Building to a Higher Standard
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As the world grapples with global warming and climate change, the top-of-mind question for builders these days is no longer whether they’re building to code, but how much higher above code should they raise the bar for the sake of reducing energy consumption? And does it make sense to embrace a specific standard, such as Energy Star or LEED, or should they just borrow from some of these standards and not worry about certification? And finally, how will all of this impact on sales?

Adding to this challenge is the fact that the Ontario Building Code standards, when it comes to energy efficiency, are also about to get a little tighter. In a prepared statement for Ontario Home Builder magazine, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Ted McMeekin observed that, “When the energy efficiency targets in the 2012 Building Code come into effect in 2017, homes will consume half the energy they would have used had they been built in 2005.” The Minister was also quick to point out these changes have been made collaboratively. “Like all changes to the Building Code, enhancements to energy and water conservation requirements are made in close consultation with our sector partners.” Clearly, they don’t want to be seen as forcing these changes on the industry.

Currently, building standards such as GreenHouse Certified Construction are purely voluntary, while others, such as LEED or Energy Star, are mandated in select pockets of the province, including the Toronto waterfront, Markham and East Gwillimbury. But as government regulations evolve, the consensus is that building standards will become more stringent with respect to energy efficiency, not only in 2017 but 2022 and beyond, when the next round of changes are expected.

Take, for example, recent developments in California, where, just this past June, the California Energy Commission voted unanimously to approve updated standards that will cut regulated energy use in new homes by 28% compared to houses built under the current code. Known as Title 24, the standards will go into effect on January 1, 2017, and set minimum energy-saving requirements for new buildings and renovations that will reduce energy used for lighting, heating, cooling, ventilation and water heating. The new standards also set the stage for net-zero energy for new homes in the state within five years. So while not coming out and advocating a specific building standard, the state has clearly defined environmental goals with which builders will have to learn to co-exist.

Meanwhile in the UK, where buildings account for 43% of carbon emissions, the government has already introduced the Code for Sustainable Homes, which provides a single national standard for the design and construction of sustainable new homes. As an incentive to make existing homes more efficient, the government established a program entitled the Green Deal Home Improvement Fund (due to expire in September of this year). These and other initiatives are tied to the UK’s Carbon Change Act and the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50% by 2025 and 80% by 2050.  

Closer to home, under the stewardship of Premier Wynne, the province of Ontario appears no longer to be waiting for the feds to lead the way when it comes to climate change. “Our government is committed to reducing Ontario’s carbon footprint through our continued efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” notes Minister McMeekin. “The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing will work with the Ministries of Energy and Environment to further the government’s commitment to climate change.” 

Whether in California, the UK or Ontario, the takeaway is there’s a growing trend at all government levels to introduce programs, ranging from voluntary to mandatory, to reduce our carbon footprint and energy consumption which, in turn, will have a direct impact on how new homes are built and existing ones maintained. 

THE STANDARD OR THE END GOAL?

In that pursuit, should the province embrace a specific standard that builders must adhere to? Or does it make more sense to follow California’s model, and establish targets for reducing home energy use and let builders decide how to meet these targets? 

From the perspective of Corey McBurney, president of EnerQuality, Energy Star (of which 32% of homes built in Ontario were certified last year) is the most logical voluntary standard to embrace. “Energy Star is the most universal program Canada or the U.S. has ever seen. It’s a program that enables homes to be 20% more energy efficient than homes built to the  building code,” says McBurney. And far from being a static program, it’s a standard that continues to lead the way, McBurney maintains. “By 2017, when the code is updated, Energy Star will be recalibrated so that it still delivers an energy savings of 15-20% above code. So the building code is always going to be playing catch-up.”

Oshawa-based Midhaven Homes, winner of Natural Resources Canada’s 2014 New Homes Builder of the Year award, has embraced the program wholeheartedly. “We made the decision six years ago to build all of our homes to Energy Star standards,” says company president Peter Saturno. “For us, it was a matter of going all in or not doing it at all.” Which is why, not surprisingly when you visit the Midhaven Homes website, the Energy Star logo is featured prominently alongside text that states “Midhaven Homes are 100% Energy Star compliant.”

But shift your focus from low-rise to mid- and high-rise developments, and the perceived standard of choice is less black and white. In the case of Steve Kemp, partner with the Kitchener-based building service firm MMM Group, it’s only a matter of time before LEED becomes more firmly entrenched. “I do think LEED v.4 will become the de facto standard,” Kemp says. “LEED has by far the best reputation. Some people complain that it’s expensive and onerous, but that’s why it has credibility. I think it is here to stay.”

Chris Magwood, who teaches sustainable building and design at the Peterborough-based Endeavour Centre, favours LEED as the way to minimize the impact homes have on the environment, but feels builders sometimes have to jump through unnecessary hoops before getting certification. 

“I really do think that LEED is the best way to put your foot in the door in terms of upping the environmental performance of a building,” Magwood says. “If it’s gold or platinum, it’s a pretty good building. But there are certain things it requires you to do that may not be so important. For instance, for one project we were involved in, LEED required that a silt fence had to be built around the property (to deal with storm water runoff). And yet it was on completely level ground with no chance of runoff. But we had to do it because it was mandatory. So with some things you sort of roll your eyes and ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

The pattern Andrew Oding of Building Knowledge Canada sees is one where municipalities gradually take matters into their own hands and have more leeway. “When LEED was first introduced, the municipalities looked at the shelf (with LEED guidelines) and said, ‘Here, go and build it.’ The problem with that is they didn’t understand the cost implications of a program that basically came out of the U.S. So their mindset (if they had decided on LEED) was, ‘If you’re going to build in our jurisdiction, it needs to be LEED-certified.’ Now a lot of them are doing an about-face. They’re suggesting builders just follow the guidelines.” In other words, more emphasis on building more sustainable homes; less emphasis on the standard itself.

