Net-zero capital

Net-zero capital of Canada?

Glenn Halvorson of Laebon Homes moves a cutaway model of the company’s net zero home’s energy-saving walls inside the home’s garage.

Net-zero capital of Canada?

Red Deer could lay claim to this title following a recent Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. forum in Edmonton, where information about environmentally sustainable homes was exchanged.

Those presenting included representatives of two local builders that constructed homes designed to produce as much energy as they consume.

The Avalon Central Alberta and Laebon Homes projects are among 15 nationwide in CMHC’s EQuilibrium program — an initiative through which builders and developers created homes with minimal environmental impacts. Only a half-dozen of the homes have been completed to date, including both in Red Deer.

The Edmonton forum attracted about 150 people, ranging from engineers to builders, said Anand Mishra, regional adviser, research with CMHC.

“It was a room full of knowledge,” confirmed Glenn Halvorson, a project manager with Laebon.

In addition to descriptions of the Red Deer projects and another in Edmonton, attendees heard panel discussions on energy efficiency, renewable energy systems, occupant health, resource conservation, environmental protection and affordability.

“The goal of the forum was to discuss what is involved in building EQuilibrium homes, and what technologies worked, what were their experiences, what they will do again and what they will not do again, which technologies they will use,” explained Mishra, who is a civil engineer.

He was impressed by how builders like Laebon and Avalon improved the structural envelopes of their homes to the point that no natural gas connections were needed.

“All of these homes are so energy-efficient that with a small heater you can heat the whole house,” said Mishra.

Heat retention is the key to developing a net-zero home, confirmed Halvorson.

“That’s not the most exciting stuff in the world, but it’s creating a box that the heat doesn’t get back out of.

“If you’re going to use twice as much insulation, you’re only going to require half as much heat.”

Trevor Gamelin, operations manager and a partner with Avalon, said his company significantly boosted the insulation in its project, called Discovery 3. That included R-72 insulation in the walls, R-60 under the floor slab and R-80 above the ceiling.

“There was a huge solar system on it too,” he added.

Among the conclusions drawn by Avalon was that its decision not to include a basement in its project — in an effort to reduce heat loss into the ground — was the wrong way to go.

And Laebon discovered that the geothermal system it incorporated into its house wasn’t effective in reaching the net-zero status.

“It’s an electricity hog,” observed Halvorson, adding that the house now relies on solar-thermal energy for heating, with the geothermal system a backup.

The forum concluded with a tour of the EQuilibrium homes in Edmonton and Red Deer, with about 70 people travelling here by bus.

Halvorson said the program resulted in a good exchange of information, including during the design and construction phases.

“Nobody was holding their information proprietary. We were all trying to help each other.”

Avalon’s net-zero home is now occupied by Jonas Neidert, another Avalon partner. And Laebon’s EQuilibrium project is up for sale.

CMHC will monitor both for one year to measure their energy use and efficiency.

Whether Discovery 3 will net out to zero energy use will depend on the lifestyle of its occupants, suggested Gamelin.

“So far it’s been energy positive. It remains to be seen whether that was enough to actually counteract what they pull out over the winter.”

Avalon’s sister company in Calgary, Avalon Master Builder, has already nearly completed Discovery 4. Work on Discovery 5 could begin next year or in 2011, said Gamelin.

Avalon’s goal is for all of the companies’ homes to be net-zero by 2015. That ambitious target will likely require energy utility companies to provide equipment like geothermal and solar-thermal systems, and lease these to the homeowners, said Gamelin.

“Partnerships like that are where we’re going to need to go to make it affordable in the long term,” he said. “The renewable energy part is the expensive part.”

Halvorson said Laebon is also marketing energy production, with one of its show homes solar-thermal ready. The company is installing a photovoltaics system on another, and conducting research on wind turbines.

“I think where we go from here is to offer an energy package and start refining that,” he suggested. But, added Halvorson, widespread net-zero housing may prove impractical.

“One of the problems with building net-zero is you can get to net-90 (self-sufficiency) fairly cheap. “But to get that last 10 per cent, it’s really expensive to hit that.”

Mishra said most of the remaining EQuilibrium homes should be completed by June. Ultimately, CMHC will provide comprehensive results that will provide direction for sustainable housing into the future.

“We will have a summary on our website, and if someone is really into research they can read the 300-page report.”

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com

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