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Is Net Zero Housing Ready to Go Mainstream?

Are you a homebuilder or renovator who hasn’t paid much attention to the topic of “Net Zero” energy-efficiency standards for new homes?

If so, don’t feel bad. You are still in the majority of contractors to whom Net Zero building standards are not part of daily life. But Net Zero is going to become a major topic in our industry over the next few years. That’s because the re-elected Liberal government in Ottawa has committed Canada’s economy to a “clean energy transition.”

According to the Liberals, Canada will achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. That means, the country, as a whole, will only produce as much carbon as it takes out of the atmosphere (largely through the planting tens of millions of trees).
This is a bold pledge, to be sure. In making it, the Trudeau government has joined 65 countries and the European Union in committing to radical changes to their nation’s industrial economies.

What has this got to do with you, the contractor? Plenty. Housing – or more specifically, heating Canadian homes – makes up a significant proportion of the 45 per cent of our carbon emissions that Environment and Climate Change Canada says come from “burning fuel and electricity for heat.”

Long before it made its “Net Zero by 2050” pledge, Ottawa had committed to work towards “Net Zero Energy Ready (NZER)” building codes by 2030. That’s less than ten years from now.

A true “Net Zero” home would, technically, only consume as much energy as it annually produced. To this extent, Net Zero is similar to the well-known Passive House approach. Energy production would be accomplished by solar panels, in most cases, and possibly geothermal energy sources or even wind power.

A “Net Zero Energy Ready” home, on the other hand, would focus on the energy-efficiency side of the equation. NZER implies a house that is so energy efficient that it could one day be harnessed to renewal energy sources so that it would be, truly, Net Zero.

How serious is Canada’s federal government about making a Net Zero housing strategy come to pass? Well consider that the Trudeau government, in its Dec. 5, 2019 Speech from the Throne, in which the government outlined its policy goals for the current session of parliament, referenced the world “climate” 11 times.

For those who think that Net Zero is just something the Liberal government has decided to pursue, it’s important to recognize that it was under the Conservative government that Canada’s official R-2000 Net Zero Energy Pilot was launched. The pilot essentially provided energy efficiency standards to decide what a Net Zero home consisted of. By Fall 2016, 23 Net Zero energy homes were built by six builders in three different provinces.

In 2017, the Canadian Home Builders Association (CHBA) launched its Net Zero Home Labelling Program. The first new home in Canada to receive this specific Net Zero label was located in Saanich, BC. Designed by Ryan Hoyt and built by Falcon Heights Contracting, the three-storey, 4,500 sq. ft. home is a case study for high performance building envelope tightness.
The Windsor Park Net Zero House in Edmonton won the 2017 Canadian Green Building Award in the Technical category. Replacing a 1950’s bungalow, the house was designed to be aesthetically beautiful and produce all its own energy. To do this, the house was built according to the principles of passive solar design, increased insulation, airtight construction techniques, highly efficient mechanical systems and photovoltaic power generation. The house achieved an extremely low EnerGuide rating of 100.

Last year, Habitat for Humanity generated significant publicity for Manitoba’s first ever net-zero new home. The solar powered house in Winnipeg was unveiled in May 2019, and the family that moved into it was quoted as saying, “We don’t have to pay for hydro! It’s beyond (our) expectations!” Habitat built five Net Zero homes in the Manitoba capital last year. They obviously weren’t the first homes in the province to utilize solar power, but the builder claimed the homes had set a Manitoba record for how well they were sealed.

Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize that not all of these early Net Zero home examples have achieved economic success as well as energy-efficiency success. The CBC reported in February that a well-known Net Zero house in Quispamsis, NB, constructed in 2017, is currently sitting empty. The contractor, Brad McLaughlin of MCL Construction Ltd., says the three-bedroom, two-bath home has been on and off the market since 2017. It was first listed fort $695,000, didn’t sell, and in May last year the contractor reduced the price to $570,000. Last month, the house was back on the market for $495,000.
Yet the house is a stunning success at energy efficiency and energy generation. With insulated concrete form (ICF) walls, triple-glazed windows, almost four-dozen solar panels and a sophisticated battery system, the house sends surplus energy back onto the New Brunswick power grid. Still, the house hasn’t sold (at press time).

Does this mean that Net Zero energy housing is going to be a tough-sell for builders. Not at all. In fact some builders are already using Net Zero claims in their marketing, some of them very successfully.

One such firm is Terra View Homes, Guelph, Ontario. They are challenging other builders with a bold mission statement they call “Net Zero Now.”

“Terra View’s Net-Zero Ready homes allow homeowners to greatly diminish their carbon footprint while contributing directly to the fight against climate change,” the firm says in a recent media release. “The builder has implemented and made available solar, geothermal and rainwater recovery initiatives for purchasers to select from. By practicing environmentally conscious building, Terra View utilizes building materials such as low emission quartz counters, low VOC cabinetry and wood finished off-site to limit off gassing; resulting in lower emissions from the process of constructing a new home.

Currently building the first Net Zero Ready communities in Guelph at Hart Village and NiMa Trails, Terra View says that its homes in these communities “will maximize the potential of natural elements such as sun, water and rain and minimize the draw on resources needed for everyday life. Features include: all homes built to a Net Zero standard, energy modelling of each home, superior building envelope, extremely efficient mechanical systems, triple pane windows, solar PV ready with full solar option and third-party blower door testing.”

Terra View Homes is also proud to call itself “Canada’s first and only builder to include 4KW of solar technology on homes at no cost to purchasers” at its Hart Village project. It calls this initiative, “GoSolar.” “GoSolar encourages homeowners to take the first step to complete energy independence when it comes to their home—their new home will be wired and ready for when they are ready to increase solar generation and classify the home as full net-zero.