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Elk Ridge Passive House: The Making of a Passive House Part 2

This is Part 2 of a four-part series walking through the development of Elk Ridge Passive House. The goal of this series is to educate and demystify the process of building Passive Homes. You can read Part 1 here, examining the basic principles of passive house design. In Part 2 we will dissect the site selection and development, as well as the selection of the design team. Although many of the items discussed will be specific to Elk Ridge, the foundational elements will be clearly evident and easily adapted to all passive homes.

Like many home owners planning their future home, Elk Ridge’s vision had a variety of elements on the “wants” and “needs” list. Both of these were carefully considered as they evaluated the site location. Through the site selection process there were a few main areas of interest. The handful of factors that contributed to the purchase of the Elk Ridge plot were based off personal preferences as well as solar access. Some of the things considered were:

  • Access to recreation
  • Connection to nature
  • Solar access
  • Close to Missoula, Montana
  • Views of Missoula, Montana
  • Buildable land
  • Utilities already on site
  • Price

Overcoming Challenges

Passive Solar Gain

The site posed a few challenges. The orientation of the site’s slope was more of a southwest exposure, rather than a true south exposure and had significant tree coverage. Building orientation and access to the sun is a huge factor as it relates to Passive House construction. One of the primary sources of free heat for the building is through passive solar gain. Passive solar gain requires access to the south sun. South sun is important because that is where the sun primarily shines in the winter, which is when free heat shinning in through the windows is most needed. In order to overcome these challenges, they worked closely with their architect to face the house as much to the south as possible, while still staying connected to the land. To keep the sun (and forest stewardship) a priority, all dead standing and soon-to-be dead trees were removed to promote the health of the forest and to open up the views and aid in the exposure to the sun.

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Steep Site

Another drawback was the fairly steep site. This continues to be a battle during construction but the overall design and orientation of Elk Ridge was created to fit into the steep hillside, staying as connected to nature as possible.

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Preferences

During this time, a list of guidelines around efficiency and durability goals were also communicated to the Architect. Some of these goals included passive solar components, a Solar Array system, and others were as basic as the amount of rooms and bathrooms desired. One element of importance for the family was creating an integrated outdoor space for both the main and lower level without large deck structures that shade the lower level. The passive solar component is important as 30% of the annual heat is provided by the sun through high performance windows and doors. Additionally, the Solar Array system was also incorporated into the design by planning for a future installation of a 7kw system (taking up to 500sq. feet of space). All of these guidelines drove the overall design and orientation of the home within the steep slope.

Selecting the Design Team

As we dive into the aspects of design, site consideration, thoughtful construction and passive solar components, it’s apparent that a great team of building professionals is needed in order to pull them off in an efficient and cohesive manner. The selection of the design team was screened with all these expectations in mind.

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Several Architects were interviewed, in hopes of finding one that either had passive house experience or was open to learning about passive principles. Upon meeting Eddie Jones, his portfolio of work spoke volumes about his talent and vision for architecture as an art form. Eddie also proved to be flexible in his design approach in order to accomplish the energy efficiency goals. Eddie remained open to the Passive House principles while establishing a basic program of family needs, all while pushing the design in new and unexpected ways.

 

Builder

The selection of the Elk Ridge general contractor, John Lentz involved much less research and was based on a long-term relationship with the home owner, and their corresponding values. John has a strong commitment to high performance building and is known for high-quality buildings that endure time. His construction values, coupled with his well-trained eye for bespoke design is rarely paralleled. John’s reliable history in the industry has allowed him to connect with other professionals in the field, like Eddie Jones, the architect. John introduced Eddie to the Elk Ridge project, after previously working with on a project for 7 years. The advantageous relationship of John and Eddie proved to be beneficial for all involved, creating a dynamic team.

Consultants

The consultants were carefully selected in order to work within the program of the project’s goals. Skylar Swinford from ESCO was utilized to guarantee that the PHIUS standards were met. He helped in the selection of windows and doors, as well as helped in the selection of the correct mechanical equipment, and insulation systems. Tom Beaudette from DCE Structural Engineers was also utilized. Tom was instrumental in providing structural detailing and calculations that provided the most continuous insulation detailing, while also accomplishing the structural needs.

Subcontractors

Similar to the rest of the team listed above, the subcontractor selection required suppliers and subcontractors that were on board with the goals and vision of the project. The unique hillside, Passive House structure, meant an excellent excavator and foundation contractor was needed to help get the structure in the ground. Selecting a team to frame the building, with the understanding of air sealing principles was a challenge. Given that, Tom Hellem who is a Passive House Consultant, and has framed high performance buildings for 40 years was selected.

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Russ, the home owner, has also had his own experience with framing, air sealing, insulating and testing buildings for air tightness to contribute to the line-up. Because of this, Russ and Tom assembled their own framing crew to frame the building since framing in an air-tight way is just as important as how the building is insulated.

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With the team in place, John, Eddie and Russ collaborated and designed from the schematic phase and have continued to through the construction process. The overall collaboration and team effort has been successful due to a shared goal of building the best building possible with the resources available. Open communication, flexibility, a commitment to Passive House, and design integrity has allowed for a truly successful building process.