The State of New Canadian Housing

When Canadians think of energy efficiency, they may think an ENERGY STAR label is the pinacle in energy performance, but are they right?  In our experience ENERGY STAR homes are a step up from OBC minimum, but only a small step. Its concept tesnds to work best for big production builders. At any rate, ENERGY STAR rated homes are nowhere near what the Europeans and select North Americans are doing to optimise building efficiency using energy modeling early in the design stages and testing the better building assembly processes in the field.

2014 ACEEE Internationsl EE Scorecard

2014 ACEEE International Energy Efficiency Scorecard for Buildings: The figure above gives a total score compiled from an assessment of energy intensity, building codes, building labeling, appliance standards, appliance labeling, and building retrofit policies. Sadly Canadians are not at the forefront.


The big gains in energy performance come early, even before the shovel hits the ground. Without changing “the look” of the design, subtle envelope upgrades are chosen based on savings projections calculated by a computer energy simulation tool. This is when architects or design-build firms who strive for high efficiency tend to view things differently than tract builders.

Big production builders tend to see the computer energy simulation process involved in the design optimisation of each house not as opportunity but sadly, as ‘another hoop to jump through’. Savvy builders and architects tend to use the energy modeling required for the Performance Path in SB-12 as a process for optimising the efficiency of the design through iterations of incremental envelope detail improvements. Some architects and builders go further and use the Passive House Planning Package software to get as close to the Passive House standard as the home owner cares to get.
After spending two years testing new tract-built homes designated as ENERGY STAR, we’ve come to realise how low the threshold is on the program. This isn’t to say that the ENERGY STAR brand doesn’t have substance, but the increased requirements in energy performance are low enough to appeal to the cookie cutter approach of production homebuilders who need a recognisable brand like ENERGY STAR to boost their products’ image. Sadly though, when you get out in the field to test these homes, you can see the shortcomings in design and construction-practice execution from a mile away.

The problem is twofold: typically tract-built homes are not designed by highly trained architects, and the assembly of production homes doesn’t lend itself to consistent quality. In our experience, it takes an architect a few years to hone their high efficiency skills – developing building envelope systems that work in the field and knowing what specifications need to be written in the plan to eliminate the guess work for the builder.

The tract-built home design approach typically starts without an experienced architect and opts instead for a design-build batch approach. In this approach, a few model homes are designed which satisfy the municipality’s aesthetic and come with a few ‘upgrade packages’ that homeowners can chose from so they feel they’re getting a “custom home”. The construction ‘process’ for most tract-built homes is furiously paced and frantic with trade teams leapfrogging from house to house. Not a recipe for consistent quality.

Compare that to infill-built homes and cottages or deep energy retrofits, where a builder has a cadre of retained highly skilled trades that are trained in the details specified by the architect or the builder. The results are dramatically different, especially if the process includes third party testing to ensure that all is in order before the drywall goes on. This is where the skilled and caring hands of the trades people on site makes a huge difference in the development of high performing and resilient homes.

Ocean view

Four brand new townhomes in Berkeley’s vibrant Oceanview neighborhood offer thoughtful, modern design. And with greywater systems, PV solar panels and cultivated fruit trees, these designed to LEED Platinum homes offer the greenest living in Berkeley.

To keep quality high and costs low, many high performance architects in the USA are looking at Pre-Fabrication. Authors like Sheri Koones has been writing about the virtues of prefabrication in her book Prefabulous, which has eradicated the notion that prefab looks staid or cheap.

As we learned last week in PBC’s webinar on pre-fabrication, the cost of high performance prefabrication can be on par with industry averages. The prefabricated approach has reduced on-site errors typically associated with the tract-built approach to assembly which are eliminated by the consistency of rapid, factory assembly of components.  If the foundation work is accurately laid out, a home can be closed in and dry within days when using a panelised system. We’ve field tested panelised houses and factories and the results are typuically significantly better than field manufactured wall assemblies.

