Understanding the Residential Energy Upgrade Market

The amazing Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) along with Shelton Group have published great info graphics that help convey the salient facts for the North American residential market for energy upgrades. The biggest insight for me was Suzanne Shelton point that “Energy efficiency retrofits are currently sold as a service. And when you buy a service you give a lot of direction/opinion to the service provider, whether you know anything about how to actually accomplish your end goal or not. When you buy a product, you don’t tell the product manufacturer how to make the product … it’s just on the shelf ready to go and you either buy it as is or you don’t buy it. If product manufacturers want to stay in business, they figure out how to make products you want to buy. So what if energy efficiency retrofits were sold as a product … turnkey, complete, baked, ready to buy “off the shelf?””

I’ll assume that Canadian home owners are not much different that US homeowners. The link is included in the images below.





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Deep-Six the fireplace: a First-person Narrative

It’s time to deep-six the fireplace. Banish it from building codes and never look back. Let’s be frank, a century ago, there were few amenities in the home that could compete with the hearth of a home on a cold winter’s night. Bad lighting, really cold with drafty spots but with occupants who took leisure time seriously and socialised around a fire for hours. Today’s home, if built well, has no drafts or cold spots and good lighting, so who needs the patriarch’s idle chatter when Wi-Fi feeds us a steady stream of YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. Add to that, if built well, a new home’s indoor temperature won’t drop precipitously in a power outage for several days, more so if there’s no fireplace.


The Rumford wood burning fireplace should be outlawed: everywhere. It’s doubly bad on an outside wall as it compromises a wall section’s insulation and is hard to get a draft in a cold chimney. Never mind the fact that it gobbles tons of air an effectively dries the house out.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sympathetic to the nostalgic aspects of a fire in the home as humans are instinctively drawn to fire. I grew up on a hobby farm with an air tight wood stove and had such strong memories from those days of yore that I installed an air tight insert in my own 1913 double brick home in the city. A mistake I regret now. Nostalgia played a part but so too did the delusion that in a power outage the neighbours would all be lining up at my door to warm their hands by the fire.

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A comfy place of yore for the neighbours to hold out in a storm… is there WiFi?

Too Hot and too Cold

My house I should explain is a 16’ wide semi-detached, two and a half story double brick home built prior to WWI. With the exception of the wide multi-flue masonry chimney surrounding the insert, the main and basement levels were gutted and insulated to R18 and air sealed really well. The 2nd and 3rd floor walls are still uninsulated, yes I feel shame… Incidentally, the furnace thermostat is on the main floor adjacent the insert.

How does it all work? 99% of the time, there’s no fire burning and the mean radiant temperature on the main floor is evenly comfortable – except near the fireplace when it’s really cold and windy.  Without a fire burning, the area around the insert is cold and drafty, not because of air leakage, but due to accelerated heat loss though the uninsulated masonry.

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This is typical of fireplace retrofits in the city of Toronto. No one knows what to do to insulate the wall and air seal it. Most throw in the towel and don’t insulation and air seal any where near the unit, consequently, it’s cold to stand next to these appliances when not operating. See corresponding IR image below.

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A vintage fireplace with walls recently spray foamed yet the bare brick remains behind the insert. This is typical in Toronto.


On a cold night with the fire burning and the little circulating fan whirring noisily, the main floor gets excessively warm, lulls the forced air gas furnace’s thermostat into shutting down for the night and the top two floors get really cold. Without power, the insert’s noisy blower motor doesn’t push and mix the hot air into the cold room air, so there goes my emergency plan for a cold day. The other issue is wood storage, we have no room for wood storage in the house and our back yard’s wood pile is an eye sore.

Days of Yore..

Burning biomass in rural areas might be acceptable and sustainable, but not in urban centres. In densely packed neighbourhoods, it would be like forgetting where we came from with the days of burning coal and streets littered in horse manure. If you think the pollution from a VW’s diesel engine is bad, try wood smoke with an inversion layer. Adding insult to injury, there’s no regulation guiding what you can and can’t burn for fuel. I have an old time neighbour who picks through other neighbours’ garbage for wood and thinks nothing of burning pressure treated lumber in his wood stove. He burns often and the neighbourhood downwind fills with smoke that is a health risk. There’s no place for wood burning in cities; ban all biomass burning appliances in densely populated areas.

CSA-F326: Safety trumps Efficiency

To the lay homeowner who wants a fireplace, they’re either dreaming of hanky-panky on a bear rug in front of a roaring fire or wanting to recreate that warm social place that brings people together. What they don’t appreciate are the huge energy penalties that come with an open-face Rumford fireplace, or even an air tight wood stove. The CSA-F326 Residential Mechanical Ventilation Systems standard was developed to prevent combustion appliances in the home from polluting indoor air but also to ensure that air tight homes gets a constant small stream of healthy fresh air for the occupants. This is a tall order to balance when you install lots of appliances that suck air out of the conditioned volume of the house.

