Friday, October 27, 2017

How Energy Efficient Should My Home Be?

I've been trying to answer this question for many years.  A simple question seemingly impossible to answer.  How energy Efficient should my home be?

Maybe its an economic question, lets consider Return on Investment:

Energy saving upgrades typically need 10 years or more to "pay back" and "investors" seems stubborn to buy in even at these rates.  Energy is simply too cheap and the cost in construction to high.  Maybe the question we need to ask is how much of an "investment vehicle" should our homes be?  We don't expect a return on investment on our cars, our vacations, or the granite counter tops in the kitchen we dream about.  Maybe the performance of our homes should be more about investing in quality, comfort and responsibility rather than simple financial gains?
Instead of complex math formulas and graphs to project costs and savings over the long haul, I thought I would take a look at the problem another way.  What if energy was free?  Or what if energy cost millions of dollars?  Both extremes approach the problem of how much to invest in energy efficiency very differently. 

What if energy was free?
50+ years ago, it almost seemed like energy was free.  Wood heated homes across the prairies were heated for "no cost" for 100's of years.  But that story isn't entirely true.  Wood heating a poorly insulated prairie farm house was exhaustive work.  It involved hauling, cutting, drying and stacking literally tons of wood as well as the mess and hassle of cleaning out the fireplaces.  My grandfather talks about moving from the farm to Calgary during the winters and staying in an apartment in Kensington because the farm house was too remote and too hard to heat during the winter months.
But what if energy suddenly became really free?  Imagine a magic technological innovation that makes for no environmental impacts and no cost to the consumer.  What would we build for our homes?
We could cut all the insulation out of the walls, go back to single pane glass in the windows and forget about closing the doors in the winter.  However, just because the heat is free doesn't make the home comfortable.  Cold drafts, large furnaces blowing massive amounts of air, dryness, dust and dirt would result in terribly uncomfortable homes.  There would still be frost on all the windows through the winter and condensation on the walls.  Sure it would be cheap to build, but it would be a miserable home to live in.
Even in a "free energy" future we would still want a home that is well insulated, air tight, and ventilated with good indoor humidity, clean filtered air, a quiet heating system, and windows that aren't drafty or frosted over.  All the fundamentals of today's high performance building would continue to be important in that free energy future case.  

       High Performance Fundamentals:
                 - R-Values - High level of insulation for warm surfaces even in winter
                 - Air Tightness - 0.6 to 1.5 ACH for a comfortable draft free home
                 - Windows - Triple glazed, high R-Value frames and free from 
                 - Heating System - Small, quiet heating system, evenly delivering heat
                    without spikes in temperature throughout the house and year. 
But what if energy was 10 times more expensive than today?
At the other end of the spectrum lies the question, what if all sources of energy were exceptionally expensive?  Most people wouldn't be able to purchase more than a little bit of electricity each month.  Heating a typical Canadian home would be impossible and most families would have to make do without.  In this case what would we build knowing that we could only afford to buy a tiny amount of energy.
We would want a home that could heat itself, using free heat from the sun, our bodies, and the small amount of electricity used for lighting and appliances.  We would want to add solar electric panels so we could make our own power and avoid the high costs.   Using large, well insulated windows facing south we'd bring in free heat from the sun and exceptional insulation and air tightness would hold all that heat inside the home.  To keep fresh air coming in we would need a very high efficiency Heat Recovery Ventilator, or even the use of ground preheating to provide fresh air through out the house with no energy loss.  Our homes would be so well insulated that they would naturally be very quite and take a very small, simple heating system to operate.  These homes would go beyond being just higher performance and would be classified as "passive" or "Net Zero" homes avoiding using energy from the expensive grid.  

        Passive House / Net Zero Performance Fundamentals:
                - R-Values - Very high levels of insulation
                - Air Tightness - As tight as possible, 0.6 ACH or less
                - Windows - Triple Glazed, high R-Value frames and smaller
                    windows, mostly pointing south. 
                - Heating System - tiny, or none at all
                - Solar Power (photovoltaic) to generate own energy

The interesting thing about these comparisons is that in both extremes the specifications of the buildings look remarkably similar.  Either scenario requires very good insulation, air tightness, and high performing windows.  Energy cost savings don't seem to be the driver after all when you look at construction from these extremes.  

