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Home builder big on energy-efficiency upgrades that pay off

Hargrave Construction house in progress
"Energy efficiency is the best use and the least waste, and is certainly money in people's pockets over the long term," says home builder Steve Hargrave.

Carpenter went into home building after dealing with low-quality homes

As an apprentice carpenter in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Steve Hargrave recalls that houses were "just being thrown up all over the place" to meet demand.

"I was a finishing carpenter, so I came after all these other trades that had done a sloppy job: not thought it through properly, just do their part, get paid and get out," reminisces Hargrave of Hargrave Construction Ltd. in Campbell River. "And I had to try to make it look good and please the client. I said, 'There's got to be a better way.'"

That better way was to offer quality, energy efficient home building through a custom home building company that adhered to a "golden rule" approach.

"I thought, how would I like it if this was the work done on my place, and I had to live with the results of this workmanship, or these decisions made?," he says. "It drove where we were going philosophically."

The approach has paid off: Hargrave Construction just celebrated its 30-year anniversary. Meanwhile, Hargrave has learned what it takes to deliver consistent value and energy efficiency in a home, and how to interest customers in the option.

Home insulation, air tightness, and heat pumps

As energy prices increased and customers began asking about higher efficiency furnaces and better insulation, Hargraves focused on improvements that  yield the best efficiency gains in B.C.'s coastal temperate climate.

"We don't necessarily need eight-inch thick walls here on the coast," he says. "We've tried to weed through, and find out how to construct houses that are still cost effective, and that will save on clients' energy bills for years to come."

Hargrave's list of top picks for improving energy efficiency and comfort in a home include:

  • Air tightness: "You get the biggest payback for the dollars invested, using synthetic sheeting membranes and sealing them tight."
  • Exterior insulation: "Combine one-inch Styrofoam on the exterior of your wall sheeting with high density cavity insulation, and all of a sudden you're looking at a wall cavity that's now giving you in the R27-28 range. It’s a huge difference from code-compliant R20."
  • Under-basement floor insulation: "Clients really rave about this. The concrete floors warm up to the same temperature as the air, and you don't get that "ouchy" cold feet feeling. It makes a huge difference to the comfort level."
  • Air-to-air heat pumps: "They make good sense for the West Coast environment, in terms of capital cost versus the payback time in decreased energy costs to operate. It gives the added bonus on the coast here of giving you some air conditioning in the summer time."

Buyers sold on energy efficiency when there's a payback of 8 to 10 years

Hargrave says not every buyer comes to him with energy efficiency in mind, but he takes the time to educate them, introducing ideas such as having the house EnerGuide rated, and ensuring it is well-sealed with plenty of fresh air that is pre-warmed.

"You can just see their eyes kind of light up and they say, 'Wow, this is what we've been looking for.' They ask, 'I know there are some better homes out there and some better technologies. How can I incorporate that into my house and not break my budget?' It's finding that middle ground that matters."

Hargrave often uses energy modeling through the EnerGuide process to determine what options make sense in a given home, and makes use of incentives through the Power Smart New Home Program. Hargrave's team now builds homes rated between EG84 and EG87, with air tightness in the range of 0.75 to 1.25 air changes per hour.

"Down to .75 is the point where the home is so comfortable because you don't have drafty areas," says Hargrave. "Plus it's quiet; people tell me they don't hear the traffic, or rain beating against the windows. Those are side benefits when building energy efficient."

Hargrave estimates that the extra materials and labour required to build a significantly more efficient home cost about 5% more on the price of a home. (Combined incentives from FortisBC and BC Hydro can help offset builders’ costs by more than $3,000 per home.)

He seeks options that give a payback to the owner in the 8-10 year range, so that components such as heat pumps and HRVs are still under warranty and have years left before needing replacement.

"You're in that sweet spot where you're getting less costs to heat your home or to cool your home, you’ve paid back your additional capital cost, and the comfort and reduced costs will last the expected lifetime of that home. Most people would gladly pay that 5%."

Lifelong learning helps build energy efficient homes

Hargrave says he has taken a "lifelong learner" approach to his work, and invests in regular training for his entire crew to build teamwork and knowledge about energy efficiency.

"I find that's really been effective in not only training them, but them saying, 'Hey, that makes sense. This is good,' rather than me driving the ship from the back end," he says.

Hargrave says getting into energy efficient building is not hard; "It just takes a little bit of head scratching to begin." Other builders regularly ask him for advice, and he’s happy to give it.

"There's nothing worse than hearing horror stories about a home built by someone who just wanted to throw it up cheap and get out. We all get tarred with that brush, right?"

He'd rather see more builders at the other end of the spectrum, delivering quality and helping make a difference.

"Figuring out how we're going to decrease the amount of energy input into that home year after year for 50 years, I believe, is a far greater environmental friendly benefit than to say, 'Let's use a green label on a flooring product.'"

"Energy efficiency is the best use and the least waste, and is certainly money in people’s pockets over the long term. I think that's what we need to focus on."