168: The Past, Present, and Future of Passive House with Marine Sanchez (Part 1)

Passive House Podcast co-host Jay Fox speaks with Marine Sanchez, a thought leader and Passive House Specialist at RDH Building Science.

Passive House Podcast co-host Jay Fox speaks with Marine Sanchez, a thought leader and Passive House Specialist at RDH Building Science. Together, they explore a diverse range of topics, including how Marine's unique background in engineering informed her approach to energy modeling, updates on projects like the new student housing complex at the University of Toronto Scarborough (now known as Harmony Commons), and how recent updates to building codes are accelerating the adoption of Passive House in places like Massachusetts. Marine shares valuable insights into how the world of Passive House is expanding and its transformative effects on various aspects of construction and community development. You can read the transcript below.


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Jay Fox: I'm here with Marine Sanchez of RDH. I'd like to know, Marine, academic background and your position at RDH.

Marine Sanchez: Yes. So, I'm with RDH Building Science. I'm a Passive House specialist and I lead the Passive House services for RDH companywide. That allows me to see what's happening on both sides of the border in the US and Canada. That makes it quite interesting. I am a Passive House Accredited Certifier, as well, so I get to also play both roles between designing and certifying, which makes it quite interesting.

My background is slightly more uncommon, I guess. I'm originally French. I studied there. I did my first master's, which was a lot more generalist back in France, and then I moved to the UK to do a second master's in sustainable buildings. I practiced there for about 10 years, and then decided to bring my energy and do the next chapter in Canada, and I've been here for almost six years by now.

So it feels like nothing, but it feels like a lot too. It's been a journey.

JF: I can imagine. Where in Canada are you based?

MS: So I'm based in Toronto but because of my role, I do get to pop in and out of all our US and Canadian offices. It’s pretty exciting to see how each region does Passive House differently and their different needs and different approaches.

JF: What is the most exciting jurisdiction in your mind right now for Passive House?

MS: That is a loaded question! I moved here almost six years ago, and Vancouver and British Columbia were definitely really exciting. From where the world was and how Passive House was getting integrated in different places, Vancouver and BC were definitely growing at a speed that we hadn't seen quite as much before—maybe except in Brussels or a very particular municipality that went all in.

However, I will say that as much as this was extremely impressive, Massachusetts has now topped it completely with their new stretch code. I believe they probably have the fastest pace of implementation in terms of steps becoming more and more stringent, and how they're getting the industry involved. What I really like about the regulations or requirements that they've put out is the fact that they are extremely clear as to where we are, where we want to be, what the timeframe is, and how we move the entire the industry from where we are to where we want to be. The path is extremely clear.

Massachusetts is the most exciting right now because it's not only such a big jump, but such an interesting jump, which will show that we are capable of delivering high performance as the norm. It takes efforts from every single party, right? That means municipalities, designers, contractors, clients, developers, so I do believe the change is feasible.

I've also been kept busy by this market a lot more than the other markets at the moment!

JF: I'm a little jealous because I was in New York for a long time, and New York was kind of a leader on the East Coast—at least the US. Now I feel like we're being jumped by Massachusetts.

MS: Which is good competition, isn't it?

JF: It is. It is.

MS: Because at the end of the day, everybody wins, right?

JF: And if they're going to push New York to try to come back and outdo Massachusetts, that's just going to make everything better for us all.

MS: Exactly. So, I think there's a little bit of the same game between Vancouver and Toronto, as well, which is good.

JF: What's the environment like in Toronto? I think when I came on the Accelerator, one of the first big projects I saw was this big student housing building at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and I know you're heavily involved in that, but what are some of the other big projects going around Toronto (or Ontario)? Is the regulatory environment conducive to Passive House construction?

MS: That's an interesting question. So, the University of Toronto Scarborough Passive House Residence is now known as Harmony Commons, and the opening ceremony was just, I think, like 10 days ago. It's kind of exciting. I'm still on a little cloud from the opening ceremony and seeing that project complete. This is definitely a big milestone for Ontario. There are a few other multi-residential projects that we've seen in Toronto and a bit wider. Hamilton is definitely a hotspot. In Windsor and Dundas, we've seen a few things.

However, I think that the time frame is still already quite stringent because more or less equivalent levels to Passive House will be mandatory for the Toronto Green Standard in 2025 for public buildings and in 2028 for private buildings. This will come soon enough; but because this is not yet the minimum code requirement, I think that we're seeing a typology that works really well with Passive House, which is mid-rise residential, becoming really common. This is incredibly good because these are energy efficient buildings, but it's also helping with the housing crisis that we have. So, I’m really happy to see that, but I'm not seeing the momentum being quite as fast with other typologies.

