the road to building green

Seven years ago, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) sponsored a net-zero building project across the country. We were fortunate to live in proximity to a few really interesting projects: two in Red Deer and the Riverdale house in Edmonton.

With my interest in infill developments close to “town”, I was particularly interested in the Riverdale duplex project, and fortunately the proponents were happy to share the process with us and others as they went through the design and build process. It was great to learn about the challenges in trying to achieve net zero energy and how some pieces of the puzzle were just too pricey to carry over into mainstream housing. Another interesting part was how each of the three developers had completely different ideas for how to achieve their goals. Some things worked as modelled and other things didn’t.

We didn’t find solutions that would help us much with the place we owned at the time but we socked away those notes about triple pane windows, aspect, forgoing gas utilities and and thicker walls for when they would eventually be of some use for us. Oh, and at around the same time I started learning about water efficient fixtures and Maximum Performance (MaP) Testing of toilets.

It was another few years and then friends of ours started talking about their LEED reno. I followed with interest, especially when they wrote about toilets. Two years earlier, I had attended a conference where this toilet was being tested out in the homes of some of our country’s leading municipal water conservation gurus. The talk was good. I can honestly say I’ve never heard such excitable talk about water efficient toilets, but David sure came close with this post!

Over the years we also watched and learned from our neighbours who completed a BC Built Green renovation, and took in a few different offerings of the eco home tour on our favourite gulf island.

We looked at a wide range of construction methods too: from cob, straw bale, shipping container and Faswall (wood fibre concrete blocks) to more conventional stick built walls.

In the end, we realized it would take us a very long time to cut through the red tape if we wanted to do something very different and live in town. We also had lots of questions about how reliable some of the alternative construction methods would be in this wet and windy corner of the world.

Indoor air quality was a major concern for us and as we read books such as “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” and “Homes that Heal”, we started to get a better picture of what needed to be done in the construction of our new home. (More recently I’ve been turning to the blog “My Chemical-Free House” and Greenworks Building Supply as well.)

Before we’d even found our lot we met with a few builders and some were big advocates for BC Built Green. We read through the information on that rating system but it didn’t jive with our priorities. Untested “green” materials seemed to be more important than liveability so we weren’t interested.

Then our architect put us in touch with the folks from Wakefield and they asked if we’d looked at LEED. Up to that point we hadn’t, but a quick review of the check list the following weekend quickly showed us that our priorities could put us in the running for gold or platinum.

It’s hard to say how much more it’s costing to go through the LEED process but it has certainly come with a steep learning curve for all of us. Being an educator, I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. Besides, I think both parties will be getting something they want out of it – recognition for building at a higher level and assurances that the most important things in this build are done right.

Some of the things that will set our house apart from other new houses in the area include:
– durability: our home was designed and is being constructed to last our lifetime and beyond. (For us this means no asphalt roof, generous overhangs to protect the building envelope, a layout that should serve us in old age, and more. We hadn’t planned on it, but the structural engineering is surprisingly robust now too.)
– energy efficiency: we designed this to be our lifetime house plus so our evaluation of energy consumption is naturally quite different. Thick walls, a more efficient heating system and what we hope will be a good air barrier mean more costs up front but we shouldn’t be spending as much on month-to-month heating either,
– indoor air quality: my nose, the information in our resources, the VOC guidelines in the Materials and Resources section of the LEED Canada for Homes Rating System, and common sense mean that many common off-gassing products aren’t in our house to begin with. For example, we aren’t using IKEA kitchen cabinetry, spray foam, or vinyl windows.
– moisture management: rain screening is required for all new home construction here but we’ve taken some measures to go beyond this. There was so much reading and conversing to do to figure out where to put the vapour barrier, the difference between a vapour barrier and air barrier and on and on. We also have a more robust moisture barrier in the shower and tub surround, and opted to go without a basement, in part because of our concerns with moisture and air quality.
– water efficiency: borrowing from what I learned in my earlier career, we’ve opted for ultra-water efficient fixtures in the bathrooms and outside. We’ve got the best toilet (I hope!) and are using rain water capture to help water the garden beds. (Sure we could have done more, but the cost and headache weren’t worth it for us.)

Working through the LEED program has been interesting but perhaps the most stressful bit is that you can go to all these efforts and one small slip means it’s all for naught. Even before we realized that, we set the intention to aim for points only in the areas where it made sense to us. That’s easy to say, but in practice, it’s much more difficult to do.

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