The steep roofline of the Diog River Cultural Centre stands out as a stark contrast against the open expanse of land that surrounds it. /SUBMITTED

By Andrea Arnold 

Valemount-raised Erik Olofsson is currently a general contractor in the Lower Mainland with a focus on creating Passive Houses, ultra-energy efficient buildings that, among other things, use south-facing windows and very thick insulated walls. One of his recent project, the Diog River Cultural Centre received the Institutional (Small) award in early July, presented by Sustainable Architecture Building (SAB) Magazine

“The idea behind the name is that the building standard relies on passive systems such as insulation and windows rather than on active systems like furnaces and air conditioners for heating and cooling,” said Olofsson. “Passive implies the absence of technologically advanced systems and pumps etc and relies on ‘dumb’ things like insulation and airtightness. These passive systems do not become obsolete like high-tech systems do. It is also very important to distinguish between passive house and passive-solar. Passive-solar was a building strategy of the late 1970s that has been proven ineffective.”

A passive house is built to prevent any air from escaping, resulting in the amount of energy needed for heating and cooling to be cut by 80-90 per cent. This involves things like proper insulation, no leakages around windows, doors or outlets, no thermal bridges in the walls of the building, usually triple pane windows, optimum orientation to sun/shade, and a heat recovery system. They do not require much in terms of an internal heat source, as the heat needed to maintain a comfortable temperature can be found through the sun, appliances, light bulbs, TV, and the occupants’ own body heat.

Recently, Olofsson’s skills and knowledge were called upon to help members of the Diog First Nation create a building about an hour north of Fort St. John. The building was originally designed to be a church on the main floor, along with a daycare space and an Elders’ lounge downstairs. This was slightly adjusted and now has been designated a Cultural Centre with a community space on the main level with a mezzanine for additional seating; the downstairs contains the daycare and Elders lounge. It is the first Passive House certified community building on First Nations land.

The bright and airy main floor of the Cultural Centre provides space for community events and ceremonies. /SUBMITTED

“The architect, Iredale Architecture, was excited to work on the building because of its traditional church shape,” said Olofsson. “There are not many opportunities to work on buildings shaped like this anymore.”

The walls of the structure are three feet thick, and the ceiling is 45 feet high. The whole structure is 7,500 square feet, and is heated by only a few baseboard heaters. Olofsson says the quest to get this certified as a passive house was a challenge due to its location so far north and the extreme winter temperatures in the area. 

The south-facing roof of the building, and the extensive glazing (windows) maximizes winter solar heat gain, and the tall slender shape lessens the environmental impact to the site. 

Olofsson hopes that with buildings like the Doig River Cultural Centre being brought into the spotlight, other people will begin looking towards the option of a Passive Home.

Olofsson is an environmentalist and general contractor in the building industry. He started working on Passive House projects because it is important to him to try to change the things he can, and to not worry about the things he can’t. Passive Homes are overall better for the environment because they are cheaper to operate.  

At this time there are two Passive Homes built in the Robson Valley, both located in Valemount, and Olofsson is in discussion with two more interested parties. He would like to see the interest in building them grow as people see that they are less exotic than they sound. 

“Most people’s interest in the homes comes from the efficiency,” said Olofsson. “It doesn’t matter to me why people want to do it, I want to see more people make the choice.”