Resource conservation, affordability mark new life for a Canadian mainstay

NOW House™ revival

One of the million or so iconic Veterans’ Homes, the Now House is upgraded to a net-zero energy level

by Lorrane Gautier and Don Fugler
The Now House is one of the 15 net-zero energy healthy housing projects selected from across Canada to be part of the Canada Mortage and Housing Corporation’s EQuilibriumTM Sustainable Housing Demonstration Initiative. The project comprised the renovation and retrofit of a 60 year old house, one of a million similar homes built across the country during and after World War II, and is the only EQuilibrium™  project focused on the renovation and retrofit market. As such it offered the opportunity to develop a process for upgrading the energy and environmental performance of a building that would be readily replicable, thus multiplying its benefits. This has already proven to be a valuable strategy as eight more Now House restorations are underway, in Windsor, Kitchener, Ottawa and Toronto.

Wartime houses are a feature of almost every community in Canada. They offer a material glimpse into our collective memory of World War II and the socioeconomic challenges associated with that event. Between 1941 and 1947, Wartime Housing Limited [later CMHC] built over 30,000 houses to provide affordable housing for munitions workers, returning veterans and their families.

These houses were based on standardized, inexpensive, sometimes pre-fabricated 1-1/2 storey designs that served as models for future housing initiatives across the country.

Now House was originally a vision of the design consultancy Work Worth Doing [WWD]. Founding partners Lorraine Gauthier and Alex Quinto believed that there were hundreds of sustainable products and building practices available, but consumers and contractors had a hard time finding them.

The vision of Now House was to bring these products and practices together in a single project that would be both a testing laboratory and a physical manifestation of what had been for several years a virtual database on WWD’s web site.

Through a re-examination of the standard starting point, WWD found that improving existing houses is one of Canada’s biggest environmental challenges. The residential sector accounts for 17% of total energy use and 16% of the country’s green house gas [GHG] emissions.

In Toronto, where WWD is based, that number is higher with the residential sector contributing 25% of GHG emissions. With projections indicating that 66% of the houses that will exist in 2050 have already been built, retrofitting is clearly a critical component of any GHG reduction strategy.

The Demonstration House

Located in Topham Park, Toronto, the demonstration house is a 1200sf, 1-1/2 storey, detached structure in a community of 200 similar wartime homes. It was built in 1946 from plans available from CMHC. The Now House Project is a collaboration of designers, architects, engineers, homeowners and sustainable building experts led by project manager Lorraine Gauthier.

The Retrofit Process

The design of the home is simple. There is a living room, dining area, kitchen and three-piece bathroom on the main floor, and two bedrooms with knee wall storage on the second floor. The newly renovated basement has a recreation room, three-piece bathroom and laundry room. Adding insulation, radiant floor heating, and mechanical ventilation improves the basement as a living space.

To be included in CMHC’s EQuilibrium™ Sustainable Housing Demonstration Initiative, WWD worked to demonstrate how the overall performance of the house could be significantly improved in six areas:  occupant health and comfort, energy efficiency, renewable energy generation, environmental impact, resource conservation and affordability.

As part of the EQuilibrium™ initiative, WWD hosted a six month public demonstration period so that consumers and industry could view the home and better understand the innovative features integrated into the project that are expected to improve dramatically environmental performance while providing a healthy indoor environment.

Furthermore, WWD is working with CMHC to monitor  energy generation as well as energy and water consumption and other performance indicators for a year to assess the building’s performance.

Occupant Health and Comfort

Previous renovation work to the house created some humidity problems. A heat recovery ventilator [HRV] was installed to better manage humidity, remove odours and air-borne pollutants, and provide a continuous source of fresh air.

The renovation work included reducing air leakage and adding insulation to the attic, exterior walls and basement, which reduces drafts and heat loss and increases thermal comfort. To further reduce indoor pollutants, low volatile organic compound [VOC] materials and finishes were used.

Daylighting was improved by enlarging a south-facing window. Foundation work included adding insulation on exterior walls and under the new basement slab to reduce energy loss and additional drainage to reduce moisture problems.

Energy Efficiency

A variety of strategies reduce energy requirements. In addition to reducing air leakage and adding insulation, new, low-e, argon-filled fiberglass-frame windows were installed. The south-facing dining room window was enlarged to increase passive solar gain in winter. Installation of retractable awnings is planned to provide shade during the summer months to reduce overheating.

The old, energy-intensive appliances have been replaced with energy-efficient ENERGY STAR appliances and the incandescent lighting with fluorescent and LED lighting. As electronic devices and appliances, such as televisions, microwaves and computers, often draw power even when left in the ‘Off’ mode [known as phantom loads], there are switches on selected electrical circuits to enable devices such as these to be fully off when not in use.

The old gas- fired hot water tank, which operated at about 56% efficiency, was replaced with a 90% efficient tankless gas boiler, and a new hot water storage tank that takes heat from the solar collectors for distribution through the home’s heating hot water system.

In addition to the heating by passive solar gain, energy efficient space heating is delivered by a basement in-floor radiant heating system coupled to the solar thermal system and the new water storage tank via a heat exchanger and a high efficiency air handler with a variable speed motor that serves the entire house.