So on your next build, if you’re looking to differentiate it by its resiliency and energy efficiency, consider pushing the envelope (literally) and using the power of energy simulation to help you maximise your build’s efficiency potential possibly reaching for Passive House standard. Even if the house doesn’t get certified, the process of designing and constructing to the newly evolved standard means the homeowner will be rewarded with a lifetime of durable, healthy, comfort with super low energy costs.


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McMansion Tax Coming?

For the fiscally conservative municipality of Mississauga, the writing is on the wall; sewer infrastructure needs upgrading and everyone has to get behind the wheel. The Toronto Star’s Urban Affairs reporter says “Mississauga — a city known for asphalt, an iconic sprawling shopping mall at its centre and suburban-style monster homes — has a message: if you want to keep paving paradise, get ready to pay more.”


TORSTAR McMansion Graphic


Propping up the likely unpopular tax, city Councillor George Carlson suggested the existing undersized storm water sewer system needed to be upgraded from “Dixie straws” to massive culverts. The Toronto Star article went on to say “In a move that’s a first for the GTA, Canada’s largest suburb and its sixth largest city will soon charge home owners and businesses for storm water costs based on how much of their property is covered.”

As a response to widespread flooding in 2013, Carlson said there were “streets in Mississauga that looked like Venice” and the city needed to upgrade sewer infrastructure. What the Toronto Star suggested was a tax on the rich’s “McMansions” isn’t really accurate given that the tax in question tops out at $170 per year for roof with a footprint over 2606 square feet. Hardly a tax at the cost of one Starbucks latte a week!

At the lower end, the municipality won’t be taxing homes with roof areas smaller than a 17′x17′ (less than 287 square feet), but let’s be frank there are virtually no homes in Mississauga under 287 sq.ftCMHC suggests that the average floor area for a mobile home is 1,200 square feet (in the USA it ranges from 600 to 1,335 square feet ) which would be taxed $70 annually whereas the largest house in the Municipality would be charged mere a $100 more. So really, this is a tax on low and middle income, average home owners.

Equal taxation

The proposed new tax would cost the homes on the left (~2000sq.ft) $100 annually and on the right (720 sq.ft) $50 yearly, though CMHC suggests the average is CDN mobile home comes in at 1,200sq.ft for a yearly tax of $70. Left image courtesy of Wikicommons.

To dissuade developers and builders from building McMnsions, the city should have based its calculation on the actual bell curve of roof areas and taxed more heavily on the far side of the curve to place a value on land area. It should have also included the area of the driveway with a factor that discounted its area if it the surface was permeable.

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Where Radiant In-Floor DOESN’T Belong

Radiant in-floor heat is growing in popularity and it should be noted, there are some places where the tubing shouldn’t be placed. See below!


Fridge under fire

It’s quite common for refrigerators to dissipate their heat under and behind the fridge.

The image below shows two sources of heat; the fridge trying to move heat out the bottom and the lines in the floor (reflected by the shiny stainless steel) show the radiant in-floor tubing. The heating system was just getting going (10 mintues after firing the boiler) so the floor wasn’t up to design temperature yet. As the slab gets significantly warmer, these two sources of heat will fight each other and the fridge will lose by decreasing its ability to lose heat into the kitchen. Take note radiant people, don’t install radiant in-floor tubing under cabinets and especially not under refrigerators!

Hot Fridge

To keep the food cold, the compressor pumps the heat out of the food and into the kitchen. Specifically, it moves heat out under and behind the fridge. As seen above, the hot yellow heat signature in the floor’s concrete shows that the fridge needs to get rid of heat.


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Keeping the Throne Hot

I’m told that traditionally, Japanese homes were not centrally heated and to cope with the cold, they use a number of strategies that include passive warming strategies like clothes and bedding (kakebuton) but also include active strategies like a heated bath (Ofuro) and the beloved communal seating area (kotatsu). But for anyone who’s had to use an outhouse mid-winter, the Japanese take throne comfort to a new level with electrically heated seats:


This plug-in, electrically heated toilet seat is deluxe!


