How to make buildings that use 10% of current energy needs.


Here is a bonanza of links you want for this Radio Ecoshock special on Passivhaus and Net Zero construction, including two free workshops. And this hot program has already been Tweeted to the architects of Wales, UK – before it even hit the air waves.  My thanks to podcast listener Phil, for getting the word out there!




[The full workshop by Guido Wimmers on Passivhaus, held at the Sustainable Building Center in Vancouver, is 95 minutes long, stuffed with good info, and feedback from the builders present.  You can download the whole recording by Alex Smith of CFRO, here:


Part 1 49 min CD Quality 46 MB or Lo-Fi 11 MB; Part 2 CD Quality 39 MB or Lo-Fi 9 MB


Guido Wimmers Ecoshock interview from 100402 show, 21 min CD Quality 20 MB or Lo-Fi 5 MB


BUILDING SANITY A one hour workshop on super-low energy houses, office & municipal buildings with Dr. Guido Wimmers. Over 12,000 already built in Europe. Reduce Fossil fuel consumption, bills & emissions (!) by 90%. Ecoshock Show 080613



A blog where you can see photos of Austria House, Canada’s first true Passivhaus building. (Takes a minute or two to load all the photos, be patient, wait before scrolling down…)



#2 Jamee DeSimone on Net Zero construction building in Ontario, Canada. Straw bale insulation, sustainable materials. Vancouver 100313 1 hour CD Quality 56 MB or Lo-Fi 14 MB



Tom Pittsley solar mass windows, video page.  Tom’s web page.



Another you tube video on passivhaus, this time from  

Nabih Tahan, a Berkeley architect, explaining the theory behind a "passive house".



Here is what this show is all about:  (READ MORE)


Unless you are a farmer or one of the last rugged outdoors adventurers, 90 percent of your time on Earth is spent inside buildings.  We are snails who don't know we are snails.


Naturally, we dream of  the perfect home.  That's a cheap day-dream.  It's expensive to really do it.  But the biggest cost, whether you build, buy, or rent - is the energy needed to run all these buildings.  Eighty percent of the long-term cost of a building is energy use, not construction.  And that is before peak oil and climate pressures really kick in.


Our electricity provider has already announced an increase of 25% over the next three years.  Given the new oil demand from China, and more oil use by exporting countries, the cost of oil is just going to go up and up.  Will it reach a point where you have to decide between heating or cooling your home or office, and eating?  For some of our poorest citizens, that's already happening.


For your personal security in troubled times, and for national security, we need to slash the energy used in buildings.  Did I mention that numerous studies show buildings contribute more than a third of carbon emissions to our overloaded atmosphere?


I'm Alex Smith.  This Radio Ecoshock program is all about solutions.  You will hear a prominent pioneer in the "Passivhaus" technique - buildings that use as little as 10 percent of the energy guzzled by our current structures.  I'll interview architect Guido Wimmers, and tell you where to download two free passivhaus workshops.  You'll get ideas that can revolutionize new building, and help guide renovations to existing ones.


We'll talk to another construction pioneer, Tom Pittsley.  He's testing a super-low energy house in Massachusetts, where the windows grab solar power to heat the home, even in New England winters.


Then we'll listen in to another workshop, this time on a Net Zero building project in Ontario Canada.  Jamee DeSimone explains how to use planet-friendly materials, including lots of straw, to make long-lasting energy misers.  Again, you'll be able to download the full workshop, for free.


The building industry has been key to the economy in many countries.  But many of the sky-scrapers and carbon-copy mansions won't survive Peak Oil and climate disruption.  Already, as I explained in the Radio Ecoshock Show for June 6th, 2008 some of the old structures built during the cheap energy era are being torn down or retrofitted at a huge cost.  Here is a link to that program, called "Building Madness".


We can't afford to keep wasting massive amounts of energy, and we can't live in the future climate if we do.  Join me, in this exploration of new ways to go, from the ground up.


[Guido Wimmers interview]


Guido's most recent workshop is a full hour and a half, recorded March 20th, 2010 at the Sustainable Building Centre in Vancouver, Canada.  For convenience, I've broken that down into two mp3 files, available from our "Cities" page.  Just go to  Scroll down to the Audio-On-Demand menu on the lower left.  Select "Cities".  You'll find the Passivhaus workshop there. 


Lots of resources there, for you to follow up.


During the interview, I bring up three striking differences between European and North American ideas of construction:


#1. Guido Wimmers says it is necessary to pre-fab the building components in a factory.  This reduces waste, but mainly it allows the close accuracy required to make a truly air-tight building.  That’s much harder to accomplish building on site.


Most of us in North America associate factory pre-fabs with mobile homes and such – often thought of as LOWER quality building.  Quite the opposite in Europe, apparently.  So far as I know, we don’t yet have factories in Canada or the U.S. to make Passivhaus homes.  What a golden opportunity for new companies to emerge.


#2. I always thought of windows as a hole in the wall, where heat or cooling escapes.  And North American glass makers specialize in keeping the sunlight OUT, rather than using it’s heating potential.


To make Austria House, Wimmers had to import triple glazed windows from Europe.  The glass is set to allow a maximum of heat in, rather than blocking it.


The most important part of energy efficient windows, in addition to triple glazing, is the frame.  Guido Wimmers emphasizes that aluminum or un-insulated frames leak out an incredible amount of heat (and energy).  If you take a heat photo of the house, the frames look red hot, leaking energy.


Again, his imported windows have super-isolated, insulated frames.  Guido is involved in setting up a company in Canada that can make real Passivhaus quality windows and frames.  The frames will be wood.


#3. Under pressure from Greens, and cost factors, North American builders have been using less and less wood in construction.  But Wimmers says wood has great thermal mass, about half that of concrete.  That means thick wood construction grabs and holds either heating or cooling, giving even distribution over time, and throughout the building.


