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Rant #1

“Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

Here's a brand new Rant for you to enjoy. I was going to send it to our local newspaper, but then I decided to just forget about it.

Dear Editor:

I read with interest the article on the Passiv Haus and your related editorial. In your comments, you mentioned that feedback is welcome, so I thought I would share a few of my own thoughts, which arose as I was browsing the articles.

My Hydro bill has gone down 50% year over year. This did not require any special insulation or construction. All it required was a bit of organization on my part. First, I emptied out and unplugged the freezer in our basement, which was basically a ‘food coffin’ that rarely got used. Second, my dryer went on the fritz. Instead of calling a repairman, I got out the old clothes drying rack we had downstairs and started air drying my clothes. This takes approximately a day, which for me is no great hardship. As with many things, once you have done it a few times it becomes ‘the new normal’. Third, my hot water tank started to leak, which meant it needed replacing. I didn’t replace it. Instead, I switched off the breaker and the supply water valve, and I now heat up a pot of water on the stove while I’m eating breakfast and do my morning ablutions [I’ve been doing all my laundry in cold water for quite a while already]. This last item is probably, if I had to guess, the one that saves me the most on electricity consumption. Obviously, it’s also the most extreme step, and wouldn’t work for many – but recall that this is how people got their hot water throughout most of history – by heating it up in a pot over a fire. This is what is known, in the current jargon, as ‘hot water on demand’. It seems sort of crazy, to me, to have a hot water tank which continually keeps water hot for the short periods of the day when it is actually needed. Again, this is now my normal setting. I thought I would miss having hot showers, but surprisingly, I don’t. Or to put it another way, I’d rather save the money than have hot water ‘right this instant’. I’m willing to delay gratification for the 15 minutes or so it takes the water to heat up [this probably marks me out as eccentric, but let’s face it, people only get weirder as they get older, and I’m already well along that particular road]. For me, frugality does not = deprivation, it = freedom. Every dollar I save not heating up water unnecessarily is adding straight on to my bottom line [I’ve turned into my father!]. Note that ‘hot water on demand’ water heaters have been the norm in Europe for generations already, but have never penetrated the market here -- mainly because our Hydro is way too cheap.

Working as an architect in the City, I was involved, briefly, in the 2010 Olympic Village project. Initially, the City specified that the buildings were to have a ‘500 year life span’. As soon as the implications of this were realized, the requirement was quickly dropped. They probably realized that the obvious first question was “What does a 500 year old building look like?” That’s easy – there are plenty of 500 year old buildings to look at, although not around here. A 500 year old building is built of solid masonry, has limited areas of single-glazing, an extremely simple loadbearing structural system, is built entirely of materials which were delivered by sailboat or horse and wagon [ie, locally sourced, of necessity], and burns wood or coal where necessary, with a fireplace in pretty much every room. Also, because it is very labour-intensive to build – it has to last a long time because of all the human energy sunk into it -- it tends to be ornamented, as ornamentation represents a fairly small percentage of the building’s total cost.

Clearly, we aren’t going back to any of that, anytime soon. The main reason for this is two-fold: we still, for the time being, have ready access to cheap fossil fuels [fracking being the technology du jour, that is, pumping highly toxic chemicals into the ground, which is something only an insane society would do], and there are way too many people on the planet for this approach to be ‘economic’.

I could say a great deal more on both of these last points, but I’m an Architect.

So I’d rather talk about something I call ‘the utility of beauty’. As an architect, my feeling is that buildings need to be not only as durable as possible, but as beautiful as possible. The reason is simple – people will take better care of a beautiful building than an ugly one, and it will last a lot longer; and longevity is key when considering the ultimate environmental cost of a building. Looking at the picture of the passive house, I find myself thinking that it could certainly have been a lot worse-looking. But it’ll be easy to tear down when its time comes, in 50 years or so.

Ordering triple-glazed windows from Ireland? This is passive? What’s the energy embodied in the windows? How long do the seals on the triple glazing last? What’s the energy cost of transport?

According to the article, the existing 700 square foot cottage was draughty. Has anyone out there never heard of caulking? Wearing slippers and a sweater? No, better to build a 2400 sf house for 3 people to live in [as I mentioned in a previous letter, we raised our 2 kids in a 90-year-old cottage of under 1000 sf, with no real sacrifice that I can discern. At least, the kids seem normal. I certainly never felt hard-used]. One of the main problems with renovating an existing cottage, I suspect, is that it isn’t newsworthy. It doesn’t get your picture in the paper. It doesn’t make good cocktail party talk. Doing the right thing is, as is so often the case, merely boring.

I could go on in this vein a lot further. But I’ll spare you for now.

I think you take my point – the Passiv Haus is merely the latest flavour of the month, is predicated on an abundance of cheap fossil fuels [business as usual, in other words], and is, therefore, the furthest thing from passive.

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