Monday, May 1, 2017

Energy Efficiency in the Building Code. 9.36, opportunities and challenges

The Alberta Building Code (ABC) has gone through one of one of its biggest overhauls ever in the last year. The final piece that code change, Section 9.36,came into effect on Nov 1, 2016.  This long awaited piece of legislation will move Alberta construction forward, making for more energy efficient buildings and homes across the province.

9.36 is a large section of the Code that has been written to bring together all elements relating to the energy performance of low rise buildings.  9.36 includes requirements for the envelope insulation, windows and doors, air tightness, and mechanical and ventilation systems. While the details of safety and durability remain in specific sections earlier in the code, 9.36 is the one stop shop for all elements relating to Energy Efficiency.

The first major piece of 9.36 provides rules on navigating the section.  This is important as 9.36 is the first piece of Building Code that has allowed multiple pathways for Compliance.   Builders now have the choice of:
Prescriptive Path
Prescriptive with a Trade-Off Path
Performance Path.
This flexibility provides new opportunities for builders and architects to navigate the Code, custom fitting its application to particular projects.  For the first time in Building Code History, Albertans have choice to find the best fit application of code requirements.

The Performance Pathway option is an entirely new approach to Code compliance, using a computer energy simulation to show compliance with the intent of the Code without having to meet the requirements of every specific measure.  The energy simulation, also known as an energy model, takes a holistic view of the home's energy efficiency and allows builders to use whatever measures they wish to meet the equivalent performance of the Reference House.  The Reference House is an identical home built using the Prescriptive (Code minimum) Pathway.   Reductions in glazing %, improvements in mechanical systems, and enhanced insulation all are calculated together to show an overall performance that meets or beats the code minimum Reference House.

The Performance Pathway option provides projects extensive flexibility, rather than limiting them to prescribed limits in the design of wall assemblies, windows or mechanical systems.  Once the home has been modelled and is shown to meet Code Compliance, a report, or Letter of Compliance, is submitted to the AHJ for review along with Development Permit submission.

CaseStudy - Lower Wall Insulation
The new Code substantially increases the minimum R-value requirements for wall assemblies.  For some projects, this may not be a cost effective option, given their current building practices.  Instead, by using the Performance Pathway and modelling a house before it is built, a project team can find other areas in which to make up for the energy loss from a reduced R-value in the wall systems
This could be achieved by a combination of:
- Decreased window to wall rations (FDWR)
- Improved Ventilation Efficiency with an Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV)
- Improved furnace efficiency
This recognition of alternative measures to meet the intent of the Code allows for builders, designers and homeowners to make the choices that make the most sense on a particular project.

4 Elements has been doing performance modelling and reporting for residential construction since 2008.  

Monday, October 24, 2016

Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse in LEED home

With increasing awareness and concern over the energy costs and health impacts of new homes, the idea of building a sustainable home is quickly catching on across Canada.  What people many do not realize is that resilient, green homes can help families ride out the collapse of society in any number of scenarios.

As Canada's most stringently verified and sustainable homes,  LEED homes are more energy efficient, durable and sustainable then other homes. These homes also feature increased resiliency against future disasters, be it a bad blizzard, extended power outages or the oft predicted Zombie Apocalypse.

Long Term Grid Down (LTGD)
The first things to go in an emergency are the electricity and gas grids. LEED homes are better insulated than homes built to Code minimum specification.  Many take advantage of passive solar heat and feature improved window and wall insulation, meaning a LEED home will stay warmer in a grid down scenario.  Many LEED homes earn credit for solar electric PV arrays which can provide sustainable power to the home during an emergency situation, ensuring frozen food stockpiles are kept fresh and the electric fence stays on. 

Indoor Air Quality
During many disasters, ensuring clean indoor air is critical.  Air tightness and air filtration are key to keeping out super bugs and the ashes of society as we know it. All LEED homes are third party tested and are required to have an extremely tight envelope. To further ensure healthy indoor air quality, LEED homes require balanced ventilation systems and good air filtration. MERV 12 air filters can filter out many bacteria strains including, we're sure, the more common Zombie strains; MERV 14 filters will keep out the smoke from the burning bodies. 

