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Designing Net Zero Ready custom homes in BC

Harmonizing Aesthetics and Sustainability: Designing ‘Net Zero Ready’ Custom Homes in BC

The province of British Columbia is known for its breathtaking natural beauty and commitment to environmental conservation of its mountains, forests, waters and wildlife. Housing subdivisions often incorporate parks, trails, and preserved natural areas within or adjacent to the residential developments, creating a harmonious blend of urban living and nature.

The Province has made a commitment to increasing the energy-efficiency requirements in the BC Building Code in incremental steps, with the CleanBC goal of reducing emissions by 40% by 2030, and making buildings ‘net zero ready’ by 2032.

The BC Energy Step Code is a voluntary provincial standard that gives builders the option of building to the requirements in the Energy Step Code at any time. New homes will have to be built 40 percent more energy efficient by 2027 and 80 percent more energy efficient by 2032, which is the net-zero energy-ready standard.

What is “net-zero ready”, and how is that different from net-zero?

A net zero ready (NZR) home has been designed and built just like a net zero home, but it hasn’t had the renewable energy components installed yet.

A net zero home generates as much energy as it uses, so the net amount of electricity you buy from BC Hydro is zero.

Net zero homes start with a smart, energy-efficient design. Computerized energy modelling is utilized during the building design phase to predict the energy performance of your new home based on various factors like site characteristics, structural assemblies, building envelope and mechanical efficiencies, and available technologies.

Showcasing BC’s landscape

British Columbia’s diverse landscape, which encompasses rugged mountains, lush green forests, and picturesque coastlines, has profoundly influenced the West Coast’s architectural design. BC’s custom home designers often draw inspiration from these natural surroundings, to seamlessly integrate the house into its environment.

West Coast-style homes typically feature spectacular views of native forests, mountain peaks, the Pacific Ocean or quiet lakes. Building sites can be rocky and irregular. These ‘early 20th century modern’ styled homes are often simple, with unadorned exteriors, and set at ground level, to emphasize clean lines and geometric shapes. Facades are typically divided into panels of windows and stucco and wood. Low-pitched, flat or minimally canted roofs are also popular, with deep eaves, to manage the coast’s heavy rainfall.

Post and beam structures are common, with heavy timbers arranged vertically (posts) and horizontally (beams) and fastened together with metal fasteners to create the frame of a home. With their large, exposed timbers, these homes create a more rustic or mountain-modern look than traditional stick-frame homes.

West Coast style homes favour open living spaces with few partition walls, and high ceilings to create a sense of spaciousness. Natural light is celebrated with large windows and skylights. Sustainable building materials such as local timber, hardwood or slate flooring, stone-clad fireplaces, cedar vaulted ceilings, and marble or granite countertops are very popular with this style.

Seamless integration of interior and exterior spaces allows you to connect with your natural surroundings and make them a revitalizing living environment, a sanctuary in which to breathe the forest or sea air, recharge your batteries and enhance your well-being.

Materials matter

Selecting appropriate materials is fundamental to achieving both aesthetic and sustainability goals. With abundant timber resources, wood often features prominently in architectural elements, reflecting the region’s rich forestry heritage; and responsible sourcing of timber is essential to ensure the preservation of BC’s forests and biodiversity.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) enables architects and designers to choose wood products that meet rigorous environmental standards. Alternately, incorporating reclaimed or salvaged wood can add character and history to your custom home while reducing the demand for virgin materials.

Beyond wood, designers have a range of environmentally-friendly options available, such as recycled steel, concrete alternatives such as rammed earth or hempcrete, and low-impact insulation materials like cellulose or recycled denim. By carefully considering the lifecycle impacts of each material, your designer can create a home that is both visually striking and ecologically responsible.

Integration of renewable energy

Incorporating a renewable energy system is a key component in designing and building a truly sustainable home in British Columbia in 2024. The BC Energy Step Code’s Pathway to 2032 for new Part 9 (Homes) only makes Step 5 / Net Zero Ready a requirement for 2032. Many homeowners are however choosing to future-proof their home investment by building to ‘net zero ready’ or ‘net zero’ now.

BC Energy Step Code Pathway to 2032: Part 9 (Homes)

The photovoltaic cells in a solar panel system absorb sunlight during the day, energizing the cells and producing a DC electrical current that is then converted into usable AC energy. With a correctly sized solar panel system, your renewable energy system will match your home’s electricity use over the year.

