Less Heat, More Warmth


Builder aims for $100 annual heating bill

Nina Winham

Ask Ken Connolly why he builds energy-efficient homes and he'll tell you all about saving money, resale value, and smart investment. First, though, he'll tell you why he really cares.

"We live in a beautiful place. I think it would be a shame to hand it on to the next generation having squandered the wealth of beauty we have around us," says the owner and general manager of Pheasant Hill Homes, based in Nanaimo. "I think the legacy we give to our children and grandchildren is very important, so I'm motivated to try to save resources and preserve beauty for them. And also, I just know we can build homes that are much more economical to own."

Connolly was already knowledgeable about the Built Green program and working to incorporate green features when he toured a 27-year-old home in Sidney two years ago. There, he says, he had an epiphany.

"It's a 3,300 square foot house, and their heating bill is less than $100 per year. There was no heat pump to reduce the costs – it was just very well insulated and had a very tight building envelope. I looked at it and I thought, 'We can build better homes than we have been building.'"

Connolly and his business partner Jason Schmidt are so convinced that there's value in energy efficiency that they've put their ideas to the test. They've just completed their own "$100 heating bill" home, using innovative techniques that Connolly says were less expensive and less challenging than builders might realize.

First, Pheasant Hill incorporated passive solar design, making sure the home would make the most of warmth from the sun in the winter but not gain too much heat in the summer. "Passive design just takes forethought, and it doesn't cost any extra," Connolly says. "It's great."

Then, Connolly's crew insulated under the basement floor, and used ICF (insulated concrete form) for the foundation. The walls were where they departed most from common practice, choosing stress skin panel construction using SIPs (structural insulated panels), which consist of two layers of OSB sandwiching eight inches of styrofoam.

"There are structural members in the walls, but there's not nearly as much lumber as usual," says Connolly. "The panels are much stronger than conventional framing, have a much higher R-value and are more airtight." Connolly says adapting their building techniques to use SIPs was relatively easy. "This was the first one we did with SIP panels. There were definitely some different techniques, but if you understand building, it's not a problem."

The SIP construction yielded walls with an R-32 value, which Ken says is a significant improvement over building to code.

"Walls are the largest single interface with the outdoor elements, so when you increase insulation there you make a big difference in how energy efficient the house is," he says. "And although the standard is R-20, that refers to the insulation value of the fiberglass batts in the wall. But take into account all the little gaps around them where they don't quite fit tight, or where there's a pipe or wiring going through, and all the thermal bridging that occurs from inside to out, an R-20 wall really performs at about R-16.

"So when we put in an R-32 wall, we've actually doubled performance; it's quite dramatic. Walls are often the number one source of heat loss in a house. Cut it in half, and you've come a long way."

The home was completed with a heat recovery ventilator to ensure fresh air, an R-52 attic and upgraded windows. "To go to triple pane from double only adds around 10-12% in cost to the windows, and yet the energy performance increases by about 40%, so it's great value," comments Connolly.

The insulation and tight envelope reduced the home's heating load so significantly that neither a furnace nor heat pump was required. Instead, Pheasant Hill installed electric baseboard heaters, but reduced the usual wattage by 50% over conventional homes. Programmable thermostats throughout the house add to the occupants' ability to save energy. Like the Sidney home that inspired him, Connolly is aiming for a super-low heating bill in this latest build: $100 a year.

"It's a gamble we wanted to take because we want to give clients more incentive to change their way of thinking," he says. "We could be wrong, and it will take $200 a year to heat this particular house; I don't know. But we wanted to stick our necks out to encourage people to change." He says change is not that difficult – the additional features cost only $5,000 above the cost of a heat pump, and will payback in about three and a half years through reduced heating bills. (Payback is even quicker when you factor in the savings on maintenance related to having a furnace or heat pump.)

"There's a common misconception that to build green is to build a very expensive home, where the extra money put into it in terms of green features will not have any economic return," says Connolly. "That's true in some cases, but we can show people that the right sustainable features can give a very excellent return on the investment.

"I think the public is becoming more educated and concerned about these issues, and they're looking for builders who can offer them a better product," says Connolly. "I tell my customers, 'If you're concerned about resale value, then invest in the energy efficiency of your home, because 10 and 20 years from now it's going to be a much bigger issue than it is today.

"If you want your house to maintain its value, build to the standard of the future instead of the standard of the past."