Friday, April 29, 2016

Britco Moves into the Passive House Market

Britco is best known for building and renting the orange-topped trailer offices seen at construction sites, mines, and oil-sands projects across Western Canada. 

It fabricates the modular buildings inside a pair of 125,000-square-foot factories, one in Agassiz, 100 kilometers east of Vancouver, and another near Penticton, B.C. (The company also has a plant in Texas.)

Until recently, when the price of oil hit the basement, Britco’s factories were running full tilt, cranking out dormitories and other buildings for Alberta bitumen projects.

In the first week of January 2015, the phone rang, and it was Peter Treuheit of Mobius Architecture on the line.

The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority had just issued a request for proposals.

Bella Bella, British Columbia
The agency needed six new apartments for its hospital employees in Bella Bella, in the Heiltsuk First Nation on British Columbia’s remote central coast.

Unusually, the authority said it wanted the housing built to the international Passive House standard—an extremely efficient building design standard that today is maintained in Darmstadt, Germany.

Monte Paulsen, managing director of Red Door Energy Design, and a friend of Treuheit, happened to know it very well.

Passive house is perhaps the least appreciated and most exciting high-performance building standard, because it is simple and cheap, says Paulsen. “It’s a dumb building made smarter. It’s a building with a big sweater on it, and the sweater is so thick that the building doesn’t need a furnace or a boiler.”

Within nine months of the request for proposals, Bella Bella’s hospital workers were moving into their stylish waterfront townhomes. On the coldest nights of the year, this past winter, each of units required just 600 watts—the equivalent of six old-school light bulbs, via a tiny backup heater—to keep their occupants cozy.

Paulsen says the Bella Bella project is the first truly modular Passive House in Canada, and the first in an Aboriginal community. By his reckoning the homes consume 80 percent less energy than a traditional home, emit 80 percent fewer greenhouse gases, and offer outstanding indoor air quality. The project won an audience-choice award at last fall’s Clean Energy B.C. Generate 2015 conference, and attracted a packed house at Paulsen’s presentation last week at the International Passive House Conference, in Germany.

As for cost, Mitchell and Paulsen agree that passive buildings carry a roughly five percent price premium over traditional dwellings that are constructed to the bare-minimum building code, and which of course cost much more to heat.

Mitchell now hopes to repeat the Bella Bella experience elsewhere; the company is already in talks with a number of other First Nations. He hopes he can help replace the typically dilapidated, inefficient houses found in many remote indigenous communities with stylish, cost-effective, and über-efficient modular homes.

In Paulsen’s vision, companies like Britco would replace those dilapidated, drafty, mold-ridden buildings with über-efficient modular Passive House buildings, assembled in factories. On completion, the builders would barge or truck them to reservations, drop them onto pre-poured foundations, and finish them on-site with labour trained in and hired out of of the communities that would receive them.

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