Thursday, July 24, 2014


Precious metal becomes more affordable

The following is a reprint of an article I initially wrote for the Canadian Journal of Green Building and Design. In this reprint I am able to include links to additional information left out of the original publication due to space limitations.

Download PDF of the original article here

By building Canada’s first “affordable” home to target LEED Canada for Homes Platinum certification, Habitat Peterborough has proven that sustainable design and construction needn’t be a costly proposition.

What began as a partnership between Habitat for Humanity Peterborough and the Fleming College Sustainable Building Design and Construction program for a single house demonstration project that would target LEED Platinum certification quickly became a standard, with Habitat Peterborough targeting LEED Gold certification for two further builds in their Towerhill infill development, and as well as for future builds.

Assisting on the project is LEED Canada for Homes Provider BEC Consulting. LEED Providers are organizations with demonstrated experience, expertise in their market, and a proven record of supporting builders in the construction of high-performance, sustainable homes. BEC’s role is to guide the project teams through the LEED certification process.

Unlike typical demonstration projects that pack all the latest green “bling” into a home regardless of cost, John Furr, the President of BEC was adamant that Habitat’s standard must take a practical approach, highlighting sound design principles, and the selection of proven technologies that are readily available, simple to execute, and cost effective.

This philosophy fit well with that of Fleming College’s Sustainable Building Design and Construction program, whose two primary goals include the creation of the most sustainable buildings possible, built on budgets that are modest. Both these goals made the Habitat for Humanity project a good fit for Fleming. And since their students contribute the majority of the construction labour to their projects each year, the model fit well with Habitat for Humanity’s volunteer build model.

Providing homes that owners can afford

Many hardworking families are caught in a vicious cycle of making ‘too much' at low-paying jobs to take advantage of assistance programs, such as subsidized housing. But they make ‘too little' to provide all their family needs. Many are forced to make impossible choices – providing shelter or having food, and paying rent or utility bills.

Habitat for Humanity is able to help people living below the poverty line in financially vulnerable situations, who are able to repay an interest-free mortgage and qualify to become a partner family with Habitat for Humanity.

However, true affordability means more than just a low monthly mortgage payment; it’s about the overall cost of ownership. By utilizing smart design, and better materials a green home can help address the true cost of home ownership, as well as being healthier and more comfortable for its occupants. A green home uses less energy and water and benefits from significantly lower utility and maintenance bills, while family members are exposed to fewer molds, mildew and other indoor toxins. By electing to build their homes to LEED standards, Habitat isn’t just providing affordable housing to families; they are improving the quality of life for their families through an improved financial outlook, better health, and peace of mind.


There is confusion on what green home building means, and although there are many local green home building programs in Canada, there is no national consistency. Some local programs are heavily focused on energy efficiency, while others are little more than green washing.

LEED certification on the other hand is the homeowner’s assurance that their homes are durable, healthy, environmentally friendly and truly affordable. LEED Canada for Homes is Canada’s most credible green building rating system developed to promote the design and construction of high-performance green homes.

Since the year 2000, hundreds of national experts have played a role in developing the voluntary new houses program. Builders have played a central role in the development as committee members, reviewers and active pilot participants.

A LEED-certified home is third party-verified to have been designed and constructed in accordance with the rigorous guidelines of the green building certification program. LEED recognizes and rewards builders for meeting four performance standards, certified, silver, gold and platinum.

While LEED directly addresses and rewards the inherent resource efficiency of smaller, affordable homes, especially those that are built in more urban settings, the LEED program is designed to provide industry best practices greening any new home from affordable to custom to production housing, and BEC is currently working with project teams in each of those categories.

The Fleming Platinum build

Each year the 20 week Fleming College certificate program is based around the design and construction of a complete building. This year students built a home they expect will achieve LEED platinum certification. The build represented an exciting challenge for the Fleming program. “Going for LEED platinum gave us lots of specific targets to aim for,” says Chris Magwood. “While we have always made sustainability our top priority, measuring our choices against a standard like LEED gives the students a very clear sense of what needs to be achieved.”

Fleming students were involved with making design decisions, researching and sourcing products, suppliers and trades people, and actually constructing the building. They have overseen the project from bare ground to a finished building, giving them a strong sense of how a sustainable building project comes together as well as many specialized skill sets.

By focusing on a real world project, the benefits to the students are many. Chief among them is the chance for students to meet and work with a wide range of professionals in the sustainable building field. They get to see how a design team functions, and also how trades people work with sustainable systems. The learning opportunities are many, and so are the networking possibilities. These connections are important as the students graduate and start designing and/or building on their own.

The Gold builds

Members of the other major project partner, the Peterborough Professional Firefighters Association, under the direction of Captain Keith Manser, built a single-family detached home using the new production standard. They expect the home to achieve LEED gold certification.

In a testament to their skills, the Firefighters completed their house in a little over two calendar months, from footings to trim - a record build time for Habitat Peterborough. In fact there were fewer than 50 actual days on site. Firefighters provided 95% of the labour. This great group of people risks their lives every day to help keep families safe, and in their precious spare time they give back to the community, volunteering to build a home for a local family.

