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Your house is a system

 All houses are not created equal – not by a long shot. Even houses of a similar size and style can, and sometimes should, have significant differences between them. Many of these differences are unseen or not obvious, but nonetheless important.

There are certainly no “one-size-fits-all” approaches as every building is different, as are its occupants and their preferences and budgets. To properly design a new home, or to plan major upgrades to an existing one, there are many things to consider and plan for: size and type, floor plan, lot layout, lot location, climate, soil conditions, orientation to the sun, the building’s integration into the land, foundation configuration, trees, shading, wind, grading and drainage, landscaping, water and sewer considerations, energy sources (geothermal, solar, electric, etc), insulation systems and thicknesses, plumbing, electrical, control systems, structural considerations, decks, water usage/conservation, interior/exterior materials, appliances, lighting, windows & doors, ventilation, heating/cooling, roof overhangs, roof pitch and configuration,…and, of course, the building envelope itself ( http://bit.ly/hL5bls ) and its proper design for the house/location. These items affect not just a home’s energy efficiency, but also its comfort and enjoyability, all of which ultimately affect its value.  

Each of the items in this list needs to be addressed in order to maximize free heat energy from the sun, ensure efficient use of energy and water, create good indoor comfort and air quality, and enjoy the whole property. What’s crucial to understand is that changing 1 or more of these items will often create a “domino-effect” across several areas of the project making it important to reassess the big picture. For example, a given house plan with a great view from the back will likely have you wanting more, and larger, windows there. Whether the back faces north or south will have a very large effect on choosing the types of windows to use, the size of them, the roof overhang, the flooring types in the rooms with these windows, use of thermal mass, the heating system capacity and type, roof configuration, possibilities for solar panel usage and even how you may decide to integrate hot-water heating.

Any builder worth investing your hard-earned money in (large amounts, I might add) will be able to do this intelligently and provide you with multiple options while answering all of your questions and helping you to understand the value of each one given your individual circumstances. If they can’t, or won’t (as someone I recently spoke to recounted from a meeting with a builder), then it’s time to change builders.

You get to do this once on a given house and then live with the results for sometimes many years, or even decades. Doing it right means treating your home and property as an integrated system whose parts work together to keep you comfortable, save you significant energy dollars every month and give you a durable home that will return the best value for your investment.

As always, your questions and comments are welcomed.

Andrew W. Alcorn, CET
Innova Builders, Inc.
(902) 499-4839
www.innovabuilders.ca 
andrew@innovabuilders.ca

@InnovaBuilders on Twitter
Innova Builders on Facebook

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To heat the floor, or not to heat the floor…

…That is the question.

Well, sometimes it is, and the answer opens up a whole lot more issues than just keeping your feet warm.

Many people over the past 15 years or so have built homes with radiant in-floor heating systems. It’s a nice feeling to have warm feet as you walk on the floors and it did a pretty good job heating your home.

So why did so many switch? First of all, the technology was there and it became easier to put in place with electric, oil and gas-fired boilers. But let’s back up a couple of steps and think about why the floors were so cold to start with. I call it “Cold Basement Syndrome” and it was the result of foundations that were either poorly insulated, or not at all. The upper floors were decently warm but the floor on the main level felt cold due to the cold basement. So in went the radiant heat systems and floors were now warm.

Then came the growing popularity of heat pumps, which also had cooling capabilities, so people were installing them, too.

Wait a minute! An in-floor radiant system with boiler AND a heat pump to cool? Why on earth would someone spend the money on both? Where’s the disconnect here? Considering that due to building code requirements in new houses you now must have a ductwork system in place anyway for air circulation, and that the foundations must be insulated, why spend money on the in-floor system when the heat pump can do it all? Still want that “warm-floor” feeling in your ceramic tile bathroom or kitchen in the morning? Install electric radiant heat pads in these areas that come with programmable thermostats so it’s nice and toasty when you get up in the morning and then shuts off after you leave.

