the Canadian building industry, development and research has all but disappeared in Canada.  As noted by EcoHome (from Canada Green Building Council), many of the innovations of the 1977 experimental home were ‘shelved’ in Canada.  The same observation is made by Canadian Passive House Institute on its website,

It’s ironic that Canada was a world leader in energy efficient construction practice during the late 70’s and early 1980s, but we then lost interest, and certainly failed to incorporate any of the successful features of the Saskatchewan Conservation House into later residential construction codes. Research into advanced building efficiency effectively ended decades ago in Canada.

Fortunately, the demonstration house’s use of passive solar heating carried over to Europe, being one of two such experiments that later became the Passivhaus concept as adopted by German physicist, Dr. Wolfgang Feist. Other innovations included conserving energy with low-water usage toilets, energy efficient appliances, and thermal landscaping (tree-planting for shade and shelter), and an air-to-air heat exchanger for ventilation.  Some of these innovations really saw their development outside of Canada, namely in Europe, and have migrated ‘back home’ in more recent years. And one more thing,

Hot water was recycled with an experimental heat recovery system consisting of three basic parts: solar collects, which collected radiation from the sun and converted it to heat; a large storage tank which stored the heat in water; and a distribution system which utilized the stored heat to provide warm air and hot water as required.

As I understand it, the house was sold to a private owner and the solar collectors were removed from the home.  It’s no longer open for public viewing, but my husband is now curious about trying to find it, even if we do no more than stare at it on a drive-by.

Author: Michelle Hatzel

Editor/Writer/Math Student in Canada.

11 thoughts on “Prairie Innovation in Energy Conservation”

  1. Thanks, Michelle – my expectations were high after the teaser you left on my blog, but you didn’t disappoint!! Great find! I had no idea about this interesting history of the Passive House.

    The Milestone and pioneer I had in mind was the Swiss small business Jenni who built the first solar-only house, with lots of photovoltaic panels, solarthermal collectors and huge hot water tanks: http://www.jenni.ch/index.html?html/Heizen mit Sonne/Sonnenhaus/Sonnenhaus.htm. They tried to find a pilot client in 1982, but were ridiculed, and professors from Swiss universities told them that this could never work. So finally they built it for themselves in 1989.

    Was the Canadian Passive House one of the innovations triggered by the oil crisis and forgotten later? I recall some stories about very early solar collectors in the US that also had been abandoned when oil got cheaper again (even on the White House if Memory serves…). There was also a “first heat pump boom” in Europe in the 1970s / 1980s that ebbed away as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure what triggered the experiment. It was a joint effort between both provincial universities and a few government agencies. I expect the oil crisis had a part to play in it, but there may have been another underlying factor. In the late 60s the universities in Saskatchewan rapidly expanded; in 1974 the Regina campus became its own university (it was an extension department of the other university until then). These changes initiated an international talent hunt and the province benefited from a significant boost of intellectual immigration. There were many different ideas that suddenly came to life here. The government at that time was also progressive and open to knew ideas, making huge changes in policy to social services and health care. For a time, Saskatchewan was a hot spot of all sorts of innovation. It may have been that the energy crisis contributed to a decline in growth and invention, as the province began to depopulate through the 1970s and continued this way until the early 2000s.

      I did read somewhere that the solar panels on the house were removed because there was no service available to maintain them. It could be the company that made them ceased to exist. I will see what I can learn.

      There is an article, here http://thetyee.ca/News/2011/01/25/Passivhaus/ that says a little more. I thought this was amusing:

      “The world would have forgotten the Saskatchewan house, too, were it not for a quirky German physicist interested in energy-saving buildings. After studying the Saskatchewan house and a handful of similar buildings, Dr. Wolfgang Feist wrote a mathematically precise — and elegantly simple — criterion for designing buildings that require less than a tenth of the energy of average buildings. He called it the Passivhaus standard.

      Feist’s formula has gone viral. There are now more than 25,000 certified Passivhaus buildings in Europe, and thousands more under construction around the world.”

      The article goes on to reference a few connections between Austria and Canada, and how the only certified Passive House in Canada was built in 2010 by a group of Austrian businessmen. (There’s a link to the full article on this house in Canada built by Austrians: http://thetyee.ca/News/2011/01/26/HouseWithNoFurnace/ ).

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      1. Thanks, Michelle – great ressources! I always appreciate reports with real-live monitoring data!

        About 2 years ago a study based on long-term monitoring had been published in Austria – showing extreme discrepancies (like 400%!) between forecasted and actual energy needs.The bottom-line was that these buildings don’t live up to expectations at all if the home owners aren’t committed and change daily routines.
        When I tried to make sense of the energy audit certificate of a client’s house (for sizing tank and collector for the heat pump systems) I also noticed how huge theoretical internal energy gains and solar energy are – but, for example, for a large house you need automated window shades to harvest those energy gains. There are also different stanards for calculating those huge internal gains, per person or by square meter. All resulting in gigantic error bars.

