You might argue that every couple needs a passion project and it’s clear that architect Jonathan Kearns, of Kearns Mancini Architects and his partner, Corrine Speigel, are perfectly passively passionate!
When I had the privilege recently of visiting The Reach Guesthouse, one of their pet projects in Ontario's picturesque Prince Edward County, the first thought that came into my mind was that this house is inside out! And I must admit that at the time I knew very little about the term passive house.
In case your knowledge base is about where mine was, here is my passive house primer: A passive house is one built to standards that make sure it’s super-insulated, positioned to take advantage of the sun, fitted with triple glazed windows and with no breaks in the ‘envelope’, and no ‘thermal bridges’.
BEFORE AND AFTER RENOVATIONS PICTURES
In the photos above, notice how The Reach Guesthouse has evolved from the first picture compared to the second one. With passion and know-how, Jonathan Kearns and Corrine Speigel turned this home into a multi-award-winning stunner. Awards are numerous and include the following: International Design Award | Architecture – Renovation | Honorable Mention | 2019, International Design Award | Architecture – Sustainable Living/Green | Honorable Mention | 2019, Ontario Wood WORKS | Jury’s Choice | 2018.
But, how did they turn this house from what it was from its original state into a passive one? It began with the home's envelope as the most important principle. In other words, what your house’s shell is made out of. It is an insulated airtight layer of building material designed especially for energy-efficient construction.
Many passive houses are made of combinations of insulated panels made with foam sandwiched between engineered wood similar to particle board (structural insulated panels or SIP) and insulated concrete forms (ICF) where thick Styrofoam forms are filled with concrete.
Passive houses also avoid using thermal bridges, which makes a lot of sense when you understand what it is. Jonathan said that one of the best examples was in an apartment building when the concrete floor is constructed in a continuous piece extending to become the floor of a balcony. Think about it. During the winter, the cold ‘bridges’ across the threshold right into your living space, and in the summer the same principle applies to heat. In a passive house, you want to prevent the cold or the heat from the outside, the opportunity to mess with your comfort on the inside.
Really, basic common sense!
And thermal bridging is big in the window world as well. You may see the term ‘thermal break’ when shopping for windows. Simply put, the thermal break is insulation for your window; a continuous barrier between the inside and outside of your window frames that prevents ‘thermal energy loss’. Or, for us mere mortals/non-architect/engineer types, it stops cold or heat transfer and keeps your windows at a happy temperature while also keeping you at a happy temperature.
The other essential part of Passive House Standards is a system of air exchange (or heat recovery ventilation systems), but the full explanation of that is another article for another day. The important thing to know is that although a passive house is airtight, there is an exchange of fresh outside air that is almost magically heated or cooled depending on need. It’s efficient and smart, and suffice it to say that the day I visited, in the dead of winter on a brutally cold day, there was NO heating source running in the house - just that big beautiful Canadian sun shining in and keeping us warm!
The inside of the original building was taken down to its hand-hewn wooden structure. To ensure great care was taken, Jonathan and Corine hired an artist to do the painstaking meticulous work. The building was then sealed inside its airtight skin.
After carving the interior of the original house back to its wooden shell, each space has become something of a history lesson. You can see how the original house was constructed with post and beam and board, giving the feeling of the house being ‘inside out’.
A sun-drenched eat-in kitchen was added to the back of the original structure to bring The Reach up to 21st-century living standards.
The new exterior that perfectly echoes the shape of the approximately 100-year-old house is an envelope made of R43eff Structural Insulated Panel (SIP) based insulation that makes traditional heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) unnecessary. Look closely through the window above the center door and you can see the original lancet window inside the house’s new ‘overcoat’.
On the Kearns Mancini website, Jonathan and his partners state their belief that Passive House Standard should not be a privilege; it should be a right. Years ago, builders would have shied away from this much glass in our northern climate. Now, done correctly with Passive House Standards and triple glazed windows with thermal breaks, we can all aspire to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter while living in spaces like this one!
Like all other ‘green’ materials and building methods, the more they are used the better it is for all us. More certified materials will be available, more builders will know how to use them and the overall cost of these methods and materials will be reduced!
Interested in learning more about Passive Housing? Check out these houseporn.ca articles:
All photos courtesy of Kearns Mancini
Theresa Kowall-Shipp is a TV producer, director and writer. Her interest in home design grew from exposure to her family’s construction and architectural woodworking firm and producing or directing dozens of hours of Design TV.