Nova Scotia Home Builders are Building Green

Energy efficient homes offer health, lifestyle, and financial benefits

If you build it, they will come – assuming, of course, that you’re building an energy-efficient home with low utility costs, excellent air quality, and a small carbon footprint..

“There are not many situations in this world where it’s a win-win for everybody, but building an energy-efficient home is one of them,” says Paul Pettipas, CEO of the Nova Scotia Home Builders’ Association. “What you put onto your mortgage might be a little higher – because you’re upgrading – but your utilities will be substantially lower.”

“The nice thing about these homes is that they pay you back every month.”

Pettipas says one of the biggest misconceptions is that an energy-efficient home won’t pay for itself.

“If you put $10,000 into these upgrades, first of all, you’re putting it on your mortgage – so as long as you can cover your payment every month, you’re ahead of the deal,” says Pettipas. “Then you’re saving on your utilities every month. And when you sell, you’ll get that original $10,000 back.”

“People who understand how much they’ll save, compared to how much they put in, quickly become converts.”

Pettipas says he sees many owners of energy-efficiency homes saving $200 or more on utilities every single month, and that savings can be applied to their mortgage, saved, invested, or spent on other things.

While some people with older homes may switch between different heat sources trying to lower their costs, Pettipas says it’s never much of a savings.

“Energy costs are getting higher, and the cheapest energy is the energy you don’t use,” says Pettipas. “Although it hurts to see our energy costs go up, the direct benefit is that people are now more aware of what they need to do.”

Joseph Daniel is the General Manager of Cresco, which has been winning the Peak Award for Most R-2000 Homes Built back-to-back every year since 2009. He says homeowners are “slowly realizing, bit by bit” how much they could save if they built an energy-efficient home.

“We made the conscious decision to go all out with energy efficiency about six or seven years ago for numerous reasons, and the biggest one was financial consideration for the consumer,” says Daniel. “You just save so much money. I live in a 4,000 sq. ft. home, and I paid less than $2,900 last year for energy, power, heat, and lights.”

When Daniel hears what people are paying to heat older, inefficient homes, he says he’s “shocked” that they sometimes need some convincing.

“Unfortunately, some consumers still look strictly at a house price, and don’t take into account the energy efficiency of a home,” says Daniel. “But we have customers who compare their current energy bill to their old one, and they say ‘Oh man, what a difference.’”

“You spend a little more on the purchase price, and then you have the pay-off for the rest of your time living in the house.”

John Faddoul, Cresco’s Sales & Marketing Coordinator, says while customers are happy to pay for fancy countertops and giant bathtubs, they’re not as quick to pull out their chequebook over something they can’t even see.

“When you walk into a house, you see the granite and the sound system and the flooring and the cabinets, but you don’t see how tight that house is actually built,” says Faddoul. “But we find with bigger, custom homes, people are usually willing to spend more money up-front when they realize how much they’re going to save over the years.”

Tamara Barker-Watson, President/Owner of Whitestone Developments, has been building R-2000 homes since 1998. They built the very first full R-2000 community – Willow Ridge – have won multiple Peak Awards for Most Energy-Efficient Home, and won the 2011 SAM Award for Most Energy-Efficient Home.

Barker-Watson says they choose to build nothing but energy-efficient homes because they want their customers to love their homes – and be pleased with the cost of maintaining them.

“Our customers will get their first utility bill and say ‘We can’t believe it! I know you told us, but we still can’t believe it!’” laughs Barker-Watson.

She recalls working with a family who moved from an 800 sq. ft. bungalow into a sprawling 3,000 sq. ft. R-2000 home by Whitestone Developments, and their energy costs dropped dramatically.

“They have natural gas, so their monthly power bill dropped to $60, and they spent less than $1,200 for the whole year on heat, hot water, and power combined,” says Barker-Watson. “Of course, no two houses or two families are the same, but there’s a formula where we can work out what a home’s energy costs should be.”

More and more Nova Scotians are enjoying lower utility costs as energy-efficient homes continue to pop up all over the province. In 2010, Nova Scotia’s Building Code included a new standard that would require all new homes to achieve an EnerGuide rating of at least 80.

In 2012, Nova Scotia’s average EnerGuide rating was 84.9, which Pettipas says is “quite amazing” considering the standard was less than two years old.

“Before the code, you just had to be able to prove that you could heat the house you built. If you wanted to build an inefficient home with a huge heating system, you could go right ahead,” says Pettipas. “Now that we have the minimum requirement, many people are going well beyond that.”

“Every year, we see the bar is being raised.”

Scott Smith is the owner of Rooftight Construction, which won the 2012 Peak Award for Most Energy-Efficient Home, and was recognized as the 2012 Lifestyle Home Builder. He agrees that many of today’s homeowners are actively engaged in lowering their energy costs, and that building energy-efficient homes has “become the norm.”

“We bring people to our design centre in Fall River and say ‘What do you think of this?’ and they just say ‘Wow,’” says Smith. “We’re showing them how we heat our hot water from the sun, and how a heat pump works, and they want it.”

Smith says clients sometimes ask about retrofitting their existing home, but it usually makes more sense to start from scratch.

