Interview with Andrew Peel CPHC for the Subaru Passive House Dealership

This January we made a push at Passive House Accelerator to gather stories of Passive House retail projects around the world (more on that later), and a notable entry was the Passive House Subaru dealership in Red Deer Alberta for Scott Subaru. Andrew Peel, Passive House consultant and trainer-extraordinaire consulted on the project, the first of its kind in the world. I caught up with Andrew recently for a chat about his work and about the project.

Zack Semke: So why don’t we jump right in. Could you introduce yourself and your work?

Andrew Peel: Sure, so I’m Andrew Peel and I own and run a business called Peel Passive House Consulting, which is a firm dedicated to the Passive House industry and supporting projects and initiatives that are aligned with Passive House design and construction. Most of the buildings we get involved with would be targeting Passive House certification. If not, then, basically, Passive House performance levels.

I created the company intentionally about eight years ago with this focus at a time when the industry was almost non-existent. My vision was to help transform the construction industry to this way of designing and constructing. It’s been wonderful to be a part of the evolution that is happening, and I really feel that we’re at a tipping point now with Passive House in the industry. I think people more and more are getting on board, seeing the value, and really diving in, so the number of projects has really increased a lot because the policy that’s supporting it is coming into place. It’s really been a privilege to be part of the ride.

Zack: What do you think is driving that tipping point?

Andrew: I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I see the urgency that has arisen around action for climate change—climate change mitigation. I think there’s a recognition that Passive House is a part of the solution for that challenge, and that it is a proven solution for a variety of different building types. We have strong evidence in North America that that’s the case. I think it’s harder to argue that Passive House doesn’t work around North America because it’s been proven to work where a lot of stuff that has come before has not had the consistency of delivering on its promise. I think Passive House delivering on its promise has been fundamental to its success.

Zack: That makes sense. What brought you to Passive House?

Andrew: Philosophical musings? [Laughter] My background was not in construction. I actually have an electrical engineering background, and then I got really into renewable energy—this is back in 2004 or 2005—and I was looking for opportunities to get into the industry, which was like a cottage industry back then. I couldn’t find any opportunities for jobs in Canada, or in North America, so I decided to do a master’s program to get my foot in the door.

I ended up finding a master’s in Germany that I enrolled in. On that journey I learned a lot about renewables, but I also recognized that it’s fundamentally easier to save a kilowatt hour than to find an alternative means of producing a kilowatt hour, so that led me into efficiency—energy efficiency—and ultimately into building energy efficiency. Through that exploration of what opportunities lay in that area I came across the Passive House Institute, which I had not been aware of previous to this. That was about 2006 or 2007, and I ended up getting an opportunity with the Passive House Institute to work on an aspect of the Passive Housing Planning Package [PHPP].

Zack: Oh. Okay. Got it. I wasn’t aware of this history of yours.

Andrew: Yeah. I ended up contributing to the development of PHPP—sort of an expansion so that it was more locally applicable—and then that got me into the Passive House space. It was fortunate that I found, in my mind, the leading standard in energy efficiency for buildings. I started at the source—at one end of the spectrum as opposed to others who start in more conventional construction.

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Zack: That’s interesting. Thanks for sharing that. So, a Passive House car dealership? How did that happen? What was the motivation for the owner and what was unique about it as a Passive House project?

Andrew: I think the owner was interested in doing something different. He’s based in Alberta, which is not a province known for environmental initiatives, but it’s a Subaru dealership and Subaru as a company is maybe a bit more progressive in environmental initiatives. They have the first zero waste facility in North America. So the owner was looking to do something different. It’s also a family business. His grandfather founded it 50 years ago—they had the 50th anniversary in June of 2018. He was very much invested in the future and the long-term, so he wanted long-term value, and he was introduced to Passive House.

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I don’t know exactly how he came across it, but he ended up finding out about it, and then I guess he engaged a firm to help him. We consulted on the project. He brought on Cover Architecture, based in British Columbia, so we ended up with two architects: The corporate architect that was there to make sure that the design met all of the corporate requirements in terms of aesthetics and other requirements, and then Cover Architecture to really work on the design from a Passive House perspective.

We had worked with Cover Architecture before, so they brought us in for that deeper experience and expertise—not that we had any experience with car dealerships, but just with applying Passive House to different building types. We had that kind of operational way of thinking about things, you know, bringing Passive House to novel situations, so it was a good marriage there to support the team. Of course, we also had the mechanical engineering firm that was familiar with car dealerships.

Zack: Were there a lot of things that were novel about it or did you discover that the project was similar to another building type that is more common as Passive House? What was that experience like?

Andrew: I think fundamentally, when you look at the basics like building physics, it’s all the same. It’s just different applications whether you’re dealing with ventilation losses, transmission losses, equipment use. Also, mostly how you analyze them is similar, though there were certainly unique things that came up in this project.

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One was looking at the operation of cars. So, we’ve worked on projects with overhead doors before. Often, they’ve been outside the thermal envelope, but these were integral to the thermal envelope. We’ve also got cars moving in and out because they have a repair shop in the car dealership. We initially overlooked the fact that these cars would be coming in and out at different temperatures and not at room temperature. It could be coming in red-hot because the customer had driven half an hour to get his car serviced or it could have been left overnight in ‑30° weather, and then it comes in as an ice block. That was something we didn’t appreciate initially, and then eventually realized that we had to look at the impact of this.