        There is an ongoing discussion among experts up to which level extreme insulation / ventilation instead of opening Windows etc. makes sense economically – compared to increasing energy “production” and storage. Perhaps this is only applicable to our climate. A competing concept is marketed as “Sonnenhaus” (solar house) – more like the Jenni House: One huge hot water tank in the middle of the house and lots of solar collectors – but in terms of insulation it would not meet passive house standards. Finally it is a question of investment costs, and maybe ecological footprint. Depending on the lobby supporting the research you can find very different arguments – sometimes modern insulation and PV panels are called “toxic waste tacked to your walls”. Our house is heavily insulated too – yes, I know the scratchy mineral wool 😉 – and our solar panels will be installed soon – so this is not my opinion… at some point you have to be pragmatic: I changed so much in my personal life-style, I hope my reduction in gasoline and kerosene, and zero fossil fuel for heating will compensate for the purchase of hazardous waste.

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  2. Quite often when we’ve bought houses the real estate agents supply heating and water usage costs that the sellers have paid. We’ve always found that those bills were significantly higher than what we use for ourselves. Sometimes we install the programmable thermostat for the furnace, or replace toilets with ones that either work properly or consume less (the toilets in this house were always running water, with leaks from the tank to the bowls and down the drain). Interestingly, I think big impact comes from removing the 1980s metal blinds that were so fashionable thirty years ago and replacing with fabric curtains or fabric blinds (mental blinds have been in almost every house we’ve ever bought!); if the curtains are lined they are even better at managing heat gains and losses. Old school housekeeping–simple but effective! Always, though, when the utility companies estimate most of our first year’s billing in a house (basing the bills on the pervious owners’ consumption), we are always owed at least 6 months of utilities after because we’ve overpaid.

    In my own monitoring, we’re not sure how we’ll compare our energy consumption from pre-renovation use to post-renovation use. This past winter was milder for us, so it’s perhaps not fair to suggest that we can increase our energy savings beyond 30%. The Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation (CMHC) suggests that renovating to improve insulation and vapour seal results in about 25% savings on average on the prairies for a house of our type.

    I found today an article advocating for super-insulating house builds in Saskatchewan with the goal of using almost no mechanical system for heating the house. (There was a suggestion that water tank storage units are incubators for bacteria growth.) One could also say that insulation is the same: a mildew and mold forest waiting to happen. There is no perfect system, but understanding which system you use and then using it well (including maintenance to prevent issues) is probably the best. For myself, I think a combination of insulation and on-site energy production would work best. In our climate we need to conserve energy, or we can’t produce enough to meet our needs, but conservation alone is not a practical solution to living in our very cold winter climate.

    I also know well the considerations of toxic substances in building. We’ve rejected some products based on application methods or long-term off-gassing. In return, we haven’t always used the best energy options. There are a lot of trade-offs, especially when renovating an older home. That said, it isn’t practical for every person on the planet to junk the old stuff and make something new; there simply isn’t enough resources for this. 🙂

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  3. The picture, right up front, reminded me that before our renovation the water in the cat bowl which we had in the corner of the kitchen would freeze on the very coldest winter nights! You refer, I think, to the bluish pipes in the second image as plumbing … what material is that? You should be commended on undertaking such a thoughtful renovation – a win/win for your cash flow and for the environment. D

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks D. I’ll share more of the project in future posts, but to answer your question about plumbing: the two bluish (although they are white in better photography!) pipes are cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) water lines (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross-linked_polyethylene). We chose them for a few reasons – they’re easy to install with no solder or glue (no toxic fumes), and they’re flexible so retrofitting them is fairly easy. We run the lines off a manifold, one valve to one tap with a line to connect them. This requires a bit more material than the branching copper lines traditionally used in construction here, but it allows for someone to use the water in the house without disrupting another person in the shower. I think separate lines to a shower are now becoming mandatory, anyway, for safety considerations (eliminating burns).

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  4. I wonder if we would be able to survive at all the way we do without insulation. My little home her in Mount Pearl has 6″ walls which are filled with R-20 fibreglass. My roof has copious amounts of blown in stuff 9I do NOT go up there), but many others use two layers of R-40. We have to. Last year when i replaced all the windows I was careful to ensure that the cracks and chinks were suitably dealt with while doing the install.
    I am reminded of a photo that Elke posted a while back of the roofs of some houses near hers. One had snow on the roof and the other did not. I deduced therefore that the one with snow on the roof had an insulated attic as wasted heat escaping from the un-insulated one likely melted all the snow.
    We spend a lot of money here on heating and it could be so much worse. Here in NL electricity is relatively cheap at $0.12/kWh and so many including me just use standard electric heat. The smarter ones, though, use heat pumps and do realize long term savings. If I had my time over i would, too, but right now it’s not worth the bother.
    Winter is hanging on here. Outside now it’s freezing rain riven by high winds and pack sea ice is messing with the ferry’s something fierce! Me–I’m looking forward to spring some time soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We had warm weather, but snow last week followed by melting/freezing again this week. Winter has disrupted the promise of an early spring.

      My husband is also a ‘noticer’ of snowy roofs and melted roofs. While we’ve seen both types in new and old neighbourhoods alike, one thing we did do the winter before buying his house was drive around the area of the city in which we wanted to live and consider which streets and blocks had the most signs of maintenance and updates–snowy roofs–and which did not–ice damns as the worst case. It gave us a sense of what was happening in neighbourhoods, which areas were motivated to invest in their property, etc. We may have just gotten lucky, but we did end up finding a home in a neighbourhood we really like.

      We were looking at property listings in Halifax on MLS a few months ago. Some of the houses there are heated with oil and some had heat pumps, others had electric base board heaters. I should have realized sooner not to expect a natural gas-fueled furnace.

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