Active Thoughts on Passive Design: Designing with wood for next-level green projects

In the Alta Lake home’s kitchen and living room, the dropped ceiling sections are detailed with wood to disguise the mini-split system.
Photo © David McColm Photography

What does Passive cost?
As is the case for any design/construction project, the final cost of a PH job will vary with building size, location, design, finishes, and appliances. On high-end homes, like the Alta Lake Passive House, there was no premium for elevating the performance to passive level. On a multi-family project in Vancouver’s urban environment and a mild climate, the price may be equal or have a slight premium in the three per cent range.

During the learning phase of change, costs may also tend to be higher. After seven years of PH experience, new passive buildings built in Brussels, Belgium, fell into three equal thirds of being less expensive, more expensive, and the same cost as conventional construction.

As mentioned, Austria’s Vorarlberg province requires PH construction in all social and affordable housing. This has resulted in designers, suppliers, and builders developing the skills and the capacity to be economically competitive with conventional construction. In Canada, PH designers and builders are already becoming more efficient.

The Alta Lake Passive House makes it clear a project does not need to resemble the stereotypical square box with small rectangular windows in order to reap the benefits of this design methodology. Further, this case study demonstrates manufacturers in Canada and the United States are developing high-performance options for the local market—products imported from Europe are becoming less frequent.

While passive design buildings represent a very small portion of the built environment, it is destined to become a larger part of our built landscape. As we gain proficiencies in both design and manufacturing skills, ultra-high energy performance will be the rule, not the exception, because it makes sense environmentally, socially, and economically. To ensure success, an integrated, interdisciplinary design process with the consultants, contractor, and the owner will be critical.

PNM-photo-slight-anglePeter N. Moonen is the national sustainability manager for the Canadian Wood Council, and has more than 30 years of experience dealing with regulatory, environmental, sustainability, and operational issues. Moonen regularly presents on ways of achieving greater sustainability and the appropriate use of wood in Asia, Europe, and North America to design professionals, educators, and building officials. He was an organizer and session facilitator at the United Nations (UN) Timber Committee and reviewer specializing in wood and the green economy for the Forest Products Annual Market Review, published by its Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Forestry and Timber section. Moonen can be reached via e-mail at

DSC_1426[2]Lydia Hunter provides marketing, education, and research support for BC Passive House, a Pemberton, B.C.-based prefabrication company specializing in the design and construction of high-performance panelized building systems, specialized structural panel hybrid systems, heavy timber packages, and Passive House construction. She sits on the board of the Canadian Passive House Institute West. Hunter can be reached via e-mail at

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