Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your business.
My brother and I own JDL Homes Inx, which is a Vancouver-centric builder and major home renovator for the last 20 years.
Have you been busier during covid?
Yes and no. The industry has been busy but we’re seeing a bottleneck when it comes to the municipalities and building permits. So that has thrown a wrench in our schedule. Vancouver is a different animal compared to other municipalities. But they do some things really well. They are reaching for better efficiencies. But when covid hit, it created an enormous backlog. Covid took everyone by surprise.
What is the biggest challenge in building a home in Vancouver?
Building a house has become more complex over the years. Right now, the record high lumber prices have been a big problem. Dealing with municipalities, building codes and bylaws can be an issue. Building technologies are also changing rapidly, and you have to adjust to that. Finding skilled labour is a problem every year. So it’s a daunting process for us and our clientele. And then obviously covid has put a monkey wrench into everyone’s business.
Let’s talk about changing technology. How do you navigate that?
My role in the business is primarily customer facing and one of the challenges for me is to talk to our clients about how we build towards net zero. It’s hard for me to explain the technology that we have now, especially to people who live in older homes. Most of the public just isn’t aware of what the current technology is. The provincial government has laid out the Energy Step Code which has five steps towards net zero, and municipalities can adopt those steps as they see fit. That gives us the time to learn how to adapt our structures to the net zero code. Each municipality is a little bit different in their adoption, which adds to the confusion. We built a step code five, net zero ready house in Burnaby recently. The city had just mandated step one but our conversation with the homeowners was that by 2032 the city would mandate step five, so why not just build to that standard now? The homeowners agreed. We actually had to teach the building inspectors what we were doing, that’s how new it is.
What’s a passive house?
Passive houses have a model that tells you how to achieve a high efficiency level. For step code five, net zero, net zero ready and passive houses, it boils down to really thick insulation, robust windows and doors, a continuous air barrier around the house, mechanical ventilation, and a heating and cooling system with a high efficiency level. We built a passive house in Vancouver two years ago and we didn’t need a heating source at all besides two electrical in-floor heating pads. That’s all we needed to heat the whole home. Moving forward, it will be more challenging to cool your house than to heat it.
With airtight buildings in Vancouver, we hear about issues with mould and moisture in the building. How do we fix that?
Air tightness can trap moisture inside and we have to deal with that. That’s where the HRV (heat recovery ventilator) comes in. It’s a simple system that allows fresh air from outside to come in while exhausting stale air from inside. You’re exchanging the air, which protects the health and safety of your family. You can get some sophisticated filters on the HRV, and similar filters with a heat pump, to help clean the air for covid concerns as well.
How do you get a house airtight?
We’ve used Tyvek in the past and there are other processes and technologies out there. When we construct a house, deciding how we’ll build the air barrier is an important step. You have to be very careful, especially when you’re building a passive or net zero house with very tight targets.
What happens if you don’t hit those targets?
That’s a good question! We have a fail safe where we do a test, seal up any areas, do another test, and then dry wall and seal up the house once we’re all clear. There has to be a plan in place before you start building.
What exactly does net zero mean?
By 2032, we need to build all new housing to a net zero ready standard. I think eventually they will enforce net zero. But net zero ready means that the house is built to an energy efficient standard that if we say, add solar panels, that will be enough for the house to be self-sufficient. But to reach that, you can’t just add a bunch of solar panels to an old house. It’s about how we build the basement, roof, walls, HRV, heating pump, mechanical, etc.
How does this affect gas users?
Electric is the future. Most gas appliances aren’t efficient enough to work into the energy equations of a passive or net zero house. We’ll also have to get off gas for heating our homes as well. As of 2022, we can no longer use gas to heat the house or hot water in the city of Vancouver. Gas is still allowed for your stove…for now. But eventually, I think the municipalities will outright ban gas.
How does building to net zero affect timelines and costs?
If we look at two identical houses with the same finishes – one built to the current code and another built to net zero ready – you’d be looking at a 15-20% increase in costs for the net zero home. It wouldn’t add to the timeline, as long as you knew what you were doing from the outset. We’ve built passive and net zero houses before, so we wouldn’t have the same learning curve as others without the experience. We have to pivot. Do you need $30,000 worth of marble? Do you need the upgraded appliance package? Could you do a little bit less of that and put the funds into efficiency? When we spend more money on efficiency, we’re also reducing carrying costs. There are no energy costs; you won’t have a gas bill. Yes, you pay for BC Hydro in the winter but in the summer, you’re using your solar panels. But you can’t do it halfway. If you buy a fancy new heat pump, all of the heat is going to go out your windows and the holes in your house.
Can you do this in an older house? What does that process look like?
This is a tricky question and it depends on the nature of the house. Putting triple-pane windows into a 1940’s house without any insulation is not very helpful. It also depends on the nature of the renovation. But every little thing helps. If you can insulate your attic and walls, and upgrade your windows, that’s great. Those triple-pane windows and insulated wall panels also really help with noise reduction from outside. It can be a challenge getting homeowners to take a gamble on new technology. But is this where we’ll be in 10 years? With people who are building a new house now, I talk to them about the Energy Step Code and tell them this is where we need to be by 2032. Do you want to build to this standard now, preserve your resale value and be more efficient? Sure, it might mean giving up a few things. But the technology we’re using right now isn’t very complicated. The biggest challenge I have is conveying to people that they won’t be cold in drafty homes anymore. But it’s a learning curve. Eventually, how we value our houses will change.
Do you have to sacrifice the aesthetic with these kinds of homes?
It’s a lot easier to make a house energy efficient by making it a square or rectangular box. We can still build a craftsman style but we have to rethink how we build them. There are ways around it and I don’t think you have to sacrifice aesthetics too much. But it is easier to get to that efficient place if the architecture is simple.
How is BC doing compared to the rest of Canada?
We can pride ourselves in BC on being ahead of the curve. Other jurisdictions are looking to us. We do live in a province where we’re not as worried about heating our homes in the winter and we mostly rely on hydro electricity. So we are lucky here. It’s 100% possible to build a passive house in a place with more extreme temperatures. We’ve been researching this type of building since the 70’s and that research began in the prairies. This is where building science becomes paramount. How we handle the climate and moisture here is completely different to how it would be handled in northern Alberta.
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