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.
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.)
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.
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.