The appliances that pull air out of the house include large exhaust hoods for the 6 burner gas range, bathroom exhaust fans, clothes dryers, solid fuel burning appliances, some natural gas appliances, central vacuums and possibly HRVs if not balanced. That ejected air volume has to be replaced and sometimes, the easiest source of replacement ‘air’ gets pulled in through a chimney. This phenomenon is called back-drafting which is a health hazard to the occupants.

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What a make up air supply looks like for a large custom home. This system wasn’t designed to CSA 326 as it doesn’t warm the incoming fresh air.

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The installer was kind enough to install a damper on this 12″ combustion make-up air tube.

To combat the possibility of back-drafting, the CSA-F326 standard sets about helping the designer calculate how much fresh air to bring into the house when certain appliances are switched on. Incidentally, that incoming fresh air has to be heated, usually electrically, which gets expensive. Ironically, the home owner thinking their saving money on heating bills by making fire may be paying exorbitant electricity bills while basking in the warmth of the fireplace.

To the mechanical designer, there’s a paucity of acceptable make-up air systems on the market to make homes meet the CSA-F326 standard. To the installer who has to realise the designer’s instructions, they have to get creative in finding ways to switch on the make-up air which gets expensive too.

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Here a gas chimney touches a supply duct in an attic and gets spray foamed with 2lbs foam, a potential fire hazard.

You’re only as strong as your weakest link

Thermally, the weakest link in many new homes is the wood burning appliance. Forget the fact that combustion makeup air has to be added and they introduce a steady cold draft in the vicinity of the firebox. The subtrades may not interpret the manufacturer’s installation instructions and err on the side of caution so tend to not insulate well near fireboxes and the continuity of the home’s air barrier system also suffers. This is true even for sealed natural gas fireplaces. With the many sections of chimneys often not sealed the skin surface area becomes a significant and large area of the house’s exterior envelope that has no R-value.

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The effort and expense that went into making this double faux-flue chimney could have been put towards a more optimised building shape, better insulation detailing and air sealing. The flues say “classic wood burning homestead”, but the aluminum vent cap at the height of the stone/brick transition tells us its a gas appliance. See below for closeup.

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The chimney flues are capped with mortar, sorry children, Santa won’t be coming this year…

In a nutshell, if you’re looking for a very comfortable home that can withstand long power outages, put your money on exceptional envelope detailing that’s air tight and has nearly twice the R-value of a ‘Code Built’ house. Turn off the Wi-Fi, pour some tea and pull out a deck of cards anywhere in the house event after a few days without electricity.



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Revolutionary Material for House Insulation!

Forget vacuum insulated panels, the future’s in “infrared polyester”! Yes, that’s right, this revolutionary material “GENERATES HEAT”! Not only that but this material “generate[s] heat as [it] absorb[s] body moisture [which in turn] promotes blood circulation.”

So far though it only comes in sock-sized pieces, but if we can get a hold of the yarn, we’re going to knit custom-made batts for each stud cavity!

We’re looking for investors so send your money today! If you have doubts, have a look below for the proof:





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Who’s on First; the drywaller or the brick layer?

Would you let the brick layer detail your air barrier or your drywaller? Let’s be frank, air barrier detailing in Ontario kinda goes like the Abbot and Costello “Who’s on First Base?” skit. On the job site, no one really knows where the air barrier is unless the detailing is being managed and specifically detailed by the site supervisor.

There’s so much confusion about what the air barrier is and it’s clear even building inspectors are equally confused given the short shrift they give to the building envelope. Take this house being built right now in the Junction.

First, let us all agree that it’s significantly easier to get a continuous air seal on the outside of the building as opposed to the inside. Second, let us all agree that if the air barrier is on the outside of the building, electricians, plumbers, alarm, communications and HVAC subs won’t make Swiss cheese out of it.

Because Tyvek Home Wrap is not listed as an air barrier, it serves only to shed any water that gets through the brick, but in this case not on even that because the openings weren’t sealed with tape per the manufacturer’s specifications. The irony is that this new build used plywood as its sheathing – the builder could have simply taped up the seams of the plywood to form an air barrier – but didn’t. The builder could have also used a product like TYPAR, taped the seams and voila – air barrier installed on the outside!

The only option for this builder now is to use a 6mil poly on the inside as the air barrier, which means that the 6mil needs to be air sealed and clamped where not supported by drywall. Because there is no continuous air barrier yet on this house, even if 2lbs spray foam is installed in the stud bay, they may be compelled to install a 6mil poly over the spray foam as an air barrier which needs to be continuously sealed – ie. along the rim joist – which is fiddly to say the least and never gets sealed well. I guess it’s up the the drywaller to detail the vapour barrier on this job- good luck!

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The far side of this house was papered with tar paper only and for some reason, this west face gets tar paper and Tyvek. Note they plywood sheathing could have been the air barrier had the seams been taped and air sealed. Note too that Tyvek is not listed as an Air Barrier, but merely a Breather Type Sheathing Membrane to drain the rain.


This is what the ‘sheathing membrane’ looked like on the east and north sides of the house; laped tar paper draining into what feels like less than 6mil black poly embedded between the 3rd and 4th courses of brick veneer. The inspector must have showed up mid-job and asked the crews to put up a different ‘sheathing membrane’ in this case Tyvek.


