Zero Carbon Buildings Are A Win-Win For Environment And Real Estate by Sustainable

Photo by Martynas Gailius on Unsplash

Photo by Martynas Gailius on Unsplash

By Toronto Storeys

It’s official — zero carbon buildings are the buildings of the future.

study conducted by the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) found that these types of structures aren’t just eco-friendly, They’re also good financial investments.

“On average, ZCBs can be achieved with a positive financial return of one per cent over a 25-year life-cycle, inclusive of carbon pollution pricing, and require a modest eight per cent capital cost premium,” the report concluded. “As the cost of carbon rises over time, the financial return from ZCBs will improve.”

In the report, carbon reduction measures were applied to seven building types — low-rise and mid-rise office, low-rise and mid-rise multi-unit residential, primary school, big box retail, and warehouse — in six Canadian cities.

Infographic courtesy of Canada Green Building Council

Infographic courtesy of Canada Green Building Council

Overall, zero carbon buildings were found to be financially viable in all cities — Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, and Halifax — despite differences in construction costs, climate, and other factors.

Halifax had the highest return over a 25-year life-cycle, with an average of four per cent. The city’s low cost of electricity and the high-carbon intensity of the Nova Scotia electricity grid both influenced the high returns, according to the study.

Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, and Montreal saw their upfront capital costs diminished over a 25-year period. The former three cities experienced a return of one per cent, while Montreal just broke even.

Vancouver is the only city that just barely reached the break-even mark. This is a result of the low-carbon intensity of the electricity grid and the low cost of natural gas, the report noted.

Zero carbon buildings not only offer financial benefits to builders and property owners but to tenants as well, Canadian Architect reports. They are more energy efficient, help reduce carbon pollution, and avoid the need for costly retrofits in the future.

Specifically, in the long run, zero carbon buildings can also help reduce greenhouse gases, which is an issue Canada has been trying to tackle. The country made a commitment to reduce emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and in 2018, it was projected that they would be able to hit that target and reduce levels further by up to four per cent.

Investing in zero carbon buildings can help Canada accelerate this process. According to the study, an incremental capital cost of $3.3 billion per year can result in roughly 47,500 new residential units and 4,800 commercial zero carbon buildings annually to help further reduce greenhouse gases.

“This study shows us definitively that Zero Carbon Buildings can be achieved with existing market-ready technologies and approaches for most building types, and that operating cost savings will cover the needed investments,” Thomas Mueller, President and CEO at CaGBC, said in a statement. “The Canadian building industry and governments now have proof to make the changes needed to create Canada’s low carbon building stock and avoid creating buildings that will become a liability in a carbon-constrained economy.”

CaGBC started a zero carbon building initiative in 2017 and now have 16 projects across Canada. Only three buildings, however, are certified as meeting Zero Carbon Building Standard: Waterloo’s evolv1, Hamilton’s Mohawk College, and Saint-Eustache, Que.’s École Curé-Paquin.


Net-Zero House Tackles Affordability And Sustainability: Cheryl Atkinson by Sustainable


Wouldn’t you love to know your house was not only beautiful but designed to sequester carbon, reduce harmful emissions and promote neighbourhood liveability? 

Architect and Ryerson professor Cheryl Atkinson has prototyped a net-zero housing unit—one that also addresses the growing challenge of housing affordability. She spoke about the prototype in our event last week, “Innovations in Housing Affordability.”

In 2017, Atkinson set out on an ambitious project to not only design, but produce and construct a net-zero urban housing prototype, enlisting the collaboration of the Endeavour Centre, students from Ryerson and Ryerson professors Alan Fung and Philip Walsh.

Further reading:

This team eventually achieved their goal of a house boasting net zero energy use, construction waste, carbon footprint and cost differential to comparable housing. The design they built was taken from Atkinson’s proposal for the second storey of an attractive stacked town housing complex, which demonstrated how Passive House principles could work affordably as mid-rise urban infill on Toronto’s east/west arterial avenues.

