Welcome to Canada’s Greenest Home!

Canada's Greenest Home

In 2012, the Endeavour Centre partnered with bold funder Neeraj Jain to undertake an ambitious attempt to build Canada’s Greenest Home. The home was built to the highest environmental standards we could find and envision, and it was also built to be sold on the open market to deliver “deep green” performance to the conventional housing market.

The design/build team successfully created a remarkable home, built on an infill lot in central Peterborough, Ontario. Is it really Canada’s Greenest Home? We think so, and you can read our “report card” here. The construction process was the subject of an ongoing blog, showing many of the materials and technologies we used.

Canada's Greenest Home interiorAfter six months on the market, the house was the subject of a great deal of interest and many showings but we did not find a buyer. The most common concern expressed by those interested in the home was, “Will it really work the way you say it will?” As the lead designers and builders, Chris Magwood and Jen Feigin (along with Chris’ daughter, Emma) decided to move in for a year. Over the upcoming year, we will make the home our own, living with its many innovative systems and tracking its performance carefully. It’s a rare opportunity for us as builders to get to live in a home of our own making, but that was not intended to be our home. We get to experience the home in the same way that a buyer would. We’ll be documenting that experience in this blog.

While much has been written about how to design and build more sustainable homes, very little seems to be written about what it’s like to inhabit such a place. This blog will be an honest, frank look at the ups and downs of living in a cutting edge sustainable building.

We hope you enjoy this record of our year in Canada’s Greenest Home.

Living in Canada's Greenest Home
Canada’s Greenest Home stops being just for show, and fills up with the clutter of daily living.

 

 

For Sale: House that Makes an Income!

As followers of this blog will know, we at Endeavour have spent a lot of time on our Canada’s Greenest Home project. Our goal was to make the greenest home possible on an urban infill lot in Peterborough, and then to sell it on the open market to show that there is an appetite for “deep green” amongst home buyers.

The final phase of the project is now underway, with the house going on the market this week. Here is the Listing for 136-1/2 James Street.

The most interesting part of selling this home is how to put forward the unique value proposition we are attempting to make. Most home buyers look within a set price range for their new home, and do this with an implicit understanding that they will be assuming utility costs (heat, electricity, water) that are within a similar range to all other homes. This house radically alters that outlook: There are no utility costs and the home provides an income.

Energy production vs Use

Energy production vs Use

This means that the higher up front cost of buying a super-insulated and completely non-toxic home (LEED Platinum certified) has a very compelling overall financial picture. The solar income from the house averages about $3300 annually. The annual utility costs are around $1800 or $150/month (inclusive of heat, electricity and water, plus services charges and delivery fees). This means that for the remaining 18 years of the Micro-FIT contract, there is a $1500 annual income from the home after all utility costs have been covered!

Considering that an average home of a similar size in Peterborough will have total utilities bills in the $250-600/month range (from census data, 2011), this means that there will be an annual savings of $3,000-8,700 for this homeowner. Putting that extra money against the mortgage for the home can result in the mortgage being paid off 5-6 years earlier. And all that while enjoying a healthy and efficient home.

Mortgage calculator

Mortgage calculator

But can this case be made effectively in the current real estate market? There is no way to show this information in a quick and easy-to-digest form… the listing for the house shows the asking price, and a curious buyer would have to read the listing and inquire about more details in order to learn the whole story.

We hope that there are buyers out there who will be interested enough to find out the details. And we also hope that this helps to set a precedent for builders who want to make healthy houses that earn money and real estate agents who want to sell this kind of home!

If you’d like to help us set this precedent, please share this listing with your networks.

Getting Rid of Radon

Radon remediation

Those of you who follow Endeavour’s work will know that we take indoor environment quality very seriously. Every material that comes into one of our buildings is carefully vetted for its chemical content, and all of our finishes are chosen to be non-toxic. We pride ourselves on making buildings that have the best possible indoor air and water quality for the occupants. This is an aspect of sustainable building that is all too often forgotten, or given minor consideration via the use of low-VOC paints or other small steps.

