Everything you need to know about the net-zero housing revolution

Micheal Sawyer is president of Net-Zero Structures Ltd., a sustainable home development company based in Smithers. Sawyer worked for 25 years as an environmental consultant in Calgary before moving to B.C., where he has built 25 net-zero homes since 2010. 

A net-zero ski chalet built in the sub-alpine on Hudson Bay Mountain near Smithers, featuring with 8-inch SIPs walls, 12-inch SIP roof panels, and triple glazed windows. Photo by Net-Zero Structures Ltd.

Research released by the Pembina Institute and Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) on July 23 revealed that net-zero buildings could help pave the way in achieving B.C.'s climate change targets. Net-zero structures produce as much renewable energy on-site as they consume using features like solar panels, triple-glazed windows, and extra-insulated walls.

The question remains, should the province and municipalities make firmer commitments towards net-zero home construction? Read more about the research, its implications and a government call to action here. 

The Vancouver Observer talked with net-zero housing builder, Micheal Sawyer about the process. 

VO: Does it cost more to build a net-zero home?

MS: “If you have a contractor who is really open-minded about it and progressive in their thinking, it will probably cost five to 10 per cent more to build a really good net-zero house, maximum. Probably less.”

VO: If you're home is close to net-zero, how much money can you save?

MS: “If we really go at it hard using all the things we can do to make a house more efficient, if you have a four-year life cycle analysis — let’s say the house costs you $300,000. Over a four-year period, you could get half (the cost of net-zero) back through savings.”

“It really depends on where in the province you are, because obviously your heating demand days in Vancouver are different than they are in Smithers or Fort St. John. If a person were averaging $200 a month for heating utilities, you would expect your bills to be 50 to 80 per cent less, so you’d be saving $100 or even $150 a month on utilities.

Multiply that by 12 months and 10 years, and suddenly you’re looking at a significant amount.”

VO: With savings like that, why aren’t there more net-zero homes?

MS: “There’s a disconnect in the market place between perceived value or price, versus the actual true value of an energy-efficient house. When we are looking at purchasing a house, we have a tendency to just look at the sticker price.

What we don’t consider in that buying decision is what that house is going to cost us to operate both in financial terms (heating, utilities, cooling, electrical) but also in terms of… the impact for the environment.

“The other problem of course is that the actual building industry itself is tooled up to… an outdated mode of construction that makes it very difficult to achieve an energy-efficient building envelope. There’s lots of different ways now to build houses now that are better, but it’s like teaching old dogs new tricks.”

VO: Is it really a revolution? 

MS: “The demand is increasingly dramatically with every passing year.

Having said that, only a very small percentage of homes built in our region or British Columbia as a whole are currently at the net-zero standard.

“The truth of the matter is that not many of our clients actually end up going the net-zero route; what we end up building for them is what we call ‘net-zero-ready houses.’

So the house is energy efficient, it reduces the amount of energy demand regardless of what source of energy you’re using when you heat it.

The trick with net-zero is to get your demand so low that you could meet that demand with some form of renewable energy.”

VO: If you already have a home, is there a way to bring it to net-zero standards?

MS: “You would have to look at the houses on an individual basis — you wouldn’t want to renovate a house that isn't going survive anyway — but mostly, those houses that are being torn down for new developments are actually pretty well-built houses, they’re just not energy-efficient. 

“The house that I live in was 55-year-old bungalow that probably was condemnable, it was in really rough shape.

I increased the wall insulation, and it was actually quite cost-effective, so the answer is generally-speaking, that you can renovate old houses to very, very high standards of efficiency.”

VO: Is it feasible for Vancouver or all of B.C. to adopt a net-zero standard?

MS: “I don’t have any reason to think we couldn’t do it, but we’re not going to be able to achieve that unless we have leadership from government in terms of changing the building code to reflect the things we’re going to have to do.

We’re not going to do it unless we have leadership from the construction industry… On the whole, the construction industry is looking to build cheap houses as fast as possible to maximize profit, and that is not what they need to be doing. 

“I think the real focus of net-zero is to build better houses that require less energy to heat and are more comfortable and healthy to live in.

If you want to take the extra step of putting solar panels on your roof, that’s great too, but it shouldn’t be the primary focus. The primary focus should be building better houses.”

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