In the cultural context, this extravagance makes sense given that the temperature in Japanese homes is significantly lower than homes in North America, but import that toilet here in North America and it seems out of place:

Les fesses chaude

The infrared image above shows the electrical loss into the room from the toilet seat. I imagine the Sensowash is an experience is an experience to behold! Depending on the model, it washes and air dries – no need for shit-tickets!

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LED Lights

IMG_20150329_091137318 (Custom)

I recently purchased a Nanoleaf Bloom light emitting diode (LED) ‘bulb’ at the home show. After a month of use, it’s performing flawlessly I’m pleased to say. Where earlier versions of LEDs had a harsh white and ‘shaky’ light that made for disagreeable book reading, this light goes on and off quickly with none of the jumpiness or delays often associated with compact fluorescent lights (CFL) or earlier versions of LEDs.

IMG_20150329_091215916 (Custom)

This brand in particular has a dimming feature that doesn’t need a dimmer control at the switch (see below). The feature can be activated by signaling with a “Morse code” on/off pattern at the switch when the desired level is reached. It also has a nigh light setting that can be activated with the regular light switch.

IMG_20150329_091209487 (Custom)


These bulbs also come in a “100w incandescent” light output equivalent, which is surprisingly hard to find if you need that extra bit of light for that dark or larger room.

I bought it from Mike Cerqua who is currently setting up an on-line store, but in the mean time, Mike is retailing them on either or Alternatively, you’re in the GTA, you may want to contact Mike directly, drop me a line and I’ll send you his contact information.

IMG_20150329_091155140 (Custom)

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EU Pioneer Award for 1970s energy efficient house in Canada

Project manager Harold Orr was honored at International Passive House Conference

The Saskatchewan Conservation House

Darmstadt, Germany. This year’s Pioneer Award, which recognizes the trailblazers of energy efficient construction, will go to Canada. In particular, the Saskatchewan Conservation House will be recognized, with which many features of the modern Passive House Standard were successfully tested in 1977. Against the backdrop of the oil crisis at the time, a broad team of experts looked at possibilities to significantly reduce the consumption of heating oil. Their studies showed that it was mainly a question of thermal protection of the building envelope. Canadian mechanical engineer, Harold Orr, one of the driving forces behind this project, will receive the Pioneer Award at the International Passive House Conference 2015 in Leipzig.

The above paragraph was directly purloined from the International Passive House Association and the news is bitter sweet for Canadians. Sweet because so many excellent Canadians pioneered the core concept of Passive House and bitter because the growth in supper efficient housing is happening in every industrialised nation except Canada.

This bar graph shows exponential growth in the Certified Passive House builds in the USA. Get on it, or be run over by it… with the exception of Canada – we’re still at the 2007 marker.

The graph above only shows half the picture for projects certified by PHIUS which doesn’t include homes certified by PHI. Though take-up in Canada has been slow, industry insiders feel a surge in interest. The CBC* reported recently on a Smithers, BC house to be built and Passive Buildings Canada has been gaining membership and general public interest in the talks they regularly host. All this to say that Harold might just see the fruits of his early labours finally come back to Canada. There is hope and change is coming – starting perhaps with the election in Alberta today!


*Its a shame that CBC sandwiched the earthship article in the above link. Passive Homes are meticulously planned, energy modeled, built by professionals and rigorously tested to produce a known energy performance. This means Passive Houses are poised to go mainstream whereas earthships are cobbled together, typically not energy modeled, rarely tested and have a history of being plagued by many issues. As the story reads “Earthship life has its challenges — the couple endured their first winter with no source of heat other than the sun (they have since brought in a wood stove.)”

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Are High R-value Wall Assemblies Risky for Ontario?

