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Just don't call him an envirofreak Add to ...

Looking over his white pine clad new house, David Braden makes a claim that sounds almost un-Canadian.

Come this winter, Mr. Braden predicts he'll be warm and toasty in a house that doesn't have a furnace. He plans to keep it warm at practically no cost, relying mainly on sunlight streaming through his bank of south-facing windows to heat the place, and perhaps a little help from the waste heat from appliances such as hair dryers.

"Do I think this house absolutely needs no furnace and could easily heat with either a hair dryer or 10 light bulbs?" he asks. "Absolutely I do."

Mr. Braden, a former municipal politician and retired home builder, is part an emerging trend, the next frontier in residential construction beyond R-2000 homes, the current gold standard for energy-sipping housing in Canada.

Mr. Braden has built a house that is so airtight and insulated it needs next to no heating. The house is so efficient, he claims, that it "doesn't make any sense" to spend $4,000 on a furnace. So he didn't. He hasn't bothered to connect to the grid either, and meets electricity needs with a wind turbine and solar panels in his side yard.

He's not alone. Across the country, a slew of homes have recently been built or renovated that are exploring the outer limits of conservation. Some, like Mr. Braden's, aren't hooked up to the power grid. Others have been designed to use fuel so sparingly and produce some of their own that they're known as "net-zero energy homes," making as much power as they consume.

Although these net-zero houses occasionally draw power from the grid, they are able to get by most of the time using only photovoltaic panels or backyard wind turbines. When it's windy or especially sunny they pump what is surplus to the home's needs back onto the lines, offsetting the energy used from natural gas and balancing out power needs to zero.

"It's the next step on the green building continuum," contends Gordon Shields, executive director of Net-Zero Energy Home Coalition, an Ottawa-based industry group, of this type of housing.

Homes that apply extreme conservation principles also seem to be moving away from their former preserve as a rural fringe activity by back-to-the-land types or extreme environmentalists.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., for instance, recently held a design competition for a dozen homes that use little or no outside energy. One of those chosen was about as far from being rural as possible: an old Second World War house near downtown Toronto that has been so well insulated, among other steps, that its owner no longer pays utility bills. The revenue from the sale of electricity from its solar voltaic panels covers its natural gas bills, which are estimated at only $300 a year.

The federal government and construction industry are also promoting an ambitious goal of having 40,000 zero-energy homes built between now and 2018, according to Doug Tarry, a St. Thomas home builder who is involved with the Industry Canada and Natural Resources Canada objective.

Currently, the homes are at the demonstration stage, making them costly and unaffordable, except for the well heeled. The Toronto CMHC renovation cost about $85,000, to achieve a $1,000 cut in gas bills and a 60-per-cent cut in electricity use, but the hope is that economies of scale will eventually bring expenses down.

If these homes become more common, it could have a major environmental impact, given that about a sixth of Canada's greenhouse gases come from residences and a drafty older home can have carbon dioxide emissions of 10 tonnes a year, double what spews from the average car.

Homes are such energy guzzlers because they're not airtight. They're typically so full of cracks they replace all their inside air with cold outside air at the rate of four to five complete exchanges every hour, forcing furnaces into overdrive.

At the front line of this housing change are people like Mr. Braden, 58, who says he believes he has one of the most energy-efficient homes ever built in Canada.

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