By Mark Wessel

John Sloot of Sloot Construction was on the cusp of history. Or at least he thought he was. His goal was to build Ontario’s first Net Zero-only residential community comprised of 15 homes. But after six long months of waiting to get an estimate from Ontario Hydro, he received a letter in the mail advising that the servicing costs would be twice as much as he had anticipated. His immediate response: “I have no idea why the cost has gone up so much and I’m just blown away that I now have to put off building more energy-efficient homes because of factors beyond my control.” To cap off his frustration Sloot suggested, “Instead of spending the money on Hydro, maybe I’ll just go off-grid altogether.”

One more day and yet another challenge for John and Sloot Construction, which has swum upstream for decades due to their commitment to build more energy-efficient homes, having won numerous builder awards in the process. They’ve ridden the energy efficiency wave, starting with the construction of R2000 homes in the ’90s, getting on board with Energy Star when it was introduced in 2005, and now with Net Zero Ready and Net Zero homes. [A Net Zero Energy (NZE) home is one that is designed, modelled and constructed to produce as much energy as it consumes on an annual basis. A Net Zero Ready (NZEr) home meets the same technical specifications as an NZE home, but doesn’t have the renewable energy generation installed yet—this is left for purchase and installation in the future.)

Despite numerous obstacles, the rationale for taking the road less travelled is a familiar story not only for Sloot but a growing number of Ontario home builders driven by the twofold desire to increase the energy efficiency and comfort of the homes they build, while reducing the carbon footprint of these residences. “I’ve always thought if people are going to live in a house for the rest of their lives, you should try to give them the best product available in terms of both quality and energy efficiency,” says Sloot.

In addition to the bureaucracy and red tape he has had to deal with, there have been challenges from the consumer side as well. “We’ve always offered energy efficiency options, such as insulation with higher R-values. But our homeowners are looking at hardwood flooring and granite countertops first and they’re not always willing to put money into things you can’t see.”

The pattern for builders pushing the envelope (literally) is for years they’ve been squeezed between regulations and pricing barriers on the one hand and consumers who have had a hard time wrapping their heads around the added cost of having a more energy-efficient home. And don’t even talk to them about having a smaller carbon footprint.

Despite these challenges, Ontario builders continue to forge ahead with innovations rarely witnessed in other industries. Consider that a typical home built to current code uses 66% less energy than its predecessor in 1975 and only 50% of the energy used by a 2005 code-built home. And according to Gary Sharp, code specialist with the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, the bar will keep going up in five-year increments between now and 2032, by which time all new homes will be NZEr, or 80% more energy efficient than today’s homes!

“How do we get there, and at the same time protect housing affordability?” asks Sharp. “I think we have to build houses that are just as good, but make them more energy efficient for less money. So it’s going to be quite a balancing act.”

The Path of Constant Improvement 

Of course it won’t be the first time Ontario builders have faced this kind of challenge. Dating back to when R2000 was introduced, Sharp says builders aspiring to meet that standard’s energy efficiency targets found different ways to get there, and that process, which carries through to today, “can create a lot of innovation.”

Much of the Ontario building industry’s energy-saving innovation over the past 10 years is tied to improvements to the building envelope, according to Derek Hickson of Minto, whose title is, appropriately, manager of innovation. “Exterior insulation is probably one of the biggest gains that has been made—that along with installing Energy Star-rated windows and improving the airtightness of the homes we build.”

enerDoug Tarry of Doug Tarry Homes Limited describes it as “a path of continual improvement. Just incremental steps over an extended period of time.” Tarry’s company jumped into the game between 2005 and 2006 as part of the Energy Star pilot program and says that when sales of Energy Star homes reached 50% they made it their standard. “For us, we like the fact there’s energy savings. But also that homes are healthier, more comfortable and more durable.”

Getting potential homeowners to buy into those attributes is becoming a little easier of late, thanks to everything from rising electricity prices to the branding impact of EnerGuide (which was launched in 1978 by Natural Resources Canada using a scale of 0-100 to measure a home’s energy efficiency) and Energy Star-rated homes, which are approximately 20% more energy efficient than homes built to code.

In terms of market penetration and generating awareness through these brands, “across the country, we now have over a million homes with an EnerGuide rating,” says Corey McBurney, president of EnerQuality, a top certifier of energy-efficient homes. As for Energy Star, “it’s the mark of high-efficiency products in Canada,” McBurney notes. “You can’t go into a hardware or electronics store without seeing an Energy Star logo. It’s on over 70 different products, from windows, lightbulbs and refrigerators to computers. It’s everywhere.” And because Energy Star treats homes like other consumer products, McBurney notes, “it helps homebuyers purchase the most energy-efficient home on the market, and they’re making Ontario a world leader in low-carbon housing.”

But while Energy Star has been a driving force behind both consumer buy-in and builder innovation over the past 5-10 years, there’s a growing sense that NZE homes will assume this mantle. There’s even talk of the two standards merging so that, for instance, by the time Energy Star reaches version 27 (they’re on a five-year cycle and currently moving to version 17 on September 1) it could essentially be the same as NZEr.

