This summer, a couple embarked on the construction of a so-called “passive” house, that is to say, with very low energy consumption. From the first sketches to the handing over of the keys, we follow his project in Ham-Sud, in the Eastern Townships, in three stages. In this first part, we return to its gestation, not always easy.

Currently based in Longueuil, Nathalie Larouche and Philippe Candelier were returning from an eight-month stay aboard a sailboat when the idea came to them to drop anchor elsewhere. Aspiring to an ecological approach, they prospected on the side of Mount Ham and found land for sale as part of an eco-residential project in Ham-Sud.

They therefore decided to sell their residence in Montérégie to build a small single-storey house, with two bedrooms and a living room, with specific characteristics to maximize its energy retention. “It’s a different construction, with a southern orientation, very large triple-glazed windows installed as little as possible to the north, hyper-insulated 20-inch walls, a double frame, an attached garage, but not communicating, etc. In winter, the sun comes to warm the concrete slab which will restore its warmth, “explains the couple, who have planned wiring for possible solar panels.

According to the Ecohabitation organization, it is a residence that uses little energy to remain comfortable all year round. It is its orientation and its structure maximizing solar radiation, as well as its thermal insulation and its sealing, which allow it to reduce its heating needs significantly, even in winter. The passive house concept remains variable from one project to another.

The project, attractive on paper, nevertheless gave Nathalie Larouche and Philippe Candelier a hard time during its planning, not only because of the pandemic (they officially acquired the land in October 2020) and other unforeseen events, but also because of its nature, to which architects and builders are not necessarily accustomed.

It took several months to find an architect, Tandem, ready to respect the spirit and the budget (between $200,000 and $300,000) of their project. Between the preliminary sketches and the final plans, received in December 2021, a year had already passed.

Then came the second major challenge, finding a contractor on the same wavelength as the couple in order to build their house without radical compromise, and allowing them to participate in the work. Some builders were certainly ready to get their hands on the slab… but they seriously flouted the initial characteristics.

“One of them didn’t want to put more insulation, claiming that electricity was cheap. We were offered to replace the materials with others that did not respect the project. We didn’t like these answers and we looked elsewhere, through the Écohabitation website”, indicate those who had already given up small bits of land on certain aspects of energy efficiency maximization: smaller area than usual (nearly 1200 square feet, or some 110 square meters), window placed to the northeast to take advantage of the view of Mount Ham, installation of a workshop…

Continuing to snoop around, Nathalie Larouche and Philippe Candelier found a suitable contractor… but not available before 2024. After multiple calls, it was HD Construction that finally obtained the mandate in October 2022, committing to respecting the passive house concept. “Buildings like this, they don’t do that much, but they like to do it, it’s a challenge for them,” says Nathalie Larouche.

In addition to the difficulties caused by COVID-19 (unavailable labour, shortage and increase in the price of materials) and the complications in finding the right partners, the future Estriens have also compiled a few hitches that have slowed their progress. For example, the only factories producing the ECO4 insulation boards they needed had ceased production, due to disasters. The progress of the process was also hampered by the various derogations necessary to meet the requirements of the local Planning Advisory Committee (CCU), sometimes for a matter of a few centimeters.

“There were lots of little glitches that meant that between the purchase of the land and the construction, it took three years,” resigns Nathalie Larouche, who also foresees an overrun of the target budget. The groundbreaking finally took place when the construction company became available, at the beginning of May 2023, with a key handover scheduled for the end of August. Work is therefore currently in full swing; the construction phase will thus be the subject of the next part of this series.