Saskatchewan: The birthplace of high performance buildings and passive solar home design

The Conservation House in Saskatchewan was built in 1977, and was a revolutionary building design that introduced passive heating and cooling to modern home building.

The Saskatchewan Conservation House, the birthplace of passive solar home design via

If you've ever sat in a car with black leather seats, you likely understand passive solar heat gain. It is a very simple concept that as a building technique dates back thousands of years. Simply find out where the sun is, and use it to your advantage.

Mesa Verde in Colorado, inhabited by the Anasazi between 600 to 1300
Mesa Verde in Colorado was inhabited by the Anasazi between 600 to 1300, and took advantage of a rock overhang to employ the basic principles of passive heating and cooling. Image via Wikipedia

In reviving the ancient building technique of passive heating and cooling, the Saskatchewan Conservation House showed us what was possible in terms of solar heat collection and retention with modern building techniques.

So what happened to this ground-breaking design principle that can save tremendous amounts of energy and money? Like so many great advances, we shelved it. 


The two greatest human contributions of carbon in the atmosphere are from transportation and buildings. Both industries followed similar paths, both counter to the best interests of society.

After suppressing alternative technologies and dragging their heels for decades, we are now watching North American automakers struggle to come up with affordable designs in fuel-efficiency and electrically powered vehicles. Yet if you look back to the late 1800s, electric vehicles outsold combustion powered vehicles.  

The Flocken Elektrowagen, one of the first electric cars
The Flocken Elektrowagen, one of the first electric cars. Image via Wikipedia

Cars with electric motors were more popular at the time because they were smoother, quieter, safer, and they didn't emit noxious fumes. But mostly, the concept of vehicles driving quickly towards each other carrying extremely explosive liquids seemed an absolutely ridiculous notion to many.

As is often the case, the more powerful business interests won out, not logic, and until very recently we still regarded gasoline powered vehicles as the only viable option.

Housing has a similar history - many decades ago a team of visionaries designed and built a house in Saskatchewan, Canada, that was able to operate using only a fraction of the energy other homes required. The premise was to rely as much as possible on the energy freely available from the sun.

The Saskatchewan Conservation House was oriented for maximum solar heat gain in the winter, yet incorporated shading to avoid overheating in summer. The building envelope was made up of R40 walls, an R60 ceiling, and triple glaze windows.

Passive heating window design
Passive heating window design © U.S. Department of Energy

It was extremely airtight (even by today's standards) and was one of the first houses ever to have its fresh air supplied by heat recovery ventilation, which is now standard on any high performance cold climate home.

After seeing firsthand in the Conservation House the kind of energy efficiency that was possible, we proceeded to ignore it like we did electric vehicles, and continued to build homes that matched the energy performance of a 5 litre Mustang.

Like muscle cars, houses were (and mostly still are) built to suit our whims and personal images, with little thought applied to how much money and energy we will needlessly throw away on a monthly basis.

The misinterpretation of building code

The National Building Code goes to great lengths to ensure the structures we build are solid, and engineered to withstand snow loads and other natural forces. A modern society would accept nothing less. You can safely assume that if a building meets code, no additional structural reinforcing is necessary. This is not at all the case regarding thermal performance.

Defining the minimum energy efficiency of buildings is a provincial and municipal matter, and like the scenery, it changes as you cross the country. Ontario has the highest standards of all the provinces, Newfoundland has the lowest. Vancouver demands much better performance than their province does in their attempt to be the world's greenest city by 2020.

In August 2012, Quebec bumped up their wall minimum from R20 to R24.5, so a Quebecker that bought a house built in July will have noticeably higher heating and cooling costs than a person who bought a house built a month later.

Comparison of energy consumption between high and low performing homes
Comparison of energy consumption between high and low performing homes

Holding back any meaningful change are those spreading the myth that the sticker price of a more efficient house is not worth the long term savings. Despite the fact that this has been disproven, the myth persists.

The reality is that the added cost for a high performance durable house means more money remains in your pocket. You will not only save monthly on utilities but it will last longer, it will require less maintenance and down the road if you choose to sell your house, its value should reflect the added capital you put in originally, perhaps a lot more.

The problem with modern design philosophies is that they start out from the wrong place. We currently build to the minimum performance standards of building codes, content to pay a monthly premium for the rest of our lives to compensate for a lack of foresight in the design phase.

Builders can often be heard saying "but it's built to code" while defending designs, which is true. What they are not realizing is that unlike the structural integrity of buildings, the thermal performance requirements of code are based on nothing tangible.

To its credit, the National Building Code continues to upgrade its minimum standards, and has recently increased requirements for energy efficiency. As mentioned above, the problem lies more with public perception of its intent.

Unlike structural guidelines, the minimum insulation values laid out in building code do not represent optimum performance, they exist to ensure there is a bottom rung of efficiency that we do not build below.

So how did the 'worst' become the standard, and why do we revere it as gospel? Meeting building code performance does not earn you an A plus, it earns you a D minus. I doubt many of us ran home to proudly show our parents a report card that says we almost failed.   

Building to the bare minimum is understandable with large developers, as they are well-oiled money machines with little motive to change. At the moment of sale it is unlikely that they will recoup the added cost spent creating a more efficient building; the big savings belong to the end user. If you are designing and building your own house however, money put into performance will likely come back to you in spades.

As we enter an age of resource depletion with an atmosphere so full of carbon that we are on the verge of runaway climate change, passive solar heating and cooling is once again essential for our survival just as it was thousands of years ago.

So build to your own standards, because at its present rate of evolution, most building codes are on course to catch up with the Conservation House - about a 100 years too late.

Don't miss: A review of the Conservation House by its designer, Harold Orr