Paul Kealey is the co-owner of Ekobuilt, a sustainable building company in Ottawa, Ontario. They’ve been in the eco-building industry now for almost 20 years, but recently, a new type of customer has started to knock on their doors. Tiny homes, secondary dwellings, and tiny houses are taking off across the country, Ottawa area included. We talked to Paul about the sustainable home concept, what makes a passive home, and saving the world.
Paul, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. Sustainability is a very important value to our readers – most people interested in tiny homes are looking to reduce their ecological footprint. Can you tell me about how you approach sustainable building?
“We build according to the passive home system, which means that we try to achieve the lowest possible energy consumption due to heating and cooling. Then, the remaining energy that the home needs is 100% electric, removing the reliance on fossil fuels.”
“Our passive homes have about four times the amount of insulation that goes into a typical home. We also ensure airtightness, achieving usually 10 times more airtightness than you would with a regular home, with windows and doors about 30 to 40 times more airtight. Finally, the high heat recovery ventilation system is 90% efficient at zero degrees Celsius.”
So, what is a passive home?
“The building science behind a passive home is all about reducing the energy required to heat and cool the house by making sure it can hold a comfortable temperature as long as possible. There is a common misconception that passive homes are heated by the sun, which is actually called “passive solar”. In milder climates, a passive home may be able to remain at optimal temperature all year round using just solar heating in winter. In Canada, some heating and cooling will still be required because we do have very hot heat waves and very cold winters.”
“We get asked all the time if a passive home can be built on a lot surrounded by trees, or with neighbours in the south, for example. Yes, it can. Those are not limiting factors. If there is some sun exposure, we will orient the house and windows in a strategic way. But, the passive home is less about the sun and more about how airtight and well-insulated the house is. Basically, if you put a home designed with the passive system in the middle of the forest, you’re going to get a home that uses 90% less energy than any other home.”
“Basically, if you put a home designed with the passive system in the middle of the forest, you’re going to get a home that uses 90% less energy than any other home.”
What is it like to live in a passive home in Canada? What does it actually mean in terms of costs and living environment?
“In a passive home located in Ottawa, for example, you would start using your heating system in the middle of November and stop using it in the middle of February. And you’re only really cooling during a heat wave. This is very different from a typical experience where some people need to run their air conditioning all summer long and then, after a couple of weeks, switch directly to heating.”
“In a passive home, you would start using your heating system in the middle of November and stop using it in the middle of February.”
“In terms of the living experience, a passive home provides better comfort because there’s no thermal bridging. That means, for example, that you can sit right up against the window in the middle of winter and read a book without feeling any change in temperature. The home also has optimal humidity all year round because you’re not pumping dry hot air through it during the winter.”
Canadian passive homes. Are they getting more popular?
“Awareness of the energy crisis is certainly growing. People are looking for solutions, technologies are starting to evolve. The passive home building science itself is only about 15 years old. Ekobuilt actually evolved from a log home company, which at the time was the most sustainable type of home. Now, energy efficiency is the priority.”
Are you involved with off-grid or Net Zero homes?
“We always start with reducing the amount of energy the house consumes. Then, we look at ways to generate the energy in a carbon free way. That’s why our homes are 100% electric.”
“If your house isn’t efficient and you just put more solar panels on the roof to compensate, you would still be considered Net Zero, because your home generates the same amount of energy it produces. However, this isn’t as eco-friendly as it seems. Where possible, we want to use less material and less energy. If a home needs to be off-grid because it’s in a remote location, there’s great technology available for that. If it is near the grid, it’s more efficient for us all to be connected and produce green energy at scale. Our homes don’t add very much load to the grid, so switching to green energy is easier.”
Tell me about the materials that go into your homes.
“We use engineered wood products and waste wood products, 100% cellulose insulation. There’s a focus on renewable content and recycled content and carbon sequestered material. So, there’s a lot of recycled energy in the building.”
With secondary dwellings becoming more and more popular, how are you seeing your work with sustainable building apply to tiny homes?
“We’ve had a number of people inquire and have several projects completed and ongoing right now for people who are going to be using the secondary dwelling by-law to provide a quality affordable living option for extended family or as a rental unit. People with elderly parents would see this as a good alternative to retirement condos, for instance.”
“We also had a client in Pakenham build a coach house that he plans to use as his own retirement residence eventually, when he wants to downsize and move out of the primary home on the property.”
“With secondary dwelling by-laws that are coming out across Ontario, there is an opportunity to develop in a future-protected way, where we can think about the energy impact, the climate impact. We hope this will become the new building standard. When you reduce the energy consumption of a home by 90%, you’re removing the reliance on fossil fuels without overloading demand on the grid.”
“Building a carbon-free low-energy home is what fuels our passion. We want to offer sustainable choices to make the world a better place to live, both environmentally and physically.”