Energy-efficient construction no longer needs the hard sell. It’s pretty much a given that making a house more airtight and adding extra insulation is a good idea. You’ll never hear anyone boasting about how happy they are to pay the utility company a fortune to heat their leaky house. But does building a high performance house mean having to go through the certification process? Why not just apply the building science without having to pay the organizations that certify? Do they really have a miracle recipe for efficient, reliable, good construction? And does the label really change anything? With our built environment consuming over 40% of our energy resources, I think it’s high time we asked ourselves these questions and took a hard look at the impact of our buildings on the environment.
The Pretty Good House makes an argument for homes that don’t aim for any one certification but that are just that — pretty good — respecting a few basic ground rules, like airtightness, super-insulation, durability while rejecting the criteria they deem over the top (things like multiple inches of insulation under the slab and R100 roofs). The question is — is a pretty good house good enough?
Last year, I launched myself into the crazy adventure of certification (of the springhouse in Abercorn) with a critical eye and a healthy dose of skepticism. Despite my misgivings, right off the bat the usefulness of certain elements of the certification process became evident. The affordability of high performance houses is a subject I’ll save for another diatribe (spoiler alert: it can be done). I’ll therefore refrain from discussion of the construction costs of a standard home versus a high-performance house and stick to the costs of certification per se.
The real deal on costs and added value
Is it really that expensive to certify? The answer is it depends. First off, it depends on where you live. Certification entails inspections and inspections are billed by the hour and the kilometre. LEED certification’s base cost (in 2016) was around $3600, plus the $500 membership fee to the CBDCa. In our case we tacked on several hundred dollars more because our project was miles away from the inspector and far beyond the time and distance included in the flat rate. Same goes for PHIUS. We ended up paying close to $8000 — with the consultation, inspections, blower door tests, air exchanger balancing and the countless emails seeking advice.
Is paying somewhere between four and eight grand for a certification too much? Again, it depends. Who is paying for the certification and why? For someone building a house to flip, it isn’t at all costly. The eco, energy-efficient label not only guarantees added value (studies done in the US estimate an added 8 to 10% to the sticker price) but it also piques the interest of the market (selling on average 18 days faster than a comparable, uncertified house). Certification isn’t just a guarantee of performance and energy-efficiency it’s also testament to the quality of the construction and therefore boosts the buyer’s faith in the product.
The situation is quite different if the house is, what we call in Quebec, an “auto-construction”, a self-built house where the builder intends to occupy the house. I know a lot about the Passive House norm and I think it’s a great idea but I don’t know if I would advise penniless self-builders to certify because of the cost. For those who scrape together every last penny, borrowing from family and putting sweat equity into the project to save on labour because they’re desperate to get into the housing market, every dollar counts. I know because I am one of them. Parallel to the construction of the Springhouse, I built my own home and it never even occurred to me to certify and not because I don’t have respect for the basics of eco-construction. On the contrary, my house is as green as it gets. I just couldn’t swallow the notion of spending the money to certify. To be clear, I’m not your average self-builder. I’ve been cozying up to the building world for a while and my background gave me the confidence, the resources and the tools I needed to get into the nitty-gritty of the design. In light of my experience (which may not be that of Mr. and Mrs. Homebuilder) I didn’t feel the urge to certify. But for those who have less experience in construction, a little guidance could have a major payoff. The minutiae involved in the certification process is worth its weight in gold. For the Springhouse, we got all the support we needed from our CPHC (Certified Passive House Consultant) and our LEED evaluator. My point is that $3,000 or $5,000 or $10,000 could mean the difference between being able to afford to build or not.