Austria House uses at least four layers of wood in the ceilings, and heavy wood pillars for the structure.  Walls are made out of the equivalent of two by fours on their side, making a wood wall about 4 inches thick (plus foam insulation layers etc).  That helps the building hold the solar heat it gathers from the large South-facing windows.


What about our forests?  The Europeans have long learned how to manage their limited forest resources.  No massive clear-cuts, and instant replanting and care of forests.  That can make wood a truly renewable resource.  Plus, and this can’t be emphasized enough, wood in construction keeps carbon out of the atmosphere for the life-time of the building.  So we actually suck carbon out, in the growth stage of trees, and store it in our buildings.  That could help the climate situation, instead of damaging it, as heavy concrete construction does.


Lots more stimulating ideas in our interview, and the two Guido Wimmers workshops available for download.




There is another good idea in development in the United States.  What if we could capture the heat from the Sun - in our windows!  That's the idea behind "solar mass windows".  I caught up with a builder testing them out.


[Tom Pittsley]


Tom Pittsley's web site is


For blog readers, the general idea here: these experimental windows are made up of “blocks” about 2 feet square.  Each block has four panes of glass.  The inner two panes contain a liquid which is heated by the Sun.  That heat doesn’t go back out to the outside, due to the outer insulating layer of glass (which again, is the type that allows Sunlight to pass through…)  But the windows are designed to release heat into the home interior.


Tom said he’s seen days where the outside temperature was around 60 degrees F., but the windows were at 85 degrees.  And they keep radiating heat indoors, long after the Sun has gone down.  Apparently it’s working very well.


However, the designer has switched from water (which could build up algae, or freeze) to Hydro Gel inside the windows.  It’s an on-going experiment.  The company is looking for more people who would like to test the product.  Contact Tom at his web site,




I've been building a low energy home in my head for several years now.  We have already purchased a retreat property in one of Canada's few desert-like areas, where there is lots of sunshine.  Everything I research tells me we are headed for a time when energy will be very, very expensive, and probably rationed.  Folks who can get into an energy efficient home, with their own power supply, whether solar or wind, should be able to cope, comfortably.  Especially if you can grown some food as well.


But even if most of us stay in the city, in what we've got, energy efficiency will still be very important.  Look to replace old windows with triple glazed models, with low-leak frames.  If possible, put big ones facing South.  And you can tighten up all those leaky holes around foundations, water intake pipes, doors and roof joints.  Insulate, insulate.


Here is a tip from a country boy.  Mice can get through a crack the size of a pencil.  True fact.  Somehow, their bones mesh enough to get past tiny holes.  If you fill holes with foam, the mice eat through.  But not if you first stuff the crack or hole with steel wool - and then blast it with expandable foam.  Mice don't like to chew through steel.  So you'll save on heating and cooling costs, while keeping the vermin out.


At the start of this program, Guido Wimmers told us energy use in buildings accounts for at least 80 percent of their impact on the environment.  But as an architect with a European sensitivity, Guido still takes care to use materials that won't damage the Earth, or leak poisons into the building.  You may want to look into green furniture, and for sure, avoid “stainmaster” carpets.  All of us already have some of that chemical, plus fire retardants from couches, in our bloodstreams.  Yechh.




Now we're going to sample another workshop from Vancouver's Sustainable Building Centre.


This time Jamee DeSimone describes a Net Zero building project she did near Peterborough Ontario, creating an environmental teaching centre using wood and straw bale technology.  Jamee isn't an architect.  She just did a course on sustainable building, which resulted in a 2,000 square foot structure at Camp Kawartha.  I recorded this on March 13th, 2010.  You will hear excepts, and remember, you can download the whole thing (1 hour long) from the Cities page of


[DeSimone speech]


That was Jamee DeSimone, a young woman who has specialized in Net Zero building techniques.  She was describing the 2,000 square foot Camp Kawartha Environmental Centre, near Peterborough, Ontario.  Jamee was part of a teaching project, testing new and environmentally sustainable building materials, and super low-energy techniques.  For example, straw was used as the main insulation in the walls.


This isn’t technically a “straw-bale” building, since the straw is not used as the main structural support.  Instead, it’s used as a sustainable (and cheap) insulation, places inside wood framing, and then lined on both sides with a cement-like lime.  Jamee also tells how they reduced the use of  Portland Cement (which emits a ton of CO2 for every ton of concrete) – and a new way to pour a different waste product into long bags, to make the foundation.


These are the kinds of techniques we’ll need, if 6 billion or more people want to keep building, without stripping the Earth and wrecking the atmosphere.


I play the opening 16 minutes from a one hour workshop.  The recording by Alex Smith was at the Lighthouse Sustainable Building Centre in Vancouver, Canada.  As a stimulus and teaching place for green building, the Lighthouse merges volunteers, young designers and construction workers, with the larger building industry.  Find out more at


I hope you've found some inspiration from these building pioneers.  There is a long way to go.  Vested interests, and old-school building codes, try to prevent the changes we need.  But sooner or later, the ever-rising cost of energy, and the awful cost to the climate, will drive humans to step much more lightly on the Earth, especially in the ways we seek shelter.


I'm Alex, thanks for listening.


Bumper music credits: It Takes More Than A Hammer And Nails, Jesse Winchester, Let the Rough Side Drag 1976, 4:33


The House That Dirt Built, The Heavy, The House That Dirt Built, 2009, 18 sec


Building A House, The C.R.S. Players, If You're Happy And You Know It, 2005, 56 sec


Hammer and Nails, The Staples Singers, Freedom Highway, 1965, 2:25


Gimme Shelter, The Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed, 1969, 4:30