In the spring of 2014, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) posted on its website that “with the R-2000 level fast becoming the code-built energy requirement for homes in many jurisdictions, there is a need to take energy efficiency to the next level and make net-zero-energy homes a reality.”
In hindsight, the announcement could very well have been the tipping point in Canada for net-zero construction (a home that produces as much energy as it consumes), as not long after, NRCan funded a project with Owens Corning to build 25 net-zero-energy (NZE) homes.
“We had been conducting research on net-zero-energy housing for over a decade and the concept had been around for longer than that,” observes Mark Carver of NRCan. “But it’s a concept that had existed predominantly in other countries that weren’t as challenging weather-wise. So our inspiration came from builders here in Canada who wanted to apply the net-zero-energy concept in our cold climate.”
Through the ecoENERGY Innovation Initiative (ecoEII), NRCan funded the project with Owens Corning. The project involved five builders (including Minto and Reid’s Heritage Homes in Ontario), all of whom agreed to build at least five NZE discovery homes apiece, with the goal of building those residences at a price point that would be within reach of everyday consumers. The plan is that they would be setting the stage not just for NZE homes, but for NZE communities. It was a 180-degree change in mindset from how net-zero-energy homes had been built previously—mostly one-off custom-built models for more affluent, less price-sensitive consumers willing to pay an additional $120,000+ to have an NZE-qualified home.
In order to introduce affordability into the equation, a rethinking was in order, Carver explains. “We knew we needed to focus on the technical stumbling blocks. We had to reduce space-heating requirements by at least 50%. And we couldn’t keep using expensive proprietary mechanical systems that nobody knew how to service.”
As a consequence, the lion’s share of the $1.96 million in funding flowing from NRCan was dedicated to technical consulting and support for the participating builders.
Another significant part of this process involved the extensive software simulations NRCan had conducted that analyzed hundreds of thousands of different technological configurations that could conceivably go into an NZE home—all in the pursuit of the optimal mix of products and solutions that the project’s participating builders could incorporate into the construction of their pilot homes.
THE NEW (NET ZERO ENERGY) WAVE
Just this fall, as a result of all the up-front planning and thought that had gone into the NZE pilot program, Reid’s Heritage Homes unveiled its first NZE discovery home in the Guelph community of Westminster Woods, with prices starting in the mid-$500,000 range. As Jennifer Weatherston, Reid’s director of innovation explained, the company’s overarching goal with these homes wasn’t just to demonstrate that Reid’s was capable of building an NZE home, but that it can build an entire community of NZE homes at a price appealing to consumers. “What really inspired us was to build a net-zero-energy home in a way that was affordable in a manner that we could repeat, using components that were user-friendly,” says Weatherston.
“I think one of the learning experiences we’ve had with this home is that yes, it does cost more. But if it nets out with your annual utility bill, then it really doesn’t cost more. And if you have a healthier, more comfortable home, then it’s a no-brainer,” Weatherston adds.
Perhaps the most newsworthy announcement made at the Reid’s Heritage launch for its NZE-Ready home (all of the features of an NZE home, prior to adding solar panels) was the declaration that by the end of 2016, all future communities the company builds will solely be NZE-Ready homes, making Reid’s the first builder in Canada to make such a commitment. It’s a promise that Weatherston describes as “a natural transition” in light of the company’s history of building more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly homes dating back to 2007, when it built the first LEED Platinum home in Canada.
Almost at the same time Reid’s was launching its discovery project, Minto was following suit in its Arcadia community in Kanata, with the introduction of the 2,406 sq. ft. Killarny model, a detached NZE-Ready home priced to sell for $495,600, with comparable non-NZE models selling for $452,900. In other words, just over $40k more to get the home to NZE-Ready and then, by Minto’s estimates, another $25k-40k to pay for rooftop solar panels to reach net-zero-energy status. The numbers are in line with NRCan’s goal of narrowing the price gap to well under $100,000 between Net Zero Energy residences and homes of less stringent standards.
