Six hundred square feet of steep solar panels convert sunlight into electricity to ensure the home creates as much energy as it consumes. (Joern Rohde)

GREEN BUILDING

B.C.'s first zero-energy home - no bike riding required

Special to The Globe and Mail

When he began building B.C.’s first net-zero-energy-use home, Whistler resident Richard Wyne wondered whether the end product might turn out to look like a geodesic dome. What the ski patroller got was anything but.

Perched high on a hill on a south-facing lot in a neighbourhood named Rainbow, with expansive views of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, his home has all the luxuries you’d expect from a new development in the popular resort, as well as the type of eco-friendly design that screams green.

“I love that the home is comfortable and normal, while at the same time socially responsible,” says Mr. Wyne, who also works as a ski patroller. “I believe we’ve demonstrated an ability to fulfill our moral environmental obligation without sacrificing our standard of living.”

You won’t find Mr. Wyne and his wife Jennifer riding a stationary bike to power their toaster or computer. You will, however, find practically every energy-efficient device and detail available in the pair’s 2,200-square-foot, three-level house, built by Whistler’s RDC Fine Homes to Built Green-platinum standard.

The most visually striking element is the home’s solar photovoltaic system. Six hundred square feet of steep solar panels convert sunlight into electricity to ensure the home creates as much energy as it consumes.

The house was built using Insulspan’s structural insulated panel walls, which use less lumber than wood-framed construction and help keep conditioned air in, so less energy is required for heating and cooling.

The exterior’s fibre-cement siding is immune to the effects of moisture and freeze-thaw cycles, such as swelling and warping, and doesn’t rot. Inside, spray foam insulation made from recycled plastics and vegetable oil eliminates air leakage and seals out dust and pollen. The high-efficiency fibreglass windows are triple-glazed, enhancing energy performance.

The polished concrete floors, which resemble black granite, release heat from the sun slowly throughout the day. A hydronic pipe layout underneath ensures the floor stays warm in winter and cool in summer.

Then there are the high-efficiency premium appliances, including a sophisticated energy-efficient HVAC system that recaptures the heat out of grey water going down the drain and recovers exhausted warm air from the dryer.

All of these measures mean significant savings. “We expect to save about $4,500 to $5,500 per year over a similarly sized home at current rates,” Mr. Wyne says.

There are extras here too, such as a double oven and a built-in automatic cappuccino machine, as well as a stunning Canadian maple butcher-block-style kitchen island with rounded corners by Whistler’s Living Edge Design.

All combined, the fine finishes and top-of-the-line sustainable products helped push the cost of the home to nearly $1.2-million, exclusive of land – though because the house was open for public tours during the 2010 Olympic Games, some of the suppliers came onboard as sponsors, offering discounts or even donating products.

The land itself is unique: a Whistler Housing Authority price-controlled unit, which Mr. Wyne says cost $130,000, it was only available to resident employees. This provision mitigates the impact of market forces that have driven the price of housing out of reach for many locals. The restricted units also have a resale cap, to maintain a stock of more affordable housing for Whistler’s resident employees and retirees.

RDC Fine Homes owner Bob Deeks says the support from the city and the sponsors made the project go surprisingly smoothly. Although the cost of a green home typically runs 10 per cent to 15 per cent higher than a conventional one, consumer demand is steadily growing, if slowly. But it’s the type of initiative he’d like to do more of.

“I thought the net-zero home was a great opportunity for RDC,” Mr. Deeks says. “We recognize the impact that building and renovating a home has on the environment, and we work hard to offset these impacts. We’ve always believed in creating sustainable, healthy communities by building sustainable and healthy homes.”

For the Whistler home, RDC also reclaimed slabs of marble from Burnaby’s Brentwood Mall for a bathroom countertop and used onsite material for the surrounding rock walls, measures that helped lower the project’s carbon footprint.

Jennifer Wyne, a human-resources director, says the home has far exceeded her expectations.

“I wasn’t sure how it would feel, especially with the concrete floors,” she says. “But it’s very warm and relaxing, and it feels very spacious.”