As we near the end of Level 4 lockdown, we asked some Passive House owners around the country about their experience at home these past weeks.
It’s hardly a spoiler to summarise that they’re warm and comfortable and love the choices they made. All three are modestly-sized family homes where compromises were made in order to afford high-performance features.
What with the cold, stormy weather that hit most of Aotearoa this week, everyone was very glad to be warm inside. “I feel so grateful for how resilient this house is,” says architectural designer Jessica Eyers. With her builder-husband Ben and two young children, she moved into their straw bale Passive House in Wanaka a mere fortnight before lockdown.
“I hate being cold. Even before the bad weather, we’d had a handful of frosts. I can relax knowing I’ll be warm this winter and I don’t need to be worrying about whether we have enough firewood.”
The couple’s oldest son has asthma, which was much worse in past years when they were living in an uninsulated rental with mould in the corners.
While only eight or nine degrees outside, inside the Eyers home it’s a comfortable 23 degrees without any heating. “What’s remarkable is how slowly the temperature drops inside, even when doors are left open,” says Jessica. Lockdown has been a chance to do her once-a-year projects like soap making, a process which sees all the doors and windows thrown open for a couple of hours to air out the fumes. Even so, the temperature only dropped a single degree.
The Eyers house sits in a new sub-division and is only 50 metres from the main road to Wanaka. “There are no cars on the road now, but before lockdown I really appreciated how quiet it was inside when we had the windows closed”, says Jessica.
“When you’re in the house 24/7, it makes you more in love with the whole way it works; the way the house looks after you, without you having to do anything.”
Bay of Plenty architectural designer Julie Swan is also appreciating the peaceful indoor environment while she works from home. “I see the neighbours opening their windows up in the morning to get fresh air in—well, we don’t have to do that because there’s a whisper-quiet heat recovery ventilation system running 24/7. I’ve got the option to open windows of course but yesterday when a neighbouring child was throwing a temper tantrum, I was very glad to close them. Most of that noise just disappeared.”
Julie’s home has double-glazed windows in timber frames. They look beautiful—and reduce noise by a whopping 20dB. “The peace and quiet is a benefit you don’t realise when you’re away from home most of the week,” she says.
“Today the wind is howling outside but I can hardly hear it in here. I’m sitting at my desk in shorts and a T-shirt but have to remember to add more layers when I go outside.”
eHaus director, Jon Illiffe, says his bubble is “trucking along pretty well” but he’s keenly aware of their advantages. He and his wife are at home with two kids, plus his wife’s parents next door, on lifestyle blocks 10 minutes out of Whanganui.
eHaus is New Zealand’s largest designers and builders of high-performance homes, all the way up to certified Passive House level. The two Brunswick houses were built back in 2014 and have been frequently shared with the public on Passive House open days.
Jon normally works with his team at an office in town. “When you’re in the house 24/7, it makes you more in love with the whole way it works; the way the house looks after you, without you having to do anything,” he says.
Inside, it’s 23 degrees without heating. On the coldest days of winter, the home’s sole heater will get switched on for an hour or two—a 400-watt wall-mounted panel heater. Jon has been meeting for a 6.30 am breakfast once a week with three friends for 20 years and that arrangement hasn’t been interrupted by lockdown; their breakfasts are now happening via Zoom. “I’m sitting there in shorts and a T-shirt and they are rugged up with beanies on. We’re all here in Whanganui. It’s times like this I’m reminded how different life is in this house.”
Constant fresh air is delivered by the mechanical ventilation with heat recovery unit, discretely housed in a cupboard in the laundry. “The ventilation system and the airtightness factor, these are new concepts and tricky to explain [to potential clients]. But the reality is when you’re living in [a Passive House] it is really, really simple. You don’t give those things a second thought. You open the windows when you want to, but you don’t need to. The temperature is comfortable, with very narrow fluctuations over 24 hours. At the moment, it varies between 21 and 24 degrees.”
Jon is facing one significant challenge but it’s no fault of the house. His upstairs office offers expansive views but he’s often forced out into the cold and bluster on the balcony because of slow Internet and poor cellular reception.
“We have fibre running along the road outside but we’re not scheduled for connection for at least another year,” Jon laments. Fortunately, his co-director lives in town and has better Internet connectivity so he can host the webinars eHaus is conducting during the lockdown.
Watch Jessica Eyers talk energy modelling (and give a really good explainer of form factor) to hempcrete fan Keith Stubbs.