Radon concentrations in Southern Ontario

http://www.carexcanada.ca/en/radon/environmental_estimate/#provincial_tables_and_maps+maps

We have long been aware of the issue of radon gas; the presence of radon gas is an important consideration when trying to create excellent indoor environment quality. Health Canada says: “Radon is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas formed by the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rocks and water. It seeps from the ground, and small amounts of radon are always present in the air. If radon gas enters a closed space like a home, it can build to higher concentrations. Radon is radioactive, and potentially carcinogenic if enough of the gas builds up. It is estimated that radon exposure is responsible for about 10 per cent of lung cancer cases in Canada, second only to smoking. Health Canada estimates that 1,900 Canadians died in 2006 from lung cancer resulting from radon exposure.”

Radon measurement table

Table from http://www.carexcanada.ca/en/radon/environmental_estimate/#provincial_tables_and_maps+maps

When building our Canada’s Greenest Home project, we certainly considered the issue of radon, but after consulting some radon concentration maps and the Peterborough City-County Health Unit’s radon measurements in area homes, we didn’t think that radon would be an issue for this home. Especially considering the heavy duty vapour barrier and careful air sealing we knew we’d be doing, we thought the risk was extremely low.

However, a radon test of the basement – an integral part of getting our LEED Platinum certification – showed that we had very high levels. A long term (3-month) test gave results of 485 Bq/m3 (Becquerel per cubic metre), well above the Canadian acceptable limit of 200 Bq/m3, which itself is above the World Health Organization‘s recommended limit of 100 Bq/m3.

Despite the dangers of long-term exposure to radon gas, it is not so difficult to remedy a high reading, especially in a well-built home with a good basement.

We bought a testing device ($150) and an extraction fan ($250) from Radon Detect. The testing device can give short term (48 hour) and long term readings of radon levels. When we first plugged it in, we had readings in the 370 Bq/m3 range.

The process for lowering the radon level is to drill a hole in the basement slab to extend a 4-inch pipe down into the gravel below. This pipe is then directed out of the building through the basement wall to exhaust outside. We chose to use a fan mounted outdoors, but there are indoor options as well.

Our readings on the meter dropped by over 100 Bq/m3 to 223 Bq/m3 by just installing the 4-inch pipe, prior to hooking the fan up to the power source! Within 48 hours of turning on the fan, the meter was reading just 5 Bq/m3, well below any level of concern.

What is of concern, however, is that all the available information indicated to us that the Peterborough area is considered quite safe from radon, with the Health Unit reporting that only 8% of homes tested higher than 200 Bq/m3. However, the operator of Radon Detect told us that every home he’s ever seen tested in Peterborough has been higher than that, and certainly our readings were very high. Since radon comes from radioactive decomposition of rock and soil, this would indicated that at least our closest neighbours likely have high radon levels, and that high levels may exist in many more homes than we were led to believe. We were double the already-high allowable limit from Health Canada. At least now we own the testing equipment to help others see if they have high levels of radon.

 

 

Final “Report Card” for Canada’s Greenest Home

Canada's Greenest Home

In 2012, we had a vision of creating a spec-home on an urban infill lot in central Peterborough, a home that would aspire to the very highest standards of sustainable building while also achieving a modern aesthetic that would appeal to a wide range of potential homeowners. We also wanted to build the home in a way that could be easily reproduced by any conventional contractor.

One of our key goals was to ensure that we weren’t just promising improved environmental performance, but that we were achieving measurable results. Having occupied the home for just over a year, we have now had a chance to monitor its performance and calculate a variety of metrics, comparing these to the more conventional homes that share the marketplace. We couldn’t be more pleased with the results, as summarized in the graphic above.

