RDC Loves Green Construction
Rising energy costs, lower installation costs and educated builders pave way for more efficient homes
As published in Pique Newsmagazine, written by Andrew Mitchell June 9, 2013
For decades, the word “green” has been thrown around in a variety of different environmental contexts, but the time may have come at last to do something about it: we’ve talked the talk and now it’s probably a good time to walk the walk. And not just because it’s the right thing to do for the environment (which it is) or because it’s the right thing to do for our own health and well-being (which is usually also true): the future is green because the economics demand it. The status quo is getting too expensive.
The days of cheap electricity and cheap fuel are coming to an end, forcing Canadians to come face-to-face with the same realities that people in Europe faced decades ago and greeted with a wave of housing innovations and lifestyle changes that are only starting to reach North America.
Changing our habits can help us become greener and reduce our ecological footprints, but one of the biggest differences we can make is at home by reducing the amount of energy we consume. Greening your home — reducing how much energy you actually need — can result in dramatic savings.
Building codes are slowly changing in step with green technology and know-how. A house built today is exponentially more efficient than a house built thirty years ago, even if it’s not specifically built to be “green.”
The Whistler Example
When it comes to greening homes, Whistler is on the cutting edge in Canada, with unique builds including Net Zero homes, some of Canada’s first passive houses, LEED-certified buildings, R-2000 certified projects and more. There are a few good reasons for this, ranging from the resort’s educated and well-travelled citizens to our focus on sustainability and the environment. Builders also play an important role in the greening of Whistler, steering their clients in the right direction or opting from the start to use various green techniques.
The environment here also plays a role, underlining the economic case for green building with winters that can stretch from late October to mid-May and summer temperatures that can be hotter than Vancouver. We live in a climate that breeds mould, warps walls and wears out roofs.
Chris Addario, president of the Canadian Home Builders Association — Sea to Sky chapter — said the shift to greener homes started in earnest about 10 years ago, but has kicked into overdrive the last five years. Almost every builder in the corridor now builds and renovates green to some extent, beyond anything specified in the building code, and many have made it their main focus.
“The initial thing is that there’s been a huge focus on value, and people are more willing these days to look at things like energy costs, for instance, and factor those into the long-term pricing of their home,” he said. “People are looking at all kinds of ways they can save money down the road whether it’s solar hot water or more efficient insulation. They’re more aware of those things than they used to be.
“The other part of that is B.C. Building Code is pushing that way slowly. In Whistler, we’re fortunate because a lot of builders here are interested in the new technologies and willing to take those first steps. Remember, a lot of these things have been around a long time in places (like Europe) that are like Whistler in a lot of ways.
“The Olympics also helped to bring some of that about. RDC (Fine Homes) did a Net Zero house, and we have a passive house from Durfeld (Constructors), and those projects largely came about because of the Games.”
But while new home builds are greener, Addario also noted that a lot of homes in Whistler are reaching the point where they need major renovations. They’re in need of new roofs, new windows, and new insulation. Any improvements will have to meet higher environmental standards just following the code, but the fact that builders are more experienced in recommending and installing green options also ups the overall energy efficiency.
“It depends on the extent of the renovation, but if someone goes to the extent of tearing out drywall they’d be crazy not to consider upgrading the insulation while their at it,” said Addario. “If they’re replacing windows then they’re choosing triple-paned glass and multi-point locking hardware to increase the tightness of the window. You can improve a building envelope in some very practical ways to save energy, and a lot of the upgrades are not mechanical like heat pumps so there’s nothing to maintain or break. By increasing the insulation and air exchange in your house you’re often better off in the long run than just upgrading to a more efficient heating system.”
As well as the building code and advice from contractors, Addario has also noticed that people are doing a lot more research themselves.
“The information that’s available to people now on the Internet has had a huge impact on driving some of these (green) technologies forward,” he said. “The customers are going online and researching this stuff while in the past they wouldn’t have known about it unless they talked to someone local about a product or saw it while they were travelling. Without that information, (the green building/renovation market) wouldn’t have grown as quickly as it has.”
A house as a system
Richard Haywood at Canada Home Energy says it is time to look at the big picture rather than the details.
“A house is a system,” he says. “You can look at parts of it and target different aspects, but all the different pieces work together. It’s like the human body in a way — you can look at these things individually, the heart, the lungs, but you have to look at the whole system if you want to be healthy.”
You can use individual green technologies and techniques for bits of pieces of a home, but the greatest benefit happens, says Haywood, when you commit to green principles from the very beginning of a build and ensure every part of it complements the whole.
