We caught up with Radek Pilarski, Technical Manager for Graham Construction. Graham Construction in one of Canada’s largest construction companies, delivering integrated construction solutions for buildings, industrial and infrastructure clients throughout North America. The company is over 100-years old, with offices across Canada and in the US including 1,500 staff and 6,000 tradespeople, and approximately $2.5 billion in projects planned or underway.
The company recently made the move to increase their knowledge on sustainable building practices, and are training staff across multiple business units with Passive House Canada’s courses and training.
Radek has had a successful career in architecture and construction, including time spent in Eastern Europe, Germany, UK and the Middle East that has provided him with valuable insights as to why it’s important to learn more about Passive House principles and how he has a window into what’s on the horizon for Canada’s built environment.
1. What drove you to learn more about Passive House training?
There are many reasons why I felt passive house training is important. Quality management, environmental legislation, energy modelling, new technologies like mass timber, sophisticated envelope systems – these are all things we need to be proficient in. Clients are increasingly asking for it but we also want to be ahead of the game. As a general contractor, we need to be prepared for the future. Being involved in the process early is not only beneficial for the Client but also reduces our risks. In order to do that we need to understand the entirety of the challenge, not just the building bit.
2. From your past experience in Europe, how was the increased cost to build to these standards accepted?
When you first implement a new approach to a new challenge or shift in the industry there is always more work – you need to get over the “hump” – you need to get used to the new requirements and work with your trade partners to find the best way forward. Supply chains often need to invest and innovate to keep up. You need to explore old and new supply chains and understand what can be produced within the country or abroad. All of this learning requires extra energy and effort; but once you have shown the path it all becomes much simpler and, in time, cheaper. Different countries deal with this in different ways. I’ve seen this happening before, first in Germany, then in the UK. It is scary in the beginning, then it becomes the new normal.
However, it always requires public awareness and social drive for big shifts like that to happen. The industry will find efficient solutions if it’s challenged.
3. What are some of these changes that need to be happen in the building industry to build more sustainable and energy-efficient homes?
There is still a tendency for many contractors to sit back and wait for the design information to be given to them. In the future you will need to be more proactive and understand how the building works in its entirety. Once you understand that, it is easier to make the right decisions about supply chains and installation. How do systems work together? How do I source it? How do I put it together? What is the right installation sequence? How do I test and commission it?
Looking at the trends, it’s better to get prepared now and understand challenges. Passive House is really just one of the stages that we will need to do. More will be coming that will be even more challenging for us and our supply chains, like embodied carbon reduction.
The industry is shifting its culture, though. There will be more need for lots of early involvement, documentation and precision.
We need to recognize that the real advantage of Passive House is mainly for the end-user through lower energy consumption, better comfort and future-proofing. But that’s exactly where the challenge is – how do you get buy-in from people earlier in the process for whom the advantages are just theoretical? There is more work to do here.
4. Who from Graham Construction took Passive House training – and why did you think it was important to do so?
I personally am now a certified Passive House designer. I felt it was critical to get trained so that it would help Graham understand the drivers from clients and designers. Ultimately this knowledge reduces hours and costs for us and allows us to run a more efficient project.
I spoke to our General Manager, and we discussed how it was important to train and certify a cross section of our team in Operations – Project Managers, Project Coordinators and Superintendents. We need contributions from all levels. There will be more Passive House projects in the future. We want our names to be on the bidding forms. Our company needs to use the talents they have and build up new ones.
We then expanded the training to include more theoretical training and hands-on training across the board. Estimators, operations managers, construction managers, foremen, you name it. We needed to spread the word. In total, we have trained 28 of our staff in Vancouver and we’ll be training more in 2022.
5. What are some of the ‘real life’ benefits of a Passive House building?
With Passive House, you are getting a building that is so energy efficient that you are putting very little in to make it work. The bonus is that by making it efficient – you are building something so solid and resilient it will last longer and be more reliable.
One of the most difficult things to explain is how you will “feel better” in these buildings. Passive House buildings are nicer to live in. Growing up as a kid in Eastern Europe, which is cold like the Prairies in Canada in winter, I expected a house to be always warm and cozy when I came back home. Traditionally, construction in Europe is more heavy and solid. It stores more energy. It’s a great feeling when your home doesn’t grow cold in a blink of an eye the moment you switch off the heating or overheat in the summer. Passive House homes give you that experience. These homes also provide you with well tempered fresher air – and no, today’s mechanical systems don’t recirculate viruses.
More importantly still, the longevity and lower running cost of such buildings will benefit us all in the long term.
6. Who can help industry build to these higher standards?
I believe the tone needs to be set by the regulators and municipalities. Comparing the different countries I have worked in, the fastest advances are made by those who don’t only leave it to the industry but set aspirational targets. Once investors, lenders, insurers, developers and others see that there is no way around it, they understand that it is in their interest to drive the narrative.
This can only happen if there is political and sociological will. We all have a role to play – including Passive House Canada, general contractors, designers and clients – to raise awareness. Make it more public. Demystify the challenge.
At the end of the day, it’s not rocket science. You are not trying to fly to the moon – you are just building a more resilient building. It’s been done before. You are not demanding something outside of the realm of the possible.