Early design by Cheryl Atkinson for stacked town homes along east-west avenues.

Early design by Cheryl Atkinson for stacked town homes along east-west avenues.

Known as ZEROHouse, the 1,100 square foot, two-storey home was exhibited at the October 2017 EDIT DX Expo for Design, Innovation and Technology. Following the exhibition, it was dismantled and flat-packed then recently reconstructed on a permanent site near Collingwood by its new owner.

Atkinson spoke along with Heather Tremain, John van Nostrand and Leith Moore at our May 7 Urban Innovation Café on Innovations in Housing Affordability. We caught up with her to talk about ZEROHouse and how it reduces costs across its life cycle.

Q: Zero House uses modular construction. How does this work, and what are the benefits?

A prefabricated roof section is craned on to ZEROHouse.

A prefabricated roof section is craned on to ZEROHouse.

Our house was built using 33 separate wall roof and floor panels built as structural, hollow boxes that were lifted and fitted together on site within a single day by a crane. Prefabricated exterior and interior finish panels were installed by the Endeavour team within a single week for the exhibition. Insulation can be blown-in or installed in the factory. This obviously saves months of time on site, with much improved accuracy and quality control, significantly less construction waste, site transportation and associated emissions cost.

Q: How does ZEROHouse contribute to home affordability?

Factory construction, like all mass production, produces significant time and labour efficiencies over conventional manual work in the field. Also, midrise construction using wood framing is significantly less expensive materially to build than other mass-produced housing like concrete highrises, and offers a housing typology more suitable for families being close to grade and in existing residential neighbourhoods.

Q: What were the chief sources of emissions savings and energy efficiency in your design?

Emissions savings come from selecting locally produced materials grown by nature that sequester carbon. We used almost entirely a palette of wood products for structure, finishes and insulations. We also experimented with straw bale, cork and mycelium insulations. For durability and weight, we used a highly recyclable aluminum for the siding. We sequestered 25 tonnes overall rather than emitting the 45 tonnes of carbon a typical house through our material and construction choices.

Maximizing energy efficiency comes from good Passive House design, predominantly through providing proper orientation, a highly insulated and airtight building envelope, and using highly energy efficient mechanical systems and appliances. Building Integrated Photovoltaic systems produced the minimal energy then required by this more efficient building without the visual impact of conventional solar panels.

Elements of ZEROHouse’s sustainable and Passive House design.

Elements of ZEROHouse’s sustainable and Passive House design.

Q: How could the design for ZEROHouse and your stacked townhouses be employed in Toronto?

Toronto has many appropriate underused urban sites along existing east/west traffic arterials that would suit this kind of housing. They are well serviced by adjacent communities with adequate infrastructure and community services like schools, transit and green spaces to support this additional gentle density and height. Many of our east/west streets in Toronto used to be leafy residential streets before they were widened into traffic arterials. Lining these streets with three to four stories of housing over retail or commercial would create a pedestrian friendly streetscape and provide amenities while operating as continuous solar collector on its southern roof and facades.  

ZEROHouse by Cheryl Atkinson was originally part of her stacked town home design.

ZEROHouse by Cheryl Atkinson was originally part of her stacked town home design.

Q: Would ZEROHouse be cost prohibitive to build again, land values aside?

It wouldn’t be cost prohibitive—but perhaps space prohibitive. The whole idea is based on factory construction, and a factory geared to this particular panel design doesn’t yet exist. We had a large tent in a field lent to us in Peterborough as our factory over the summer.  Creating a real factory to make multiple panels for multiple residences would make this design even more affordable to build again. In Japan, a single factory can produce sixteen homes a day using digital fabrication, automation and advanced robotics!

Q: What are the next steps; how will this project evolve?

I am in the process of discussing this project with city councilors, planners and specific developers and prefabrication manufacturers to understand its viability as a type and a process for making housing.

