Jeb Whiteside’s father wasn’t impressed.
Barry Whiteside was a builder himself with a degree in urban planning and a career in land development. But he bristled when Jeb told him he planned to build a net-zero ready energy home in Nelson.
“He was totally against this just from a cost perspective. He loves the idea of energy efficiency,” says Jeb.
One visit to the site in the winter changed Barry’s mind.
“Once we got the roof on, that entire winter we had vapour barrier over the window openings. We heated the entire building with one 120 volt, 1,200 watt heater. We were in T-shirts. Once he saw that, he was like, ‘holy.’”
Jeb Whiteside’s project, a building in Fairview divided up as one complete home and another unit that includes space for an extra residential suite, is a glimpse at the future of construction in B.C.
The B.C. Building Code is aiming for all new builds to be Step 5 — or net zero, which is to say the projects generate as much energy as they use — by 2032.
The province’s energy code starts at Step 1 with what’s described as “enhanced compliance.” The building meets current code, but has also been verified by an energy consultant.
A building’s energy losses are measured by air tightness and insulation, while solar panelling and energy efficient equipment contribute to gains. A Step 2 home is 10 per cent more efficient than a current home built to code, Step 3 improves by 20 per cent and Step 4 is 40 per cent better. Step 5, meanwhile, is the ideal.
B.C. municipalities and regional districts can set their own building code bylaws stipulating new projects meet specific steps of the energy code.
Nelson city council voted in favour of a bylaw amendment July 8 that stipulates a Step 1 requirement for all Part 9 buildings (which include houses, duplexes and small apartment and commercial buildings) being constructed as of Aug. 1.
Sam Ellison, the city’s senior building official, says he received support from a majority of local builders for the move to Step 1 prior to the bylaw amendment. He expects the province to demand Step 3 compliance by 2022.
“It’s either we all work now to get there or it’s just going to come down like a hammer in a few more years,” says Ellison. “Hopefully we’ll be ahead of the curve.”
The problem, however, is there’s no specific plan provided to builders to meet code past Step 3. They have to figure it out themselves.
“They don’t tell you how thick your wall has to be. They don’t tell you what windows you have to use. You have to look at whatever plan exists and figure it out,” says Whiteside.
Whiteside decided he wanted to give it a try. His company, Somerson Construction, had never previously built a project that would meet higher than Step 3. But Whiteside purchased land in Fairview and in October began construction on what is today a three storey-building tucked out of view from a nearby street.
He collaborated on the project with Jonathan Brinias of 3West Building Energy Consultants and opted to skip a wood-frame house that allows heat loss at exterior wall studs in favour of what’s called insulated concrete forms (ICF). Two connected Styrofoam pieces are instead used for the frame with concrete poured down the middle.
“The ICF wall does fantastic with air leakage because it’s just a continuous slab of concrete,” says Brinias. “This [unit] really just has four corners and then a shared wall with absolutely no heat loss.”
Brinias says the best building designs are box-like and prioritize a unit’s floor area. The larger a space is, the more energy it requires.
“It’s brutally honest with design and energy efficiency,” says Brinias.
Whiteside says he understand why the simplistic architecture needed to achieve Step 5 may not be for everyone.
“A neighbour of mine said, ‘Oh, you’re doing that crazy box thing.’ I don’t see it that way, but a lot of people can’t stand it. They hate it. They want all these different details. But you can’t achieve what you want if you do all those things. Money’s money. You have this, you can’t have this. It’s always a trade off.”
If owners let go of their dreams of Victorian-style roofs, for example, they quickly find out the benefits of net-zero homes. Whiteside said he expects the building to cost just $1,000 per year in energy bills (although that doesn’t include added costs for the electric car charger that has also been installed).
One reason for this is how adept the building is at holding temperature. For example, Whiteside’s building has no air conditioner. It just doesn’t need it.
“It takes a lot of energy to raise the temperature of concrete,” he says. “It just keeps it at a more stable temperature. It takes a lot to make it cold in the winter and a lot to make it hot in the summer.”
Brinias is all for energy efficiency, but he’s leery of requiring contractors to meet the code past Step 1 without the province providing a prescriptive way to achieve anything above Step 3 that has air leakage requirements.
“If some builders find it challenging to meet air tightness requirements, and then Step 3 is mandatory, they’ll all just have negative experiences.”
Ellison isn’t sure that will be the case. Five years ago he says he would have doubted the ability of B.C. builders to meet Step 5 requirements. That’s since changed.
“We’re kind of already there,” says Ellison. “The fact that Jeb and Barry were able to do what they did demonstrates that we have the materials, we have the capability to do it. … The reality is we’re seeing it happen. We’re seeing builders who don’t have science degrees pulling it off with materials you can buy at our local building stores. I’m pleasantly surprised. I think we can do it, for sure.”
The Fairview home, meanwhile, has been nothing but positive for Whiteside. He’s already looking forward to his next project.
“The next house we do, I want to produce more energy than we use,” he says. “I want to get solar [panels] as well. I know we can improve slightly on what we did here.”