Remember that the efficiency of oil/gas/electric boilers are in the 85-97% range. While that may sound good at first glance, you’re always getting less out of it than you put into it. Put another way, you are buying more energy than the system can give you. On the other hand, air source and geothermal (ground source) heat pumps operate at 300-500% efficiency, meaning that for every unit of energy you buy to run the system, it puts out 3-5 units of energy for heating, depending on the unit. That’s a nice return on investment via huge reductions in energy usage, not to mention the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

On top of that, the heat pumps also give you the ability to cool and dehumidify if you wish (anyone in Nova Scotia experience frequent fog/high humidity?!). Don’t need cooling, you say? No problem; you simply turn off the heat pump and the HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilator) still runs with the air-exchange system to keep inside air fresh and cooler than outside. If there’s a heat-wave then put the heat pump on cooling mode for only as long as needed.  As an added bonus, the geothermal system will also pre-heat your domestic hot water for even further energy, and money, savings. This is a significant saving as hot water heating is #2 in energy consumption in our homes next to space heating. With a geothermal system on cooling mode in the summer, it dumps all the heat it pulls out of the house into the hot water system so that you spend virtually nothing to heat your hot water. If the house is suited, Solar panels can be added to pre-heat domestic hot water and reduce the need to purchase energy.

Some will say if you build slab-on-grade style that you have to do in-floor heating so the slab isn’t cold. If the slab is properly constructed and well-insulated (never just minimum code) then there is no reason for that slab to be cold. Every building should have passive solar features taken into consideration as much as possible so that free solar energy is absorbed by that slab during the day and released slowly at night.

You will often hear me say that when you invest in planning and constructing a very efficient building envelope, your heating system will have much less work to do, thereby using much less energy, and that means a lot less money for you to spend. This is what all buildings should focus on so make sure your builder is addressing the items that affect this directly – it’s the easiest, most effective way to reduce energy consumption.

Whether new construction or retrofit, every home is different and should be evaluated on its location, orientation to the sun, integration into the land, occupant requirements and desires, size, configuration and budget. When these items are appropriately addressed, and your home is looked at as the complete system that it is, you’ll end up with a comfortable place to live that costs you less, is worth more and uses far less energy.

It’s an all-around win.

Moving Toward Sustainability

Let’s be honest with ourselves. As Canadians, we consume many times more natural resources per-capita than every “less-developed” country. In fact, if every country in the world consumed as much as we did, we would require the equivalent of about 4 planet Earths to sustain everyone.

What is “sustainability”, anyway? CMHC defines it as “…an economic, social, and environmental concept that involves meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Another source simplifies it as “the ability to endure.” Any way you slice it, we should expect of ourselves that each generation leaves the planet in such a condition that the next can prosper and survive.

Are we doing this? Quite frankly…no, we are not. And why is that? Part of it is greed and part of it is simply not thinking (or caring) about the long-term implications of our lifestyles. In Canada, resources have historically been relatively “cheap” for us. Who worried about how efficient their houses and offices were? No matter how you heated it, it was inexpensive to do so and the fuels were plentiful and easily accessible.

Enter the oil crisis of the 1970s, the Gulf War of the 1990s and the dot-com crash of the 2000s. Add in geopolitical instabilities in multiple areas of the world, an Exxon Valdez here and a Gulf of Mexico oil spill there and we have volatility that holds millions hostage to the prices of oil and natural gas – commodities that some would argue are past their heyday, and most would admit are harming our environment in a very big way.

But what’s a community/province/region/country to do? Well, you start by changing policies and people’s expectations of where they get their energy from. You start to educate as many businesses and homeowners as possible about the advantages of renewable energy, energy independence and, even more importantly, the value in reducing energy consumption. That’s where every homeowner, potential homeowner, business owner, landlord and anyone else with a building that consumes energy comes in. Our buildings use 40-50% of all energy consumed and, given that many are very inefficient, this offers one of the biggest opportunities for energy usage reduction out there. And, unlike global commodity markets, it’s opportunity that we have control over as individuals.