The City is inherently supportive of infill with their recently approved guidelines for laneway infill housing in Toronto <link> and their support of urban intensification along existing arterials through their Mid-Rise Guidelines for Avenues. 

I am trying to understand what restricts industry here from adopting significant prefabrication but facilitates it in places like Japan where it is commonplace. It is finally emerging here; large housing developers like Great Gulf have been developing their own state-of-the-art factory for much of their conventional wood frame housing, and have also built research prototypes of energy efficient single family houses.

I am optimistic that we are at a tipping point where we will start to see more mainstream adoption and integration of passive housing design and prefabrication processes. Given the continuing market pressure for affordable housing in this city, the lack of available sites and construction trades, and the fact that our buildings currently produce forty-five  percent of Toronto’s carbon emissions (Toronto Atmospheric Fund 2016), coming up with alternatives for addressing these issues is critical.

ZEROHouse installed. Photo by Tom Arban.

ZEROHouse installed. Photo by Tom Arban.

The architectural design for ZEROHouse was led by Cheryl Atkinson with Ryerson U architectural science students. The house’s prefabrication was performed by students from Ryerson and Seneca College. The prefabrication research, design, and construction was led by Chris Magwood of the Endeavour Centre. Magwood also coordinated industry sponsorships key to the construction, and led the permanent installation in Collingwood. Professor Fung contributed innovative heating and cooling technology, and Professor Walsh contributed expertise into the future marketability and scalability of the venture.


Future Proofing by Sustainable

The complexity, reach, and negative effects of natural and human-caused disruptions have reached an all-time high. With no quick way to predict or avoid such problems, the best solution for every community is to join forces and work together to future-proof our world.

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Energy wonks hope to achieve breakthrough at Basalt Vista project by Sustainable

Sunsense Solar employees Kevin Lundy, Matt Greenlund and Cole Alexander install solar panels on the roof for the Habitat for Humanity Basalt Vista netzero project on April 19.  Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Sunsense Solar employees Kevin Lundy, Matt Greenlund and Cole Alexander install solar panels on the roof for the Habitat for Humanity Basalt Vista netzero project on April 19.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Energy wonks in the Roaring Fork Valley are even more excited about a new Basalt affordable housing project than the homeowners.

The first phase of Habitat for Humanity’s Basalt Vista project will serve as a laboratory for unparalleled management of household energy use and independence from the electrical grid.

“These will be the model of what we want to do in the future,” said Chris Bilby, a research engineer with Holy Cross Energy.

Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork decided to make the housing project all electric. Along with off-the-charts energy efficiency, each unit will each have a solar photovoltaic system. As a result, they will be “net-zero” — producing as much energy as they consume.

“This program hopes to demonstrate that adjusting energy levels by providing solar arrays and battery storage at a home can be more cost-effective than modifying energy production at a centralized power plant.”from a policy paper prepared by Holy Cross

Once the decision for all-electric, net-zero was made, Holy Cross Energy jumped at a chance to experiment with energy consumption and storage. The energy cooperative is a major supplier of energy in the Roaring Fork Valley and Interstate 70 corridor in Garfield and Eagle counties.

Holy Cross is installing sophisticated energy regulators in the first four units constructed at Basalt Vista. The systems will learn the residents’ energy use habits and adapt accordingly, Bilby said. If the homeowners tend to take showers during the same one-hour window each morning, for example, the system will interact with the water heater to prepare. The system will make multiple decisions throughout day and night to adjust energy consumption of the home.

It will “manipulate consumption in a way no one notices,” Bilby said. “The homeowner won’t know which way the meter is spinning.”

HCE will also install batteries in the four units so that energy produced by the solar photovoltaic systems can be stored and used when it benefits the homeowners the most. On a sunny winter day when the systems produce more energy than the homes consume, the excess energy will be stored in the batteries. When the homeowners return in the evening, energy can be tapped from the batteries rather than drawn from the grid, at a time when prices tend to be highest.

