By Jody MacPherson
Originally published in C3 Views newsletter, November, 2003

Energy. It’s defined as “exertion of power,” or “expression of vigour.” The word brings to mind action and movement. How is it then, that a house, nestled peacefully in a neighbourhood, silent and watchful, is such a voracious consumer of energy? According to the Government of Canada’s Office of Energy Efficiency, the residential sector is quietly gobbling up 17 percent of the secondary energy use in Canada. More than 80 percent of that residential energy is used for space and water heating.
Energy. It’s defined as “exertion of power,” or “expression of vigour.” The word brings to mind action and movement. How is it then, that a house, nestled peacefully in a neighbourhood, silent and watchful, is such a voracious consumer of energy? According to the Government of Canada’s Office of Energy Efficiency, the residential sector is quietly gobbling up 17 percent of the secondary energy use in Canada. More than 80 percent of that residential energy is used for space and water heating.

The experts agree the most economical way to improve energy efficiency is during construction rather than after a home is built. The trouble is, although there has been progress, most new homes still have a long way to go to be considered energy efficient.

That’s why the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) and the Calgary Regional Home Builders Association (CRHBA), with support from a number of sponsors and Climate Change Central has launched “Built Green Alberta.” The program enlists builders across Alberta and encourages them to construct homes that meet one of three environmental achievement levels—bronze, silver or gold.

Bringing energy efficient homes and their builders to the podium for recognition is an important first step to involving more builders in the R-2000 program according to Kevin Gunn, executive director of Enervision. Enervision is the provincial, non-profit corporation formed three years ago to deliver the R-2000 program in Alberta.

“The reality is that all new homes should be built to R-2000 standards or above, but that hasn’t happened,” says Gunn. “Built Green Alberta gets builders into the environmental mindset.”

The surprising thing is that it doesn’t take an Olympian effort to make your home a prize-winner. It’s primarily a competition for the best performance in three different areas: heating energy consumption; air ventilation and filtration; and responsible use of resources.
Heating energy consumption
When building a new home, a tight, well-insulated leak-free construction will go a long way towards reducing energy costs. Look at the outer shell of the building, known as the “envelope” and plug any potential spots where air can slip through the cracks. Also, the type and placement of windows can maximize heat from the sun (without costly solar panels) and minimize heat loss. Consider water heaters that need no storage tanks and efficiently heat water on an as-needed basis.
Air ventilation and filtration

Allowing the house to “breathe” is essential, so once the home is airtight, it needs a mechanical heat recovery ventilation system. The system pumps a supply of fresh, filtered air into the house and removes stale air. It also captures heat from the outgoing air and pre-heats the incoming air to lower heating costs. Positive venting of appliances and furnaces is also an important safety concern.

Responsible use of resources

Before putting on those finishing touches, be sure to check for potential sources of “off-gassing.” Everything from paint to glue to carpet should be scrutinized for the emission of toxins, which can be especially harmful indoors. And don’t forget to consider environmental damage beyond the front doorstep. It makes sense to avoid materials that may be harmful on a global scale. The use of recycled plastic and high yield wood products, the purchase of energy efficient appliances and the incorporation of water conservation measures into plans are all encouraged. The four R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle and recover) combined with R-2000 are a potent cure for home energy woes.

But hold on! What is the cost of this heroic home-building? According to Enervision’s web site (www.enervision.tv), the cost for an R-2000 home is about five dollars more per square foot. On an average home of about 1,700 square feet, that’s an extra $8,500. The dividends for this investment are paid out in several ways, though. Expect a 30-50 percent reduction in heating energy use in an R-2000 home. With natural gas prices at an all-time high of around $5/GJ (gigajoule), that could translate into significant savings on your monthly bill.

Gunn says the market for energy efficient homes is picking up. “Aging baby boomers are purchasing what they call their last home, and want live in it for 25 years,” he says. “But more importantly, consumers are buying into the concept for reasons of health, quality and comfort,” he says.

Research has shown that people with asthma and allergies who live in R-2000 homes have fewer absences from work and school. They also have fewer visits to the doctor and hospitals. Choosing an energy-efficient home is clearly not just for “do-gooders.”

Finally, one of the last great frontiers dividing Alberta consumers from their dream of an energy efficient home may soon be conquered. Builders are sitting down with lenders to conduct a “Green Mortgage Study.” The study will look at the best way to make building energy efficient homes more affordable.

Anand Mishra, a senior research advisor with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation says his organization supports the idea.

“Now that we know much is saved on operating costs with an energy efficient home, we can add that to the mortgage and perhaps the bank can give a lower interest rate,” he says.

Another suggestion is that the CMHC reduce the premium on its mortgage and lending rate. The study will examine several options, but with the Yukon already offering such a program, it’s likely just a matter of time before the green mortgage migrates south.

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