Greener Homes to Help the Planet – and Your Bank Account

Canadian Home Builders’ Association (CHBA)

What’s the one bill you dread seeing the most every month? For many, it’s their heating bill.

If your house is a bit on the drafty side, you often need to crank up the thermostat – but that ends up being more money out of your pocket.

For most homeowners in North America, the cost to heat or cool their homes accounts for more than 50 percent of their annual energy consumption. But what if you could get your house to “Net Zero” status, which means, among other things, drastically reducing the energy needed to keep your house at a comfortable temperature?

The Canadian Home Builders’ Association (CHBA) is helping to make this a reality for homeowners, builders and renovation experts across Canada. Because, let’s face it, Canada is not the warmest country in the world.

“If you could take all the little cracks and holes in the exterior of your house and gather them into one place, it would likely surprise you how large that combined hole would be. We can actually measure the size of that hole when we do a blower door test on the house to determine the airtightness,” says Sonja Winkelmann, CHBA’s Director of Net Zero Energy Housing.

“So if you’ve got an old ‘leaky’ house built before 1985, you’re going to have a hole about 35 to 40 cm in diameter. Whereas on a Net Zero Home, imagine the hole being about 15 cm in diameter – the size of a teacup saucer.”

That big hole in the leaky house adds up to significant energy loss. Drafts from around the windows and doors can account for up to 25 percent of total home heat loss, while less obvious sources are through the ceilings and walls of your home. But higher construction standards have tighter building envelope requirements. In addition to the airtightness, including triple-pane windows and better insulation in walls and ceilings all result in reduced energy needed to heat or cool the interior space.

And here is what makes the concept even more interesting: a Net Zero Home is actually able to produce as much energy as it consumes. So its EnerGuide rating, the measure of energy consumption in gigajoules per year, is simply put: zero.

When your home is this efficient, the savings multiply year after year as energy prices increase. Plus, in Canada, these homes qualify for a 25 percent rebate on your mortgage insurance premium.

These homes significantly reduce the amount of energy they take from the power grid and therefore their greenhouse gas emissions (as much as 40 percent of global CO2 emissions come from electricity generation). By purchasing a Net Zero Home, you’re doing your part to protect against climate change and preserve natural resources for future generations, Winkelmann says. “These homes also have water-saving features in their fixtures and appliances. Everything works together to significantly minimize your household’s environmental footprint.”

Winkelmann does her part for the environment in both her professional and personal life. She’s been driving an electric vehicle for almost five years and would never go back to gas-powered. “Compared to my EV, those cars are noisy, smelly and the maintenance is constant between oil changes and brakes. Plus, an EV is so much more fun to drive!”

She’s also moving into a new Net Zero development in Southern Ontario, in February 2022. “I’m beyond excited because, well, it’s the very first new home I’ve ever bought. I’ve only bought existing homes and spent a lot of time fixing them up,” she says. “And I’m excited about the fact that I’m finally able to walk the talk about what we’re trying to do.”

It is exciting. These Net Zero homes are up to 80 percent more energy-efficient than a home built to conventional standards, and they use renewable energy like solar power to produce the remaining energy they need. The Net Zero movement is an invitation for the industry to innovate.

Some regions/utilities offer net-metering or net-billing programs that allow consumers who generate their own electricity to export their surplus power back to the grid for a credit. Who wouldn’t like that?

CHBA developed the Net Zero Home Labelling Program to support the builders and renovators voluntarily wanting to offer these homes to Canadians. The program, piloted in 2015-2016, has rolled out a clearly defined, two-tiered technical requirement that recognizes Net Zero Homes as well as Net Zero Ready Homes. A Net Zero Ready Home is built to the same performance level as a Net Zero Home but doesn’t have the renewable energy generation system installed yet.

After only five years, more than 520 homes in Canada have been labelled through CHBA’s program that also acknowledges the builders and renovators involved. Next, CHBA is looking at some of the other challenges, like how to renovate existing homes to Net Zero or Net Zero Ready – because not everyone wants to move to a new home to get the performance and comfort of Net Zero. There’s so much more you can do to your home than simply install a programmable Google Nest Thermostat and have Alexa monitor your smart appliances.

Roughly half of Canada’s existing homes were built before 1985, and that housing stock uses more than twice the energy than the housing stock built since 1985. So CHBA has launched a pilot program for Net Zero Renovations where homes can achieve a Net Zero or Net Zero Ready label through deep energy retrofits. A new national renovation code is also in the works, though it is unclear at this stage how that will come into play. And in December, the federal government announced plans to more than triple its carbon tax and spend $15 billion to pass Canada’s 2030 greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, including a significant investment of $2.6 billion for residential retrofits. The residential retrofits program will provide up to $5,000 in energy retrofit grants per home, seeking to provide 1 million free EnerGuide evaluations.

“It’s really taking off,” Winkelmann says. “There’s much more interest from stakeholders for Research and Development to figure out things such as how to reduce costs and the optimum way to do this with renovations and mid-density housing.”

Consider also the lasting impacts of COVID-19. In these uncertain times of the pandemic’s second wave, homes are the refuges in communities. Healthier, more comfortable home life has become even more important with people working remotely, schooling from home, and self-isolating for protection.

That’s where Net Zero can be a great advantage. Beyond the environmental benefits and significant savings on gas and electricity bills, there’s the quality of life boost – comfort and quiet – that the designation brings with it. A built-in filtered fresh air system, for example, helps reduce allergens and asthma triggers like pollen and dust.

“One of our board members is now living in a Net Zero Ready Home and one of the things they love most is the fact that they rarely have to dust,” Winkelmann explains. “Another thing we keep hearing about from people who are living in these houses is how quiet they are inside. You don’t hear the dogs barking outside, the lawnmowers or the traffic.”

CHBA’s consumer market research also found that people, especially women, gravitated toward the even temperature throughout the house year-round.

“People don’t want to be sweltering hot or have a room over the garage that’s freezing cold. They don’t want to have to put on an extra sweater and slippers in the winter because it’s so cold sitting next to the sliding glass patio door. The comfort and healthy living is a big focus.”

We all could use a little more comfort these days, right?

More Than Just a Trend

The construction industry is typically slow to evolve. Despite the existence of countless new innovations and technologies, and safer, better ways to do things, it is an industry where tried and true construction methods and long-accepted materials are seldom replaced by a new product or approach.

April 17, 2021, 7:29 PM EDT