Reimagining the future of passive housing
Rick Gregory feels the effects of climate change deeply. He’s been hand-charting global CO2 emissions from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano over the last two decades. The data he’s collected is now literally off his original estimate as emissions keep accelerating. “A scary curve,” as he calls it. So, it should seem like a no-brainer that Gregory’s latest project, CURV, a 60-storey tower slated for the Vancouver market in 2029, incorporates industry-leading and high-performance building practices that could pave the way forward for constructing energy-efficient housing in Canadian cities for generations to come.
The Project Director at Brivia spent his formative years in Ottawa, working summer construction jobs before embarking on a career that’s taken him across Canada and the world over a 30-year international career. In Dubai, he worked as the project manager with renowned architect Tom Wright on the world famous Burj al Ajab, a tower that still defines the city skyline. CURV reunites him with Wright and the Vancouver project has the potential to become one of the most ambitious and sustainable large-scale buildings ever made.
Bringing the tallest Passive House project in the world to fruition is no easy feat. It means envisioning and implementing energy-efficient building practices that adhere to Passive House standards — think air-tight construction, heat-recovery ventilation systems, net-zero emissions — but on a massive scale. “Most residential buildings of our scale do not use a centralized HRV system,” Gregory says. “As a developer, your sole purpose is to build a building that doesn’t leak.” When you use a centralized system, he continues, it means you don’t have to put holes through the enclosure so fresh air comes in and out of every suite. At CURV, that’s 1000 holes for 500 units. It’s a common issue that constantly arises in passive builds, Gregory explains, and requires a vertical shaft that engineers and planners often push back on. Creating renewable energy this way is accomplished by sucking in cold air from lower parts of the building and recovering the rising heat. “With a Passive House, we control that,” Gregory says. Hot air goes out through the same port as the cold air coming in. By extracting the heat of the outgoing air and dumping it back in with the cold air coming in, “the hot air going out becomes cold. So, it’s not losing energy as in a traditional building.”
In a pioneering move, CURV will feature electrochromic glass controlled by algorithms to dynamically adjust opacity based on environmental factors like sun position and cloud cover. This cutting-edge technology limits the need for a traditional hydronic cooling system, allowing the building to be cooled solely through optimized ventilation air. “It is really cutting-edge technology,” Gregory says, “No one has done it before on this scale.”
Convincing municipal and provincial governments to view Passive House standards through a unique lens is a major challenge developers face. For example, Gregory says, the FSR, or floor-to-space ratio at CURV, has a slightly larger footprint in each unit owing to thicker insulation and extra mechanical space. Getting sign-off from the city on sustainable modifications throughout the zoning application process has been time-consuming, and ultimately discourages growth. “The government is in a position to better promote passive housing,” Gregory says, adding that municipalities could offer incentives for developers that incorporate passive homes into their designs by reducing the development fees the city charges or increasing the allowable building area. Gregory is convinced energy-efficient builds would exponentially increase if government embraced and rewarded innovative industry practices. Right now, red tape is still the colour of choice for ribbon cuttings.
Innovation in the face of a global energy crisis is undoubtedly challenging. While Gregory is first to admit CURV won’t solve climate change, incorporating large-scale Passive House standards into condo towers could offer a road map for sustainable development going forward. Gregory foresees a day when cities “move in the other direction” and incorporate prefab, modular homes in land development, which can reduce waste, carbon emissions, and often costs less. It’s something he witnessed first-hand working for Intrawest several years ago. Not only did a condo-hotel in West Virginia integrate Passive House standards into its plans, it took less time to build and cost less. “Everything was finished in the factory. We shipped the modules to site and they manufactured the whole hotel, 100 suites, in 28 days, and erected the building in six days,” Gregory says.
Bringing CURV to life hasn’t been without its own trials and tribulations, namely resistance to a non-standardized design, a slow permit process, and stalls in development and zoning — but working with his old friend Tom Wright has been nothing short than inspirational. Wright’s design — a curved, rather than linear build, that reaches into the sky mimics the feminine form and represent a green shoot springing from the ground. It will change the Vancouver skyline, but that’s not the ultimate goal. “The Passive-House part of the project is the important part, not how (the building) looks,” Wright told the Vancouver Sun at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in May 2023. “It really pushes the boundary of how little energy a tall building should use. That is the key thing about the building, how little energy can we burn.” Gregory, who lives in West Vancouver and is working on another 9-acre project for Brivia, echoes that sentiment, though in that practical way a project director thinks. “We just want to build a place that nudges industry .”
Gregory will be a featured speaker later this month at Passive House Canada’s October 18th event: Passive House Pulse Vancouver – CURV: How Passive House is Re-Envisioning Beautiful Buildings. Aside from questions about CURV, ask him about the motorcycle trip he and Wright recently took to Whistler.