Energy costs encourage homebuilders to go green

Bret Heebink’s first priority isn’t saving the world from climate change. It’s building better homes.

Bret Heebink’s first priority isn’t saving the world from climate change.

It’s building better homes.

The Whitehorse contractor approaches construction with a zeal for detail — knocking out excess lumber where he can and sealing up leaks in the insulation.

These are the values of any contractor, but taking them to the next level has made him a poster boy for the Yukon Housing Corporation’s push for greener homes.

Higher fuel prices are going to turn every consumer into an inadvertent environmentalist, he predicts. The money a homebuyer can save by lowering their fuel consumption is growing as oil prices rise.

When a recent customer wanted to build a home near Meadow Lakes Golf Course, Heebink brought in a comparison.

The client could build their 4,800-square-foot home with the standard 2 x 6 walls and 2 x 4 strapping, or they could spend an extra $3,200 on the initial material costs to build a house where heat and air flow is tightly controlled.

“People will spend that on their shower door in a heartbeat,” he said.

The cost to build standard walls in a new home is $2.12 per square foot, while Heebink’s greener model would cost $3.14 for the same. That’s only a third more expensive.

The house will be healthier, will last longer and the money saved on fuel will surpass the money spent on the walls in about four years.

“It’s a no brainer for the legacy of this house,” he said.

“The hardest part is if you don’t have real numbers like that. When you do, you say, “Yeah I’m going to pay this off in five years and after that it’s gravy.”

How can you put cash in the bank rather than burn it up in your furnace?

“By trying to eliminate thermal bridging and have the biggest blanket of uninterrupted insulation,” he said.

Thermal bridging means heat that leaves the house through heat-conducting material, like wood. Heebink spaces the building’s studs — they don’t run all the way through from the inner wall to the outer. Instead, one stud runs through part of the wall, and another sits kittycorner with insulation packed around them. This ensures that warmth doesn’t leave the house.

“In minus 40, you can see the studs (in a standard house) from the frostlines because that’s the warmest part of the wall, so (frost) crystallizes,” he said.

After thermal bridging is decreased, you have to make sure the house is sealed.

Regular 2 x 6 homes aren’t sealed tightly at the bottom and top of the walls, he said. Nor is there any attention to detail near electrical outlets, which Heebink seals up completely.

Bringing fuel costs under control means bringing air flow under control.

Most homes allow air flow on an ad hoc basis.

“In an old Takhini house, you’re just not controlling it. You’re not controlling the volume (of air) and you’re not mitigating it,” he said.

Heebink is installing a heating system, which mixes moist air in the house with cold air coming in.

The system will control moisture — which usually gathers around the house’s leaks — and air quality.

“When you build an airtight house you need to address air quality. We’re living in a balloon here.”

Off-gasing from carpets, plywood and cabinets will be controlled by the system, making the house healthier. It will also increase the life of the home since moisture is what deteriorates a building’s structure.

“There’s no moisture problem in a house like this because it breathes,” he said.

The heat-balancing system will run the client about $6,500, but at savings of $1,763 per year on heating costs with this model home, the costs are offset within four years.

Another approach is to increase solar gain by focusing windows toward the south and putting in material that absorbs heat.

“A concrete counter top is a heat sink because it absorbs heat. You can put tile floors in too,” he said.

There isn’t a trace of ecological self-righteousness in his voice, just the reasoned pragmatism of your everyday contractor.

After this house, he pledges he won’t build any other way. He hopes that expands to the rest of the industry.

But stigmas persist.

“It’s hard to get a lot of carpenters to change,” said Heebink. “Carpenters are quite sharp-minded, and they’ll say you’re making weak walls. There’s this kind of environmental sissy feeling to it.”

It’s the same for cutting lumber in the walls.

“It’s also a bit of a macho mentality. They think the more meat they put in the walls, the stronger the house. But it doesn’t really create any more strength.”

Carpenters follow their traditions, he said. Their age-old craft isn’t known for its ability to reform.

“Frankly, carpenters are pretty set in their ways. It’s like you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Carpenters might not be lining up in droves to be members of the David Suzuki fan club, but consumers are going to change the industry, he said.

Yukon Housing is trying to get that change started, said its technical officer Bill Greer.

“The public is still building with small walls,” he said.

“It’s buyer beware. Yukon home buyers are getting gypped.”

Consumers should demand more from contractors because they are building homes that are going to cost them more in the long run, he said.

Yukon Housing has vowed to build only to its Super GreenHome standard. It’s currently building Super GreenHomes in Watson Lake as well as Whitehorse. The Super GreenHome standard is still ill-defined, but it means a series of standards ranging from Green Bronze to Green Gold.

These standards refer to R-2000 ratings as well as Energuide ratings. R-2000 is a set of benchmarks to judge the energy efficiency of a house. It breaks down for ratings on certain parts of a house, such as the walls and ceiling.

Heebink’s home will have walls with a guaranteed bubble of R-30, rather than the usual R-8. The ceiling will be R-80 rather than R-40.

The Green Silver will likely be an Energuide 87, said Greer. It’s extremely difficult to get any higher.

Heebink’s place will have an Energuide 84 rating when it’s completed in January.

Some of these standards have been around for a while, but higher fuel costs have made them key considerations for homebuilders.

“What you thought was overkill in the ‘80s is a must-do now,” said Greer.

Yukon Housing has prepared charts showing consumers the difference in fuel costs with different homes.

In a 2 x 6 home with 2 x 4 strapping, yearly costs on fuel rise to nearly $10,000 from $6,000 if oil goes to $2 a litre from $1.30.

In a Super GreenHome, the costs go from $1,000 to about $1,500 with the same shift in oil prices.

It shows that heating is more about the house than the furnace.

“You should be able to fart in a small house and keep it warm,” said Heebink.

Change is in the consumer’s hands, he said. And Yukon Housing should mount an advertising blitz to get out the word.

“The production builders up in Copper Ridge don’t have that kind of ethical brainwave going. But it’s going to become more of a concern for the consumers.”

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