Performance statistics for Canada's Greenest Home

While the performance of the house marks a vast improvement over current practices, perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that this level of performance was not difficult to achieve. Any builder can hit this standard of performance, and do so within the cost range that is currently acceptable in the market. While this project made some more costly investments in PV, rainwater harvesting, composting toilets and solar hot water, a home built to the same level of performance without these “add-ons” would be entirely cost-competitive. And other than the solar income, most of the metrics above would not change if we didn’t invest in these technologies.

Literally anybody can do this type of building, and do it affordably. We intentionally chose to buy off-the-shelf or easily accessible materials and products, from Durisol foundation blocks to prefabricated straw bale wall panels to ready-made clay and lime paints. Everything in this home is available to builders, and every builder already has the skills to create something like this.

This feels like good news when we’re faced with an onslaught of doom-and-gloom news about the environment. Not that this home will save the planet, but when it comes to easily achieved results that have dramatic reductions in impact, the reproduction of homes like this could be a remarkable step in the right direction. Government forecasts show that the US expects about 1,000,000 new home starts per month in 2015, and Canada expects about 190,000. If all of those homes reduced their energy use by the same amount as this project, that would be 89,250,000 gigajoules of energy savings, 189,210,000 liters of water saved, and 156,017,330 gigajoules of saved embodied energy. Those are meaningful numbers (the equivalent of the output of many nuclear generating stations!), and they are immediately achievable.

When we called this project “Canada’s Greenest Home” we were not trying to set an example that would set an untouchable record for green performance. Instead, we were trying to set a standard that would be inspirational in its final performance and entirely reproducible, so that every new home could easily be this green. We feel we’ve achieved this goal. The rest is now up to home owners, home builders and governments to take this example and adopt and improve it.

Paperstone countertops at Canada’s Greenest Home

Paperstone countertops at Canada's Greenest Home

We spent a lot of time considering our countertop choices for Canada’s Greenest Home. It’s an area with many options, and many factors to weigh when trying to make an environmentally sound choice. Ideally, the countertop material must be durable, aesthetically pleasing, stable, renewable and/or recyclable and not off gas any chemicals into the home.

After much deliberation, we chose to go with a material called Paperstone. This type of countertop is made from 100% recycled paper fibers (complete with FSC certification), bound with a phenolic resin to create a solid, dense material that is certified food safe by NSF and resistant to high temperatures and abrasion/scratching.

One of the main attractions to Paperstone is its workability. It can be cut with typical woodworking tools, allowing us to do our own installation. We were able to shape the pieces we needed, make the sink cut-outs and bevel the edges of the material easily.

Paperstone came in a range of attractive colours, and can be finished with natural sealants and waxes.

The phenolic resin binder gave us some cause for concern. While the material does not contain any petro chemicals or off gas in the home, the resin ingredients are not environmentally benign. However, the company documents its handling practices very convincingly and has received numerous awards for its sustainability initiatives. We would like to see the company apply for Greenguard certification to ensure its claims of zero off gassing are confirmed by a trusted third party.

We obtained our Paperstone from Living Rooms in Kingston, Ontario, allowing us to work with a supplier we know and trust. This is always an important part of any product decision. The material comes in large slabs, and we bought a 5×12 foot slab from which we cut the pieces we needed.

After a lot of use (and abuse), we have been extremely pleased with the performance of the Paperstone. We gave it an initial waxing prior to use, and have not refinished it after 10 months. It is impervious to water, easy to clean, and very scratch and dent resistant. The dark charcoal colour we chose has a nice depth to it, and doesn’t show any signs of staining or wear. Areas around the sink, where many countertops begin to show signs of failure quite quickly, don’t seem vulnerable to deterioration at this point.

The countertop draws compliments from almost everybody who sees it. It looks and feels unique and attractive. While it is not inexpensive, the initial workability of the Paperstone allowed us to do the installation ourselves, saving money. And its apparent durability means that its an investment that will last a very long time. If you can afford it, we would recommend it as a good choice.