Modelling new homes using software before building also allows for additional benefits that aren’t always obvious. “Let’s say you get a design for a house from an architect and you say ‘great, let’s build it,'” says Haywood. “Then I come along and do modelling and I might say if you changed the whole aspect of the house (by rotating it) just three degrees this way then this is how much you’ll save by increasing winter solar gains. I can say where windows should go and how much that’s going to save as well.”
That kind of approach is impossible for homes looking to become a little greener through renovations and upgrades, though he says there is a lot that most homeowners can do to make existing homes more efficient — and a lot of those things are fairly cheap.
If people are serious about improving efficiency, he says the first step is to buy a tube of caulking and look for obvious leaks. The second thing to do is to contact him or another company that offers energy audits to figure out where leakages are still occurring and where upgrade money is best invested.
Haywood uses various technologies when modelling a home. The blower test, for example, involves sealing a front door and blowing air inside while monitoring air pressure. A home with a lot of leaks would lose air pressure quickly.
Making a house as airtight as possible is the first step, he says, because there’s no point in investing in heating system upgrades if hot air is going to continue to escape.
Haywood also uses software when assessing a home. By creating a model home he can assess how much energy it will require to heat and test various fixes to see how much energy requirements can be reduced. “It’s complicated because there are a lot of different parts involved, and each part has its own role to play in energy performance,” he says. “For example, when I do testing in a house… I can look at every portion of the house — windows, doors, heating, ventilation, hot water, waste on the construction side of things, insulation — and I can tell you how much your house is going to cost to heat and what your air exchanges should be.
“I can also look at energy upgrades. For example, if you changed insulation values in the second-floor ceiling then I can tell you that you can bring energy costs down this much. When you look at it that way you can model your return on investment in terms of various upgrades.” Proper air circulation can also cut heating bills while making homes healthier and more comfortable, but if you have baseboard heaters instead of central air then sometimes all you need is a few ceiling fans to keep the air moving. Insulating attics, crawlspaces and other heat drains can also make a big difference for relatively low cost.
Replacing windows is also recommended, although the costs are higher. Windows generally have the lowest R-value (a measure of thermal resistance used by homebuilders) in any home. Homes with central heating have more options and can purchase heat pumps or HRV (heat recovery ventilator) systems improve air circulation and bring in fresh air while also recovering heat from air vented to the outside. HRV technology, according to Natural Resources Canada, in now a $50 million a year industry in Canada.
Haywood notes that the green renovation business was busier when a joint federal/provincial grant program was available that covered the cost of energy audits and provided grants worth thousands of dollars. However, even though the program expired in early 2012 Haywood says the program was at least successful in raising public awareness. “It was a good program and really successful in Whistler,” he says. “It’s a shame that it wasn’t continued, and the result is that these days it’s more of a sales call; you have to sell people on the economic benefits of these technologies and upgrades. It’s really the economy that’s driving the changes… some of this stuff comes with an added price tag so you have to able to show the benefits over time.”
It helps, says Haywood, if people look at green home renovations as a kind of inverted pyramid scheme: instead of pocketing any savings realized from switching to LED bulbs or adding programmable thermostats, he recommends knowing your baseline numbers from the beginning so you can reinvest those savings into additional efficiencies. The more you save, the more you invest.
But efficiencies are only one part of the equation. Even the greenest home can waste energy, says Haywood, unless the people living in them become greener as well.
No green homes without green people
While Haywood can simply design homes that use half as much energy, the wildcard is always the people that live in them. If people adapt their lifestyles, and if technology continues to improve, Haywood says homes in the future will be close to “net zero” when it comes to energy use.
“I always talk to plumbers and heating guys from Europe, and they always ask me why nobody does solar heating here… they have fewer solar hours in places like Ireland, but they’re producing more heating from it than we are,” he says. “Ireland is cloudy a lot of the time, but it still makes economic sense to use a solar hot water heater.”
To get all the benefits of green technologies you have to change your lifestyle as well. For example, a solar hot water system will produce a lot of hot water during the day, so you have to adopt other technologies like programmable washing machines and dishwashers to do the work during the day when solar heat is available. Otherwise, all you have at the end of a long summer’s day is a single tank of heated water and a lot of wasted potential.
Those programmable systems have been widely available in Europe for years and are just starting to appear in North America as some jurisdictions like Ontario have switched to “time-of-day” billing where people are charged more for using electricity during times of peak demand.
Another challenge, says Haywood, is the growing issue of phantom power. Some people are not getting the full benefit of savings from green technologies because they’re also adopting other technologies at the same time that drain large amounts of power even when they’re off.
“We can hook a power meter up to a distribution board and monitor the power at night when everything is supposed to be off, and people are amazed by how much all this stuff is draining — computers and televisions and cable boxes, everything,” says Haywood.
