Building a sustainable home in BC

Building an Eco-Conscious Home in BC: Embracing Net Zero and Sustainable Construction

Building a new, sustainable home is an exciting and potentially satisfying venture. The construction industry has long been recognized as one of the largest consumers of minerals and other resources, and that has prompted a growing concern over sustainability and the depletion of natural resources. The industry in British Columbia has stepped up by introducing sustainable construction programs, to transition to more renewable development methods, and the introduction of the BC Energy Step Code on April 6th, 2017.

What is sustainable construction?

Sustainable living involves making the lifestyle choice to reduce your use of the Earth’s natural resources. As sustainability pertains to construction, design and construction decisions minimize the environmental impact of your home, while promoting both your family’s well-being and that of the planet. Sustainable design encompasses a range of principles, including reducing energy consumption, minimizing waste, conserving water, and making eco-friendly purchasing decisions.

Designing for sustainability typically involves passive design strategies such as optimal building orientation, natural ventilation, and daylighting to reduce energy demands. Life-cycle assessments are conducted to select materials with low environmental impact. Considerable thought is given to waste reduction, water conservation, energy efficiency and the use of sustainable materials. Responsible design also considers deconstruction and adaptability to enable future reuse or recycling of the materials used in your project.

The path to net zero

A net zero home produces as much energy as it consumes over a year. In 2017, achieving net zero represented a big step over the base BC Building Code, so the BC Energy Step Code was established to offer an incremental staircase based on 5 steps, proposed as a pathway to achieving net zero readiness.

The BC Energy Step Code

The BC Energy Step Code goes beyond the base requirements of the BC Building Code, offering an incremental approach to obtaining energy-efficient buildings. It’s a pathway designed to ensure all homes province-wide will be Net-Zero Energy Ready by 2032.

A ‘Net-Zero Energy Ready’ home meets all of the energy efficiency requirements of a ‘Net Zero’ home but with the plan to add renewable energy sources at a future date, when it makes sense financially. To comply with the BC Energy Step Code, builders use energy software modelling and on-site testing to demonstrate that both the design and constructed home will meet all of the requirements of the standard.

Pathway to 2032: Part 9 (Homes).

City and municipal authorities with jurisdiction over the BC Building Code can choose to require or incentivize builders to meet one or more of the steps of the BC Energy Step Code. For example, As of November 1st, 2023, the City of North Vancouver requires new homes to meet Step 5 and Emissions Level 1, or Step 4 and Emissions Level 3.

Energy: the cornerstone of a sustainable home

Energy consumption is one of the largest contributors to our carbon footprint. Transitioning to sustainable energy sources therefore is a critical step toward both sustainable living and achieving net zero.

Energy efficiency: Net zero energy homes begin with smart design, and are optimized with energy modelling software. Using superior insulation and energy-efficient windows, with airtight construction, will minimize your home’s heating and cooling loads. Since your high-performance home is airtight, a continuous source of fresh, filtered air and moisture control are required. A heat recovery ventilation (HRV) system, or energy recovery ventilation (ERV) system, will expel the stale air while recovering most of the heat to return it to the incoming stream of fresh air.

Advanced HVAC systems transfer heat rather than generating it through combustion, providing both heating and cooling in a single system, and heat pump water heaters use electricity to transfer heat from the surrounding air to heat the water in the tank. Heat pumps do not burn fossil fuels, so there are no direct emissions.

Energy Star certified appliances, and LED lighting systems with occupancy sensors, can significantly reduce your energy costs and consumption, and reliance on the traditional power grid. LED lighting uses up to 75% less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs, and LEDs can last 25 times longer.

Renewable energy generation: Renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal have a much lower environmental impact than fossil fuels. Producing your power on-site will not only reduce your family’s reliance on the power grid but also feed surplus energy back to the grid for credit when your home produces more than it consumes.

BC’s West Coast offers an abundance of both solar and wind energy, making photovoltaic (PV) solar panels and wind turbines popular options. Photovoltaic systems produce clean energy, and it’s practical to mount solar panels on most rooftops or building lots. BC Hydro’s net metering program lets you generate your own power while having the power grid available if you need it. The surplus power generated is sent to the grid and credited to your account.

Smart home technology: Smart thermostats, smart appliances, automated lighting and energy management software enable your clever home to respond to your family’s occupancy patterns and other environmental conditions. The use of sensors, timers, and real-time monitoring enables smart systems to analyze the data, and then optimize your devices for the most efficient energy usage.

Smart thermostats can automatically adjust the heating and cooling based on occupancy patterns, school, work or sleep schedules, and weather conditions. Smart lighting can turn off the lights in unoccupied rooms, dim lights in response to natural lighting levels, and follow schedules to avoid illumination when it’s not needed.

