LORRIE RAND, CO-FOUNDER OF Habit Studio in Nova Scotia, makes the critical point that if Canada is ever going to hit its climate goals, it will need to retrofit five to six hundred thousand homes per year to bring them up to advanced modern energy standards.
“We, as a country, do about 5,000 per year,” says Rand, “so we need to do ten times more, and the only way we are going to achieve that is through technology.” Rand is focused on a panelization approach whereby highly insulative materials are layered between construction-grade plywood or competitive material systems, and openings for windows are fully factored into the panels and their layout back at the factory.
Habit Studio — Passive House Experts
Habit Studio is a small architecture practice led by firm founders Lorrie Rand and Judyann Obersi. The two met in architecture school at Dalhousie University and have built a thriving small practice in the fastest-growing part of Canada.
“We’re having a big building boom,” says Rand. “Canada is in general, but Halifax, here in Novia Scotia, is growing at the fastest pace in the country.”
Like in the United States just south, part of the growth in the Canadian Maritimes is a retreat from urban cities, an effect of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. Couple that with new remote work trends, and it is easy to understand the recent growth spurt for Habit Studios.
Lorrie Rand is a Certified Passive House Designer and has an educational background in physics with a Bachelor of Environmental Design Studies from Dalhousie University.
We, as a country, do about 5,000 per year, so we need to do ten times more, and the only way we are going to achieve that is through technology.
“I definitely lean towards the building science side of things,” she says. “Even when I was going to school for physics, I wanted to go to architecture school.”
The firm began its venture into energy house experts slowly, explains Rand, who noted that in addition to the long, frigid winters up in Canada, the Nova Scotia region has costly electricity. “So, we have had for a long time some pretty great incentives for sustainability in our province,” noting that Nova Scotia tends to be one of the leading providences in the country for adopting the latest energy standards and building codes.
“Clients started asking for Passive House designs before we had truly formed Habit Studio officially,” she says. When the firm began its first certified Passive House project, Rand and her team benefitted from two parallel developments—a growing suite of new builders skilled in building Passive Houses and a regional government agency’s interest and pickup of their firm Passive House story.
“It led to some publicity for us as a firm,” she adds. Bolstered by that success, Habit Studio’s second Passive House design turned out to roughly cost the same as conventional construction yet would operate at much less cost in terms of energy consumption.
“We decided that if we can do it for the exact same cost as a regular house, then we are not going to do anything but Passive House commissions,” says Rand. As it turns out, their concerns that such a declaration may lead to less work had the opposite effect. “We ended up convincing more people of the benefits of Passive House design,” she adds.
From that point on, the all-women-run design firm has crafted an award-winning reputation for sustainable design-forward architecture in the residential market with project coverage in notable media outlets like ArchDaily, e-Architect, SABMag, and Canadian Architecture.
Passive and BIM
Coupled with real-life expertise and specialized training, Habit Studio’s methods for designing highly performant buildings involve a collaborative and client-engaged design process with BIM at its center.
Isabelle Gosselin is the firm’s BIM Lead and came to the practice several years ago from the Drafting-Architectural program at Nova Scotia Community College. Her skill set and training allowed her to upskill Habit Studio’s staff from an essentially 2D with some occasional 3D modeling in SketchUp to a robust and growing BIM workflow in Vectorworks Architect.
“Lorrie was already very good with Vectorworks,” says Gosselin. “When I joined, I recommended that they move to a 3D BIM workflow because I had a very good understanding of what was capable in Vectorworks.”
Having been drawn to the firm since graduating from her program at Nova Scotia Community College, Gosselin quickly converted her Autodesk Revit and AutoCAD skills to Vectorworks Architect. “There were great resources for learning and advancing, including Vectorworks University,” adds Gosselin. “I’m really also appreciative of the relationship between Vectorworks and their users,” she adds, noting that in addition to personal training delivered to the firm, suggestions for specific tools have actually turned into new features in the latest versions of Vectorworks.
Lorrie Rand notes, “Before BIM in Vectorworks, my previous ten-year workflow was to draw the house in Vectorworks and create a 3D model in SketchUp so I can run a SketchUp plugin to extract data I need for the energy modeling process. That’s a lot of duplicate work,” she adds.
“Now Isabelle can pull out all the data I need from the BIM model,” she adds. Data on areas and volumes are extracted and organized into Vectorworks Worksheets and Excel. Lorrie Rand does all the energy analysis and optimization for Passive House using an Excel-based tool and process called Passive House Planning Package (PHPP).
Isabelle Gosselin is a naturally inclined technology booster at the firm, constantly learning about what features in Vectorworks can be deployed and how she can further streamline the small firm’s workflows.
“I feel like every six months, Isabelle has evolved us up another level of sophistication in our workflows,” says Rand. “Still, there is much progress to be done, and technologies are never stopping but always progressing.”
Gosselin says that Vectorworks and Energos are both technologies that the firm is looking to explore to advance energy-conscious design further, with a particular need to address the earliest stages of design. “Not everyone wants to live in a cube,” jokes Rand, noting that the optimal shape for a Passive House is a basic rectangular cube. “What we are looking for from Vectorworks in the future is to find out if particular designs are viable early on before we start putting in all the data needed for full energy analysis,” adds Gosselin.
One additional benefit of an all-BIM process in Vectorworks is its tight integration with the Twinmotion 3D rendering and animation application. Gosselin says the firm is benefitting from the greater realism produced by Twinmotion. However, there are learning lessons from rapid changes in workflows.
Rand notes that clients benefit from BIM because many don’t really understand what they are looking at in flat 2D drawings. 3D BIM solves that understanding problem. However, Gosselin notes that BIM is a bit of a double-edged sword because once clients experience an interactive 3D presentation, they can ask for higher modeling fidelity levels that project budgets can’t afford.
“We are working on communicating our deliverables, ” Rand says. “Our processes have evolved in a very short amount of time,” adds Gosselin, “so as we see trends in how our clients are responding to our process where they are asking for more layers of information in the models, we realize we need to maybe deliver examples to clients.”
Another type of example Habit Studios is working to set is retrofit panelization for homes. “It is something that is weighing on us because we are retrofit experts but know that the way we currently do things is never going to allow Canada to meet its climate goals,” says Rand.
She says there are a handful of companies specializing in panelization for new builds, and Habit Studios is engaging with them to look at how they would tackle retrofits. “It’s one of the hardest things to do,” she adds, “because how do you build a new thing that sits on a wonky base—none of the old structures are square.”
I really love Vectorworks and tend to think of it as a hybrid between Revit and AutoCAD.
Rand says this will take the use of new technologies linking up all the elements and factors, from the old building to be retrofit to the digital tools to the industrial construction techniques of panelization. They are hoping Vectorworks advances to aid them in this process. For now, Gosselin says, “I really love Vectorworks and tend to think of it as a hybrid between Revit and AutoCAD,” offering what she says is less restriction and more agility.
It will take agility for Habit Studios to discover ways to advance local expertise in panelization, working to meet Canadian climate goals, and solving client retrofit needs simultaneously. The good news is that the firm’s BIM transition process is making them more agile, as a matter of course, giving them an edge to take on such significant problems.
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Title image credit: Chris J. Dickson for Habit Studio / Architosh. All rights reserved.