“Test your home, and if it’s 40 per cent efficient – as opposed to 90 per cent efficient – do the math for a 50 per cent efficiency loss every month,” says Smith. “We can give people a ballpark of what it would cost to renovate their home, but it’s never worth it – never even close. So they sell their current home and move into a new one that we build for them.”

Rooftight began focusing on building energy-efficient homes seven years ago, when Smith realized he didn’t like the direction the industry was heading.

“This has gone away from being the fringe thing to do. It’s the way of the future.”

Smith says these homeowners tend to really appreciate that an energy-efficient home requires minimal upkeep.

“These homes are easy to run. They’re very, very low-maintenance, without a lot of moving parts,” says Smith. “The utility rooms are typically half the size, and they don’t require a whole lot of service – and what is required is maybe pulling out a filter and sliding a new one in.”

The filters themselves are also a top selling point for many families, particularly when someone suffers from allergies or asthma.

“We use heat pumps as a standard, and the air quality is the best you can get. It’s fantastic,” says Smith. “If you have allergies or asthma, you can put HEPA filters on the heat pump, and it’s really helpful.”

Donald Dodge, Program Manager at Efficiency Nova Scotia, says energy-efficient homes are also more comfortable spaces to live, play, and sleep.

“With a nice, tight home that has a properly-sized heating system, you won’t experience those peaks and valleys,” says Dodge. “Generally, your house stays at the temperature you set it at.”

The secret is in the snug construction. Dodge says the homes generally use higher-quality materials, and there’s often more attention to detail during the building process.

“When you’re framing these houses, we’ve learned that you have to make a very tight home – and that takes a really good carpenter, to tend to those details,” says Dodge.

Suzanne Bona says the standards for R-2000 homes are constantly being tweaked and improved. As the President/Owner of Scotian Homes – which won the CHBA’s R-2000 Builder of the Decade Award in 2000, as well as multiple Peak Awards for energy-efficiency – Bona has been actively involved with building the first R-2000 home in Nova Scotia according to the 2014 standards.

“There are a lot of changes. The envelope now has to meet more stringent requirements, there needs to be triple-glazed windows, there needs to be a higher energy factor to the outside wall system, and there also has to be more use of renewable energies in the home – like solar panels and greywater heat recovery systems,” says Bona.

R-2000 homes are focusing more on healthy living, with an emphasis on “clean, solid surfaces.” Bona says the products have to meet different standards in order to be approved for use in the home, and the homes themselves are also scrutinized.

“Typically, building an energy-efficient home is building to a higher standard, and also receiving third-party endorsement or inspection,” says Bona. “So for the homeowner, they’re getting the additional comfort of knowing their home meets a different standard – and that’s not just for today, it’s also about planning for the home down the road.”

“As a homebuilder, we could spend a lot of money doing a lot of things for homes, but this is the best – and most lasting – thing we can bring to the table.”

Smith agrees that building energy-efficient homes gives builders confidence that they’re “doing a better job” overall.

“When you’re building an efficient home, you have to insulate better, and make sure every crack and draft is sealed,” says Smith. “Once you do that, it becomes your standard. It feels like you’re building a better house than most.”

But for homeowners who choose a tight-as-a-drum home, the benefits go far beyond comfort, good health, and lower utility bills. For just $300, they can register with Efficiency Nova Scotia’s PerformancePlus program and have their plans evaluated before they break ground. The review provides homeowners with different ideas for how to increase their rating – and ultimately create a more efficient home.

“They give you a few options, and you decide how deep you want to go into it,” says Dodge. “Then, after the house is completed, we do an onsite EnerGuide evaluation and give you a final rating.”

Homes that receive an 85, 86, or 87 qualify for a $3,000 rebate. Homes that score an 88 or 89 qualify for a $5,000 rebate. A rating of 90 or 91 is tougher to get, but results in a $7,000 rebate. And homes that rate 92 or higher will get a rebate of $10,000.

Last year, 1,500 homes went through the PerformancePlus program, and the average rating was an 84.9.

“It’s really quite stunning. If you were to compare our results to other provinces, you’d probably still see low- to mid-70s in the other provinces,” says Dodge. “Nova Scotians hate to brag – but boy, we should!”

Dodge says there are a number of builders in Nova Scotia that have been driving this energy-efficiency movement, and they’re “happy to do it” because there’s been a huge increase in homebuyers who are asking about a potential home’s energy costs.

“Three or four years ago, the first question was all about location, location, location,” says Dodge. “But now we’re hearing that the first question builders are being asked is ‘How energy-efficient is this house?’”

Dodge says if people are still struggling with the idea of paying more up-front for an energy-efficient house, Efficiency Nova Scotia’s PerformancePlus program can be helpful because it breaks everything down.

“We show you all of your options, and you can see exactly what the additional measures will cost on a monthly basis – through your mortgage – and contrast it with what you’ll be saving,” says Dodge. “The savings is always higher than the outfall. Always.”

Heather Laura Clarke

Heather Laura Clarke

Heather Laura Clarke is a freelance journalist whose work regularly appears in many Atlantic Canadian newspapers and magazines, including The Chronicle Herald, Metro, Hub Now, Business Voice, Dugger's, Progress, East Coast Living, Bedford Magazine, and Southender Magazine. She also has several corporate clients.