I certainly hope that the closer we get to the date, we'll see the same momentum as Massachusetts is seeing right now.

JF: Okay. I want jump back a little bit and delve into some personal history. When you were growing up, what attracted you to architecture and design and engineering, and then, eventually, high-performance building?

MS: I didn't know what I wanted to do to tell you the truth. I've always liked solving problems, so I think that's where my engineering mind came from.

I went into a generalist engineering school where I did a bit of everything, like it's machine work, coding, fluid dynamics, civil, structural…you know, all kinds of things. And then I did some electives, and that is where I finally got to connect with the architectural world as well as climate change, which was already quite present. However, we were allowed to dive a lot deeper than what would be the standard curriculum that we'd had during the year, and it's actually through that triangle—between architecture, climate change, and engineering—that I actually looked, and I was like: These are the three pillars that I have to work with. I don't believe I want to retrain for another ten years to become an architect, and I'm not sure this is exactly my passion, but I need to work with buildings. I need to have an impact on the climate crisis we're facing. I do want to use these skills because I really enjoy the collaboration and the problem solving.

This is the background for my second master’s that I did in sustainable buildings. I'm sure the curriculum has evolved both in North America and in Europe as to what this entails, but it was already starting to touch on energy modeling, high-performance design principles, and all of that, which gave me a really good background to start with, and I was like, this is what I want to do.

I did not get into Passive House straight away because that was not part of my education. When I graduated and went from university to being in the working world, I wasn't quite aware that we had such a big performance gap with buildings. The performance gap is what we call the gap that we have between predicted energy consumption and the actual energy consumption of buildings. When I started working, everything was supposed to be perfect in the educational world, but I found everything was far from perfect at work, and I got pretty mad because I was like, “This is just building physics! We should have probably figured that out by this time.”

So, I remember reading a lot about that performance gap, and I was really lucky because Bill Bordass and Adrian Leaman from the UK had done a lot of work on post occupancy evaluation, and I got to read and work with them quite a bit. That's more or less my first introduction to the Passive House standard, which was my way of bridging that performance gap.

JF: When you first entered into not just the high-performance building community, but the Passive House community, did you find any mentors or anybody who showed you the ropes?

MS: I was working with a very small firm at the time, so the possibility of mentorship internally was more limited, but we're extremely lucky in the Passive House community in the sense that the knowledge sharing and the welcoming of anybody joining our community, the inclusivity, is pretty impressive compared to other portions of the construction industry. When I first entered the community, it was back in the UK, and that UK Passive House community helped raise me. I did have really good mentors in different companies that would always pick up the phone when I called, and I’d say, “Okay, I think I've done all my research. I've looked at this, I've looked at that, and I'm not a hundred percent sure. Can I ask you a few questions and use you as a sounding board?

And I, you know, I've been teaching since 2013, so I've always tried to give it back as well, right? We share the lessons learned. It doesn't mean we've learned everything, and it doesn't mean we know it all, but empowering others to start with the end point of where you're at and telling them, “Go, tell me what doesn't work, and then come back to the community with more lessons learned so that we can all move further and faster together.”

JF: When did you work on your first actual Passive House project? I can assume this is maybe a while ago, so some of those solutions hadn't been discovered yet.

MS: You're right, and you're going to laugh about this because it was my first project. The firm I joined was in the UK, and I got the opportunity to work on the first Passive House retrofits that were done in the UK. That was in 2011 and, honestly, starting with Passive House retrofits is already a hard thing to do, and we were doing retrofits when the EnerPHit standard wasn’t even created yet. Therefore, we were aiming for Passive House Classic on heritage buildings that have to maintain their external appearance.

I feel like I didn't start with the easiest project.

JF: No, I would say not! I mean, could you even get historic windows at that point in time?

MS: Interestingly enough, we had to make our own. These first few projects were smaller scale residential heritage buildings in conservation areas in and around London. We had to make triple-glazed sash lookalike windows. So, you know the sash, where you have the bottom and the top part, and the bottom part is the one that slides up and down? This is something very common that we have back in the UK.

