Canadian Consulting Engineer

Feature

Conversations: Airtight in Saskatchewan

Harold Orr, P.Eng. of Saskatoon travelled to Germany in April to receive the international Passive House Institute Pioneer Award for his work during the oil crisis of the 1970s.


From the May 2015 print edition, page 46

Harold Orr, P.Eng. of Saskatoon has received the 2015 Pioneer Award from the Passive House Institute. This international award recognizes the trailblazers of energy efficient construction and has only been given out four times before.

Orr received the award for his work as a driving force behind the Saskatchewan Conservation House built in Regina in the 1970s. CCE spoke with Orr, now 84 years old, just before he was about to leave for Germany.

Q. How do you feel about receiving the Pioneer Award?

I have mixed feelings about it. The Saskatchewan Conservation House was a collaborative effort of at least 10 people, even more. Although I think I was the only one that was working in the field of airtightness at the time, the other people had a lot of input to the program.

In terms of how the project came about, we had this severe energy crisis in the 70s and overnight the price of gasoline doubled at the pumps. So the provincial government asked the Saskatchewan Research Council to build a solar house.

I was on staff at the National Research Council of Canada in Saskatoon at the time and they asked me to sit on the committee for the project. We also had people from Housing and Urban Development, from CMHC, several from the university, from architectural firms, and a couple of contractors.

We got together to design the house, but we knew that we had very little solar energy available between November and March, which is our heating season.

Q.  I thought you had lots of sun in the prairies in the winter?

There is a lot of sun, but there is also a lot of cold weather and the days are very short. We recognized that if we were going to use solar energy, we would have to reduce the heating component of the house to a very small fraction of that of a conventional house.

From my research I knew that the biggest single component of heat loss in any house at the time — and since — is air leakage. The normal amount of insulation at the time was R7. I suggested we should use R40 in the walls, R60 in the ceiling. And I said it’s too difficult to insulate a basement and basements are a problem in Regina, so let’s build the house on a grade beam and pile foundation and we’ll put R20 or R30 in the floor. The committee decided to go with that.

If you make the house airtight, then you have to do something about providing ventilation. The university engineers, Bob Besant and Rob Dumont (I think they were the two major ones) got a technician from the university to build the first air-to-air heat exchanger to be installed in a house for the project.

I installed the vapour barrier as I had a carpenter’s licence. When we did the tests we found that it was likely the tightest house in the world at that time.

After this project, 14 houses were built by different builders in Saskatoon that had approximately the same conserving features as the Saskatchewan Conservation House. This program became the impetus for the R2000 project.