BC Hydro’s net metering program allows you to power your home with renewable energy, in a self-sufficient way, while having the grid there to rely on whenever you need it. Net metering stores the excess energy produced by your solar panel system on the power grid, and it’s credited to your bill. On rainy or cloudy days, when your panels aren’t producing enough energy, the grid feeds energy to your home and withdraws that energy from the credits you’ve banked.

Energy storage technologies, such as battery systems, can further enhance the reliability and resilience of grid-connected or off-grid renewable energy installations.

Principles of passive net Zero Energy design

Thermal control

A well-designed building envelope is fundamental to your home’s energy efficiency and family’s comfort. Superior continuous insulation with varying R-values is used in the walls, floors, and ceilings to improve energy efficiency and minimize heat transfer between the interior and exterior.

Thermal bridging is eliminated by carefully caulking around your home’s windows and doors, choosing windows with insulated hollow frames and foam-core doors, and covering studs with continuous rigid insulation. A thermal-bridge-free building envelope eliminates cold corners and mitigates the risk of mould growth.

Air control

Airtightness is essential to prevent energy loss and maintain a comfortable indoor environment. With an airtight building, continuous, balanced ventilation is essential for your indoor air quality (IAQ).

A mechanical ventilation system brings in fresh filtered air, while expelling stale air, to deliver fresh, filtered air automatically. To reduce energy loss in your net zero home, heat from the ventilated air can be captured with either a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) or an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) system. Ventilators retain from 70% to 90% of the heat from the exhaust air stream and return it to the incoming air.

An energy-efficient HVAC system minimizes power usage while ensuring effective temperature control.

Radiation control

Energy efficient windows and doors are installed, with double or triple glazing, sealed space for argon gas, weather stripping, moisture-resistant frames and airtight caulking. High-performance windows and doors can be used to effectively manage solar heat gain, through size selection, orientation and low-e coatings, factoring in optimal U-values, visible light transmittance, and solar heat gain coefficients to balance daylight, heat transfer, and energy efficiency.

Shading minimizes overheating during the cooling season, using elements like overhangs, light shelves, horizontal and vertical louvres, and brise-soleil to control and diffuse the natural light entering your home. Smart systems can adjust the angle and positioning of these shading devices to suit the sun’s angle and local climate conditions.

Daylighting is an effective passive strategy for reducing your home’s lighting loads during the day, taking advantage of the sun’s energy in the heating season while improving indoor environmental quality (IEQ). Daylight-responsive lighting controls, such as continuous dimming or stepped ballasts, can automatically adjust electric lighting based on available natural light.

Thermal mass can effectively reduce energy consumption by leveraging its ability to absorb and store heat, thereby helping to regulate your home’s indoor temperatures naturally. Materials with high thermal mass, such as concrete, masonry, and ceramic tiles, absorb and release heat slowly.

Moisture control

Sealed net zero homes are typically 8 to 10 times more airtight than a code-built building. Far less moisture transfers through the exterior wall assembly via air leakage, which can lead to high interior relative humidity levels. The primary means of controlling humidity levels in an airtight home is through the ventilation and heating and cooling systems.

Managing steam from hot water is also important, and can be enhanced by incorporating water-saving fixtures. For sustainability, a rainwater harvesting solution, and grey-water recycling system will help conserve water resources, particularly in BC communities prone to droughts and seasonal water scarcity.

Embracing passive design principles

Passive design principles leverage BC’s natural elements such as sunlight, shade, and prevailing winds to create comfortable and energy-efficient living spaces.

Optimal building orientation maximizes natural light and heat from the sun, and the strategic placement of windows, shading devices, and thermal mass elements contributes to energy efficiency.

Passive solar design principles make optimal use of solar energy and reduce your reliance on artificial heating and cooling systems, maximizing daylighting and solar heat gain during the colder months, while minimizing overheating in the summer.

The takeaway

Crafting custom homes in BC offers the opportunity to blend aesthetics with sustainability, creating houses that are both visually striking and ecologically responsible. By drawing inspiration from the natural landscape, embracing renewable energy technologies, and integrating passive design principles, your designer can achieve harmony between form and function.

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