Small Student-Designed Home Boasts Big Sustainability Features
Good things come in small packages — made even better when powered by passive energy.
Dylan Roche and his family are excited to move into their newly built home, designed by Okanagan College students as they completed their Sustainable Construction Management Technology (SCMT) diploma.
The Roche family home on Penticton’s Upper Bench might look typical from the outside, but its design is the result of applied learning at its best — students incorporating international best practices in sustainable construction to save energy in the scaled-down house.
The project came about as Roche and his family began to establish roots in Penticton, seeking a more sustainable way of living.
“When we were looking around in the Okanagan, a lot of vineyards seemed to have small amount of land for the vineyard, but large houses. We were looking for the opposite,” explains Roche. “We liked the idea of building something affordable but comfortable, that was easy to heat and live in.”
Roche had a connection with Brian Rippy, a professor in the SCMT department with 15 years of experience in sustainable design and construction management. Rippy provided consultation services while Roche and his family designed their winery building, incorporating LEED principles into the design so that the upstart vintner could optimize operations from the get-go.
“It can take a lot of energy to maintain consistent temperatures in a winery,” Roche explains, adding one facility he worked at in Oliver had utility bills of $3,000 a month. “We got a primer with the winery such that when we started working on the house, we wanted to integrate a lot of those ideas.”
Rippy recommended that the family home become a SCMT Diploma Capstone project for students, who are required to complete a real-world project and demonstrate skills and knowledge they gain in the program. Each team-based project has the potential to contribute to the economic, environmental and social well-being of the community. Students have two terms to deliver: the first to design a project that meets their client’s requirements, with the second term involving construction project management.
For program alumnus Aaron Spohr, the capstone project was daunting.
“My classmates and I realized quite quickly we had actual deadlines and this affected real people. The stakes were a little higher, and it was a real eye opener,” Spohr recalls.
With the Roche project, Spohr and his classmates facilitated design and managed procurement of materials, trades and quotes, as the Roches had their own contractor to build the project.
Applying what they had learned about sustainable construction, the students incorporated many Passive House principles into their work. A building standard certification developed in Germany, Passive House design strives for energy efficient buildings that are comfortable and affordable, using existing sun, internal heat sources and heat recovery ventilation. This can result in energy consumption reductions up to 90 per cent compared to typical building stock.
“We take a building that you would normally have, but wrap it in a sleeping bag so it is super insulated and take additional measures to ensure the building is airtight,” explains Rippy, adding that a high-performance air barrier and thick layer of rigid insulation is continuous around the entire building and two small heat recovery ventilation systems are used to exchange air with minimal energy loss.
Another significant factor in Passive House design is situating the building in the optimum location to take advantage of energy from the sun.
“The site itself was pretty wide open and flat, so from an orientation perspective it was ideal. It allowed us to put a lot of the principles we had learned about into practice,” Spohr says. “We were able to take advantage of the southern orientation to accept solar energy in the winter and reject it in the summer. Our modelling worked.”
The student team working on the Roche project was initially asked to design a tiny house or other movable living structures on the site, given the restrictions around agricultural land. As the design process unfolded, however, the Roche family came back to the students with a twist: their family was growing, expecting another child.
“It was really interesting and cool. It was a real-world application, and gave me and my classmates a taste of what to expect,” Spohr explains. “Building is not an assignment, where you are given the parameters and they never change during the design process. We had a client whose needs were changing. That means some rework has to be done, adjustments had to be made, and you have to deal with it. It was the perfect illustration of what we could expect in industry.”
The home is approximately 800 square feet, with living and kitchen space in the middle taking advantage of natural light from south-facing windows. The interior spaces are open to maximize daylighting and connection to the outdoors. Other features include insulated concrete forms for the foundation, low-emission finishes, high-performance windows, low-flow water fixtures and Energy Star appliances. The building is also considered net-zero ready, in that future additions of solar panels have been planned, which would make the building reach net zero energy.
Spohr had the opportunity to walk through and admire the house during the final stage of construction.
“It looks great. It looks exactly as we had designed it. A lot of the things we had hoped would make it in are here,” he says. “It’s a small space but it feels like it is big and efficient.”