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5 Steps To Get Started Designing and Building A Net Zero Home or Passive House

This article will guide you through the best first steps to take in designing a net zero home or Passive House home. Taking the right first actions on a new house project will save you money and avoid wasting your time trying unsuccessfully to get a much better home. After reading this article, you will have a clear and simple plan to start your net zero house project.

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The amount and variety of information on net zero homes and Passive Houses is so vast and detailed that it's easy to be overwhelmed or lost, wondering where to start. You want a top-level super-efficient house without blowing up your budget.

You may have heard about net zero house design or Passive House homes and have been persuaded to pursue this level of home experience. You may have heard from homeowners, developers, or even bankers that Passive House or Net Zero is really expensive. In building construction, making the wrong choice is expensive. Even making the right choice can be expensive. As a result, you may conclude that high performance is not within your means. You're afraid that if you don't look into superior home design, you'll be missing out.

Researching ultra high-performance home construction - the methods, the technologies, the costs - leads you into a rabbit hole, and some information contradicts other information. Imagine instead that you've sorted through the necessary information and are putting together the plan. What goes into that plan?

#1 Net Zero Trigger

The first question to ask yourself is why you want your home to perform better. Is it a reaction to some aspect of your current home that you want to avoid? Do you want to enjoy the benefits that you've heard or read about? Are you pursuing sustainability, climate-resilience, or health? What is your motive? Is your imperative based on the present or looking to the future? Are you chasing a sense of accomplishment or pursuing a status?

photograph of two young Asian girls playing on the bed with an older woman, backlist by sun through curtains

While an ultra-high performance home can offer you a range of benefits, you need to understand what is driving you to pursue it. Everyone has different reasons for wanting a home that performs better. Understanding your priorities will help you make choices confidently throughout the project.

#2 Targets

High performance home construction was traditionally marketed as a way to save energy and save on heating bills. Recently, the research and advances in building science has brought the notion of a healthy indoor environment into the discussion of high performance homes. However, ultra high-performance goes far beyond those two factors.

photograph of an auburn-haired woman dressed fashionably in white and  posed on a table in the sunlight through an open skylight in a sloped roof in an attic.

The trend toward Work-from-home has shown many of us that indoor comfort includes not only temperature but also humidity, 'freshness' of the air, quality of indoor light, connection of spaces, variation of interior spaces, acoustics, and various qualities of indoor finishes.

Increasingly extreme weather presents the challenge of withstanding heatwaves (and the much higher risk of wildfire), extreme cold weather, ice storms (and power outages), intense rainfall and subsequent flooding, storm surge (where applicable), and unusually ferocious wind storms.

In addition to meteorological mayhem that any building faces, the environmental hazards of earthquakes and sea level rise may be challenges to prioritize when establishing the parameters for the design.

In my Pre-Design Diagnostic Scan™, I analyze all these risks both to determine whether or not they apply to your site and to determine whether or not you want to consider them as priorities. Understanding all of these objectives at the beginning allows us to design them into the building instead of adding them to a design. Many case studies of successful net zero or Passive House projects point to this comprehensive discussion at the beginning to avoid the high performance characteristics resulting in significant cost premiums.

photograph of a familiy gathered at a solid wood dining table, engaged in happy conversation.  Two children two adults, and two seniors.  Potted plants in the  background and books on the shelf.

The last aspect of the targets you're aiming to achieve in your house or multiplex is what your plans are for the future. Ageing in place? Selling? Renting? Handing down to the children? Your future targets make a big difference to the present design.

#3 Take Stock

Taking stock refers to what your budget is but also to what your commitment to net zero or Passive House is. Regardless of how excellent your team is and how well-planned the process, there will be challenges. If you have gone through step #1 and really worked through the motivation behind an ultra high-performance home, you'll know what you are willing and able to cut back on and what you will not compromise on in order to achieve success. You should also take stock of what the actual minimum requirements are. Some builders, designers, and architects are still catching up with recent changes to the building code. Relinquishing one of your targets may not help you as much as a builder might suggest since some building code requirements have increased as recently as a month before this article is being written. North Shore municipalities - West Vancouver and North Vancouver in particular - have chosen aggressive steps of the BC Energy Step Code (optional levels of energy efficiency) from the building code, and you may have to pursue those regardless of your own initiative.

#4 Your Role

Decide the level of involvement you want to have in the project. You can be very involved, but I STRONGLY urge you not to try and design and build yourself. Modern architecture is far more than an evolution in exterior style. Building materials, systems, building science, and the administrative requirements for even well-performing houses have become more sophisticated and complicated since as recently as the 1970s when you could still put together a house yourself in much the same way houses were built at the turn of the twentieth century. Trying to design an ultra high-performance home as essentially an amateur, you will almost certainly make some very expensive mistakes - some or all of which will seriously impair the home's performance.

stock photograph of the legs of a woman and man in denim jeans partly covered in paint from a DIY renovation, holding hands

Perhaps if you've built a house or two in the recent past and are familiar with the basics of a construction project from inception through to occupancy - including all the administrative and legal aspects of a build - then you may find it a worthwhile adventure.

#5 Your Team

First, you need to determine if you're required by law to hire an architect to design your house. If you're uncertain, you can book a free Diagnostic Session call with me, and I'll tell you if you need an architect.

Even if the provincial laws don't require an architect, you really should consider one. Find a builder and an architect who can and want to deliver a higher level of performance in a house. At least one - either the builder or the architect - should have experience with a successful high-performance construction project.

photograph of a medium-skinned woman in smart office casual wear and white man in a high-visibility orange construction jacket both leaning over a set of construction drawings on a table in an office room

The second person you want on your project team is the right builder. Don't develop a design without ongoing input from a firm who understands how to save money on house construction. Hiring a builder for pre-construction services doesn't end up costing you extra money. The following list of builders are all Passive House and net zero pros who would be happy to provide input during design:

Understand that nearly every institution to whom you apply for financing will presume that your construction cost will be way higher. With most architects and builders, they'll be right. If you make the right choices now though, you will be among those who have found cost-effective net zero or Passive House construction.

photograph of a smiling, Caucasian man sunlit from the side, brown tousled hair and beard stubble, downtown waterfront in the background

In summary, these five steps will get you on the right path and give you confidence to pursue a much better home for your or for your tenants.

  • Trigger

  • Targets

  • Take stock

  • Your role

  • Your team

If you would like to learn more about my process to cost-effective ultra high-performance home construction, use the button below to download my free SAPPHR Strategy™ guide.


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