Why I Love Dumb, Passive Do-Nothing Houses

Posted by Shawna Henderson on March 03, 2015
Why I Love Dumb, Passive Do-Nothing Houses
A cross-section of the Saskatchewan Conservation House.

I've had a decades-long love affair with dumb, passive houses. Passive. As in do-nothing. I love the design challenge of making do with the site and the microclimates that a house can be tucked into, the available solar gain, the building envelope. The minimal interjection of technology to maintain comfort has always been appealing to me, mainly because I'm selectively cheap and lazy. I don't want to do anything that costs me money over and over again (I like to purchase once and be done with it), and I’m ridiculously allergic to setting up anything that resembles a programmable remote control. So it's very appealing to read articles that have headlines like: In praise of the Dumb House and In the age of 'smart' homes, sometimes dumb is best.

Having been a student in the time of the Advanced House projects, worked on several demonstration projects in one role or another, and reported on a whole lot more, one of the things that has continually struck me was the preponderance of groovy technological fixes. In many cases, 'demonstration house' equals gadget-driven, and some projects didn't/don’t perform as well as predicted because of conflicts and phantom or unanticipated baseload energy use. That's fine and as it should be, because they are experiments. It’s my observation, though, that continually playing with more gadgets (and don’t get me wrong – I love me a good gadget) without changing fundamental thinking about the building envelope continually keeps high-performance housing in the market margins. So it pleases me no end to hear that Canadian Net Zero Energy builders like Avalon Master Builder who are into their 'second generation' iteration of production NZE houses have backed off on the technology requirements and really focussed on the envelope to be the provider of comfort and the bearer of lower capital costs.

Simplifying mechanicals is a challenge, because when you drop space conditioning loads dramatically, you have to rely on modelling data to figure out what new configuration of heating/cooling equipment will actually keep occupants comfortable. And that's not necessarily within the comfort zone of the builder. Certainly homeowners look askance at houses without big, robust, central heating systems, because that's what we're accustomed to, and nobody wants to invest in a new house that might not be able to maintain comfort levels. But now that some builders have NZE and Passive Houses and such under their belts, things are changing.

This is great, because Canadians were making dumb houses back in the 1970s. The Saskatchewan Research Council, along with the University of Regina and the University of Saskatchewan let a bunch of visionaries that included Harold Orr (of ‘chainsaw retrofit’ fame) loose on a project that became known as the Saskatchewan Conservation House.

Consuming just 15% of the energy of comparable houses in Regina at the time, the SCH was built with a minimized surface-to-volume ratio, R-40 walls, R-60 ceiling, a nearly airtight envelope and no furnace. A small hot water system heats the cube-shaped house. Optimizing solar gain was considered in everything from window placement to siting the house and siding colour.

With a house like this, a smart thermostat like a NEST is going to be bored spitless and represents a significant waste of capital and operating costs. The ambient temperature stays constant in a well-designed building envelope, meaning there would be nothing for the NEST to do but spin the electricity meter. Paul Dowsett, principal of Sustainable.TO Architecture + Building, notes in the Treehugger article (linked above) that smart technology is expensive to purchase, maintain and costs energy to operate. Dumb systems are usually less expensive to purchase, and are easier (ie, cheaper) to maintain and don’t typically cost anything operate. It’s even better than ‘plug and play’ in my books – it’s ‘build and forget’.

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