Sandra’s unique and diverse skill set first developed from her time growing up on a farm in Germany – she has always had a very strong connection to the land, so naturally was drawn to sustainable design and in making and creating things. Passive House was the perfect combination of sustainability and construction.
Holding both an architectural degree and a degree in carpentry/furniture making and window manufacturing, she has since been pioneering the Passive House standard here in Canada for many years, including co-founding Passive House Canada in 2013.
Sandra is currently an architect with Cornerstone Architecture, the firm that completed the first Canadian mixed-use multi residential Passive House building. She brings her knowledge and expertise in PH design, build and certification for residential, institutional and commercial buildings. As both an architect and tradesperson, she applies the unique rigors of design theory and construction methods to her projects.
Sandra also teaches the PH Designer & Consultant courses and PH Tradesperson Courses for Passive House Canada.
Q: What initially drew you into this field of sustainable design and construction?
A: I think growing up on a farm where life cycles and creation are part of daily life instilled this deep routed responsibility for our earth and environment in me very early on. As we lived off-the-grid I was raised to be very conscious about using natural resources, & energy and putting reduction of use before recycling.
As for construction – I have just always loved to create things. From making clothing to becoming a furniture maker and then moving on to creating buildings; combining sustainability and creation. First as a hand-on approach and now as an Architect.
Q: Why do you think Germany was ahead of many other markets when it comes to building Passive House homes?
A: The simple answer is necessity. Germany is very densely populated and one has to use resources responsibly. I remember a time during my childhood where we had car-free Sundays and bikes took over the Autobahn. In fact the Passive House Standard has roots in Canada. Dr. Wolfgang Feist (Co-founder of the Passivhaus Institute) also visited the Energy Conservation House in Saskatchewan by Harold Orr and his team and this house had used all of the principles that have been defined as the Passive House standard. I like that the Passive House Standard has roots in both countries!
Passive House 6-storey mixed-use project at Adanac and Commercial in Vancouver | Project & Rendering: Cornerstone Architecture
Q: When it comes to selling high performance homes, what are the most compelling reasons for people to want to build and live in them today?
A: Having lived in Canada for 17 years now I noticed a difference in mentality when it comes to thinking about homes. In Germany people think about their house as their homes whereas in North America the first thought seems to be about return of investment. That initiates a different approach to design and construction. Another factor is energy prices. Here in Vancouver, energy prices are still low, so the more compelling reason to build to the Passive House standard might be for health reasons. In areas with higher energy prices, there would naturally be more focus on resiliency against rate fluctuations.
Passive House is also now part of many policies – developers are receiving density incentives. It’s a good tool for policymakers move towards high performance buildings.
Q: Tell us more about your furniture making – what are some of the pieces you are most excited about and why?
A: As part of completing my furniture making apprenticeship I had to design and build a ‘masterpiece’. I chose a sideboard for a stereo system with folding doors, fancy hardware and invisible hinges. Looking back it turned out to be great craftsman (-woman) ship but I would design it differently these days. It was the 90s!
The other piece is a carved oak entry door to a restaurant in a historical house. Just beautiful. I also made and installed many windows.
Q: Tell us more about some of the projects you are working on now with Cornerstone Architecture?
A: A. The one I recently finished was the Little Mountain Co-Housing Project – a 6-storey building with 25 units. It was quite an interesting process with 25 different homeowners. Collectively, the owner group wanted the project to become a Passive House building.
They wanted the most sustainable building for the environment and for the community. Another project I am working on is at Adanac St. and Commercial Dr. in Vancouver – a mixed-use, residential/commercial 6-storey passive house building that is just starting construction.
Passive House Little Mountain Co-Housing Project | Photo credit: Cornerstone Architecture
Q: As a PH pioneer and co-founder of Passive House Canada, how do you feel about the Passive House community today
A: I have to admit I’m a little bit proud of what we started in Canada 9 years ago – as Passive House has become a large movement and has made it into building codes. What makes me really happy is to be part of this great community where everyone shares their knowledge and mistakes, so we constantly learn from one another. There are so many open source forums and platforms which is really what the Passive House Institute has always been about – being open source. And not only is it great to have this community of like-minded people but in the light of the climate emergency reducing the energy composition of buildings and focusing on clean energy feels like the most purposeful thing we can do these days.
Sandra on her family farm.
Q: What advice would you give to those who are interested in learning more about becoming a certified Passive House designer/consultant or Tradesperson?
A: If you want to design Passive House buildings – the certified designer/consultant training includes the use of the PHPP energy modelling software and covers all of the basics. I always felt that every architect should also really take the Passive House tradesperson course for the hands-on part. It is so easy for designers to think and draw in two dimensions but when it comes to air tightness which has to be continuous – we cannot make air tightness the responsibility of just the trades. We as architects need to design these details properly, and then the trades need to implement the design.
Q: Who in the field of Passive House has inspired you the most and why?
A: There are two people that come to mind. Andreas Nordhoff, my Passive House instructor back in Germany. He was the first Passive House ‘nerd’ – and I like nerds – I met and his passion for the Passive House standard was contagious and inspiring. He offered me a job in his mechanical engineering firm and ended up working for him in 2010.
The second person is Tomas O’Leary with the Irish Passive House Academy. I first met him as my instructor when I went to Ireland to take the PH tradesperson back in 2012. I was drawn to his energy – since the whole passive house field is all very technical – it’s really about how you convey things. He did that so well and you knew it was his passion to live and breathe passive house!