Harmony House demonstrates sustainability

For a grey, rainy morning, Harmony House is surprisingly bright inside, thanks to the large windows throughout.

The windows, triple-glazed, double-low E with fibreglass frames, are impressive for their ability to insulate, keeping cold air out and helping to provide and retain upwards of 20 per cent of the house's heating on an annual basis.

It's just one of the features of the 4,700-square-foot net-zero energy house, built in South Burnaby as one of the winning entries in Canada Mortgage and Housing's Equilibrium Sustainable Housing Demonstration Initiative which aims to show what is possible in today's homebuilding industry.

Burnaby suppliers provide a number of significant components of the house, from tiles produced with recycled glass by Interstyle Ceramics and Glass and wood products by Dick's Lumber, to solar panels by Day 4 Energy.

The 66 photovoltaic (solar) panels can produce 16,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, explained project architect Chris Mattock of Habitat Design and Consulting.

The power will be sent to BC Hydro's grid. At the end of the year, if the homeowners consumed more than they produced, they'd get a bill and if they produced a surplus, Hydro would send them a cheque.

Burnaby's Eneready Products Ltd. supplied a heat recovery ventilator, which not only produces a better air quality inside the airtight house than outside, it extracts the heat from the air that leaves the house, which is then used to heat the home. The company also developed a special model for the demonstration home that uses half the energy of its regular models to operate, Mattock said.

A solar thermal system heats more than half of the house's hot water supply while the other half is produced by a system that extracts heat from the air outdoors.

Outside, the house sports a metal roof that results in cleaner rainwater that is then filtered before entering downspouts to the ultimate rainbarrel, a 960 gallon tank in the backyard to irrigate the garden. It's also utilized special rigid foam boards to form the concrete foundation, foam that is left in place to in turn insulate the foundation.

Inside, the walls are covered in paint with no VOCs (volatile organic compounds), the basement uses Marmoleum flooring, a renewable linseed-oil-based version of linoleum, and reclaimed wood from an old logging bridge and a house is featured throughout. Of course, there are water efficient plumbing fixtures, energy efficient LED lights, and occupancy sensors that turn off lights when there's no one using a room.

While such features and design don't come cheap—it cost the homeowners about $900,000 to build, and suppliers to the demonstration project contributed another  $250,000 in goods and services including a six-month lease on a Mitsubishi electric car—Mattock stressed that much can be done for a smaller premium on the cost.

He determined the house cost about 18 per cent more than typical home  construction. Of that, 10 per cent is the cost of solar panels and solar thermal systems that produce energy.

But the other eight per cent is responsible for 70 per cent of the energy savings. That's through design features such as orienting the house east-west so the majority of windows face south—20 per cent of the house's heating comes from sunlight. The ultra-insulated windows keep the heat in during colder months, and they open along with skylights in summer to create a natural cooling system.

The walls are highly insulated, with studs set farther apart than usual (while maintaining structural integrity) to allow for additional insulation with vacuum panels developed for the refrigeration industry, foam board and spray-foam insulation made from castor bean oil. The light switches are wireless, and with less electrical wiring needed, there's even more space for insulation.

Along with the heat recovery ventilation system, such features get the house up to 70 per cent of the way to being a net-zero-energy home, or "net zero ready."

"The best strategy is to get to net-zero ready, and prewire for the solar electric system," Mattock said. Then homeowners could wait for the solar technology to come down in price, he added, noting in the past two years the cost of such systems have dropped by about 25 per cent.

He's hopeful the project will have the desired effect of inspiring builders to utilize more sustainable building designs. "There's been a huge amount of interest from the industry."

• This weekend, Jan. 28 and 29, is the last weekend Harmony House will be open to the public. Located at 7990 Joffre Ave., Burnaby, it will be open on Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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