In an ideal world, Canadian housing would be producing energy rather than consuming it.
Our shelter should be healthy, be easily maintained, produce food and water, cause no pollution, and be entirely self-sustaining. While this is far from the reality we live in at the moment, one such environmentally-friendly choice gaining momentum is the construction of - or conversion of existing dwellings into - Net Zero homes.
Yes, Dear Reader, it's time to make your home a 'Net Zero' hero!
What Exactly Are Net Zero Homes?
Net Zero homes are increasingly featured in architecture and design publications as dwellings situated in isolated locations - like in rural areas or on remote islands - such that they operate “off the grid”. However, although this is often the case, as the concept has grown in popularity we're also seeing Net Zero homes constructed in urban centres and connected to energy providers. However, by virtue of their design, they don’t need to rely on an energy supplier. In fact, it's not unusual for the property equipped with solar or wind turbine systems to be selling its excess energy back to the grid as a means to create an income off-set. How amazing is that?
Simply, a Net Zero residence produces as much clean energy as it consumes over the course of a year. So, just like it sounds, the net amount of energy that it buys from local hydro is zero. The building components work in concert with each other to maintain a consistent temperature, create an airtight envelope (this is crucial) and purify indoor air quality. They typically have high-efficiency operational components, like HVACs, Heat Recovery systems, smart electrical devices and systems, energy-efficient appliances and extra insulation to keep air from escaping.
Net Zero dwellings are also typically positioned, when possible, to take full benefit of the warmth and energy potential of the sun, called passive heating. In Toronto, this often means having an East-West aspect with generous windows oriented to the south.
Net Zero homes are naturally designed to be 80 per cent more energy-efficient than conventional construction methods. That’s a lot! Of course, homeowners play a role in this as well by being conscious about conserving energy as well. Every little bit counts, right?
Check out these posts on what Net Zero homes are all about. Net-Zero Homes: The Ultimate in Comfort and Efficiency, What Are Net-Zero Homes, And Why Are They the Future? Mike Holmes Breaks It Down, Net-Zero House Tackles Affordability And Sustainability: Cheryl Atkinson and What Is A Net-Zero Home?
The Net-Zero Movement In Canada
Although Net Zero homes have actually been around since the mid-2000s, they have gained a lot of momentum in recent years as property owners are increasingly looking for ways to reduce their operating expenses. Similarly, it is becoming more and more important for homeowners to have options that suit their environmental consciences as well.
The promotion and awareness-building efforts on Net Zero Home design actually started through a CMHC-run pilot program in 2004, which led to the completion of the Riverdale Net Zero Project in Edmonton in 2007.
This duplex made use of an extremely airtight envelope, as well as focusing heavily on passive solar energy. The design team located the structure so it was south-facing to get maximum sun exposure. They even utilized solar panels situated at various angles to literally make use of every potential ounce of passive energy, depending on the season. The contractors installed a huge concrete floor, which is ideal for storing that energy after the sun goes down.
For more on the history of Net Zero in Canada and how this trend has evolved over the last decade, read Net-Zero 101: The Incredible Rapid Rise Of Net-Zero Homes.
How Do Net Zero Homes Produce Their Energy?
Although Net Zero homes initially appeared different from traditional housing, today Canadian architects are creating fresh contemporary designs which look very much on-trend, while incorporating modern technologies to elevate their efficiency.
They also often include the use of a renewable energy source, such as solar panels to harness natural warmth and energy for lighting, heating, cooling, appliance use and hot water. This energy is frequently stored in a battery system for use at a later time or, as I briefly mentioned earlier, the excess energy can be sold back to the local hydro company (which is just one of the ways that Net Zero homes are so cost-effective to operate).
Net Zero residences may also include air-source heat pumps which harness heat from the exterior air or ground-source heat pumps which extract heat from the thermal mass of the earth.
Retrofitting Your Residence To Be Net Zero
Although more and more new homes are being built to meet Net Zero standards (new homes in Toronto are mandated to be near Net Zero emissions by 2050), you can also retrofit an existing home to become Net Zero. While you may not be able to change your home’s location you can incorporate a number of the other Net Zero principles and features in your renovation.
To start, do an energy audit for your home. This will help you to determine a path for your project and to see where you might have inherent weaknesses in your existing design. For example, windows and doors are notorious heat-loss areas. An energy audit will often identify the need to execute exterior upgrades, such as adding extra insulation and potentially changing the position and location of existing windows in order to get the most exposure to the sun. Similarly, you'll want to upgrade your windows and improve your building envelope to make your dwelling as air-tight as possible.
Are you existing mechanical systems inefficient and obsolete? When that time comes, existing hot water tanks and heating/cooling systems should be replaced with hot water on demand units, in addition to electric heat pumps, heat recovery ventilation systems or HVAC systems for maximum efficiency.
And do explore the benefits of adding a solar panel system as a method of harnessing nature's renewable resource, along with a back-up energy system.
Check out Toronto’s BetterHomesTO Program to learn about incentives and rebates that might be available to you to make your home Net Zero or Net Zero ready!
Apartments And Condos Can Be Net Zero Too
Apartments and condominium mid-rises and high-rises can be Net Zero as well. One of the benefits of this housing type is that they have shared mechanical systems which can be more cost-effective, and a smaller percentage of exterior wall per unit that detached freehold housing, which means less heat loss (though I would like to point out that the more contemporary designs where the building envelope is predominantly floor-to-ceiling glazing with some thinly insulated polyurethane panels are not very environmentally-friendly and will be extremely expensive to replace when they're failing).
Did you know the City of Toronto's Tower renewal program is a resource for condo and apartment owners on how to make more environmentally friendly choices and to improve their homes to reach Net Zero standards?
And this post called Smart Condos Give Lessons In Green Living identifies different apartment and condominium developments in Toronto which are exploring - and embracing - green technologies.
The Benefits Of A Net Zero Home
The benefits of living in and owning a Net Zero home are aplenty. There are cost, comfort and health benefits.
Firstly, there are a number of financial benefits. There are cost savings on energy that are ongoing, along with a number of tax incentives and rebates, including reductions on mortgage insurance and home insurance, which vary by firm. A Net Zero residence will also have a better resale value as well, especially if you can demonstrate your lower operating expenses against more conventional dwellings of a similar size. Furthermore, you will be protecting your household against rising energy costs and, for those properties that have solar or wind turbine systems with battery storage, you may also have the ability to sell your excess energy back to the hydro company.
Given the airtight nature of a Net Zero home, they are more comfortable than an average home. No chilly drafts during the winter or hot spots in the summer. The extra insulation not only helps make it airtight, but it can reduce external noise pollution. And because Net Zero residences incorporate more advanced construction technologies, passive design solutions and high-tech operating systems, they use less water, have more healing natural light, have improved indoor air quality and, with fewer complicated mechanical systems to maintain and repair as well, these homes are less maintenance-intensive.
Plus, you'll ultimately make a difference by reducing your overall carbon footprint.
Buying a residence presents the opportunity to make a wise investment in your future. With all the sustainable green options available today, it's also more possible to make an investment in the planet at the same time.
Wondering about sustainable housing options for your next Toronto real estate purchase?
The Urbaneer Team are here to help!
Want to learn more about sustainable housing and how to love the planet as a homeowner? Check out these past posts.
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With a multi-disciplinary education in housing - including urban history, urban planning, and urban residential design - plus over 25 years experience helping Buyers and Sellers navigate the Toronto real estate market, we offer excellence, insight, and a commitment to gently guide you, and those you love, without pressure or hassle.
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Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage - (416) 322-8000
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