 

Finding LED lightbulbs that work

LED lighting that works

Since my first days of living off grid with a tiny PV system in the late 1990s, I have been somewhat obsessed with finding lighting that combines low electrical draw with a nice quality of light. In the off grid home, we moved from dim, incandescent 12-volt car lights to brighter 12-volt halogens to the first generation of 12-volt compact fluorescents (CFLs). None of these combined low electrical consumption with a good light quality. The addition of an inverter in that home opened up the potential for newer generation CFL bulbs, which over time developed a better quality of light, but never really satisfied me. The inclusion of mercury in the CFLs always made me uncomfortable, as did the flickering quality of the light.

LED lighting that works

The LED bulbs that really work!

When the first LED bulbs started to become available a decade ago, I was all over them. I bought bulbs at outrageous prices that gave ridiculously poor light, and have continued to buy examples of each new generation of LED bulb for the past ten years.

Having decided to outfit Canada’s Greenest Home with LED lighting in every fixture, I have taken the opportunity to buy just about every brand and type of LED bulb that are available through major retailers. It is exciting to find that there are, finally, LED bulbs that combine low wattage with excellent light quality!

The sampling we’ve done has been for general purpose overhead fixtures and lamps, and also spots for over the cooktop.

Here are the ones we really like:

Philips 11 watt, 830 lumen, 2700K, dimmable

This bulb has a nice warm light. The shape of the bulb seems like it would cast a fairly narrow spot of light, but it actually does a good job of spreading light in 360 degrees. We use this one as overhead lights in the kitchen and in a couple of the hallways. A really good general bulb.

Cree 9.5 watt, 800 lumen, 2700K

This round bulb has the best general light distribution of those we tried, with a shape most resembling the traditional incandescent bulb. The light is definitely at the warm end of the spectrum, but slightly less warm than the Philips. This is also a really good general use bulb. The glass is coated in a rubbery material that makes it easy to handle and twist the bulb, and should protect it well against breakage.

Sylvania 8 watt, 470 lumen, no spectrum data on bulb or package, dimmable

This bulb is less bright than most of the others, with a lumen output of only 470. We found it to be a very warm and pleasant light. We currently have some exposed bulbs in the house, awaiting actual fixtures, and this bulb casts a good, wide light without being too bright and glaring. The light from this bulb feels “calmer” than any other, good for background lighting.

Philips 10.5 watt, 800 lumen, 3000K

If you’re under the impression that LED bulbs can’t cast a good, bright light, this bulb will alter that perception. It is surprisingly bright, with a light that is close to daylight spectrum without feeling “cold”. In any fixture where you desire an intense, 360-degree light, this one is perfect. It also the least expensive bulb, with prices under $10 at several retailers.

Feit 2 watt, 160 lumen, no spectrum data on bulb or package

We put these bulbs in a few sconce fixtures in stairways and hallways where we wanted a low but useful amount of light in a neutral spectrum range. These little bulbs work very well in this scenario, drawing only a small amount of current while producing a surprising amount of light.

Philips 7 watt, 280 lumen, 2700K spot

We haven’t sampled as many spots as regular bulbs, but of those we’ve tried this one combines a good quantity and quality of light and does not have as narrow a focus as many of the other brands. A pair of them shine down on the stove from the hood vent.

This is far from a scientific and complete sampling of LED bulbs, and I’ll continue to be a bulb addict and buy new models as they come out. However, this range and selection of models would allow anybody to outfit a home with LEDs and feel confident that their money is being spent on quality bulbs with good light output. Prices for these bulbs range from $9-15 dollars. In Ontario right now, there are government rebates of $5 on a wide range of LED bulbs, including most of those listed here. It’s a great time to invest in energy saving bulbs that are long-lasting and do not contain mercury!

All of Canadas Greenest Home Posts at a glance

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