Getting tough on green
As revamped energy efficiency standards kick in, Vancouver faces a brave new world
What Lucio Picciano noticed when he moved into his ultra-energy-efficient new house was how his daughter started sleeping through the night.
Previously the two-year-old had constantly been woken up by sounds from outside.
"Her patterns changed because everything was so quiet," Mr. Picciano said.
That's because Mr. Picciano's house is Vancouver's first certified Passive House, which means it has met a rigorous standard for construction that ensures that it is so well insulated and air-tight that it requires very little energy to heat and cool. That also, as turns out, means the house is extremely soundproof.
Mr. Picciano, an architect who designed and oversaw the construction of his hyper-modern-looking east-side home, said his electricity bills for the 1,800-square-foot house's three electric baseboard heaters are a joke because they're so low.
"Sometimes we only pay the service charge."
Go back to a regular house ever? "It would be very difficult."
The house also meets the city's new, precedent-setting green building code.
The only one in Canada of its kind, Vancouver's "zero emissions building plan," whose first phase kicked in May 1, will eventually require that all new buildings meet a strict standard for greenhouse-gas emissions and energy efficiency by 2030. That's part of a larger plan to see the city get all its energy from renewable sources by 2050.
Developers getting rezonings for multi-family buildings had to start meeting the new requirements this month.
Vancouver is in the rare position of having the legal right to create its own building code, which has enabled that requirement.
The city's aggressive action has set off a backlash in the province's natural-gas industry, including fireplace installers, whose representatives say the new requirements are so strict that they essentially make it prohibitive for a builder to install natural gas for heating or cooking.
That's something they say deprives people of the right to choose, as well as forcing them to use a much more expensive option, electricity. (Other critics have also said the requirements will drive up the cost of housing in Vancouver, already astronomical, even more.)
The issue got so hot that the B.C. Liberals, in the middle of their election campaign, declared that they would remove the city's right to impose that requirement – a promise that is now up in the air with the current hung government.
But the city's new green building code is about much more than just natural gas.
It is pushing some builders now, and will push more in the future, to rethink the way they design houses, apartment buildings and condo towers. And it will mean a new generation of residents making their homes in buildings that look and feel different from what is now the norm.
For houses – single-family, duplex, rowhouse, and other variations – the most noticeable differences will be the thickness of the walls and the size and placement of windows.
Passive House-certified homes are built with much thicker walls – up to 17 inches, compared to the usual eight – with more insulation.
"It's really just wrapping a sweater around our house," says Shaun St.-Amour, a contractor who is about to start building a Passive House duplex – one of a cluster of builders and architects in the city getting excited about the concept.
Windows are triple glazed and look different because they're set back in the deep walls. As well, windows are placed to ensure the house doesn't overheat or get too cold – larger on walls that don't get too much sun, smaller on ones that do.
Windows on the west side are limited. In Mr. Picciano's house, there's also a mechanical shade on that window to block the sun even more.
And then, yes, in most of them, there is no natural gas. Not that it's impossible to install something that would generate an unacceptable of greenhouse-gas emissions.
It's just that there's so little demand for heating in the well-insulated Passive House that it's not worth the expensive of bringing natural gas in just for that and a cooktop. Instead, Mr. Picciano installed an induction stove and cooktop in his house – something his wife wasn't so sure about at first, but is now quite happy with.
Induction stoves and cooktops work by heating using electromagnetism. Aficionados claim that restaurant chefs are starting to favour them. So are some private builders doing Passive Houses or homes approaching that level of energy efficiency. But they're not something likely to become common in Vancouver's ubiquitous condo towers, which will have to be constructed according to the green building code as of this month. Instead, developers are saying that electrical appliances will be the norm.
Again, they could use natural gas if they chose, but the cost of achieving energy efficiency in other parts of the building, in order to compensate for it, would be so high that they're unlikely to do it, says Anne McMullin, CEO of the industry group Urban Development Institute. But natural gas is only one small element of how condo buildings will be changing.
To get a sense of how different they'll look, Vancouver residents can stroll past the Marine Gateway project in south Vancouver. Although it was officially opened a year ago, the 35-storey project was built to energy standards that exceed the city's new code.
"We worked with [the developer] to create the most affordable energy-efficient building we could, without knowing where the city was going to go," says architect Ryan Bragg at Perkins + Will, a Vancouver firm known for its work on sustainability.
The biggest difference that residents and casual observers notice about the building is the windows. Unlike so many condo towers in Vancouver, where at least one wall of an apartment is typically floor-to-ceiling glass, Marine Gateway has windows set into a real wall.
"We have solid walls with insulation on the outside of the walls," Mr. Bragg said.
The company chose not to go with electric baseboards for heat because of the dry, crackly heat it produces.
"The next generation is getting away from electric baseboards," he said. Instead, there are baseboards that use a hydronic system. They circulate heated water, a little bit like the radiators in old apartment buildings, but a modern version.
At Marine Gateway, the heat for the water is generated mostly from excess heat off the commercial spaces in the complex (there's a grocery store, several restaurants and a multiplex movie theatre), as well as from a geo-exchange system – that is, pipes that go 300 feet under the building, where water in them is warmed by heat stored in the ground.
There are natural-gas-powered boilers and chillers in the complex to provide one final extra energy source for the building and that's extended to barbecues and a fireplace in the common spaces.
Like Ms. McMullin, Mr. Bragg said natural gas is just not something developers want to install unless they're appealing to a luxury buyer. Marine Gateway, which also includes some rental units, was designed and marketed for the budget conscious.
"It's really the price point," he said. "Gas piping is not incredibly expensive but what is the return on it?"
To critics who say that that, in essence, is forcing all but the wealthy to live with electricity as a heat source and that electricity costs three times as much, Mr. Bragg says the problem is not the heat source but the building.
"If electricity is costing too much, I think that's a problem with the architecture, having way too much glass."
Like Mr. Picciano's Passive House, Marine Gateway doesn't have any air conditioning.
Instead, there are exterior shades on the west side of the building, the one most vulnerable to what architects call solar gain.
For a small core of builders in the city, like Mr. Bragg and Mr. Picciano and others, the city's push for energy-efficient buildings is a welcome initiative.
"There's an argument for doing what Vancouver is doing, just jumping to the finish line," says Bryn Davidson, a builder who is moving his company, Lanefab Design/Build, in the direction of Passive House-style efficiencies. That makes more sense than going step by step, as some jurisdictions have done.
Mr. Davidson attended a talk in Vancouver recently by Belgian builders who saw their whole country go through a similar upheaval, after a change to building rules there, to what the city's construction industry is experiencing.
"They said the hardest project was the first project, but then after that, it wasn't hard and projects were coming in at 10 per cent less [in cost]."
In the end, he said, "the marginal cost of going really green is almost nothing."
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