Greener houses for health
While economics are a major driver of green housing technologies, another is health. Toxic gases from cooking, paint, electronics and other sources don’t build up in homes with good air circulation because the air is swapped out more regularly; mould doesn’t grow because humidity is controlled in the process and heat is more evenly distributed throughout the home. Air systems also have filters that can remove dust and pollen from the air, or other airborne agents.
“Again, it helps if you think of your house as a system like your body, and if you don’t keep it healthy then you can get sick,” says Haywood. “There are a lot of sick houses in Whistler…. There’s mold and mildew and in some cases the air is just not healthy to breathe. That’s a huge incentive for people when they start looking at renovation plans.”
When it comes to building sciences, sometimes achieving healthy air quality is simply a byproduct of green technologies. For example, HRV systems are used to efficiently move air — and heat — around a home to achieve a uniform temperature and humidity level, while also recovering heat from air that’s vented outside. They reduce heating costs, but by doing the one job they also prevent toxic gases from building up or cold, or damp spots developing where mould can grow.
Choice of construction materials and furnishing can also make a difference. Some common sources of toxic gases include construction materials and paints, electronics, furniture, mattresses, computer printers and even books, magazines and newspapers.
Building towards Net Zero
Bob Deeks of RDC Fine Homes has been thinking green since the late ’90s. He originally got into that side of the building trade while doing a home teardown, taking apart a house that had been extensively renovated less than 10 years earlier. Instead of sending the house and its still valuable parts to the landfill, he assembled a crew of 20 one weekend to disassemble it for it to be put back together in Pemberton. That wasn’t a green building project in today’s sense, but it did meet all three R’s of waste management — reduce, reuse and recycle.
He had several other opportunities to do that since then and partnered with other builders to reclaim valuable lumber and materials that would otherwise go into the waste stream. At the same time, he’s also become more interested in green technologies and home designs, leading up the construction of a Net Zero show home made to the Built Green platinum standard in the Rainbow subdivision. The house features 600 square feet of photovoltaic cells to generate electricity, structurally insulated panels (SIP), cement siding that’s immune to changes in temperature, spray foam insulation, the highest-efficiency doors and windows, polished concrete floors that absorb solar radiation during the day and release it overnight, a heating and ventilation system that recovers heat from the dryer and shower drains, the optimal placement of windows, and more. It was the first build of its kind in the province, with only a few similar projects underway in all of Canada.
For Deeks, however, it was just another step in a process that was already underway. All of his projects have been becoming greener over time as he’s experimented with environmentally friendly building techniques — including “rammed earth” where the walls are created from packed dirt and rock into thick, naturally insulated slabs. His latest green build in Bayshores should achieve close to “net zero” performance in the summer months, providing that the occupants are careful how they use electricity.
“There were a lot of lessons we learned (from the net zero home),” said Deeks. “We put a lot of our attention into the building envelope to reduce heat loss and hopefully eliminate cooling in the summer as well. “But it’s also a complicated system and expensive. In this home (in Bayshores) the ongoing maintenance will be less… because there’s almost no moving parts.”
The new build will have photovoltaic panels on one roof, despite opting for solar hot water systems for previous builds. There were a few reasons for the switch. “PV (photovoltaic) was not the most cost-effective solution for a place like Whistler where we have long winters and its grey a lot of the time, but most solar hot water systems can heat water even on cloudy days,” he said. “What’s happened since then, however, is that the cost has come down by a lot. The house we built for 2010 had a six-kilowatt PV array, but this house will have a 10kWh system on a smaller area… and the total cost… is at least 50 percent less. It can be cheaper to install a solar hot water system, but with PV you’re getting bigger bang for your buck over time.”
Not that solar hot water tanks are a bad idea. In one recent build, Deeks said the payback for a solar hot water tank at an installed cost of roughly $5,000 will be between five and ten years. That doesn’t include the money saved by using the solar hot water system to shade south-facing windows, reducing the amount of heat getting into the house and the need for air conditioning.
Modelling suggests that the Bayshores home will use 18,000 to 20,000 kWh per year of electricity, which is about half the amount of electricity an ordinary home that size would use — it’s 2,400 sq ft.The PV panels make it even more efficient and, says Deeks, the panels will generate 10,000 kWh per year. As for the overall return on investment from other green features, Deeks says most green homes will recover the additional costs of going green within 10 to 15 years.
As well as energy, Deeks’ green builds also reduce waste. For example, using insulated concrete forms (ICFs) to build the foundation provides better insulation with almost nothing thrown away — the forms are precut by a company in Vancouver. Most of the wood and waste materials from the build are also reclaimed, with some employees grabbing bits and pieces of two-by-fours to burn at home.