Building Science Corp’s recent study on humidity in walls in the North East was interesting, but it only looked at “…relatively vapor open Class III vapor retarder (latex paint on gypsum board) as the interior vapor control layer.” Unfortunately for Ontarians, the building code requires a vapour barrier in many cases, so the results of that study aren’t really applicable.

Adding insult to injury, Ontarians don’t really know what IECC climate zone they’re in. What we do know is that Ontario’s climate is both “cold” and “wet” which means high R-value wall assemblies have a lower drying potential in cold months, which can make them prone to condensation.


IECC climate zone map

IECC climate zone map doesn’t cross political boundaries…



Now the good news…

The Canadian Wood Council and  Chris Timusk of George Brown College have teamed up to assemble a data base of hundreds of wall assembly variations with WUFI analysis for each scenario. This is a brilliant resource for energy modelers as it gives a WUFI simulated durability analysis and the composite R-value of the wall assembly – a fantastic resource!

Below is but one sample of hundreds of variations:

Wall Asembly eg

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Graham Finch on Moist Attics

Over the years, we’ve documented many attic failures due to issues of condensation and ice damming. We thought we had the market cornered on horror pictures until I came across Graham Finch‘s presentation (below) on ventilated attics.

If you have 25 minutes and a bowl of popcorn, this is a good presentation that covers the topic thoroughly.


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Most Air Tight Home in Canada!?

We’re not sure, but we think we stumbled on the most air tight in Canada. Last year I threw down the gauntlet on LinkedIn suggesting we may have tested the most air tight house in Canada first in Saugeen Shores, then in Oakville Ontario. I put my money where my mouth was by betting a pint to anyone who bested our score.

My temerity was quickly rewarded with a rebuke from Shaun St-Amour in Vancouver of Footprint Sustainable Housing, followed by Gath Hood of Thoughtful Dwellings in Fredericton, who informed me his test trumped ours – resoundingly.

Gath was referring to a house he had the good fortune to 3rd party test, the Naugler House. This Fredericton home was designed and built by Tim Naugler of Southern Exposure Construction Inc. With an ELA of a mere 27.6cm2 and an ACH50 of 0.21 (average result of a de+pressurisation tests), it’s ELA beat our best by nearly 50 cm2. He had to use the ‘E’ ring! So jealous, I have one but its sitting in a glass case waiting to be called into action…

Anyhow, a big and hearty Congrats goes to Tim and the crew that assembled the home – you might consider offering your repair services to the Canadian Navy’s sub fleet.

Naugler House Prize (Custom)

Its not much of a reward, on an old x-mas card to boot, but we’re keeping our promise of buying a ‘pint’… of coffee. It’s not that the local Tim’s won’t redeem this gift certificate card because its branded with the Maple Leafs… but ‘er we hope you don’t get beat up in Fredericton.

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Toronto’s Blarney Stone Nearly Gone


Queen and Spadina

If you ever though you’d see the day when the sandstone column holding up this old building on the south east side of Queen St West and Spadina Ave needed replacing – the hour has come! Thanks Google Streetview!

I love Toronto’s old buildings and as I walk I pay close attention to them. For those of you who’ve not been around the Victorian era buildings of Toronto for a while, you might be interested to know that the original sandstone column at 441 Queen Street West is now on life support. Time to say good bye!


The column on life support, your chance to get one last rub of the weakest piece of sandstone in the city!

Over the years I’ve watched the column at this very busy pedestrian intersection erode and rightly so it has to go. Every time I passed, I imagined the building owner was holding on the the past to keep it there as long as possible and was glad someone had the notion to allow us to witness this slow crumbling over so many years. It took on a bit a bit of a mythical status for me – kind of like Toronto’s Blarney Stone I imagined. Though I never touched it for fear of precipitating collapse, I always wondered if it had any magic in it! I mean somebody was rubbing this thing like a goat with a serious itch while no one was looking!


With maybe only 25 square inches of weak sandstone holding up the stone above, it will go soon. I wonder what they’ll put in it’s place… Maybe I should give it a rub to see if there’s some magic in it!

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