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Inside Innovation: Hamilton Housing’s three per cent solution to energy efficiency

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: Hamilton Housing’s three per cent solution to energy efficiency

Governments are committed to seeing more electric vehicles on the road to replace gas-powered versions. However, even with available incentives, there is a fairly hefty price premium to be paid by consumers. For example, the Chevy Bolt, a basic compact sedan, has a starting price of $38,000 in Canada without rebates.

Over the next 10 years, consumers are expected to ante up for electric vehicles based on environmental factors and projected lower operating costs that would pay back a large portion of the price premium.

Imagine if the EV cost premium was only three per cent, even less. Would demand soar? Of course it would.

This brings us to the proven energy efficiency of buildings designed, built and certified to Passive House standards.

A common belief exists that a large capital cost premium is required to pay for the improved energy efficiency and interior comfort, reduced maintenance and the many other benefits offered by Passive House. Is that actually true?

The City of Hamilton Housing Corporation (CHH) wanted to find out.

The financial implications, both immediate and long-term, of the Passive House standard were part of a CHH study evaluating their approach to the city’s social housing development program. Five projects underway in Hamilton, ranging from 20 to 66 units, were examined. Several other elemental design options and features were also investigated.

The CHH study team comprised engineering consultants WalterFedy and AECOM, financial real estate modellers Gabriel Denis & Associates, and global property consultants Reider Levett Bucknall.

The results would surprise most observers. Building to Passive house certification versus traditional methods would cost only three per cent more upfront. In the meantime, projected overall savings over time, including operational energy and equipment maintenance, would be about 65 per cent less. That’s an annual ROI of close to nine per cent.

There are caveats that accompany these estimations, of course. However, most would apply to any project, not just Passive House. Factors like real-time market costs for materials, availability of labour and, of course, disruptive events like COVID.

In fact, some components of a Passive House-certified structure are actually lower today than before, according to the report, leading to this important observation by the study authors:

“Until recently high-performance construction was considered to be a boutique energy standard that only high-end projects could afford. In the last several years, however, prices for ventilation systems with energy recovery (ERVs), air barriers, and triple pane windows have fallen.”

The findings in Hamilton are not in isolation.

One of the CHH study authors, AECOM, recently released its own research titled, Debunking the myth that Passivhaus is costly to achieve. AECOM sustainability experts Evangelia Mitsiakou and David Cheshire came to a similar conclusion as their associates in the CHH study.

With the help of an interdisciplinary team out of University College London (UCL) Estates, Passive House principles were applied to recently completed buildings that were built to traditional standards in order to determine any possible cost premium.

AECOM developed this conclusion: “The overall capital cost uplift was only 0.9 per cent and 0.04 per cent for a new build and a deep refurbishment respectively. This contrasts strongly with the 10-15 per cent uplift commonly quoted.”

The Passive House approach begins with the building’s design itself. It is not an add-on. Equally important is Passive House’s verification processes that confirms the project has been built as designed.

“This has helped to close the much reported ‘performance gap,’ as research shows that Passivhaus buildings are delivering on their design promises.”

The disappointment within the CHH report comes from the observation that, “Passive House adoption within the Canadian affordable housing community pales in comparison to widespread adoption seen in the U.S.”

That’s likely because there are substantial government tax credits available in states like Pennsylvania that don’t exist in most regions of Canada.

Even so, these and other studies emphasize the importance of revisiting Passive House as a standard worthy of mainstream acceptance, just like electric vehicles.

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to

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