But from the perspective of Kemp of MMM Group, if certification isn’t enforced, it opens up a proverbial Pandora’s box. “There is a market that believes you can do everything to LEED standard but not have to certify. It’s called ‘LEED shadowing’ or ‘LEED lite.’ But the fundamental issue is if you’re going to be self-policing, you tend to be less diligent about achieving the LEED goals. When people start making up their own interpretation, it’s a slippery slope.”

IS LESS MORE?

McBurney of EnerQuality, which is wholly focused on providing third-party certification, says the biggest challenge for builders isn’t so much building to a specific standard, but rather making things less complicated in terms of the number of standards to choose from. “Home builders are under a lot of pressure dealing with buyers and market demand on the one hand, and regulatory requirements enforced by the municipalities on the other hand. So they’re having to satisfy both sides,” observes McBurney. “In a world that’s complicated enough already, we’re trying to not introduce more complexity for builders when it comes to getting certification. So we’ve kept it to five different certifications: Energy Star, R-2000, LEED, EnerGuide and GreenHouse. To use the Baskin Robbins analogy, a lot of people are overwhelmed by choices. You might have six different types of chocolate, three vanillas and four strawberry,  not to mention all of the other flavours. I think sometimes people long for making things simpler again and just having a few flavours to choose from.”

In the case of Midhaven, the company has decided to build not just to Energy Star, but GreenHouse standards as well. Described by the likes of McBurney as “Energy Star Plus,” GreenHouse goes a step beyond Energy Star, adding three more sustainability metrics—water, materials and waste and indoor air quality—to its core Energy Star requirement.

While standards such as Energy Star are firmly entrenched in the Ontario marketplace, particularly with low-rise builders, and LEED seems increasingly on the radar of mid- and high-rise builders, other standards tied to not just reducing energy but building performance are emerging as well. One reason is that in the case of LEED, for instance, a common criticism is that it’s possible to build to certain LEED standards without having to make energy consumption a priority. One example Kemp of MMM Group cites is a condo building that has been constructed using a window wall. “With LEED, you can in theory build a single-glaze glass box of a building, and if it happens to have the most effective mechanical system in the world, you can still reach your energy targets.” 

In contrast, Kemp says, Passive House, another building standard that has gained significant traction in Germany and is gradually attracting the attention of builders in the U.S. and Canada (where it was initially conceived—see sidebar), “forces you to have a great envelope as well as a strong mechanical system that will future-proof the building. It applies really strong metrics to the performance of a building and is a little bit more precise than LEED in that it looks at both the passive energy performance and overall energy efficiency of a building.”

Can LEED and Passive House co-exist? Absolutely, says Ottawa’s VERT plan.design.build owner Chris Straka, whose first home—half of a duplex he designed in the Ottawa neighbourhood of New Edinburgh—was not only Canada’s first certified Passive House, but also LEED Platinum.

“They’re not oil and water,” says Straka, who has five passive house projects to his credit, from design to occupancy. “Passive House reaches far beyond LEED Platinum and is the high bar builders should reach for. And I hope to see it reflected in future legislation. But LEED includes other important things, such as conserving water and wood and sourcing products locally. Together they broaden the definition of high-performance building.”

 A similar observation has been made between Energy Star and LEED. In the U.S., for example, LEED requires Energy Star as part of the Existing Building System. 

Other complementary standards just seeing the light of day include WELL, which deals with such things as air quality and lighting that contribute to the health and well-being of homeowners. Another is GRESB, which looks at existing buildings and their ongoing performance with respect to energy, emissions, water and waste.

DO HOMEOWNERS CARE?

Like it or not, builders are having to contend with more and more standards, some that are competing and others that tend to go hand in hand. So in choosing a standard to build to in order to help reduce energy consumption, two nagging questions remain: To what extent does building to higher standards matter to consumers? And how will building to a higher standard impact on bottom-line sales? 

Unfortunately, standards don’t matter to consumers as much as one would hope, suggests Midhaven’s Saturno. “Does it sell us more homes? Very honestly, no. When customers are caught up in the excitement and euphoria of a purchase, they’re more focused on the solid quartz countertops. However, those customers are the ones who come back 12 months later and say they can’t believe how comfortable their homes are and how much less energy their homes use. That’s when they have an epiphany and realize that if you build a more energy-efficient home, it will likely translate into a higher resale value. And down the road when they do sell, a lot of those people become return customers.” 

But at the end of the day, Saturno says, they aren’t building more energy-efficient homes because they think the practice will sell more homes. “We’re doing it because we see (reducing energy consumption) as a moral obligation.” 

“It’s just a better way of building,” adds Straka, who says the demand for his product is increasing. And while it costs more to build to higher standards—and requires more time, given the added attention to detail—customers are seeing the ROI of a more energy-efficient home, Straka says. “Beyond that, it’s simply a more comfortable home to live in, and it’s a home that will be on this earth a lot longer than most.” 

And with that priority in mind, what’s the next thing to watch for? Saturno says Net Zero is definitely something being considered by his company as a potentially transformative way to build new homes. Andrew Oding, chair of the Canadian Home Builders Net Zero Council, concurs. “Within five to 10 years, I see a lot of builders building Net Zero homes

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