From Zero to 100 to Zero

So where will that leave us with Energuide’s 0-100 efficiency scale? As noted on Natural Resource Canada’s website, EnerGuide is abandoning the 0-100 scale of measuring a home’s energy efficiency in favour of a gigajoule-per-year (GJ/year) rating system. The new rating enables consumers to see their score using units of energy, similar to how they would see a consumption rating of kilowatt hours per year for home appliances, miles per gallon for vehicles or calories per serving for food.

Sonja Winkelman, CHBA’s director of Net Zero Housing, says the move away from the 0-100 scale to gigajoules will help to develop consumer energy literacy. “We know we have to do some consumer education in order to build awareness around such things as gigajoules of energy consumption. Or what does it mean to improve a home’s envelope in order to improve comfort and air quality and decrease your energy loads? I think in time consumers will understand what we’re talking about. It’s not unlike what we first went through with nutritional labels on food, where you ask yourself what are the calories or how many grams of fat or sugar does a product have? Before, people had no idea, but they’ve learned what these things mean.”

So how have things changed? According to CHBA, a typical Ottawa house built to Ontario code during the period of 1961-1977 consumed 343.2 gigajoules per year (1 gigajoule = 277.77 kilowatt hours). From 1998 to 2005, the total had dropped to 166.6 GJ/year, and by 2012 it was down to 116.8 GJ/year, or three times more energy efficient than homes built in the 1970s. As we head toward 2032 and the prospect of the building code being equivalent to NZEr, it will translate into homes that are 80% more energy efficient than even the current code.

Brent Strachan of Minto can truly relate to these energy performance numbers of the Ottawa homes—not only because Minto is an Ottawa-based builder, but because they’ve been in the forefront of building technology over the decades as an early adapter in the construction of R2000, Energy Star, LEED and now Net Zero homes.

“We’ve been active participants in advancing housing technology and for the most part, the affordability component,” says Strachan.

Apart from significant advances with respect to insulation and airtightness, Strachan says one of the biggest contributors to building homes that are more energy efficient yet still affordable has been the significant drop in costs of products and technologies needed to build these homes.

A prime example, cited by Strachan’s co-worker Derek Hickson, has been the drop in price of triple-pane windows, typically the weakest point in a home’s exterior insulation. “Insulated walls are four times more energy efficient. But the reality is people like natural light,” says Hickson. “Ten years ago when you did triple-pane windows, they were two to three times the cost of conventional windows. But now it’s just 15-30% more. So suddenly here in Ottawa, it’s all about triple-pane windows when you build a new home.”

Other cost-effective, energy-saving innovations include spray foam to seal around doors, as well as pipe and wire penetrations, not to mention the whole concept of uninterrupted exterior wall insulation driven by the likes of Owens Corning.

Reid’s Heritage Homes has adopted Owens Corning’s Foamular CodeBord Extruded Polystyrene as an exterior wall insulation solution for its Net Zero pilot homes in Guelph. In addition to having an R-5 value per inch and a compressive strength of 20 psi, the product eliminates thermal bridges to significantly minimize heat loss.

And according to Jennifer Weatherston, director of innovation for Reid’s, in addition to placing a great deal of emphasis on the building envelope to get their homes to NZEr (80% more efficient than code), the proverbial ‘last mile’ of getting to NZE (100% more efficient) has been the combination of deploying the right mechanical solutions in tandem with heat pump and solar panel solutions.

“Heat pump technology has come a long way as a heating and cooling solution,” observes Weatherston. “With older technology, as soon as it started to get cold—say below -5C, the heating efficiency would drop off dramatically. But there are solutions available now where the drop in performance is much more gradual, producing heat down to a low of -20 degrees.”

Weatherston says Reid’s has also come up with a more strategic approach against the backdrop of fluctuating energy prices by building more homes using a hybrid solution involving a combination of electric and gas to heat and cool a home. “We use an electric-powered air source heat pump as the primary source along with a backup gas-powered furnace, and we can program our system to switch from the heat pump to the gas furnace when, for instance, the temperature reaches -5C and gas is more affordable.”

In terms of how all of these innovations will impact the environment and the carbon footprint of newly built homes, the upgrades to the 2017 code alone represent an estimated 80% fewer emissions than homes constructed in 1975, according to Weatherston. As the code transitions to Net Zero Ready from the current code, we’ll see another 57% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.

The Carrot and Stick

In spite of the leadership role of a select group of Ontario builders, combined with a building code that keeps evolving, there remains the perception that the province still needs to up its game in terms of providing more incentives for consumers to make them want to purchase more energy-efficient homes or upgrade existing homes.

The potential carrot we’re still waiting for is a more aggressive subsidy program that encourages consumers to purchase more energy-efficient homes. The proverbial stick for consumers is that by 2019, when Ontario’s Home Efficiency, Rating and Disclosure (HERD) program for rating the energy efficiency of all Ontario home comes into effect, consumers won’t be able to sell their homes unless they have an energy efficiency rating. That, in turn, could have a dramatic impact on the resale value of a home, which alone could incent new-home buyers to purchase more energy-
efficient homes from the outset versus opting to upgrade their home’s efficiency down the road.