How, then, to make certification a possibility for all? One simple way would be to make it free, like Novoclimat which is entirely funded by Transition énergétique Québec. Some will say that it’s the most barebones of certifications — aiming for energy performance that is a far cry from PHIUS’s (for one) — and they wouldn’t be wrong. But it IS a step in the right direction. The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources also offers $2,000 to the first owner of a house with the Novoclimat label (which doubles to $4,000 if it’s bought by a first-time homeowner). The CHMC offers a 15% payback on their mortgage insurance loan for houses certified by LEED, Novoclimat and Energy Star. And certain financial institutions offer rebates on interest rates or cash refunds on green homes (like Desjardins’ “Offre habitation verte”). Certain municipalities also give tax breaks for new construction that certifies LEED or Novoclimat. Why not expand this program province-wide? All these initiatives have their merits and could be further improved by including certifications like PHI and PHIUS which, for now, are strangely absent. In my opinion, getting as many banks and government bodies on board is the only way to democratize certification.
Energy modelling: the crux of the matter
Anyone who has done any exploring in the world of certification has heard the term “energy modelling” but what does it really mean? It means punching every last detail of construction into a software package (PHPP for PHI and WUFI Passive for PHIUS, HERS for LEED) and analyzing the results to evaluate the overall performance of the house. Documentation on every element of the house (with perm ratings, R and U values, technical sheets) must be provided. The amount of insulation, the mechanicals (ventilation, heating, hot water heater), the shape and orientation of the house, the U-values of the windows, the lengths of the hot water pipes along with myriad other construction details are examined to assess the overall picture of the house. The idea is to create a building that makes sense, that avoids obvious errors (like oversized or poorly-oriented windows that create overheating in the fall). In our case, a bunch of changes were made at the modelling stage (choice of air exchanger, choice of window manufacturer and additional insulation in the crawlspace to name a few) to make for a better-performing house. Yes, it’s complicated and it’s time-consuming — all the parts of the process that are rejected by fans of the Pretty Good House who argue for simple and accessible. Nonetheless, as Trois Soeurs said in their recent blog about the value of a Passive house certification “it is always more affordable to review technical details in the design phase than on the worksite”. We couldn’t agree more. After an analysis of the construction costs for the Springhouse, we realized that most of the mistakes we made could have been avoided with a little more planning. And this is after going over the project with a fine-toothed comb with both our PHIUS consultant and our LEED evaluator. If you think it’s bad having to make changes on the fly imagine discovering them AFTER the house is built. All the irritating paperwork that certification entails is precisely how we avoid making those costly mistakes. A few grand invested at the outset look like peanuts compared to the $25,000 repair job to a wall compromised by mould created by condensation issues. The additional time required to do the energy modelling shouldn’t be seen as a hindrance but as just another useful tool of good building.
The focus of LEED is less hinged on performance and more on the overall picture. In the planning phase, a report called the durability inspection checklist establishes a list of criteria to ensure the durability of the build. For this report, I had to make an exhaustive list of all the wood going into the house. I’m talking about every single 2x4. And not just the quantity of wood but the exact length of each piece. Yes, I felt a bit ridiculous sitting in the office calculating the percentage of loss for each piece of lumber. I felt even more ridiculous when the delivery truck showed up and I had to painstakingly identify every pile of wood (to the patent displeasure of the carpenters who would ve been much happier with a big pile of twelve-footers to dig into without having to overthink). But there’s no doubt that once we were done and the container company provided us with a report of their triage, the results were plain to see. We’d created far less waste wood than any similarly-sized construction would have. To me the conclusion is clear. Yes, the thoroughness of the planning can sometimes seem over-the-top but it does result in savings, for the wallet and the planet and it’s also clear that if we hadn’t been seeking certification we never would have taken the extra pains.
Third party verification
Suppose I want to have a house built by Mr. So-and-So from So-and-So Construction and I show him my plans for an almost-passive house. I tell him I want him to pay particular attention to any holes in the envelope, to taping the windows, to installing a radon vent, to properly balancing the air exchanger, etc. And I have full confidence in Mr. So-and-So and he, in turn, has full confidence in his team. The good will is great but, if you live in Quebec, there is very little that actually guarantees the quality of his work. We are definitely the odd ones out in this regard. Everywhere else — in Canada, in Europe, in the States —buildings are subject to quality inspection throughout the building process. Not in Quebec. For projects that are “assujettis” (new builds, secondary homes, commercial projects) the Commission de la Construction du Québec (CCQ) does the rounds to ensure that all the labourers on the worksite have their competency cards (meant to be a gauge of the skill level of the worker). But there is no inspection of said worker’s actual work. In other words, a CCQ inspector could show up on a worksite, demand the cards of the carpenter who is building a wall that is obviously full of thermal bridges and a roof with zero ventilation and, if the cards are in order, there are no repercussions — for the carpenter that is.
