A Revolution for the Rest of Us

This simple and tasteful four-bedroom house nearing completion in Invermere could offer a glimpse of the future of home building in British Columbia

Team thinkBright: From left to right, Paul Denchuk, Meredith Hamstead, Stephanie Coster, and Felix Caza.

Seen from the curb, there’s nothing remarkable about the two-story house that builder Paul Denchuk is currently finishing out in Invermere, B.C.

Behind the scaffolding, it’s a fairly nondescript 1,400 square foot, four-bedroom two-story home with built-in garage, and it blends in seamlessly alongside dozens of others much like it in a subdivision on the south side of town. What’s unusual about this place is what you can’t see with the naked eye.

That’s because this home could turn out to be up to 40 percent more energy efficient than every other house on the block, in the neighborhood, or likely even in the whole town. It meets the requirements of Step 4, Part 9 of the BC Energy Step Code, so it will require a mere trickle of energy dollars to stay comfortable. It will do so while delivering a range of benefits for the families that will ultimately live there over many years, such as improved health, indoor air quality, thermal comfort, and quiet.

But as they say in the infomercials, that’s not all!

Denchuk and his business partner and wife Meredith Hamstead — together, the couple own thinkBright Homes — built the place on spec for $201 per square foot. Other builders in the region contacted for this post confirm that is likely about the same, or less, than the construction cost of a similar home built to meet minimum legally mandated energy-efficiency requirements.

One builder is amazed with thinkBright’s combination of energy performance and price. “To reach that build cost, they would have to be laser spot-on, really dialled right in,” says Al Semple, owner of High Country Builders, also in Invermere.

“It’s very impressive.”

Energy Performance for ‘Mere Mortals’

Many builders keen on energy efficiency target the luxury custom-home market. But Denchuk and Hamstead see a big opportunity in building high-performance homes for British Columbians who work steady jobs, coach soccer, pay off the credit card every month, and take a nice vacation once a year. “We build energy efficient homes for mere mortals,” says Hamstead.

What’s their secret?

“Simple construction practices, a simple design, and simple finishing — and very careful procurement,” Hamstead says. For this home in Invermere’s West Side Park neighborhood, the pair adopted a clean design, suitable for an affordable family starter home, with durable, carefully chosen materials, appliances, and finishes — but without the granite countertops, soaker tub, and other so-called “must have” features that quickly ratchet up costs.

Denchuk and Hamstead’s new project welcomes in daylight, but offers few avenues for heat to escape. It will easily be the most energy efficient home in the neighbourhood.

It’s a handsome home, with lots of natural exposed Douglas fir, and energy performance is built into its DNA via a range of proven strategies, such as a double walls with extra insulation.

“We will not build a house that is simply ‘code compliant,’” says Hamstead. “It’s not worth it for anyone, because it doesn’t deliver an acceptable level of comfort and cost efficiency, or any other benefits that come from good design.”

It’s a handsome home, with lots of natural exposed Douglas fir. High energy performance is built into its DNA.

Like many affordable starter homes, this house sports laminate countertops — no, there’s no polished granite kitchen island here. The cabinetry is IKEA, which is actually very durable. (“They make some of the best hardware and boxes you can get,” Hamstead reports.) Appliances are energy- and water-efficient, but not top-of-the-line.

The resulting tasteful, simple home proves once again that energy efficiency and affordability can go hand in hand.

Nate Sereda, principal of Energy Advise, conducted the energy modeling and testing on the home, and verified that it reaches Step 4 of the BC Energy Step Code. He says he is continuously impressed with thinkBright’s commitment to efficient and sustainable homes.

“It’s not an accident that they are building to this level for that price,” he says. “It’s due to hard work, and a thoughtful approach.”

A “One Planet” Approach

Hamstead says she and Denchuk are committed to what she calls a “one planet” model of building, a term Paul picked up on a recent Passive House study-tour of Europe.

“I did some Passive House training with Stich Consulting, and attended the International Passive House conference in Munich,” Paul explains. “[Tour organizers] took us through show homes, manufacturers, and suppliers — and what I found there was that everyone is completely committed to the environment. That is where they begin.”

“Nobody talked about borders, they talked about a one-planet model, which is the idea that we are all on the same planet, and we should act that way.”

Hamstead and Denchuk will pursue an Energy Star certification on their West Side Park house. They will meet it by using knowledge they have acquired, training they’ve pursued, and standard readily-available materials, like fiberglass, to insulate, seal, ventilate, and all-but eliminate the “thermal bridges” found in conventional construction that wick heat to the outdoors through the exterior-wall framing. (For the building science geeks out there, their airtightness clocked in at 0.8 ACH.)

“It is inexpensive, but not ‘cheap’ and it is very well built. We designed it to be as economical as possible, especially considering heating costs.”

There are challenges, for sure. The couple say manufacturers and builders have not yet caught up to the demand that consumers are showing in energy efficiency. In last year’s Canadian Home Builders Association national survey of new home features, respondents ranked “overall energy efficiency” as the third-highest item on a list of 10 “must have” features.

“The North American market is not yet providing windows and doors of adequate energy performance for a reasonable price,” reports Denchuk.

“Here, we get modestly priced, low-performance product, or you get really energy efficient product for a super high-end price. North American window and door manufacturers are way behind European manufacturers who are producing superior product for a better price”

Hamstead concurs and cites what she calls a massive opportunity for building technology innovation in Canada. “There doesn’t yet seem to be an appetite within the manufacturing sector to constantly improve the offering while holding the price,” she says.

The Difference Between ”Cheap” and Economical

“This West Side Park home, we are building it to be more affordable and accessible than a typical custom home.” says Denchuk. “It is inexpensive, but not ‘cheap’ and it is very well built. We designed it to be as economical as possible, especially considering heating costs.”

Denchuk reports that strong and trusting relationships with tradespersons are critical to his recipe.

“The subs I work with don’t charge me a premium for what we do. I use the same trades all the time, the guys I am using are holding the line. Often times, if the trades decide it’s not a ‘normal’ house, then they immediately say, ‘well, this is going to cost you more.’ But, with the guys I work with, that is not their mentality.”

The West Side Park home could be a harbinger of things to come: Attractive, simple, well-built homes, priced for mere mortals, that meet a soaring demand for higher energy performance. Sounds like Hamstead and Denchuk might be onto something up in Invermere.

Proof in the Pudding: Nate Sereda of Energy Advise prepared the Compliance Report for thinkBright’s West Side Park project. The report section excerpted here confirms that the home performs at a level necessary to comply with the requirements of Step 4, Part 9 of the BC Energy Step Code.

Glave Communications produced this post on behalf of the Training and Communications Subcommittee of the Energy Step Code Council, with resource support from BC Hydro. In an effort to increase awareness and understanding of the BC Energy Step Code, the Energy Step Code Council is sharing information on how and why builders and communities are using the new standard. Local governments may use the BC Energy Step Code, if they wish, to incentivize or require a level of energy efficiency in new construction that goes above and beyond the requirements of the BC Building Code.

Sharing stories of how and why builders and communities are putting British Columbia’s energy-performance building standard to work.

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