Habitat for Humanity routinely provides volunteer opportunities for anyone genuinely interested in the affordable housing crisis facing so many families in Canada, regardless of their construction background and skills, or lack thereof. For each of the remaining builds Habitat is utilizing teams comprised of community volunteers.

The varied backgrounds of the volunteers can present a challenge for build to build consistency and quality. BEC Construction Consulting Group is able to provide training in green building science, high performance construction techniques and quality management, to address any skills deficiency among the project teams.

BEC also trains and deploys a team of Green Raters who conduct on-site inspections and performance testing at key points in the construction process. Dave Moffat of Habitat appreciates the process “The inspection and testing process imposes a build discipline that not only provides focus but also helps us to ensure consistency from build to build.” This build discipline also holds true in production housing environments where numerous crews with various levels of expertise are at work on tight production schedules.

Environmental practices and technologies

The buildings created through the Fleming program always blend innovative and often low-tech structural and insulation systems with high-tech mechanical systems, in an effort to lower the environmental impact of the building’s materials while also keeping operating costs and impacts to a minimum. “Our budgets are kept reasonable by balancing the savings we get from using materials like earthbag foundations, straw bale walls and earthen plasters and putting those savings into the best quality and most sustainable mechanical systems,” explains Chris Magwood.

The Fleming team is also committed to keeping their building completely free of toxic and off-gassing materials. “Nothing goes into the interior of one of our buildings unless it has met the highest standards for indoor environmental quality,” adds Jen Feigin, the program technician.

All builds reduced construction waste through the use of detailed framing documents and waste order limits, the Fleming build also used some offsite pre-fabrication. By purchasing only enough materials to complete the houses teams can realize substantial material cost savings. These savings can be increased by diverting the waste that was produced from the local landfill minimizing waste disposal fees.

While the straw bale and earthen plaster walls of the Fleming build are a break from the ICF foundation and 2x6 frame walls used in the other builds, all the builds utilize high-tech mechanical systems to maximize heating and domestic hot water heating efficiencies.

John Furr, whose firm also provided HVAC design services for each build, recommended hybrid hydronic heating systems based on the Lifebreath Clean Air Furnace. According to Furr, “The integrated nature of the CAF system makes for a compact installation that is ideal for space constrained houses models and can contribute significantly to a healthier and more comfortable environment for the occupants.”

Patented in 1999, the CAF is in a category of its own, as the only Hydronic Air Handler that combines comfort and efficiency from the water heater and air handler, with the fresh air benefits of a Heat Recovery Ventilator. Moreover, the CAF combines this high efficiency air handler with an ECM motor, a large surface hydronic coil to minimize pump and fan energy use, and a Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV). The system is designed to use the single ECM motor to provide air circulation and ventilation, further reducing energy use.

The Lifebreath system offers numerous advantages when designing an energy efficient home, and contributes to LEED points in several ways. Because the CAF includes a built-in HRV, the building envelope can be designed to allow minimal air leakage. This enables the building to achieve a higher EnerGuide Rating as a result of heat recovery. The system also helps achieve points for moisture control, enhanced outdoor ventilation, and enhanced local exhaust when integrated with a Lifebreath Bathroom Exhaust System. Because of the numerous advantages Habitat hopes to equip all future homes with CAF systems.

The Fleming team elected to use both the Lifebreath CAF and the optional Bathroom Exhaust System. Fleming opted to replace the condensing hot water tank with a Viessmann Vitodens boiler, and to supplement the boiler’s instantaneous hot water capability with solar hot water pre-heating.

LEED homes are very cost-effective to build

The net cost of owning a typical LEED home is the same as a conventional home. A home certified at the basic “certified” level can be built for no additional costs. If there are additional upfront costs they are between 1-5%, depending on the green features the home incorporates. For an averaged priced $300,000 new home, this would be a cost increment of about $10,000 for the additional green measures. When this $10,000 cost increment is amortized over the 25 year life of the mortgage, the result is an increase in the monthly mortgage payment of approximately $60 per month. This amounts to a cost increase of about $2 per day - for all of the features and benefits of a LEED home (e.g., healthier, more comfortable, more durable, energy efficient, and environmentally responsible). However, if you also weigh in the approximately 30 percent utility bill savings from a LEED home, the utility bill savings are approximately $70 per month. Such a home would actually earn the homeowner money every month.

Of the Habitat results, Chris Magwood, the lead instructor for the Fleming program says “We were excited to show that deep sustainability, the kind where design and material choices are made to reflect best practice solutions, does not necessarily mean budgets that are out of reach for the average home owner, nor does it mean buildings that don’t fit into a typical aesthetic.”

John Furr holds a similar view “this project demonstrates that LEED certification is attainable on even the tightest budgets. These results can be replicated by any builder, anywhere in Canada regardless of their green building experience. Builders no longer have an excuse not to offer purchasers better homes that cost less to own and operate.”