But the question now facing these trailblazers is whether they can get consumers to buy into paying 10%-20% more for a NZE-Ready home. Derek Hickson, Minto’s manager of innovation feels the key is not to focus solely on the financial pros and cons of owning a net-zero-energy home. “With our model, we estimate owners will realize $1,500 to $2,000 a year in energy savings. But I like to focus on the benefits on top of that: the added health, comfort and resiliency of these homes. For instance, from a resiliency standpoint, with twice the insulation, these homes stay a lot warmer. So if you experience a blackout, by our calculations these houses not drop below 16C for about 24 hours on a typical winter day in Ottawa.”
Apart from playing up the big picture, Minto is also addressing the affordability issue by introducing not just NZE detached homes, but less expensive NZE townhomes in the Kanata community. “I think it’s really interesting that Minto is looking at multi-family townhouses as part of their net-zero-energy offering,” observes Carver. “Most of the net-zero-energy homes are still detached, but with these townhomes Minto is responding to where the market demand is heading.”
ANYTHING BUT STANDARD
Feeding off the momentum and market buzz of the NRCan/CHBA discovery project, together with the fact that several other builders across the country are building or planning on building NZE homes, in September CHBA launched the Net Zero Energy Labelling Program as a way to increase awareness and stimulate demand for this emerging standard. As Andy Oding, Senior Building Science Associate with Building Knowledge Canada and chair of CHBA’s Net Zero Energy Housing Council observes: “We want to create a clear path for builders that want to build to Net Zero Energy so that it is no longer nuanced, but contains clear metrics.”
CHBA is positioning net-zero energy as part of a full spectrum of energy performance levels, rating Energy Star homes 20% more energy efficient than homes built to code, R-2000 homes 50% more efficient, NZE-Ready homes 80% more efficient, and NZE homes 100% tighter than homes built to code thanks to their energy production capabilities.
“Think of it in terms of good, better, best,” says EnerQuality President Corey McBurney. “The Ontario Building Code is good. Enery Star is better, and net zero is best—the ultimate in energy efficiency. We need to remember that the OBC is good by any standard, especially compared to other provinces and U.S. states. The fact is we’re already ahead. EnerQuality’s job is to help builders do even better, and Energy Star for New Homes has proven to be the most effective system. As we see it, Energy Star is how we’ll get to net zero.”
EnerQuality has remained ahead of the curve. Just as it was quick to market with Energy Star and R-2000 workshops for builders, the organization was also the first to offer NZE training, with a program that was launched in October.PIECES OF THE PUZZLE
In helping not only builders but consumers come to grips with the technology that goes into building an NZE home, Candice Luck of buildABILITY, the lead consulting firm working on the NRCan project, has a genuine knack for getting to the heart of what goes into net-zero energy in order to get to zero. In a recent interview on CBC, (one of a growing number of mainstream media outlets that are starting to report on net-zero energy), Candice explained that it isn’t about building a home with hundreds of thousands of solar panels
in order to balance out the energy typi-cally consumed by a conventional home, even though, technically, that could be one approach.
“We always looked at conservation first,” said Luck. “And that means giving you a super-tight, super-insulated building envelope. This is exterior insulation put on the outside of your walls, right before your cladding. It replaces the wood sheathing and reduces thermal bridging in your studs. And then inside your walls between the studs there’s high-density batt insulation. And then what we’re using is the highest performing triple-pane windows. That means there are two layers of gas in between to keep it insulated. And then we move into mechanicals and we’re looking at new heat pump technology. So this entire house, because it’s so airtight and so well insulated, could probably (be heated) with just two hair dryers. An air source heat pump exchanges the heat in the summer for cool air to act like a cooling mechanism, and then takes the cool air and exchanges it into heat in the winter. And we’re using a Hybrid Heat Pump water heater. And finally there’s HRV [Heat Recovery Ventilator]. It’s really the lungs of the house to improve air quality. Because these homes are so air tight, you need to make sure there’s proper ventilation.”
Those steps will get you NZE-Ready. For consumers willing to go the last mile to get to Net Zero Energy, it’s a matter of spending the extra money for solar photovoltaics (PVs), with about 30 solar panels required for an average home, according to Luck.
Andy Goyda of Owens Corning says the company’s Foamular CodeBord rigid foam insulation has been around several years, but was in less demand when code did not reference metrics for airtightness. But now, Goyda notes, most voluntary programs and some building codes are calling to measure airtightness. “R2000 calls for 1.5 air exchanges per hour at delivery stage, and (with the CodeBord system) we’re coming in at that rate of exchange at the framing stage! And that’s the benchmark for net-zero energy.”
