Support increased for Power Smart New Home builders

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In response to a new B.C. Building Code that increases requirements for air tightness and ventilation, the Power Smart New Home program has adopted the ENERGY STAR standard and has added mid-construction support for builders.

New Home program shifts to ENERGY STAR® standard, adds mid-construction advice

Since 1996, the Power Smart New Home (PSNH) program has been helping B.C. home builders improve the energy efficiency of their builds through advice, marketing support and incentives.

By 2014, the program was seeing about 20 per cent of newly constructed electrically-heated homes in B.C. become Power Smart New Homes. The benefit was improved comfort and lower operating costs for home buyers.

Now, the program is offering more.

"I think if you take a step back and look at the whole program, we're stepping up," says Cynthia Curll, program manager. "We still offer incentives (up to $2,000 per single family home), but now we're also putting more measures in place to help builders through support and education."

Curll says working with the Power Smart New Home program is one way builders can get ahead of new B.C. Building Code requirements for air tightness and ventilation.

ENERGY STAR standard required for Power Smart incentives

Central to the update of the Power Smart New Home Program is a shift to requiring ENERGY STAR qualification, placing the focus on what Curll calls a "whole home" philosophy.

ENERGY STAR is now offering prescriptive and performance pathways to achieving the Standard in B.C., which gives builders choice. Either pathway prescribes a minimum standard for the building envelope. This minimum helps builders satisfy BC Building Code requirements and sets them on the right path to meeting the air leakage requirements of ENERGY STAR.

The performance-based approach requires that a home meet or exceed a specific EnerGuide rating; in B.C. the minimum requirement is EnerGuide 81.

The prescriptive approach provides a list of components (called the "Builder Option Package" or "BOP") ranging from heating systems to appliances to lighting. To receive qualification, builders can include any options that yield 2.5 "BOP" points in total.

"For builders choosing the performance approach, our program is still similar to how it has always operated," says Curll. "An energy advisor does an initial plan model, then the builder constructs the house, complying with the minimum envelope requirements. They finish the house as they like, and as long as they hit the minimum performance score, they have an ENERGY STAR qualified home.

"Adding the prescriptive option path provides more flexibility. It's something we think will be more appealing for larger tract builders; it may offer more cost-savings and efficiencies as they get comfortable building to this standard over time."

All homes seeking ENERGY STAR qualification must demonstrate adequate air tightness (2.5 air changes/hour for single family homes; 3 air changes/hour for row or duplex homes), and have an installed heat recovery ventilator (HRV).

These homes have fewer air leaks, fresh air systems for increased comfort and health, heat recovery, and offer home occupants lower energy bills year after year. An added bonus for homebuyers is that they qualify for a 10 per cent refund on mortgage loan insurance premium from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

Requirements for the ENERGY STAR New Homes initiative are tailored to each province across Canada, with the goal of producing homes that are 20 per cent more energy efficient than local building code. "That results in homes that are more comfortable and healthier than those built to code," says Curll.

Program participation offers new mid-construction support to builders

An addition to the PSNH program is that builders will now be offered financial support for advice to ensure their projects are on track for ENERGY STAR qualification.

"It's like a check-up," says Curll of the required mid-construction blower door assessment. "We're requiring that builders have a Certified Energy Advisor (CEA) come in for a pre-drywall blower door test. We know that's an investment of time and effort for the builder, but we really feel there's value in this step and we're prepared to help pay for it."

BC Hydro and FortisBC together will contribute $75 to the cost of the mid-construction review.

"We're saying to the builders, 'Please invest in this,'" says Curll. "The reason is that this helps them meet the air leakage requirement for ENERGY STAR. If you find out at the end of construction that the target was missed, it's so hard to fix. It's much easier to do before the drywall goes up."

To sweeten the deal, the utilities are now training energy advisors across B.C. to provide extra information and support when they come for the mid-construction review, including envelope upgrade reporting and a site walk-through to address air leakage.

CEAs will also now help builders apply to the PNSH program, reducing their paperwork burden. And Curll says builders may save due to a new requirement for heat-loss calculation room by room. With tighter envelopes, it's possible heating systems can be reduced in size and cost.

"All that extra service is being offered by the utilities' New Home program," says Curll. "The builder schedules the mid-construction review with a qualified advisor, and the utilities are going to come to the table and cover a portion of the cost. It's all done with the intent of setting the builder up for success."

Revised program helps builders keep up with changes to B.C. Building Code

Speaking about the new Power Smart New Home Program, Curll says, "I think definitely it's a leap above what we used to do, because there is this focus on the envelope first. Going from EnerGuide 80 to 81 is not a huge leap, but I think that the way builders will have to build, by paying close attention to the envelope and the wall assemblies and air tightness, there will be some work involved."

Curll says the recent changes to the B.C. Building Code are already causing builders to upgrade their practices, especially those related to energy efficiency and balanced ventilation. Since an HRV and mid-construction blower assessment are effective ways to meet the new Code standards, she says participating in the PSNH program can help builders master new techniques with advice right when it's needed.

"If builders are looking at this, particularly in  the Lower Mainland/south Vancouver Island climate zone, the baseline of ENERGY STAR isn't that much more than what Code requires," says Curll. "The good news is that the utilities and the certified energy advisors in the province are preparing themselves for this ENERGY STAR New Homes standard, so there's help and information available."