Whether through new construction or the upgrading of the millions of existing buildings that are enormous energy-wasters, we have the ability to significantly reduce energy consumption, and in turn greenhouse gas emissions, and save ourselves a ton of money in the process. It’s a real no-brainer when you take time to analyze the cost-benefit of doing this so let’s make a concerted effort to collectively move toward making all our buildings energy-efficient when it comes time to build or upgrade.

When I say energy-efficient, I mean truly efficient – so that means not falling for false promises and “greenwashed” products. It means moving away from “traditional” construction methods and using new products and better specifications for all buildings. Many of today’s claimed “efficient” homes use obsolete insulation systems, are poorly put together with little attention to important details and waste far more energy than they need to.

With a little research and effort, asking the right questions and seeing through the bogus claims, we can all do our part to help move our communities, and society in general, toward something sustainable that we can feel good about passing along to the next generation. I’ve made it my mission to help as many people and businesses as possible accomplish this and any time our efforts move us closer to a sustainable community, we can all feel a little bit better about the legacy we leave.

This is not just important…it is critical to our survival as a society.

All comments and questions are welcomed and encouraged.

Andrew W. Alcorn, CET

Innova Builders, Inc.
www.innovabuilders.ca
andrew@innovabuilders.ca
@InnovaBuilders on Twitter
Innova Builders on Facebook

The building envelope – The most important factor in energy savings

You hear it talked about – the “envelope” of your home. But what is it?

The envelope is comprised of the foundation walls, basement floor slab (or ground-level floor slab if no basement), exterior walls, windows and doors, and the top floor ceiling. These are the areas of living space that are exposed to outside air or the ground, and are the surfaces that leak heat, air and moisture either in, or out, of your home. Regardless of how “efficient” your heating system may be, if the envelope does not seal off air flow and insulate properly, you’re wasting huge amounts of energy, and money. On top of that, the comfort level of your home will be very difficult to control.

Newer homes are built with better air-sealing characteristics in order to meet building code standards, and are (usually) built with higher levels of insulation. Often, the airflow is not blocked from entering the wall cavities, but does get stopped at the back of the drywall against the plastic vapour barrier – this still causes much heat loss, even though air leakage into the interior of the house is kept to a minimum. Older homes tend to have poor insulation levels and even poorer air-sealing, giving them an even larger potential for energy savings.

Let’s start with what can be done with new construction. Opinions differ on what the “best” construction methods are, and there are several options for very efficient buildings, with varying price tags attached to them depending on just how far you want to take things. Whether you build to Passive House standards,  use ICFs, or my InnovaWall system, keeping outside air out of the envelope and having a high level of properly installed (and I can’t stress that part enough) insulation are critical to ensuring your house uses little energy to heat it. Passive solar features should always be incorporated as much as possible to utilize the free energy from the sun, basements should be insulated on the outside to allow the concrete to act as a heat sink, and the combination of all these features means your heating/cooling system needs to do very little to keep you warm or cool. Of course in all cases, a properly designed and balanced (again, cannot stress this enough) HVAC system with a high-efficiency heat-recovery ventilator is required to ensure fresh air circulation and comfort.

When it comes to existing homes, especially older ones, creating major energy, and comfort, savings requires some renovation work. We often see people replacing their windows, doors and siding all at once on an older home and this is a prime opportunity to upgrade the insulation and air-sealing of a large portion of the home`s envelope. By furring out the new siding a couple of inches, this creates a void that can be filled with closed-cell sprayfoam insulation which is extremely good at sealing air leaks and providing a significant insulating value, even in just a 2″ layer. I have seen many homes with rigid styrofoam insulation boards added at some point, yet the house is still cold. Why? – because they did not seal off airflow from getting under, around or behind it. Once you allow airflow by, you just wasted your money on that insulation.