Building a durable home is a key requirement of the LEED program. Builders must add 15 to 25 durability measures specific to their region and climate. Durable siding will help prevent damage during zombie raids and allow for easy cleaning of blood and gore.  Pest control features will help keep the rats and cockroaches from infesting your home as other food sources collapse, and maintaining minimum distances between the house and landscape vegetation will limit the areas that zombies can lie in wait for the unsuspecting homeowner.

Water efficiency
LEED provides credit for rainwater and grey water reuse. These features can allow for off-the-grid water and back up systems. With city water systems down, and no outside help or food sources available for the foreseeable future, being able to water your food garden and sustain your family will mean the difference between surviving or not.  And as long as you have running water, the end of the world may be coming, but at least you can still flush your water efficient toilet and enjoy a low-flow shower.

The end of modern society is only ever one super bug, nuclear strike or meteor impact away, and the effects of climate change may stretch our municipal services to their breaking points.  LEED homes provide a welcome resilience to an uncertain future while providing comfort and energy savings today.

Friday, August 19, 2016


Landscaping begins

As the renovation continues (and continues and continues!), we’ve moved outside and have started on the backyard.  Last fall saw the removal of what remained of the old fence…..

…and the installation of the new one.  We chose to excavate back right to the property line, opening up a surprisingly large amount of space that had previously been unusable because of the overgrown slope.  The team from Chris Smith Landscaping arrived onsite in early October and quickly pulled out the old and got started on the new….

Because of the slope of the property, and the amount of traffic in the alley above the yard sees, we wanted something very solid.  Both visually and structurally.   The posts are 8x8 pressure treated wood, installed 6’ below yard grade.  They form continuous support upwards for the 3’ retaining wall (4x6 pressure treated lumber) and then the 6’ fence above the wall.  We’re pretty confident that the construction trucks frequenting the alley in the winters will not end up sliding into the yard now.

As it was late October by this point, we chose to put the rest of the yard on hold for the winter so we laid down landscape cloth to hold the worst of the dirt down for the season.  Given the lack of snow cover, this was a good choice.

As spring approached, we were in touch with Eagle Lake Landscaping to discuss pricing of their drought resistant fescue sod which contains a mix of sheep fescue, red fescue and hard fescue.  Fescue sod is relatively new on the market and has seen mostly commercial applications.  Eagle Lake generously offered us Freedom Fescue product to use in our yard as a test site for residential application.  We’re excited to see how it holds up to kid traffic.  (If you are in Calgary and are interested in seeing the sod in person, please contact us at

Fescue is a "non-conventional" turf in LEED environmental speak.  With its very good drought tolerance, reduced need for maintenance and care such as fertilizing, in projects pursuing LEED for Homes certification such as ours, sod like this can contribute points in Sustainable Sites.  

As soon as the sod was ready to cut, we jumped on it and were treated to the perfect weekend weather for sodding (rain and snow pellets).
Eight long hours of rototilling, raking, picking rocks and sod chunks, more raking, rolling, laying sod and more rolling...

The end of the day.  And the sun started to peak out.

Now at the beginning of August, the fescue sod is well established.  It is soft, whether left long or cut short, and a deep, lush green. As a fescue, even when allowed to grow in, it looks looks less unkempt that a regular lawn, thanks to a growth habit that leaves it slightly bent over rather than straight upright, and it feels amazing to walk on it with bare feet.  

We'll need to do a bit of overseeding next spring to patch a few small spots that didn't take or that we missed in the early watering.  These spots are minimal though and it is otherwise impossible to see where the sod seams w.
We've also discovered that, while tilling some of the old sod under kept it out of the landfill and left the organic material in the topsoil, it's added some lumps ad bumps underneath that we didn't manage to roll out.  Hopefully these will level out and soften as they start to compost!

Cut short it looks more like a conventional turf but feels softer on the feet.

So far our overall impression of this seed mix is that it is a fantastic.   What we have not yet had occasion to test is drought tolerance, since we’ve had so much rain, but it does stand up well to wet and to a wide range of lighting conditions ( we have full sun, full shade and partial shade in the yard)

The finished fence and planting bed!  In the corner is a Swedish Columnar Aspen, chosen to fill in the corner without taking over the yard.  We've also planted a few hops plants and plan to add trellising on the fence to encourage growth upward and outward to break up the height of the wall and provide some natural cooling.