So, we had to do a fixed top window and a tilt and turn lower window, but they had to look like the sash. We worked with a carpenter to create it, and then we had to install them in different locations. We then had to talk to conservation officers, and we would do a blind test with them, which means we’d just grab them, put them on the street, and ask, “So are any of these windows different? No? They look good? Okay, good, because one of them is really different from the others.”

It wasn't an easy journey, but it was, again, extremely interesting to see where we could go, especially with smaller teams on smaller projects—maybe you have a bit less inertia and things move a little bit faster. Also, I was able to see the difference that it makes to the occupants. It’s not cold, but it’s a wet and rainy climate where typical houses are just a pile of bricks that are not really well insulated. A lot of the kids have asthma there, and there’s mold. And so getting some of these first projects out, and then hearing it straight from the owner's mouth about the amount of difference it has made to their families—that has been incredible.

This was when we started doing the International Passive House Open Days, and so these houses kept being used year after year after year. And no matter how good your energy consultant would be at selling the benefits of passive house, nothing does a better job than getting potential clients into a Passive House. They were halfway through the doorway, they hadn't seen the house at all, and within three seconds, they're like, Yes, we want one of those.” And I'm like, “But you haven't seen anything!”

And so I think that was probably the most rewarding part as well, right? To see the impact and then to have other people to say, “I want what they have.”

JF: So, jumping from your first Passive House project, I'd like to know what is your favorite Passive House project that you've gotten a chance to work on and why? And if you have a couple, that's fine—you know, if it's like choosing children.

MS: It feels a little bit like choosing children! I'll try to give you a few examples, I guess. The one I had in mind to start with was a project called Agar Grove.

So that was the first large, multi-residential certified project in London at the time, where they are working on a whole neighborhood to be developed to Passive House. I was part of the first phase, which completed in 2018. So, first of all, it was kind of the first Passive House project at such a large scale in the UK. Also, the size meant that it was the first time working with a much bigger team and a general contractor that wasn't familiar with Passive House. I would say it was one of my favorites because of a role that I had.

With energy consultants and Passive House designers, a lot of your work is required during the design stages, right? There's a lot of energy modeling. There's a lot of coordination and collaboration with the rest of the design team. You need to do that no matter what. This is fairly standard. However, you don't always get to spend as much time on site to ensure that your design is actually going to be implemented, and as much as this is embedded into the QA/QC process, this project was the first time that I was hired by the general contractor to be their Passive House site support because they had never done this before.

So, rather than training one of your own, they're like, “Look, it's a bit complicated. How about you come with us?” And so, for the first portion and I literally spent about a couple of years in a trailer once or twice a week. While I found it was different from a desk-based job where you're collaborating with architects and structural and mechanical engineers, I also found it extremely rewarding because it really asked me to put myself into somebody else's shoes, and to deliver that education so that the GC and the trades could have the same vocabulary that the design team was using. They were translating more or less from the energy model and performance requirements to what matters on site.

And so that kind of translator job and seeing a different perspective, and also getting the buy in from the whole team on site that had never done Passive House to me was also a very different experience. Although I started from the technical background, I don't think that the technical background is enough. You need it as a robust base, but it's probably not enough to lead an industry transformation and to make all kinds of teams that have never designed or delivered Passive House to do it well and smoothly. And so, doing building the trust with the site team, which was very different, again, especially as a younger woman on a construction site with a discipline that is not yet really established was pretty interesting—because nobody questions if you need a structural engineer, but are you really sure you need the energy consultant?

All of that was pretty interesting—and incredibly rewarding when we made it.

JF: It seems like there's a real value for you to actually like be on site.  I feel like most energy consultants I've met have stayed in the office for the most part.

MS: The end part to that is that the more you see on site, the better an energy modeler you become.

JF: Very excellent point.

MS: Right? Because you're not just working with assumptions. You can translate what is happening on site, making your assumptions a lot more robust. That's why at RDH we're always pretty strong in sending a lot of our modelers inside, as well. I'd say that energy modelers have been described as the glue before, but I think it needs a bit more description, but it's like you are the messenger of how your design and construction teams are using the energy budgets they're entitled for each project, right? It’s the same way the cost consultant is your messenger as to how the team is using their financial budget.

For you to be a good messenger, you do have to understand a little bit of everything. For sure that starts from behind a desk, you know, digging into every single discipline like drawings and specification, but it does get better by also going to the site and seeing what the end product actually is and creating that feedback loop, so that for the next project your assumptions are even more on point and even more accurate or more realistic. It never stops, right? You never stop learning.