Because it is such a great insulator, vapour barrier and air-seal, closed-cell sprayfoam is also ideal for those basements and ceilings you’re looking to upgrade the insulation on…just be sure you have taken care of any water leakage first.

These are the basics, and there are many details involved in complete installations, so please send along your questions or comments on this topic.

Andrew W. Alcorn, CET
Innova Builders
www.innovabuilders.ca
andrew@innovabuilders.ca

Andrew is a member of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce Energy Advisory Group
and the Canada Green Building Council (Atlantic Chapter) Residential Committee

The Greenwashing Effect

Green-wash (green’wash’, -wôsh’) – verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service (courtesy sinsofgreenwashing.com)

Like many others, I’m getting tired of all the companies and agents jumping on the preverbial “green” bandwagon with misleading and downright bogus claims of energy efficiencies and being environmentally friendly.

They call what they are building or selling a “green home”, or that it “meets standards” or has some special “designation” they made up that is not recognized by any legitimate organization. They will use terms like “energy efficient materials” or “EnerGuide rated” or say the house is “recognized”. What they don’t tell you is what “standards” they mean, who recognizes them or what the EnerGuide rating actually is. I could have a barn EnerGuide rated – the rating would be awful, but it would be “rated”. And what are these “materials” and how, exactly, are they integrated into the building envelope where they are used in what system?

You’ll hear talk of how a house has an efficient heating system, perhaps using an ETS (Electric Thermal Storage) unit that uses off-peak cheaper electricity, or a heat pump or other systems. What you don’t often hear is details of how the house is actually built to take advantage of these systems and require a small-capacity unit. Simply having an expensive ETS unit or heat pump installed is no measure of a house’s efficiency and may only mean wasting cheaper electricity.

When you start asking pointed questions (as I did of one agent making all sorts of claims in a public ad) you get some really vague non-answers and a very obvious run-around on the subject. Many are misleading the public in the hopes of coercing people into buying their products.

Do your homework on how a house is made to be truly efficient (insulation systems, heating/cooling systems) and start asking questions of a builder or selling agent. If they can’t give you specific answers that line up with your research, then you may need to think twice about what you are considering buying. Your home is a huge investment and in today’s environment, with the available technology and products, there is no excuse for a new home to be an energy-waster. We cannot afford it.

Andrew W. Alcorn, CET

Innova Builders, Inc.

 www.innovabuilders.ca

Energy-Efficient Homes In Nova Scotia / Halifax

Hello all,

Let’s start some discussion on energy-efficient home construction in Halifax, Nova Scotia and surrounding areas. It’s time for a change.

I recently started a new business, INNOVA BUILDERS, partly out of frustration with what I saw as less-than-great workmanship in many new homes by “green” or “efficient” builders, and also in order to do my part to help as many people as possible reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. There are fairly simple modifications that can be made to new home construction, as well as renovations, to create very efficient homes that use much less energy, and also less water. Think about renewable energy souces like solar power and wind power; consider orientation of the home and window and design features to take advantage of free solar heat; think about highly-efficient spray foam insulation systems that really do perform; properly designed and planned heating/cooling/ventilation systems that work as they should; and many other features that contribute to the result of a truly efficient home that significantly reduces your environmental impact.

The homes INNOVA BUILDERS will work with people to create will not only be beautiful, comfortable and give their owners a sense of satisfaction knowing they are doing their part to reduce energy and water consumption, they will also cost less to own and give outstanding return on investment and resale value. You will have a full understanding of how your home works and what you are getting – and you should – because this is your investment; this is your future; THIS IS YOUR HOME.

We can easily have it all , so why wouldn’t we make it happen?

Please visit my website at www.innovabuilders.ca and send in your questions or comments. My goal is also to help educate people so that they can make informed decisions on their home design and construction.

Let the change begin now!

Andrew W. Alcorn, CET

Innova Builders, Inc.

(902) 499-4839

www.innovabuilders.ca

Member – Halifax Chamber of Commerce

Member – Canada Green Building Council (Atlantic Chapter)

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