The idea is to take the smart home technology and tie it to battery storage to create a more sophisticated and integrated system. While delayed self-storage systems are common these days, this system will take it to a new level, Bilby said. There are also implications for energy suppliers such as Holy Cross Energy.

“This program hopes to demonstrate that adjusting energy levels by providing solar arrays and battery storage at a home can be more cost-effective than modifying energy production at a centralized power plant,” said a policy paper prepared by Holy Cross.

Pockets of all-electric homes already exist in the Roaring Fork Valley, mostly due to a surge in popularity in the 1980s, Bilby said. There are 160 all-electric homes between Basalt and the upper valley, many in the Capitol Creek and Snowmass Creek valleys.

Bilby said the energy consumption of the Basalt Vista homes will be compared to the older generation all-electric homes to measure if the new systems are truly more beneficial and, if so, by how much.

Another experiment he is eager to undertake is to see if energy production and storage in three of the units at Basalt Vista could fully supply the fourth unit — creating a more resilient system.

Holy Cross Energy’s experiment is funded for four months, though the cooperative hopes to extend it. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden will help analyze the performance of the systems, recommend adjustments and determine how they can be used on a broader scale.

The goal of the experiment is to create self-regulating systems that Holy Cross Energy can offer to its customers, Bilby said. The energy cooperative wants renewable energy to account for 70 percent of its energy portfolio by 2030.

Even without being a living lab for energy use, Basalt Vista is a unique project due to unparalleled cooperation. Roaring Fork School District supplied the land for the project, which will total 27 units. Pitkin County supplied some of the construction funding. In return for their contributions, the two entities receive units for teachers and people who work in the county.

Habitat for Humanity is constructing the project. Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork President Scott Gilbert said Basalt Councilman Auden Schendler really pushed the concept of an all-electric, net-zero project back in the planning phase.

The Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE, backed the idea with a $100,000 grant to help offset higher construction costs. CORE officials convinced Habitat not even to run a gas line to the site as a backup, according to CORE Executive Director Mona Newton and Gilbert.

“The big fear was, if we put it in we’re going to use it,” Gilbert said.

Eschewing a gas line saved about $30,000.

The buildings in Basalt Vista are models of energy efficient construction that exceed local building codes.

“Energy efficiency is number one,” Bilby said. “You need to check that box first.”

Gilbert added, “The less power you need, the less you have to produce.”

Everything from heating-cooling systems to food preparation will be electric. But rather than relying on the grid — a mix of renewable and fossil fuel energy sources — each home will have its own 10-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system on the roof.

While efficient, the units are also all-electric, so they required solar PV systems that are larger than might be typically found in units that are 1,100 to 1,550 square feet.

Sunsense Solar of Carbondale, a regular collaborator with Habitat For Humanity, is installing the solar PV systems.

“This will be our 15th and 16th building that we’ve installed for Habitat,” Sunsense owner Scott Ely said.

The first four units are scheduled to be completed by June 1. Holy Cross Energy and its partners will experiment with the regulation and storage system for about one month before the owners move in. The experiment will continue for another three months before the batteries and regulating systems are removed. However, all 27 units will be all-electric, net-zero.

CORE’s Newton hopes that Basalt Vista becomes a model for housing in the valley.

“I would like to see all affordable housing in the valley be net zero,” she said. “We want everybody to have access to clean energy and efficient buildings.”

Basalt Vista sits on a bench south of Basalt High School. Looming in the view across the valley is the burn scar of the Lake Christine Fire. Holy Cross infrastructure was damaged in the fire, and power distribution from its sub-station near Lake Christine was threatened in the early days of the blaze.

Bilby said the experience in last year’s fire makes the Basalt Vista experiment even more important. It could be the key to creating neighborhoods that won’t be in the dark if a disaster knocks out the grid.

“A year later, we’re building an all-electric, net-zero, self-reliant community,” he said.