Landscaping is a huge part of a sustainable home.  Outdoor water can easily exceed indoor use so water efficient faucets and toilets only can go so far.  Small changes to the traditional back yard can create a space that is still a very kid friendly play space without the water demand or maintenance of typical sod.

Thursday, February 25, 2016


Just reminding folks of the Net Zero Energy trading we are doing at SAIT next week for the CHBA.  One day session is going to cover Program and Technical aspects of the CHBA’s new Net Zero labeling program.  Later in the spring we will be offering new dates for the R2000 Builder Training for those builders who’s training has expired.  If your R2000 Builder status is current, all you’ll need is this one day session to allow you begin building CHBA Net Zero Energy homes. 

March 3rd 9-5 @ SAIT

Registration is now open and can be paid directly by calling EnerVision 780-701-1722 or 1-866-871-7563. 

Session includes lunch and refreshments for $249/person

More information is here:

Let me know if you have any questions as I will be co-teaching.  It should be a informative and interesting session to kick off this exciting new green building standard. 


Tyler Hermanson, Director 
LEED Green Rater/QAD, CEA, Arch. Tech. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Why would I want a LEED home?

·   Because I want a green home that is more than just energy saving

LEED is a holistic environmental building program that pushes projects to do more than just save energy and reduce greenhouse gases.  Projects must look at water savings, landscaping, home size and durability to meet the minimum LEED standards.  

    ·   Because I think homes are getting too big and feel that large     homes should be penalized for their energy and resource consumption

North American home size has grown dramatically over the last 50 years, even as average family size has shrunk.  LEED homes have their size accounted for in the score, and large homes quickly receive penalties of 20 to 50%.  This means that large homes with few usable bedrooms must work much harder to improve their sustainability to offset their large sizes.  

The biggest thing any home can do for the environment is look closely at size and density to improve use of space and land.  Substantial credits are awarded to LEED projects that build smaller, and at higher densities like townhouse and secondary suites. 

·   Because I want the workmanship of my builder and their trades to be rigorously checked by third party inspections and the results communicated to me, the owner

It’s tough to build these days; builders’ supervision can be stretched thin & trades experience and professionalism varies widely.  One client joked “there is nothing like giving a half million dollars away to high school dropouts to build you a home”.  LEED for Hones requires professional, third party inspections by approved Green Raters to assess and verify all LEED measures in a home.  From insulation all the way to the light bulbs a team of LEED professionals have checked and double checked your home for performance and compliance. 
·   Each LEED Home is checked by a Green Rater, a professional in Green building practices and LEED for Homes.
·   Each Green Raters work is checked by the LEED Providers Quality Assurance Designee, a Sr. Green Rater with additional experience in green building.
·   Every home submitted by a Provider is audited by the CaGBC (Canadian Green Building Council) directly prior to certification, completing a detailed review of paperwork as well as conducting a Certification Call, a phone conference to discuss how the project was built and verified onsite. 

·   Because I want a home that doesn't just play lip service to the environmental green movement, but demands real smart choices for a sustainable future

There is a real problem with “greenwashing” today.  From consumer products to SUVs, almost anything can be sold at a premium price with a “green” label.  LEED and the Canada Green Building Council fight this trend by setting rigorous standard for a LEED green home.  Leveraging 2 decades of green building experience through the highly recognized LEED New Construction program for commercial buildings, LEED for Homes offers the same foundation of rigor and accountability, but scaled to match residential construction practices.  

Not every green building is certified by LEED, but the buildings which are certified are listed in the project profiles page on the CaGBC website.  You quickly see the majority of the best buildings in Calgary are proudly certified by LEED. Here is a short list of some of the higher profile buildings in and around Calgary to search for:
  • The Water Centre
  • Calgary Courts Centre
  • Crowfoot Library
  • Cardel Place
  • Jamison Place 

·   Because I want my home to be something I can trust to be healthier and safer to live in, knowing that it has been triple checked against the rigorous LEED standards

Spending large amounts of time indoors can have a tremendous effect on our health, as many studies are now showing.  Many products typically used to build new buildings and homes can be highly toxic.  LEED promote the use of better alternatives by awarding credits for many of the most important finishing materials used in new homes: paints, cabinets, flooring, etc. 