A Power-Pipe™ wastewater heat recovery system transfers the heat from the shower drain water to the hot water storage tank.

Renewable Energy Production

In addition to the carefully designed passive solar heating through the south-facing windows in the winter months, Now House employs a variety of active solar systems for renewable energy production.

A 2.0 kw, grid-connected solar PV system is mounted on the southwest [back] face of the roof, covering an area of 17.1 sq.m. The system is predicted to generate 2,410 kWh per year. The electricity generated will be sent directly to the utility grid and sold at $0.42 per kWh under the Ontario Power Authority Standard Offer Program, substantially more than the unit cost of the electricity that will be purchased from the utility.

The goal for this demonstration project was to match the dollars spent on energy purchase [electricity and gas] with the dollars gained by payment for the electrical production. The idea was to achieve net zero energy cost, rather than net zero energy consumption. At the proposed new rate of $0.805/kWh, this balance is more likely to happen. Other EQuilibrium houses, [i.e. the new ones], have a more stringent goal of net zero energy.

The roof-mounted solar hot water system uses two evacuated tube panels with cylindrical collectors that can take advantage of the sun all day, not just when overhead. The system is predicted to provide 1,823 kWh of heat energy annually

Resource Conservation

Unlike constructing a home in a new suburban development, Now House did not require additional land, and uses existing infrastructure, including municipal and utility services such as roads, water pipes, sewers, and gas lines, schools and other public buildings and public transit.

There was minimal use of new materials in the renovation. On the inside of the house, demolition and new construction was restricted to the basement interior walls and concrete floor. To the extent possible, materials [including the solar thermal and PV systems] were sourced from Ontario companies. Construction waste was sorted and where possible recycled. Low-flow showerheads, faucets, toilets, and water-efficient clothes washer and  dishwasher conserve water.

Reduced Environmental Impact

The Now House™ is within walking distance of public transportation, schools, playgrounds, and shopping, and consequently decreases the need for private transportation. The small footprint of 89.5 sq.m [965sf], and minimal use of new building materials, significantly reduce the environmental impact in comparison to a more extensive home renovation or new home construction. The improved air tightness, energy efficiency retrofits and use of renewable energy are predicted to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions by approximately six tonnes/ year.

Affordability

Wartime homes were originally designed and built to provide affordable housing for veterans returning from the Second World War. The Now House EQuilibrium™ demonstration project maintains this goal of affordability by designing a retrofit at a fraction of the cost of building an equivalent new home.

The total annual energy consumption of Now House is predicted to be close to the on-site annual production from its renewable energy sources and heat recovery strategies – and only 38% of the requirements for the average Canadian home. In addition, it is predicted that the home will have a 78% reduction in natural gas use and 60% reduction in electricity use compared to pre-renovation consumption figures.

Now House is focused on the conservation and upgrading of an existing building in an established community and the implementation of renewable energy strategies. Home operating costs, and associated costs such as personal transportation, have the potential to be much lower than for the majority of Canadian homes.

In addition, the electricity produced by the PV system will be sold to the Ontario Power Authority, which will help offset the cost of purchased electricity and the cost of natural gas used to provide supplementary domestic hot water and space heating. These factors and others will result in housing operational costs that are significantly less than is typically the case.

Lorrane Gautier is founding partner of Work Worth Doing, and Project Manager for the NOW House. Don Fugler is with CMHC’s Policy and Research Department.

Sources: CMHC EQuilibriumTM Case Study: The Now House Project:
www.nowhouseproject.com

The CMHC EQuilibrium™ Initiative

EQuilibrium™ is a national sustainable housing demonstration initiative, led by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation [CMHC] that brings the private and public sectors together to develop homes, and eventually communities, that address occupant health and comfort, energy efficiency, renewable energy production, resource conservation, reduced environmental impact and affordability. For more info on this project and the EQuilibrium™ initiative, visit: www.cmhc.ca

Work Worth Doing [WWD]

WWD is a Toronto-based design and communications consultancy dedicated to creating positive social and environmental change. Now House™ is a trademark of The Now House Project Inc. The team is currently providing sustainable design services to community housing organizations whose portfolio includes hundreds of wartime homes. For more info, visit: www.nowhouseproject.com

Credits

  • Project Management: Work Worth Doing [WWD], Toronto.
  • Project Team: Lorraine Gautier, Project Manager, Alex Quinto, Heidi Nelson, Steve Harjula,Janet McCausland
  • Architect: David Fujiwara, Toronto
  • Community Liaison: Harry Mahler , Toronto
  • Mechanical  Engineer: Malcolm Stephens, Toronto
  • General contractor: Martin Osborne, Toronto
  • Mechanical Systems Consultant: Patrick Scantlebury, Toronto

Materials

  • Owens Corning Celfort 200 rigid insulation, BASF Canada Walltite Eco™ insulation/air barrier system, InLine Fiberglass windows, James Hardie HardiePlank™ siding, VicWest Vicelite panel steel roof, Generation PV solar collectors, Day4Energy PV panels, RenewABILITY Energy Powerpipe.

extra material not published in the magazine:

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