A well built, very energy efficient house is an asset to both the homeowner and the community. It will use less energy, be more comfortable and will be a healthy environment in which to live. This now begs the question ‘Why aren’t we building them?’ Why are we continuing to just build to code, or to put it another way, build the lowest quality house that can legally be built. Why can we not help the forward thinking contractors who are encompassing the latest technologies . Does energy efficiency and green building always mean more expensive?
Let me expand on these questions and hopefully give you food for thought.
First of all, there are many changes coming down the line regarding the BC Building Code and the energy efficiency of new houses. Although there has been two postponements already it looks as if the Energuide 80 standard will be here next Spring. The Energuide number is an energy efficiency rating of the house and an Energuide report will give an estimate of the energy you can expect to use per year for electricity, oil and gas. This report is not yet mandatory for new build so if you want to know this information, along with the impact of any suggested upgrades, ask your contractor to arrange for Energuide for New Homes on day one. The ideal time for the contractor to do this would be before any site work commences, it is easier to change details on a drawing than on site.
Other Code changes are likely to include higher insulation levels, much improved air tightness along with a blower door test to show this, improved and more efficient windows, water conservation and greywater recycling, much more use of solar energy. There may also be a policy for energy labelling of homes at the point of transfer or sale.
Better insulation of walls and ceilings can be achieved in several ways but also needs careful consideration of moisture control and air tightness. A new house should be constructed as a system and altering one part of it may affect another. Among methods of insulation improvement will be ICF (insulated concrete forms), SIPS (structurally insulated panel system), exterior insulation to prevent the ‘cold bridging’ of wall studs, staggered double stud walls. All these systems are now readily available and all have their pros and cons. Like I mentioned earlier, fully decide before you start on site.
The insulation value of a wall is likely to be raised to an effective R24, although I personally think this should be even higher as we do live in a cold climate after all, as opposed to the effective R16-17 we now have. A current Energy Star window will give about R3-3.5. This will change. Triple glazing should become the standard along with more emphasis on the R value and Solar Heat Gain for the appropriate elevation. If designed correctly a window can actually become a heater for the winter and not a hole in the wall.
“You can have a house that is too air tight, can’t you?” is a question often asked of me. My answer- No, but you can get a house that is too air tight and not ventilated correctly. Big difference.
When our heating/cooling fuel was much cheaper our houses were often very leaky. At the time this probably was not too much of a problem in terms of energy costs. Now fuel has become more expensive, and will likely continue to rise, we need to keep the heat in instead of just turning up the furnace. Since the advent of the R-2000 program houses have been built more air tight. However, going back to the House as a System, a house needs ventilation to prevent air quality problems. The best way of doing this is to install a balanced ventilation system with heat recovery (HRV). Now the ventilation can be controlled and maximised. As much as this may be an energy efficient solution I also consider this to be an important health issue.
Water meters are coming, and we’d better get used to the idea. Already several municipalities in the Kootenays have introduced them and I think it’s only a matter of time before they will be installed in all homes. We all think we have plenty of water in BC. Well we have, but most of it flows north and where do most of us live, in the south. The amount of fresh water available for drinking purposes is considerably less than imagined. To help alleviate this the BC Building Code is likely to allow for greywater recycling. That is to re-use the water from washing machines, showers and bath tubs by filtering out some of the impurities and then sending this water to the toilets of the house and, maybe, garden irrigation systems. Do you really want to pay good dollars to flush drinking quality water down the toilet? That’s what we do at present. It is already code to install low flow faucets and shower heads. The flushing capacity of toilets is going to be reduced from 6 litres to 4.8 from October of 2011. There is actually a 3 litre flush toilet already available.
If you can, use solar for hot water. It works! In Germany there is the biggest solar industry in Europe. Thousands of jobs created and, if you ever get the chance to visit, you will see solar panels for hot water and also for electric generation on a huge number of homes. The German government has invested much money into renewable energies and homes using photo voltaic panels to generate some of their electric get paid for any excess generated, this is known as a feed-in tariff. Now, every city in Canada has as good as, or better, solar energy than Germany. So where are all the solar panels? I realise that until our government comes up with a way of taxing the sun there may not be too much in the way of incentives but, especially if you heat your water with electric, solar is a very cost effective method of heating your water. Once installed, you can look forward to many months a year of free hot water for maybe 20 years or more.
If you heat with electric, or propane, consider the use of a heat pump. These are very effective for both heating and cooling. There are also units that do not require any ducting and they work very well. In fact, if you build a very well insulated, air tight house you may find that a traditional forced air furnace is actually overkill, and not entirely necessary. There are now heat pumps coming onto the market that work well, even at much colder temperatures than previous units.
On the topic of heating, and going back to my earlier comment of finalising details before starting on site, make sure that the heating system has been designed right with correct heat loss/gain calculations done and, if ducting is being used, that this is also designed correctly. Don’t leave it to when the furnace arrives on site, it’s too late at that stage. Get the system commissioned so that you can see that it is performing as it is designed, it will be with you for a long time.
So, if you are having a house built ask your contractor about some of these things, and if you are a contractor try to encourage your customers to go that little bit further. There are currently some Energuide incentives being paid by BC Hydro and Fortis BC, these may help.
A really energy efficient house will not cost substantially more to build than a ‘code house’. The extra insulation, better windows, etc will mean a smaller heating system installation. In many instances the extra mortgage cost to the customer will be outweighed by the much lower monthly energy bills.
To the municipality it means a lower energy use too. Less water to supply, less water to treat at the sewage treatment plant, and a much higher quality housing stock using less energy.
So why wait until next year or beyond, we should be building to a much better standard now and giving all homeowners the benefits of a more comfortable house that costs much less to look after.