Another critical piece of the puzzle is triple-pane windows, which have only recently begun to command the same attention as double-pane models, partly because the price gap between the two continues to narrow. Consequently, both Reid’s and Minto are using JELD-WEN’s triple-pane vinyl casement windows, featuring ‘Low-E’ coating, which are optimized for maximum energy efficiency during the heating season. As Lisa Bergeron of JELD-WEN is quick to point out, the triple-pane product literally is a window of opportunity for energy-conscious consumers. “Windows are the best way to increase the performance of the building envelope, so high-efficiency windows optimized for the right application will be the important challenge over the next few years.”
Whether you’re talking to supplier representatives such as Goyda and Bergeron or the companies intent on building NZE homes, it’s generally recognized that by far the most important piece of the puzzle is the home’s thermal envelope.
The second-most important piece is energy conservation. In that regard, one of the biggest energy hogs in a home has historically been hot water use. Although standard gas and electric water heaters have improved their energy efficiencies in recent years, Mark Muzyka of Rheem says “even a tankless water heater that has an energy factor of .94 will not perform adequately to ensure a home meets the net-zero energy qualifications.”
The solution some of the builders in the current NZE discovery program have turned to is Rheem’s Hybrid Heat Pump water heater, which has a 2.45 energy factor—so almost two-and-a-half times more efficient than a conventional hot water heater. The product is only just being introduced into the Canadian market and while it’s priced at $1,500-1,800—arguably higher than what most consumers are used to spending—the system more than pays for itself, delivering $4,000 in energy savings over the 12-year life of the product.
The other critical part of the energy conservation equation according to Building Knowledge’s Oding comes down to lifestyle. “Homeowners make different choices when it comes to the lights and appliances they use. Are you using Energy Star appliances? Do you have a beer fridge? So we have the technology to get you to Net Zero Energy, but ultimately it comes down to how people want to live their lives.”
With all of the technology that goes into building an NZE home, buildABILITY’s Luck says the up-front concern when the most recent discovery program was launched was the technical challenge of building NZE and NZE-Ready homes. But thanks in part to technical support subsidized by NRCan, the participating builders have passed with flying colours. Instead it has been some of the community stakeholders that have posed the greatest challenge. Luck says one of the obstacles for new-home builders has been Ontario’s microFIT program (microfit.powerauthority.on.ca). The program provides allows homeowners to develop a small or “micro” renewable electricity generation project on their property. Homeowners are paid a guaranteed price over a 20-year term (40 years for waterpower projects) for all the electricity they produce and deliver to the province’s electricity grid, whether that’s through solar panels or other means. The problem is that the onus is on homeowners to apply.
“Builders can’t apply on behalf of homeowners for the microFIT program, because it’s only geared to homeowners,” Luck explains. “And technically the home is owned by the builder until it’s built and ownership is turned over to the purchaser. So builders are then left to decide whether or not to build a more expensive NZE-Ready home without any guarantees they’ll sell the house.”
Since utilities have, to date, refused to budge on this technicality, Luck says builders such as Minto have found a work-around by making one of the five models in its Arcadia community, the Killarny, an NZE-Ready home only. So instead of pre-building a bunch of NZE-Ready spec homes, they’re getting buy-in from the consumers in the pre-sales stage.
There’s a general consensus among builders, consulting firms and other suppliers that another potential roadblock to gaining wider acceptance for net-zero energy is getting consumers to comprehend what the term actually means and what the added benefits are in order to justify the additional cost, even with the greatly reduced price gap.
“Seventy-five percent is consumer outreach—how you explain what net-zero energy is to the consumer,” observes Oding of Building Knowledge. “How do you help them to understand the intangible benefits of living in an NZE home? Sure, part of the marketing message is the energy savings. But it’s just as important to convey to them that these homes are extremely comfortable, quiet and healthy.”
The hope is that sales will not simply be a numbers game, but that intangibles such as the positive impact net-zero-energy homes can have on the health and well-being of homeowners could turn out to be the biggest selling point of all.