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Going Green

Rising energy costs, lower installation costs and educated builders pave way for more efficient homes



For decades, the word "green" has been thrown around in a variety of different environmental contexts, but the time may have come at last to do something about it: we've talked the talk and now it's probably a good time to walk the walk.

and not just because it's the right thing to do for the environment (which it is) or because it's the right thing to do for our own health and well being (which is usually also true): the future is green because the economics demand it. The status quo is getting too expensive.

The days of cheap electricity and cheap fuel are coming to an end, forcing Canadians to come face-to-face with the same realities that people in Europe faced decades ago and greeted with a wave of housing innovations and lifestyle changes that are only starting to reach North America.

Changing our habits can help us become greener and reduce our ecological footprints, but one of the biggest differences we can make is at home by reducing the amount of energy we consume. Greening your home — reducing how much energy you actually need — can result in dramatic savings.

Building codes are slowly changing in step with green technology and know-how. A house built today is exponentially more efficient than a house built thirty years ago, even if it's not specifically built to be "green."

The Whistler Example

When it comes to greening homes, Whistler is on the cutting edge in Canada, with unique builds including Net Zero homes, some of Canada's first passive houses, LEED-certified buildings, R-2000 certified projects and more. There are a few good reasons for this, ranging from the resort's educated and well-travelled citizens to our focus on sustainability and the environment. Builders also play an important role in the greening of Whistler, steering their clients in the right direction or opting from the start to use various green techniques.

The environment here also plays a role, underlining the economic case for green building with winters that can stretch from late October to mid-May and summer temperatures that can be hotter than Vancouver. We live in a climate that breeds mould, warps walls and wears out roofs.

Chris Addario, president of the Canadian Home Builders Association — Sea to Sky chapter — said the shift to greener homes started in earnest about 10 years ago, but has kicked into overdrive the last five years. Almost every builder in the corridor now builds and renovates green to some extent, beyond anything specified in the building code, and many have made it their main focus.

"The initial thing is that there's been a huge focus on value, and people are more willing these days to look at things like energy costs, for instance, and factor those into the long-term pricing of their home," he said. "People are looking at all kinds of ways they can save money down the road, whether it's solar hot water or more efficient insulation. They're more aware of those things than they used to be.

"The other part of that is B.C. Building Code is pushing that way slowly. In Whistler we're fortunate because a lot of builders here are interested in the new technologies and willing to take those first steps. Remember, a lot of these things have been around a long time in places (like Europe) that are like Whistler in a lot of ways.

"The Olympics also helped to bring some of that about. RDC (Fine Homes) did a Net Zero house, and we have a passive house from Durfeld (Constructors), and those projects largely came about because of the Games."

But while new home builds are greener, Addario also noted that a lot of homes in Whistler are reaching the point where they need major renovations. They're in need of new roofs, new windows, and new insulation. Any improvements will have to meet higher environmental standards just following the code, but the fact that builders are more experienced in recommending and installing green options also ups the overall energy efficiency.

"It depends on the extent of the renovation, but if someone goes to the extent of tearing out drywall they'd be crazy not to consider upgrading the insulation while their at it," said Addario.

"If they're replacing windows then they're choosing triple-paned glass and multi-point locking hardware to increase the tightness of the window. You can improve a building envelope in some very practical ways to save energy, and a lot of the upgrades are not mechanical like heat pumps so there's nothing to maintain or break. By increasing the insulation and air exchange in your house you're often better off in the long run than just upgrading to a more efficient heating system."

As well as the building code and advice from contractors, Addario has also noticed that people are doing a lot more research themselves.

"The information that's available to people now on the Internet has had a huge impact on driving some of these (green) technologies forward," he said. "The customers are going online and researching this stuff, while in the past they wouldn't have known about it unless they talked to someone local about a product or saw it while they were travelling. Without that information, (the green building/renovation market) wouldn't have grown as quickly as it has."