Icon Homes, a construction company in Quesnel, is building what may be only the second net-zero energy home in all of northern B.C.
A net-zero energy home is one that produces as much energy as it consumes, and tends to be at least 40 to 60 per cent more efficient than a home built to the B.C. Building Code.
More than an energy-efficient home, it’s a step toward the future. By 2032, B.C. Housing intends to make net-zero energy homes the standard, not the outlier.
To make this happen, B.C. Housing has developed a program called the BC Energy Step Code. The Step Code outlines a series of five steps, which begins with step one, with a slightly more energy efficient house, and ends with step five, a net-zero energy home. The steps in between bring the house from 10 to 20 to 40 per cent more efficient than a house built to the standard B.C. Building Code.
For larger, multi-residential buildings, there are four steps, which go from slightly improved efficiency to 20-40 per cent better to 50 per cent better to net-zero ready.
On the Step Code website, they say the higher steps will be the mandatory minimum in B.C. by the year 2032. Similarly, the National Building Code of Canada is moving toward a comparable outcome by the year 2030.
Ahead of the curve
Joe Hart, the owner of Icon Homes, says they wanted to get a jump on the process before it was made mandatory.
They started with a home built to step four of the BC Energy Step Code last year, before taking on the net-zero energy project this fall. But getting started ahead of the curve means the formula for the best net-zero energy home is still a work in progress — particularly for those building homes in the north.
Builders must take a training course before they can build a net-zero energy home, but even then, there remains much to learn.
With only one other certified net-zero energy home in Northern B.C., it’s still something of a trial-and-error process to determine what does, and does not, work in colder climates. In particular, Hart says they ran into some difficulties working on the step four energy efficient home last year.
Now, Hart and Icon Homes are working directly with B.C. Housing and the Canadian Home Builder’s Association (CHBA) to provide feedback about exactly what does or does not work as they move through the process of building in the north. They are also taking part in Local Energy Efficiency Partnerships (LEEP) through Natural Resources Canada.
LEEP is a program which helps builders build energy-efficient homes better, faster, and to a higher degree of affordability. Builders in the program work together, meeting at workshops and determining the most energy-efficient technologies and practices to utilize moving forward. They also host a technology forum, bringing in experts requested by the builders themselves, and builders share the successes and pitfalls of their own work building energy-efficient homes or buildings in the field.
Building energy-efficient homes is a highly collaborative process, particularly in the north, where standards set in the Lower Mainland, for example, may not apply to the climate. That’s what Icon Homes found last year, as they built their step four energy efficient home. It prompted the experts to go back to the drawing board and try to find a way to make the metrics work in climates across B.C.
As he works with LEEP, B.C. Housing and CHBA to figure out what works in the north, Hart says he hopes to take the knowledge they gain from building energy efficient homes in northern B.C. and eventually use it to help other northern builders learn as well.
Other challenges in the north
Building energy-efficient homes in the north presents a particular set of difficulties, says Hart, even beyond learning exactly what the best practices are or should be.
A lack of energy advisors capable of certifying homes as energy efficient made building the step four home last year particularly difficult, says Hart. At the time, the only advisor available to them was based in Alberta — and had a number of other builders and projects to work on as well. This meant sometimes it could take weeks for the advisor to respond to questions.
But they didn’t have time to halt construction to wait for the energy advisor’s answer, so they often found themselves forced to continue on and attempt to figure it out on their own. Now, Hart says there are two energy advisors in Prince George alone, who are capable of certifying homes and answering their questions, making for a much speedier process.
Hart says another challenge is ensuring they’re still building a healthy home with healthy walls, even as they use new technologies and methods. One way they plan to monitor the health of the new net-zero energy home is by leaving a monitoring system inside a wall to track moisture and airflow within the wall.
“We can’t just add the insulation,” says Hart. “There’s way more to it than that.”
The monitoring system is something they’re working on with the CHBA, and he’s hopeful it will prove whether or not the formula the experts have come up with for energy-efficient homes actually works in our northern climate.
The final challenge is making sure, even with the new standards and technology, the homes built are still affordable. “Affordable housing is the big issue across the province,” says Hart. “So that’s what our biggest challenge is right now, to try and figure that part out.”
Even with the steep learning curve, Hart says he’s excited to be doing the work.