The house is also designed around the use of structurally insulated panels (SIPs) to keep them as whole as possible to avoid leakages. Even the HRV pipes that carry air around the house are specially sealed to ensure there are no leakages into the walls. “Waste can be very expensive at every level,” Deeks says. “It means you’re buying more than you need, which is expensive, and then there are all the costs created by collecting the waste, shipping the waste, dumping the waste. We’ve gotten to the point now where we’re throwing out next to nothing.”
That level of expertise in Whistler is more common than it was. Deeks says builders are learning from every unique build and putting that knowledge to use in everything they do. “Twenty years ago a house was relatively simple — you had walls, a foundation, windows, a layer of drywall and then away you went. But with the changing in the building code it’s become a science, there’s a greater focus on energy efficiency and today we’re building houses that are tighter and tighter that perform better and are more livable as well,” he said.
Twenty-five years of green
Rod Nadeau, the managing partner of Innovation Building Group, has been involved in more than 400 builds in Whistler, including the first R-2000-certified home in the resort in 1988.
It wasn’t specifically designed to be R-2000 level, but it was an unusual build to say the least. “Back in the day we didn’t have the best materials or techniques, but we built the first triple-walled house with triple pane windows and an air-to-air heat exchanger,” he said. “What we did is build a two-by-four wall for the exterior, and then another two-by-four wall inside with a space in between and insulated everything. It’s not the most efficient way of doing things, but we were just trying to build it as air tight as we could.”
But while building green was a challenge then, the technology and knowledge has improved in leaps and bounds. For example that first home’s windows had and R-rating of R3.19, says Nadeau, the best available at the time. Now, most homes built in Whistler have at least R3 or R4 installed, and some green homes have R8.33 windows. “It’s unbelievable, the difference,” said Nadeau.
Nadeau gives high marks to other Whistler builders for their green techniques, which he says are well ahead of the curve when compared to builders in the Lower Mainland that continue to meet the minimum requirements of the building code. He feels that the code is moving too slowly. “By the time the building code takes a step, most builders are already ahead of the change,” he said. “By the time they mandated energy-efficient air conditions, you could already buy very energy efficient heat pumps and air conditioners that exceeded that standard. And it’s obvious in little things like gas fireplaces. A pilot light will burn through $150 to $200 a year in natural gas or propane, which may not seem like a lot but when you multiply that number by the number of gas fireplaces in the provinces, that’s a hell of a lot of fuel being burned. But right now you can buy a $10 electronic ignition to fix the problem. It’s just not mandated by the code.”
Within 10 years of that first triple-walled house, Nadeau said every house they’ve built has met the Canadian government’s R-2000 standard. Green has become his company’s default setting: “I’ve helped build 400 places (in Whistler), and all of them were well ahead of the current building code (of the time),” he says. “Now, I don’t even tell the client we’re doing it, it’s just the way we build every place. And now we’re building homes for clients using the new Net Zero standard.”
For Nadeau, it’s not the customers that are driving the shift to green in Whistler as much as the builders themselves.
“The standards keeping moving, but today we’re building houses where if we added a photovoltaic array we would be close to Net Zero, and close to the passive house standard,” he said.
Nadeau says he can build an efficient home that comes close to the top standards without much of a premium, but the cost of making that home more efficient can sometimes be steep. “We’re just not spending a huge amount to get that last five or 10 percent,” he said. “A passive house uses about 20 percent of the energy of a conventional home, but we’ll stop at 25 percent for a regular house because we can’t spend another $30,000 to $40,000 to get that last five percent.”
Nadeau’s company is also involved in renovations. He says homeowners need to be aware of the benefits of investing in greener upgrades. “I took some 35-year-old aluminum windows out of a friend’s house and replaced them with high quality triple paned R833 windows,” recalls Nadeau. “Before, when they used to come home from work with the kids, they would crank up the wood stove to make the place warm. By the time, we replaced half of the windows they were overheating their home when they put on the fire at night. And by the time we replaced all of the windows they stopped using the fireplace. That’s how much difference the right windows can make.”
The economics of greening a house have also changed. For example, 10 years ago a single programmable thermostat for baseboards heaters was around $200 to buy, he says, while now he can occasionally find a pack of five of them on sale for around $90. At that price, the thermostats pay for themselves in a single year. “It’s one of the first things you should do in any home because it just makes a massive difference,” Nadeau says. “They turn your baseboard heaters from a crappy heating appliance into a highly sophisticated heating appliance by pulsing the heat so they don’t heat up to their full temperature,” he says.
Nadeau says it all comes down to educating people about what’s possible. “Most of this stuff is not that difficult to do, it’s not overly expensive — the problem is that most people aren’t doing it, or taking the time to educate themselves,” he says. “As a company we’ve already decided that this is what we’re doing, even if our customers aren’t aware of it. It’s all about durability, energy performance, comfort and health. That’s what building green does for you.”
Posted: Sunday, June 09, 2013