Is the future passive?

A finished Habit Studio project

Nova Scotia mom, Lorrie Rand introduces us to passive design

“Chronic renovators.” That’s how Lorrie Rand describes herself and her husband, and for good reason. The house in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where they live with their 21-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son has been in a near constant state of flux since they moved in almost 12 years ago.

When she’s not remodelling her own home, Lorrie — a design partner at Halifax’s Habit Studio and a certified passive house designer (one who follows rigorous, voluntary standards for efficiency) — helps others build or renovate their homes using sustainable building practices to lower their ecological footprint.

Passive House buildings (not limited to houses, despite the name) use as much as 90 percent less energy than a conventional build. The creation of an airtight envelope allows fine-tuned control over indoor air quality and temperature. Any additional construction costs are recovered via lower energy bills.

A silly selfie. Lorrie Rand with her daughter, Amaya Jarsky.

“We have to make radical changes in the way that we build if we’re going to have a hope of making a difference, and hitting our climate change targets,” explains Lorrie. And the research backs her up. As noted by Passive House Canada, traditional buildings use as much as 40 percent of global energy and contribute nearly 30 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. Changing how we build is key to achieving a low-carbon future, and passive house building standards are a means to that end.

The concepts behind the passive house movement have been around for decades. Originating in Canada and the United States after the 1973 oil embargo, by the 1980s a full-fledged movement was underway. After US proponents moved away from energy conservation, German physicist Wolfgang Feist refined passive house design. Feist founded the Passivhaus Institute (PHI) and the Passivhaus performance standard, considered the most uncompromising standard in energy efficiency today.

For her part, Lorrie — who also has a background in Physics and a Bachelor of Environmental Design Studies from Dalhousie, and co-owns Habit with business partner, Judy Obersi — stumbled into the passive design community.

“A client who wanted to do a passive house approached me,” she recalls. “I’d heard of it but I hadn’t investigated further, so I did as much learning as I could.” Lorrie eventually became a certified passive house designer through the Canadian Passive House Institute West (CanPHI, now Passive House Canada). Although the initial project that drove her to explore passive design fell through, Lorrie had already become invested. “If we’re going to impact climate change in our industry, it has to be where we start. I definitely bought in.”

But getting others interested in passive design principles can be a challenge. While the community is growing, there are a number of roadblocks on the way to mainstream acceptance.

“There are no lending models, so it’s a risk for the homeowner. The banks won’t take it on. And the construction industry is conservative and very slow to change. I think the change will probably come about through public demand. It’s about increasing awareness,” says Lorrie. “A lot of people just don’t know passive methods are even a possibility.”

Lorrie Rand with her son, Oscar Jarsky.

That need for increased awareness and continued growth of the community, combined with her first-hand experience studying for certification led Lorrie to start Passivists Halifax, a Facebook group dedicated to the promotion of passive design.

“I wrote the exam (the hardest exam I’ve ever written) with four other people. While preparing to write, we got together to study. I was coming at the material as a designer. The others were all engineers who looked at things in an entirely different way. It was really great getting together; we rounded each other out.”

Wanting to build on that spirit of collaboration, Lorrie began inviting people to discuss issues around passive design over chips and beer. At first, the turnout was small, then it grew. There are now 44 people in the online group, and anywhere from 5–18 people at each meeting. Knowing there are others in the local community on the same wavelength makes everyone feel less alone.

Passive house design offers tools that could have a massive impact on the environment and low-income populations.

“A lot of people pay oil bills higher than their mortgage. This is an affordability issue. If we design this way, we are helping not just the environment but helping people live better too.”

Although progress is slow, Lorrie remains hopeful that sea-change will follow as people are exposed to the benefits passive construction can bring.

“I’m working with a couple from Nova Scotia in their 30s. They’re relocating back from Ontario to build a forever home.” After visiting family in the UK who live in a passive house, the couple has committed to building one of their own, and can’t understand why anyone would choose another option. Which is exactly how Lorrie thinks awareness will grow — when people see the benefits reaped by people they know.

For now, Lorrie focuses on what she knows best — houses.

“We have the ability to really make a difference, and we’re wasting resources. Every single one of us is wasting resources living the way that we do. But we can say that about everything. I know that I shouldn’t be wearing clothing that is mass-produced. Every single thing we do is a choice. And you can drive yourself crazy — I mean I drive myself crazy when I think about it too much. So I just do my part. I know houses, and that’s where I can make the most impact.”


Robyn McNeil is a Nova Scotia-based freelance writer, bartender, and editor of the Whole Family Happiness Project. She lives in Halifax, with her son and a penchant for really strong tea, yoga, hammocks, and hoppy beer.

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