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And then there was the car exhaust system. So there’s background ventilation in the repair shop, but they also have a separate system dedicated to extracting the exhaust directly from the cars, so they have loose-fitting ducts that connect to the back of the exhaust pipe, and when the car’s running it will extract that exhaust directly to the outside. And so exploring options for minimizing that heat loss—because unfortunately it doesn’t just draw the exhaust from the car, but it also sucks in air from around the car to ensure that it’s actually capturing all the exhaust. So, particularly around the ventilation, there were interesting challenges. Surprisingly, the envelope, while there were a few things like I mentioned with the overhead doors, was more straightforward because car dealerships are quite boxy in nature, so it lent itself well to Passive House construction.

What was unusual was that we ended up building it in timber as opposed to what would typically be steel. Maybe I won’t say that it’s unheard of. There may be another example, but that’s very unusual for a car dealership.

Zack: Were there other things that surprised you about the project?

Andrew: The carwash. That’s another element. A lot of the stuff was of the mechanical side, as you’re hearing. They actually wash every car that they service with hot water. I don’t know if that’s standard. It’s certainly not that all dealerships do that; they wash it, but it may not be with hot water.

When we looked at our primary energy targets with Passive House, more than half was going to be associated with the hot water for car washing, so we explored options there. Ultimately, because of the high use, we needed to use a direct gas-fired heater. We couldn’t move away from that. There wasn’t a feasible electric option. Unfortunately, electricity in Alberta, at least now, is not the cleanest, although I think in the future that will change. Irrespective of that, we looked at how we could minimize this. There’s ultimately so much hot water they need per car, so we ended up introducing drain water heat recovery, which is generally applied in residential settings—in single-family homes or multi-residential—and so we adapted a product from that space to use with the car wash.

Zack: That’s great. Switching gears, one of the things that is clear is that retail projects are one of the segments of the Passive House world with not a lot of projects yet. Do you see that changing?

Andrew: I haven’t seen a big shift yet. Certainly the retail that we see is more in mixed-use buildings, typically in multi-residential with commercial on the ground floor, and those aren’t always explored in depth because often the tenants aren’t known before the design, so you’re kind of designing for a generic tenant and not a specific tenant. For a car dealership, it’s obviously a very specific tenant or owner-occupant.

I think part of the challenge on retail is that a lot of retailers rent space and they don’t own it, so how much of vested interest do they have in the long-term performance of the building? Depending on the service, are energy costs a substantial part of their operating budget? I don’t have great insight. I’m sure if you have a commercial kitchen, that’s much different than if you have a bookstore or something with much fewer processes. I think the tenant versus owner dynamic is maybe constricting retail. Maybe it’s just a case of the more examples we have, the more inspiration others will draw and want to do it themselves. We don’t expect to work on a lot more car dealerships in the future, but if we can inspire other dealers to go the same way, maybe they’re working with local folks, that’s great. We’ve already seen one or two interested, though nothing concrete has come yet, but it’s certainly showing people what’s possible.

Zack: Your observation about the tenant/owner conflict makes a lot sense. With the split incentive problem, policy probably helps deal with that and is important in terms of laying the groundwork for uptake.

Andrew: I’ll add to that, actually. We are working on a three-story commercial project in North Vancouver that has ground floor commercial kitchen—a restaurant—and two stories of offices above, and the owner has now actually moved away from going for Passive House because of the expense. It’s not all related to Passive House, but there were certain things around the kitchen we were trying to make as energy efficient as we could, and the restaurateur was not going to be paying for the system, though they’d obviously benefit from the energy savings.

Again, this was getting to your point about split incentive. Anyway, the building was built, this was an existing building and the restauranteur was already there, so there was an existing, long-term relationship. And yet, even under those conditions, the owner found that it wasn’t in their interest financially to invest in energy efficiency measures.

Zack: Makes sense. What’s up next for you? What do you have on the horizon?

Andrew: We’re working on a police station that is not fully committed to Passive House, but we’ve been working with the architect and owner to move that along. It’s basically near the final stages of confirming whether it can be Passive House, and then it’s about getting full commitment. So far as I know, no one else is working on Passive House police station in North America, so that would be really cool.

Just recently we’ve been in contact with somebody in Nova Scotia—eastern Canada—regarding a small museum that’s maybe 7,000–8,000 square feet. They’re interested in Passive House, but, again, I don’t think have fully committed, though they are quite serious about it. My guys are doing a lot of the project delivery work these days, so sometimes I don’t even know the names of projects they’re working on.

Zack: That’s a good sign.

Andrew: Yeah. Definitely. I enjoy the projects, but I’m also looking at transforming my role and working a bit more outside of my company in terms of supporting the industry transformation. Working on projects takes me away from that. It’s a mix: We do consulting, we do certification, we’re also working with more component manufacturers now, whether they’re construction systems or windows, curtain walls; we actually helped a curtain wall manufacturer through the Passive House certification process, so they’re now the first curtain wall in Ontario that’s been certified. We now have at least two Canadian-made curtain wall systems that Passive House Institute certified. One’s out in Alberta and one’s in Ontario.

Zack: Right on. That’s awesome.

Author: Zachary Semke