It’s not just some of the paint or some of the flooring, 90% must meet the requirements.  So if a project earns a credit for low VOC paints you know that 90% of all paints and coatings, right down to the primers were compliant with the LEED standards and were double checked by the Green Raters. 

·   Because I want a home as nice to live in as my LEED office, My LEED library and LEED community centre

With over 153 LEED certified buildings in Calgary today, and many more under certification now, you are likely spending time enjoying LEED buildings already.  From your children’s new school,  your new office downtown, or even the new Starbuck across the street, there are good odds you’re enjoying the benefits and quality that come with a LEED certified building already, why not enjoy the same at home?  If you want to browse which buildings in Calgary (or any other city or province) are LEED Certified, you can click this link and use the search engine to browse the project profiles on the CaGBC website.

·   Because I want a home that demands that the builder use best practices and not just build to code minimum

Builders are able to take advantage uneducated and ill-informed buyers when selling new homes because they simply don’t know to ask for quality performance indicators like airtightness results, EnerGuide scores, LEED Certification and other third party inspection programs that can help produce a quality home.  Builders can easily hide poor practices behind nice finishes, but you can’t hide a poor performing air barrier from the required blower door test of all LEED homes.  Home buyers can take control and demand better homes without technical experience by just demanding LEED.  

The added cost for a quality Builder to certify to LEED is often only a few thousand dollars, with the majority of the costs being spent on the extra inspections required.  

·   Because I don't trust the city inspection system or provincial building codes to protect my health or that of the environment

Unfortunately Alberta is generally regarded as having the weakest Building Code in Canada and this allows builders to build new homes to outdated standards compared with many jurisdictions in Canada. Insulation and air tightness of new homes is not required to be checked at all as part of the City of Calgary’s inspection system.  The new Alberta New Home Warranty program does little to address problems in construction before the home is built; only mediating dispute once poor construction has become a headache for the new owner.  

It is possible to get ahead of these outdated codes by following programs like LEED that require best practices when it comes to envelope durability, insulation and energy efficiency and that include additional inspection during construction and after finishing. 

·   Because I want everyone building my home to be held accountable to high standards.

The unfortunate reality of building a new home is that few in the process care as much about your new home as you do.  Trades are often paid by the job and rush to get in and out as quickly as possible.  Builders often want to do as little as possible in order to not complicate things or slow down their process.  

What gets lost in the work is the commitment to best practices, building with pride and accountability to ensure the final result is of the highest quality.  Just knowing that a Green Rater inspection is going to check the work of many trades who never get third party check of their work is enough to step up the attention on site.  Critical trades like heating and ventilation trades must sign accountability forms attesting that their work meets the LEED standards.  

In the same way that few people will speed through an intersection with a police car behind them, so too will trades and builders improve their work, knowing that a third party inspection is coming in a LEED project. 

Article by: Tyler Hermanson

Thursday, July 31, 2014

#EcoRenoYYC – High performance home renovation in Calgary

#ecorenoyyc is a mini-blog following my personal design/build renovation of a 1950's factory built home to a fully updated, LEED certified home for my family.  Personal connection, demand for performance and a tight budget have me in the trenches helping this come together. 

The primary goal for this project was a small, efficient home in the intercity for my family and I, that was closer to our choice schools and downtown and that my folks could use as a retirement home down the road.  My father and I renovated this house once before, adding a second story in early 2000.  

The limited scope of that precursor renovation left an aging mechanical system and weak insulation in much of the house.  As a LEED for Homes Provider, I knew the benefits of comfort and performance that come with a LEED project so pursuing LEED was key. 

The original home was placed on the site about 1950 by a local builder who built it in a nearby warehouse.  Many years later years later by an odd twist of "small town Canada", the builder would become neighbour and good friend to my grandparents on Vancouver Island.   I can remember visiting and enjoying the amazing collection of their grandchildren's toys while visiting growing up. 

Shipped in three sections onto a typical 8" foundation this 865 SF two bedroom would have been very typical for this area and likely sold as a reasonably priced suburban home.  The home would have featured a gravity furnace, and "high tech" reflective insulation in the cavities.  We now know that this reflective insulation does little to keep the heat in now and likely provided R1 insulation value. 