The cheapest flashing detail ever.Like a frail flower petal, this poly may not make it past installation without being penetrated by tools or heavy sharp bricks. I understand the cost of metal through the wall flashing is expensive, but this is an insult to durability.

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The CCMC document suggests that the Tyvek membrane needs to be taped around openings and penetrations. It was optional here.

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This detail of the projecting floor cavity shows what will be a very weak detail for air sealing. It also begs the question; why bother with the header wrap?



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We’re at the Burlington Public Library

On October 27th, Come hear from a green architect, green builders, and a building energy expert on green building projects in the GTA and beyond. Learn how you can make informed decisions for upgrading and ensuring the performance and quality is built-in. In other words, learn how we can make our homes, offices, and buildings better places to live!

Learn how architects, builders and energy experts are changing the way we renovate and build

Learn how architects, builders and energy experts are
changing the way we renovate and build.



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The vids are in!

Fall 2015 Videos are in for our High Performance Design Meets Boots on the Ground event!

Get it here first! Click on the links below to experience what you may have missed.



Andrew Hellebust and Maria Riedstra share the ‘homeowner experience’ in the design and construction process for their national prize-winning DER in East York.




Ryerson University, Prof. Russell Richman will gives us a sneak-peak at the new research data collected on historic double brick walls and the potential impact insulation has on their durability.




Aerecura Rammed Earth builder Sylvia Cook will shares some trade secrets on how to produce a stunning, high performance wall assembly for a building that needs no finishing on inside or out.




Missed the North American Passive House Conference in Chicago? We didn’t and Shervin Akhavi shares the highlights with you!




And a BIG Thank You to our fall 2015 event sponsors!


Off Grid, Net Zero Energy and Environmentally Sustainable Passive Solar House Architects

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Last Week’s ‘Boots on the Ground’ event a Smashing Success!

Last Week’s ‘High Performance Design meets Boots on the Ground‘ event was a great success! With over 50 of the most cutting edge builders and architects in one room, the brain trust was on high alert!  As interest in high performance buildings and homes grows in the USA, Ontario seems a little slow to wake up to the reality of what’s talking the western world by storm; Passive House design/building.


Luckily, we had great company this past Tuesday as the innovators and early adopters of the Passive House technology/process gathered to share insights on how to accelerate the implementation of best practices.


Though still a the Innovators stage in Ontario, the province is poised to move to the Early Adopters part of the Passive House Process as more customers demand higher performance from their new buildings. As SustainableTO architect Paul Dowsett wryly quipped “Let me know when we hit the Chasm, so I can finally take a vacation.”

As the Toronto 2030 District  finally gets released, perhaps now the city of Toronto will be the first in Ontario to scale up the principles of Passive House to larger buildings as done south of the 49th.


An apartment tower on Roosevelt Island that began construction this month will be the tallest passive-house high-rise in the world when it is completed in 2017 and at 270,000 square feet, it will also be the largest. The tower will rise 270 feet, contain 350 units and house about 530 graduate students, faculty and staff on a new 12-acre campus for Cornell Tech, energy consumption should be 60 percent to 70 percent less than that of conventional high-rises, the developers said.


The Orchards at Orenco is a 57-unit affordable housing project near Portland, Oregon


Here are some of the brain-trust attendees enjoying the networking session:

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We’re at IIDEX Canada 2015!

We’re really excited to present our Resilient Design presentation to architects and designers at the upcoming IDEXCanada conference at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Thursday, December 3 from 09:00 – 11:00. To register, click on the link below!




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NAFS Workshop for Architects and Engineers

BlueGreen Group in collaboration with RDH is proud to present a free workshop that promises to take the WTF out of the NAFS!

The building code instructs us to use two new standards for specifying fenestration products and determining their performance requirements: NAFS—the North American Fenestration Standard, and the Canadian Supplement to NAFS. NAFS however does not apply to all fenestration products, and the simplified methods of the Canadian Supplement are not always the most appropriate way to determine the required Performance Grades.

This presentation given by RDH’s Al Jaugelis will focus on how these standards are referenced in Part 5 and Part 9, and will help responsible professionals to understand the appropriate use as well as the limitations of these standards, especially in the context of Part 5.

This free workshop qualifies for 2 CE ‘Core’ OAA Credits.

Space is limited for the November  5th session so register now for what promises to be an incredibly useful session for those who are tasked with complying with the new standard. Press on the logo below to link to RDH’s registration page:


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BGG Partners with Zehnder America!


As the commissioning agent for Zehnder’s H/ERVs in Ontario, BlueGreen Group kicked off the new partnership by hosting a workshop at our office this past July. Barry Stephens, who knows ERVs inside out and backwards,  presented for the morning to a room full of architects and mechanical designers. He introduced the features of the ComfoAir H/ERVs systems and on the ComfoSystems ventilation ducting systems.

After lunch, we balanced a Zehnder system at a DER of a house we consulted on located in East York. We were impressed how easy and predictable the ventilation system  was to balance and commission. We’re sold on the features and benefits of this out standing system!

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