Building an affordable net zero home

How to Build an Affordable Net Zero Home in BC

Building a Net Zero home can represent an excellent investment in the long run, saving you a considerable amount of money on energy bills, while providing a more functional, comfortable and durable living space. However, building an affordable net zero home can be a bit more challenging than a traditional home, which may have discouraged you from taking the leap. Fortunately, there are several ways to make building the net zero home of your dreams more affordable.

A net zero home will produce as much electricity on-site as it will consume over one year. In theory, then, any energy your home takes from the electrical grid will be returned.

What makes a home net zero?

The core principle when designing a net zero home is keeping the energy consumption low, so the power needs can be met by one or more sustainable energy sources. Depending on location and features, your net zero home could potentially zero out your electricity bill and make it affordable to buy or remodel your dream home.

The houses can be oriented to take advantage of warmth and light from the sun, known as passive heating. They are also built to be exceptionally airtight, super-insulated, with high-efficiency windows and doors, to retain heat in the winter, and keep it out in the summer.

High-efficiency HVAC systems, ENERGY STAR® appliances and LED lighting help keep energy use to a minimum. Net zero homes use very efficient heating and cooling systems, such as air-source and ground-source heat pumps. Air-source heat pumps draw in outside air and warm it during the winter months, and pump the warm air outside during the summer months to keep it cool. Ground-source/geothermal heat pumps use the thermal heat from below ground to warm the house during the winter months, and pump the heat outside during the summer.

Homeowners also play an active role, managing their energy use carefully; being mindful of how energy is used around the building. Most net zero homes use solar photovoltaic panels that can produce the energy needed for lighting, heating and cooling systems, hot water and appliances. The energy from solar panels or wind turbines could be stored in batteries for later use, but more commonly it’s sent to the local power grid for credit that can be used during the night or daytime shortfalls when the power generated does not match consumption.

Let design handle the heavy lifting

As green builders have lowered costs by streamlining their home design building practice, green technologies have also become progressively more affordable. Net zero design is a complex, data-driven process, so you want to work with design-build experts who can take your net zero project from sketches to 3D renderings and architectural drawings, through construction and completion.

Energy modelling software is an important design tool that helps designers and builders identify the most cost-effective measures and materials to use to create your zero energy home. Modelling is conducted at multiple stages of the design process, to analyze the energy impact of different design choices. These design choices may involve heat pumps, to decide whether an air source heat pump will be better than a ground source heat pump for the application, or if bumping up from R30 to R60 wall insulation will be needed to achieve energy savings targets.

Can an existing home be retrofitted to net zero?

Absolutely. The net zero concept isn’t limited to new builds. The same principles for net zero homes apply to remodels: increasing the existing insulation levels to exceed code standards, orienting windows if possible to work with the sun, replacing windows and doors with energy-efficient units, redesigning HVAC systems to increase their efficiency, and installing a renewable energy source.

Keep it simple

There is economy and beauty in simplicity. The easiest way to reduce costs on your net zero building project is to design a simple-shaped house. Complex designs cost a lot more money, so avoiding gables, dormers, balconies, curves or structural glass in the design could allow you to afford a beautiful eco-friendly home.

Size matters. It’s important to be realistic about your family’s comfort and needs. Building more house than you need is going to leave a bigger carbon footprint, cost more to build and contribute to higher operating and maintenance costs over its lifespan.

Design your home to be more energy-efficient from the outset

One way to make building your net-zero home more affordable is to design the home to be more energy-efficient from its inception. Incorporating passive solar design principles can help to reduce the energy required to heat and cool the home. Maximizing solar gains may include designing the home with a south-facing orientation to take advantage of natural light and warmth, super-insulating the walls and roof to reduce heat loss, including structural thermal mass and incorporating energy-efficient windows and doors.

Ease into net zero with renewable energy system installations

Another way to make building a net-zero home more affordable is to choose cost-effective renewable energy systems first. For instance, instead of investing in expensive solar panels right away, homeowners can consider installing a solar water heater or a geothermal heat pump, which can provide efficient heating and cooling while being less expensive than solar panels upfront.

Keep the cost of materials low with locally sourced and recycled products

Using locally sourced and recycled building materials can help to reduce the cost of building your net zero home. Locally sourced materials will increase the sustainability of your build, they are often less expensive than imported materials, and using recycled materials can significantly reduce the cost over new materials. For instance, using recycled insulation or flooring can help to reduce the overall cost of building your net zero home.

Recycled materials also help reduce the carbon footprint of construction by minimizing transportation emissions. Locally sourced materials also support local economies and can provide opportunities for job creation. Additionally, using recycled materials reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills and helps conserve natural resources. These practices can also contribute to a healthier indoor environment, as recycled materials often have lower levels of volatile organic compounds.

Take advantage of attractive financing options

Homeowners can consider financing options that can help make building a net-zero home more affordable. Some government agencies, financial institutions and special programs offer low-interest and interest-free loans and grants to homeowners who are building energy-efficient homes.

As one example, the Canada Greener Homes Loan helps eligible Canadians make their homes more energy efficient and comfortable. As of June 17, 2022, the loan is available to homeowners applying to the Canada Greener Homes Grant. As part of the Canada Greener Homes Initiative, eligible retrofit applicants have access to grants from $125 to $5,000 and interest-free loans of up to $40,000, with a repayment term of 10 years.

Another option for some homeowners is working with their builder to create a multi-phase building plan that allows them to build their net-zero home incrementally over time, rather than all at once, which can help to significantly reduce upfront costs.

Apply for rebates, grants and assistance programs

BC homeowners have quite a few rebate and grant incentives available to them. The most popular are the Home Renovation Rebate Program by BC Hydro, offered in partnership with CleanBC and FortisBC; the FortisBC Home renovation bonus rebates; BC Government’s Home Improvement Assistance Programs; and Municipal Top-up Rebates.

BC Hydro rebates are available to eligible homeowners for insulation, windows and doors, heat pumps and heat pump water heaters. FortisBC Home renovation bonus rebates can cover insulation, windows and doors, space heating, water heating and an EnerChoice® fireplace.

BC Government’s Home Improvement Assistance Programs offer assistance to eligible applicants under the following programs: Home Adaptations for Independence (HAFI), BC Seniors’ Home Renovation Tax Credit, CleanBC Better Homes Program, Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program On-Reserve and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) Eco Plus Program.

The takeaway

Building a net zero, eco-friendly home that cuts energy costs is a smart investment that can yield long-term benefits. Building a net zero home, or retrofitting, reduces energy costs by incorporating energy-efficient systems and technologies, such as solar panels, LED lighting, and energy-efficient HVAC systems. This not only saves money on utility bills but also adds value to the property.

Additionally, green homes can improve the indoor air quality of your home, reduce water usage, and minimize the environmental impact of the building. By investing in a green home sooner rather than later, you can enjoy the benefits of lower energy costs and a healthier, more sustainable living space. As energy costs continue to rise and environmental concerns become more pressing, demand and the value of net zero homes is likely to increase, making them a smart investment for the future.

Reid Madiuk

Reid Madiuk's been putting on a toolbelt since he was twelve years old, alongside his father, one of Whistler's first residential builders. As a third-generation Squamish and Whistler builder, Reid brings over 20 years of carpentry expertise to designing and constructing exceptional homes.

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