“We’ve done it, this works.” An affordable, northern, net-zero ready home
They say it can’t be done: an affordable, high-performance home in the unforgiving climate of northern BC. Maybe the naysayers have just been proven wrong by a longtime builder in Quesnel.
Icon Homes has been building houses in northern BC for nearly three decades. Co-founder Joe Hart and co-owners Dave O'Flynn, Jason Stern and Dennis England, bring their personal commitment to energy efficiency to building high quality, high performance homes.
They started to implement Step 3 of the BC Energy Step Code years ahead of schedule—which means their clients have enjoyed homes at least 20% more energy efficient than the 2018 base building code. At the same time, Icon Homes became one of the first contractors in Northern BC to achieve Net-Zero certification with the Canadian Home Builders’ Association. This means they have the expertise to build homes to the highest levels of energy efficiency around.
Quesnel homeowners Neil and Heidi Mackay decided to do just that. Originally, when they approached Icon Homes, their main priority was for an affordable home that is “simple and cozy.” As Heidi explains, she “wanted to just come home and it's warm and it's easy and simple… easy to keep clean, easy to have people over.”
The Mackays knew that energy performance would be part of a cozy home, but when Joe saw the design idea they brought him, he recognized the opportunity to step all the way up to a net-zero ready home.
“The simpler the shape of the house, the easier it is to keep the costs down and the easier it is to make it more efficient,” explains Joe, who also runs high-performance builder trainings on behalf of Building A Legacy, a collaboration between the Community Energy Association and the Canadian Home Builders’ Association.
“That’s why I was excited about this house,” said Joe. “They brought me this plan and it was already the perfect shape and size. So right away, I said, ‘let's make this a net-zero house’ because this is going to be easy to do.”
In fact, the home was built for not much more cost than a standard, Step 3 home of similar size and features. Key to this success has been the commitment to the goal and the planning that occurred since the Mackays’ first meeting with Icon Homes in fall of 2021.
Why go for net-zero?
By early in 2023, the Mackays’ new home was ready for move-in. It sits on a wooded lot south-east of Quesnel, deep in the forest past Dragon Lake. It’s a modest, two storey home with a simple structure. Large windows let in ample sunlight, softened by the nearby trees. Clean, white walls with hardwood floors and wood accents throughout emphasize the use of materials sourced from the region.
In general, a net-zero ready home has more insulation, is designed to minimize heat loss, and uses highly efficient equipment that uses electricity from renewable sources. Some of this equipment is more expensive to purchase but can save money on utilities every year moving forward. That has certainly been the Mackays’ experience over their first six months.
“The equipment is a little more expensive in this type of a house, but their hydro bill is half of what it was in their old place. So that's going to pay itself back,” Joe says.
“And the part you can't quantify is comfort—living in these kinds of houses is just so comfortable,” Joe says. “Everywhere in the house is the same temperature and the air quality is better. That's the kind of thing that, you know, really sells a house.”
The heat pump is at the heart of the house
According to Joe, the equipment at the heart of this net-zero ready home is the cold climate heat pump. A heat pump is like a combination furnace and an air conditioner that can produce both warm and cold air. It runs on electricity and is much more efficient than an electric baseboard heater.
As the home was built to be as airtight and insulated as possible, the heat pump works in tandem with an advanced ventilation system keeping air fresh and comfortable. This makes living in a high performance home a little bit of an adjustment. “The heat pump took some getting used to—like how it runs, when we should open windows and not open windows,” Heidi says. “But we’ve been six months living here, now, and it hasn't been a big deal.”
Some people doubt that heat pumps can work in a northern climate at all—even including some of the contractors that Joe works with. “That's one reason why I really want to showcase this house—I want to be able to say, no, we've done it, this works,” Joe says.
The key is to use a cold climate heat pump, one designed to handle Canadian winters and can work down to –25ºC. On the coldest winter days when it drops to –35 or –40ºC, the heat pump is paired with an electric coil built into the furnace to keep the heat flowing. As a bonus, the home also has a small wood stove, that also serves as a back-up if the home loses power. The Mackays’ home is connected to the BC Hydro electricity grid but the home is also able to use electricity generated on-site and there are plans to add a solar photovoltaic system in the future.
In Joe’s experience, the cold climate heat pump works very well when the builder, contractor and owner all understand how to use it properly. “They just went through their first winter and were comfortable the whole time,” Joe says of the Mackays’ experience.
“Everybody is telling us we can't build an affordable, high-performance, zero-carbon house in our climate zone,” Joe says. “But we're doing it now and it's working. You can do it, you can build an affordable house, it can be comfortable to live in.”
Key Stats about the Mackay Home
Size: 1,440 ft2 home with a 5 ft crawlspace
Cost: Under $350,000
Energy Efficiency: 49.4% better than reference
Windows: U-Value between .97 and 1.08
Insulation: Shredded fiberglass; no rigid insulation or spray foam used aside from under slab.
- Walls are R-41 (double 2x4 wall with Blow-In Blanket System insulation)
- Attic insulation is R-80
- Insulated Concrete Forms for foundation is R-22
- Under slab insulation is R-14
Air tightness: 0.7 air changes per hour (significantly better than the 1.0 air changes per hour to achieve Step 5 of the BC Energy Step Code).
Heating source: Electric cold climate heat pump, with integrated 10 kW electric heat coil backup.
Hot water: Heat pump hot water tank
Net-Zero: A net-zero energy home produces as much energy as it consumes on a yearly basis and has at least one on-site renewable energy system.
Net-Zero Ready: A net-zero energy ready building has been designed and built to a level of performance such that it could, with the addition of solar panels or other renewable energy technologies, achieve net-zero energy performance. This is equivalent to Step 5 of the BC Energy Step Code.
Energy Step Code: The BC Energy Step Code sets performance requirements for new construction and groups them into Steps. Local governments can choose to require or incentivize a given step in new construction. Meeting Step 5 for homes is equivalent to building a net-zero energy ready building.
CEA supports the Building A Legacy North initiative, a collaboration with Canadian Home Builders Association (CHBA) of Northern BC. Learn how the initiative is encouraging the construction of more high performance buildings through implementation of the BC Energy Step Code and Zero Carbon Step Code in Northern BC.