Waste management: reducing, reusing, and recycling

Reducing waste: Sustainable living places an emphasis on generating as little waste as possible during the construction of your home, during its lifecycle and also its eventual demolition. Your home should be designed for longevity, adaptability and deconstruction. Waste audits during construction help your builder better understand the amount of waste generated, and types of materials, so an effective waste management plan can be created. Designated areas should be established for reusable materials, recyclables and non-recyclable waste.

Reducing mistakes is another way to reduce construction waste. And another is ordering the right amount of materials like drywall, concrete and lumber. Once materials are delivered, it’s critical to protect them from the elements. Storing lumber on level blocking, and under cover can minimize damage. Bricks and other masonry need to be stacked and covered. Storing materials in a secured location can prevent theft.

Reusing and repurposing: Reusing existing materials like wood, bricks, tiles, fixtures, and appliances extends their lifecycle, reducing the need for new materials, and the associated waste generated from manufacturing and transportation. Materials like lumber, bricks, fixtures, and appliances can often be salvaged and reused on other projects or donated to organizations like Habitat for Humanity. Repurposing materials for a new function, such as refinishing and using old doors as tabletops, barn siding as rustic plank flooring and wooden beams as decorative elements, keeps them from becoming waste in the landfill.

Recycling: By implementing a recycling program and sorting waste materials on-site, a significant portion of that waste can be diverted from landfills, to be recycled into new products. Your on-site recycling program reduces the environmental impact of your project and will help extend the lifespan of the existing landfill. Implementing recycling practices on your construction site can also help your project meet the standards and achieve the sustainability goals of your green building certification program.

Water conservation: protecting precious local resources

Water is a finite and essential local resource that requires careful management. Sustainable water use, during construction and after, involves reducing your water consumption, protecting water quality, and managing city or municipal water resources efficiently.

Reducing water consumption: During construction, it’s important for tradespeople such as drywallers, tile setters, stonemasons and landscapers to shut off the water supply whenever it’s not required, rather than leaving hoses running. Your building contractor should install low-flow showerheads and faucets, dual-flush toilets, and efficient washing machines and dishwashers to significantly reduce your household’s water usage.

Simple changes in your daily habits can lead to significant water savings. These can include fixing leaks immediately and adopting water-saving practices such as turning off the tap while brushing your teeth.

Sustainable building materials and practices

Sustainable materials: Your choice of building materials plays a crucial role in reducing the home’s environmental impact. Using locally sourced BC lumber is a good example. Through the Wood First Act and updates to the provincial building codes, BC has become a leader in Canada for positioning wood as the building material of choice. Wood is local, so it supports the BC economy and local communities. It’s strong, lightweight, flexible and seismically safe. And it’s eco-friendly, harvested in renewable, certified and sustainably managed forests.

Other options are recycled and reclaimed materials with a lower embodied energy, like repurposed lumber in flooring, bamboo and cork. There are carpets made from natural fibres with little or no chemical treatment, and natural-fibre backing. You want to avoid toxic or non-biodegradable materials. The longer the material’s lifespan, the lower its embodied energy per unit of time.

When your building materials reach the end of their useful life, you want products that can be reused or recycled. Materials that can be reused can be given a second life for the same or different purpose, without altering their form. Doors, bricks, masonry stones, tiles and windows can be reused on other new or renovation projects. Materials that can be recycled can be transformed into new products, through chemical or physical processes. Steel, glass, concrete and some plastics can be recycled into new construction materials.

Efficient construction practices: Waste can be greatly reduced by simply using no more than is needed when building your home. By creating detailed home plans, a project plan and a list of materials, your designer and contractor can help you avoid overbuying and ordering materials that won’t even be used, proactively reducing the construction waste from your project.

Off-site construction solutions are another way to reduce construction waste by as much as 90%. Prefabricated building systems today are very versatile and customizable, and trusses and panels can be transported to the building site, where they are quickly assembled.

Sustainable demolition: The waste produced when tearing down old construction accounts for more than 90% of all construction waste. Therefore, sustainable homes must be designed with deconstruction in mind, and choosing materials that can be reused or recycled is at the heart of building a sustainable home.

Open-span structural systems are far easier to disassemble than more complex designs. Designing for standard-sized lumber will reduce much of the waste associated with cutting materials down to size. Construction that uses traditional nails, screws and bolts as fasteners, rather than trending glues, sealants, laminates and adhesives will be far easier to deconstruct and recycle when the time comes.

The takeaway

Building a sustainable home and achieving net zero are not just lofty ideals. They have become urgent imperatives for the health of our planet and future generations. As more cities and municipalities in British Columbia require all new homes to meet Step 5 of the BC Energy Step Code, net zero ready is becoming the building standard, well before the 2032 target.

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