'Passive home' movement a success in Germany, but not in Saskatchewan where it started

A Saskatchewan engineer says Germany eagerly adopted 'green' building techniques that were developed here in the 1970s, and now it's time for local builders to do the same.

Canada slow to adopt green building technology first used in Saskatchewan in 1977

Harold Orr is one of the engineers who worked on the Saskatchewan Conservation House, built in Regina in 1977. (CBC Saskatchewan)

Saskatoon's Harold Orr is recognized as a pioneer in 'green' building technology, but his name may be better known in Germany than it is here at home.

Orr is one of the engineers who was contracted by the provincial government back in 1977, at the height of the energy crisis as oil prices skyrocketed. 

"Everyone was up in arms," said Orr, "The Provincial government asked the Saskatchewan Research Council to design a solar house appropriate for Saskatchewan."

Orr and his team completed the house in Northwest Regina in 1977; one of the first buildings to combine airtightness, super insulation and a heat recovery system.

The building attracted tens of thousands of people in the first couple of years, Orr recalled, and acted as an incubator and laboratory for the development of many unprecedented building techniques that have now been adopted all over the world. 

Saskatchewan ideas migrate to Germany

The Saskatchewan Conservation House, built in 1977. (Photo courtesy Harold Orr)

"Engineers from Germany came to see the building and went back and said 'this is how we need to build homes,'" Orr explained.

A recent visit to Germany brought Orr first-hand evidence of the legacy of the Saskatchewan Conservation House.

Germany created the PassivHaus program which adopted many of the methods of energy conservation introduced by Orr and his team. New buildings are required to meet these standards in energy efficiency.

In April, the Passive House Institute in Germany honoured Orr and his team with a pioneer award.

In a release marking the event, the director of the Passive House Institute, Wolfgang Feist, noted that Harold Orr and his collaborators had realized 40 years ago, "that efficiency is the key to sustainable construction, since energy which is produced in the summer cannot automatically be transferred to the winter."

Saskatchewan 'Conservation House' didn't catch on at home

Despite the early excitement from the public, Orr said the Conservation House was sold privately a couple of years after it was built, and the new owner removed the solar panels. 

It only cost $45 a year to heat, but the maintenance costs on the [solar] panels were nearly $10 thousand.- Harold Orr

"It only cost $45 a year to heat, but the maintenance costs on the panels were nearly $10,000," he explained.

Orr said several other design features — such as shutters — were removed because they were hard to maintain and proved to be of little use during Saskatchewan's frigid winters. However, the airtightness and super insulation remained. 

R-2000 homes a Conservation House legacy

Robert Besant, another engineer involved in the project, said the biggest legacy of the Conservation House in Canada was to insulation standards.

"The demonstration house influenced thousands of contractors who went on to build R-2000 homes and led to improvements in windows and doors," said Besant. 

Orr added that the amount of insulation used in Saskatchewan's Conservation House was five to six times the amount used in typical houses of the day.

Orr said the vast majority of homes built in Canada still do not have adequate insulation or air tightness. He's tried to make his own home in Saskatoon as energy efficient as possible by adding insulation and replacing the windows and furnace.

There are more than 10 million housing units in Canada and 99.9 per cent are totally inadequate.- Harold Orr

Orr said if Canada wants to get serious about energy conservation, all new homes should be built to Passive House standards — concepts that were born right here in Saskatchewan, but were more eagerly adopted abroad than at home.

"There are more than 10 million housing units in Canada and 99.9 per cent are totally inadequate," Orr said.

He admits, however, that the low cost of energy here means Canadians do not have the same incentive to build homes that conserve energy in the same way Europeans do.