Guido Wimmers was amazed by Canada’s natural beauty and “open, tolerant, and relaxed” culture when he decided in 2007 to move from Austria to Vancouver. And yet, the architect found that the city’s standards for building energy performance fell far short of what he was accustomed to in Europe. An optimist, Wimmers saw that as an opportunity.
Raised in Aachen, Germany, the birthplace of Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Wimmers was living in Innsbruck, Austria, when he and colleagues first hatched a plan to build that country’s home base for the downhill events of the 2010 Winter Olympics, staged in Whistler, British Columbia. The team decided that a Passive House, already common in Europe, would be a smart choice and something that they could engineer. With somewhat audacious confidence, they contacted Olympic officials as well as the mayors of Vancouver and Whistler, and all agreed it was a good idea—if the Austrians could find the resources to do it. Using industry connections, the group succeeded in getting several European companies to donate services and materials to make the building possible.
The Austrian Passive House generated a good deal of attention. It also helped convince Wimmers to relocate to Canada’s western coast, half a world removed from a decidedly advanced green building culture. With his wife and children in tow, he established Building Evolution, a Vancouver firm that specializes in Passive House design.
Bold moves are a lifelong habit for Wimmers, who learned to challenge convention at an early age. The son of a nuclear engineer, he spent a month working at a nuclear power plant. “I began to think maybe this is not so good,” he says.
From that youthful formation of critical thought processes, he pursued an architectural education in the first half of the 1990s, a time he describes as transitional. “My university experience was with the last generation of sculptural architecture professors, who viewed it as a form of art,” Wimmers says. “Now it’s much more about technology.”
That is, technology that reduces energy consumption and improves building performance. Right now, the Canadian West Coast is ready for smarter buildings in many respects. A “leaky condo crisis,” affecting 31,000 residences in the region, came from what Wimmers describes as the late-20th century folly of using California-appropriate designs and materials in Vancouver’s often-rainy moderate oceanic climate. “This, and the not so appropriate methods to overcome these issues, are still creating aftershocks today,” he says.
Costing more than $4 billion to fix, the industry is now open to considering the technological advances Wimmers knows well from his training in Europe, where an estimated 50,000 Passive Houses are already built. Still, the situation in North America is different: Passive House ideals are built into European municipal codes, but much of this is new to fossil fuel-rich North America. And instead of owner-driven development, as is more common in Europe, “British Columbia is dominated by developers who pay less attention to long-term energy costs,” Wimmers says.
Buyers of homes and buildings in Canada are getting smarter about that, he says. Wimmers credits the Canadian Green Building Council and its American counterpart with educating buyers and renters through LEED, influencing them to consider energy costs when comparing their building options. And he has his own evidence to present, based on the performance of the Austrian Passive House in Whistler: “It was dead-on with its goals in years two and three,” he says.
With about 3,200 square feet of commercial and meeting space—used now by mountain bike clubs and for cross-country ski events—the facility requires just 12 kilowatt-hours per square meter annually for heating and cooling. Passive Houses, by definition, use 15 percent or less of the energy required in a comparable structure.
The LEED system, with its points for local sourcing (within a 500-mile-radius), is less favorable to Passive House construction in the Pacific Northwest. Until a larger market develops, suppliers will be farther away, Wimmers says. Vancouver itself has dated building codes and bylaws that complicate Passive House construction. Most of Wimmers’s work through Building Evolution has been in the surrounding area. Not giving up, he often consults with the city and expects those codes will change eventually. “The policy, permitting, and inspection levels are where the problem is,” he says. “It’s a slow, political process.”
Location Prince George, BC
Program Six-story academic building
Size 49,000 ft2
Completion 2014 (expected)
Certification LEED Gold (expected)
Climate Boreal subarctic
Architect Michael Green Architecture
Client University of Northern British Columbia
But what British Columbia lacks in suppliers and political and business culture, it makes up for in forestry. Wimmers is a big believer in the environmental benefits of sustainably sourced wood construction, such that he is also chair of the University of Northern British Columbia’s Integrated Wood Design program. Wood can minimize thermal bridges and provide air tightness, two hallmarks of Passive House design, and it has lower embodied energy compared to concrete and steel.
“The Economist magazine calls it the material of the 21st century,” Wimmers says. “It’s flexible, seismically more durable, has a lower weight and lower density than concrete. Where concrete provides compressive strength, wood offers tensile strength.” The architect and advocate believes that structures up to 30 stories high can eventually be built with wood and wood-composite materials.
Wimmers likes to debunk myths and quell fears of wood and Passive House construction. For instance, won’t wood buildings burn? “Solid wood panels and craft laminated timber are not like stick-frame buildings,” he says. “At most, one to one-and-a-half inches on the surface might burn.” Might the much-acclaimed vapor barriers be too tight? “That’s a misleading term,” he counters. “Some humidity can enter, but the design should always allow it to dry out.”
Referencing his interests in technological and materials advancement, Wimmers says his firm aims to “future-proof” structures. “Buildings should last 100 years, be low-maintenance, resilient, independent of energy costs, and be nice and healthy inside,” he says. Speaking as a true optimist, he says the trick is to remain versatile and adaptive to new technologies—and to envision how Canada can one day build Passive Houses just as prolifically as Europe.