The organization that guarantees the quality of construction in Quebec is the GCR (Garantie Construction Résidentielle). In principle, all contractors building a new house must be accredited by the GCR and have a “GCR quality rating” ranging from AA to D (which seems ridiculous to me because if the point is to guarantee quality why would there be contractors rated D?) Depending on the quality rating of the contractor, periodic inspections are done on some of their worksites. For a builder with an A rating, 20% of their builds are inspected. Therefore if Mr. So-and-So builds ten houses a year only two of them will be inspected. In other words, the guarantee is more a testament to the reliability of the contractor (who has to pay for the inspections out of his own pocket) than a reflection of the quality of his work (not entirely useless but in my mind pretty damn close). To make matters worse, the GCR inspections are based solely on the Quebec Construction Code. I won’t even start on the long list of aberrations and problems in the code. That would take me a whole other article, but I will say this: the whole idea of energy modelling —the merits of which I talked about earlier like evaluating the components of the house, their function and effects on one another — is diametrically opposed to the Quebec code which is a standard applicable to each and every project no matter what the orientation, wall composition, quality of the doors, etc. Just the notion of making a generic code that applies to all can cause complex and hazardous situations. For example, the code prescribes a vapour barrier on the inside of the house AND 4” of insulation on the exterior of the structure to sever any thermal bridge. This 4” layer could technically be a coat of sprayed closed-cell polyurethane on the exterior of the envelope. Adhere to the code by doing these two things and you’ve created the perfect storm of a double vapour-barrier — in other words, a wall that has lost any ability to dry out any accumulated humidity. A recipe for disaster.
What I’m trying to get across is that Quebec’s construction industry doesn’t, in itself, offer any kind of quality guarantees for the clients. Certification therefore fills the void by providing third party quality control. The quality control is done at different phases of the project by someone who has no vested interest in the construction and has their eye solely on hitting the objectives and therefore assuring the quality of the build. The idea is not to qualify contractors as good or bad. Even the most well-intentioned contractor with very skilled workers can and will make mistakes. In a worksite environment, with the intense pressure of budgets and time constraints, it’s very easy for things to fall through the cracks.
In our case, for example, the two LEED evaluator visits reminded us of elements that could easily have gone overlooked: dry wells to manage rain and surface water, insulation of the hot water lines, the choice of grass seed (drought- and invasive species-resistant), the efficiency of the plumbing fixtures, to name but a few. Having someone following our progress definitely forced us to adhere to plan.
With PHIUS —on top of having to supply documentation on every component of the house — we also had to demonstrate the volume and density of cellulose we blew into the walls, we had to provide a report to showed that the heating system was properly installed, that the ventilation system was balanced and had to put the house through a series of blower door tests (to measure air leakage) during construction. We passed with flying colours at 0.1ACH50 (the threshold was 0.6). Needless to say we were thrilled. Not just because of the bragging rights it affords us when we’re standing around talking shop with other builders but because NOT hitting 0.6 would have required revamping the plan on the fly — a costly hiccup because it would have meant halting construction and keeping it halted until a fix was found. The modelling in the design stage forced us to work out all those niggly details long before we even put the shovel in the ground.
There’s no doubt the certification process has a cost but I would argue that it provides results that would be very difficult to attain without it. Governments and municipalities are slowly jumping on the bandwagon — recognizing the value (to property values and to the planet) of encouraging energy efficient construction — as we wait for the building code to catch up to the science. In the meantime, one can only hope that our growing awareness of the threats of global warming will encourage further subsidies so that certification becomes affordable for everyone because it is precisely the people who can’t afford to pay exorbitant energy bills that most need energy efficient homes.
translated by Sarah Cobb