The home was likely renovated in the late 60's finishing the basement and adding a laundry room.  The west side of the basement was likely kept as a workshop, assuming from the patina to the exposed wood joists and odd sized lids screwed to the studs where jars of odds and ends would have been stored. 

Based on other layers of flooring and some updated electrical the home was updated again around the early 80's.  The basement was converted to a secondary suite and the furnace would have been replaced.  The home was part of one of Canada's first energy efficiency programs which provided rebates for upgraded attic insulation based on the sticker on the old furnace. 

Renovations are one of the most complicated types of residential building, short of major multifamily projects in my opinion.  Complexities of hidden conditions like buried wasps nests, design changes, old handyman weekend jobs and original outdated techniques will throw a box full of wrenches in any renovation plan.  Throw into that mix a lofty performance and environmental goals, a tight budget, and critically tight timeline and you've got a wild summer.  
I've nicknamed this project the tight house.  Everything is tight, trades have had to work hard to fit everything into the small spaces and make everything work.  The high efficiency boiler fit with only inches to spare, the indirect hot water tank literally squeezed in with only 1/2" to spare.  Tight headspace clearances and limited duct work runs required some fancy ducting of the HVAC installers for the new HRV ventilation system.   Even the windows had to be sized carefully around existing stone.

The plumbing system on this home was very complicated, with radiators, a fan coil and DHW tank all driven by a 95% IBC condensing boiler.  This homes heart is clearly the IBC boiler; the entire mechanical system hinges on this unit and this was not a place to cut corners. We needed the durability and dependability that comes with a very good boiler, very well installed.    Dan Walker from New Era Heating and Plumbing was the guy to do it, passionate about his own IBC and system and a meticulous plumber. You could tell he didn't' mess around and took serious pride in doing it right.  If you are going to spend such serious money on the boiler you don't skimp on the plumbing to run it. Heavy gauge copper and rock solid pumps keep the water moving. It's such a nice install Dan and I joked that we should polish and coat the plumbing lines to keep them shinny (which we might just do).  I don't want to even put doors on the mechanical room, I want anyone that comes by to be able to see it.

To regain a sense of space in the new basement area, windows were key. For these we turned to Innotech as we had seen the windows in action on several LEED projects through our work, and knew they would perform well.  High performance was critical, but light and egress were top of mind.  Tilt/turn windows became an early choice; the full swing in window provides easy egress clearance for the basement windows and tilt in options provided safe, secure ventilation.  After much wringing of hands, triple glazed, clear glass was chosen with an argon fill.  The triple glazed provided the best R-value without compromising the visible light transmission, critical when the window sizes are limited and daylight is key. 

The biggest change to the basement was a large french door with 32" sidelight, creating a new entry and bringing in a huge amount of light from the wide east-facing walkout side.  This changed the entire feeling of the space, making it feel more open, larger and anything but a basement.  Well worth the cutting, hammering and breaking up of a solid ton of concrete.  Innotech creates such a smooth operating unit that this heavy triple glazed door glides open easily and locks very securely with a multipoint mechanism. 

LEED is a big piece, constantly bubbling under the surface and underlying everything we do. Even if we can't meet the credit its always about how close we can get.  LEED on a renovation is not an easy piece.  Renovations have to be extensive and must bring the entire home, new and existing up to the stringent LEED standards.  The reality of this means our LEED home can't be submitted until phase 2 of the renovation in a couple of years when the full house can be resided and exteriorly insulated to R25 or better, with new windows to replace all the existing.  

If LEED were a person you could tell that they would really dig our location (Location and Linkages 10 of 10 credits), and would like the energy performance (10 to 12 credits).  LEED acts almost like that nosy neighbour, poking their head over the fence to offer suggestions, best practice and a eye for mistakes.  It would be great if that nosy neighbour LEED, would come over and help, but I'll have to rely on great friends and real neighbours.  Our framer and plumber both live walking distance away.  Most of our suppliers are just a short bike ride away if needed. 
The rest of our preliminary points are scattered through the checklist and have us targeting for Certified, but we could stretch for Silver… maybe we should put a rainwater tank under the deck next summer.