How Calgarians Are Building Greener Homes

For years, relatively inexpensive energy costs meant builders and home owners, alike, could afford not to consider things like energy efficiency and eco-friendliness, and simply create dwellings to the building code’s lowest common denominator. But the times, they are a-changing, even in energy-rich Alberta. These days, the future is green — and these Calgary innovators are keeping pace.

Inside a 1,760-square-foot Karoleena Homes-built home, which was built in a factory and then shipped to the current location in the northwest neighbourhood of Capital Hill.

Karoleena Homes: The Green Side of Modular

Modular home-building seems like something out of the mind of a science fiction writer: full-sized homes, created in a factory as a series of chunks, emerging fully equipped, wired down to the pendant lights and ready to be shipped to the lot where they are fused together like gigantic Lego blocks. It’s a complete departure from the on-site method of building a home from the ground up.

The modular method is also becoming recognized as an eco-friendly way to build, primarily due to the fact that a controlled factory environment is inherently more precise, creating very little waste.

How little waste? “Virtually no waste,” says Kurt Goodjohn of Calgary-based Karoleena Homes, which has been turning heads with its modular residences, multi-family developments and recreational cabins. “A house could be built using one tiny little garbage bin in the factory, because everything is planned out. Everything is cut precisely.”

That means less extra lumber, fewer remnant pieces of materials and less garbage in general; nothing gets left out in the rain. Anyone who has ever seen a typical building site knows that’s quite a difference from the dumpsters full of waste created by most home builds.

Inside a Karoleena Homes bathroom.

Factory-built home manufacturing also allows for better control over the building envelope (the vapour barrier and insulation components). “The biggest determining factor of whether a house loses energy or not is whether the envelope is tight,” Goodjohn says. “Building in a factory environment, you get to build a better envelope, and the finished product is a tighter home.” Compare that, he says, to a site-build project, where workers are attempting to insulate a home on a cold, windy day; chances are far greater that, in their haste to finish up, they could leave a gap in the insulation.

Inside the envelope, Karoleena equips its homes with high-efficiency appliances, furnaces and on-demand hot water, as well as low-flow, dual-flush toilets. The homes are built future-ready for solar power and many incorporate the locally manufactured DIRTT modular wall system, a formaldehyde-free alternative to traditional drywall (the adjustability and manoeuvrability of the walls also makes for easy low-waste renovations).

While the building process certainly has its environmental advantages, there’s also the bigger picture to consider. The modular home model lends itself nicely to sprawl-curbing initiatives such as inner-city infills and secondary suites. Karoleena has created modular toppers that fit on top of garages and has placed its Karo Cabin recreational homes in backyards, both as workshops and as livable spaces.

Dual sinks inside a Karolina Homes bathroom.

The growing interest in green-building practices and outside-the-box home-building is also helping redefine the perception of the modular model, which suffered from an image problem due to being lumped in with mobile homes. In fact, the two are built to completely different standards and conform to different building codes, says Goodjohn. Mobile homes are built on a chassis frame and are created with components designed to make the finished project cheap and affordable. Factory-engineered modular homes, on the other hand, are built to the same building code standards as site-built houses.

The Graycie, Karoleena Homes’ modular fourplex, was built in four pieces, then shipped to its current location in Marda Loop and assembled onsite within eight hours.

The worry that, somehow, modular homes are less durable than their site-built counterparts is another misconception. The reality is actually the opposite, says Goodjohn. Consider that Karoleena homes have to be sturdy enough to withstand transportation — sometimes to hard to reach locations. The company’s Karoleena Cabin, for example, has been popular with clients with difficult-to-access recreational properties, such as remote islands. Instead of having to import a building crew and materials, the cabin can be shipped, ready-made, to the site via helicopter.

Assembling The Graycie.

There will always be a market for modular when site-building is unfeasible, but the green-building aspects of the product is making it an increasingly attractive choice, even when there are other options.

“We’ve never talked to an architect that didn’t believe in what we’re doing and think it’s the right way to go,” says Goodjohn.

EchoHaven: Building a Better ’Burb

When it comes to sustainable living, the suburbs tend to get a bad rap. The practice of chewing up arable land on the fringes of the city and paving it with squiggly culs-de-sac, jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with garage-fronted, vinyl-sided houses is, in the eyes of many, this city’s claim to shame.

But all the disdain in the world can’t change the fact that the suburbs are as much a part of the city’s makeup as the inner-city ’hoods. Calgary’s growing population can’t all live within walking distance of downtown, and, for that matter, many don’t want to. The issue then becomes not the existence of the suburbs, but how to build a better ’burb and offer suburban dwellers more choices.

Thinking outside the vinyl-siding box is essentially what planted the seed for EchoHaven, an eco-minded suburban community located within Rocky Ridge in the city’s far northwest.

Developer Dave Spencer, a landscape architect by trade, had in mind a plan to build the most energy-efficient home he could — specifically, a “net zero home” that produces as much energy as it consumes in a year. To do this, the home runs on solar power rather than gas, with eco-friendly water recycling, materials and fixtures such as LED lighting.

The residence of Dave Spencer and his partner Debbie Wiltshitre is the first completed home in the northwest community of Echohaven, a green suburb that encourages eco-focused homebuilding.

“I was a consultant for 35 years in residential communities in the housing industry and was always appalled by the waste, the cost, the structure, the poor quality of housing and the quality of life that’s represented by some of these communities,” says Spencer. “They’re just places to come home to and sleep.”

Banking on the idea that he wasn’t the only one who felt this way, he purchased the current EchoHaven site in 2001, with the intention of creating a community based around eco-minded ideals, where residents would live in solar-powered housing in a campus-like setting, designed to preserve the natural landscape.

The EchoHaven dream has since become a reality. Spencer’s own home is the first in the community, with others on the way. So long as they are eco-focused, EchoHaven home builders are free to create a dwelling of their liking on the 25 lots in the development. “My only rules are no pink stucco and no vinyl siding,” says Spencer.

Spencer and Wittshire’s EchoHaven home is designed to maximize natural light. The home also features LED lighting recessed into the walls in darker rooms.

In this “high-performance suburb,” any kind of carbon footprint debt that might be racked up due to remoteness from inner-city amenities and public transportation is more than compensated for by the across-the-board energy efficiency of the homes, says Spencer. His own EchoHaven dwelling, for example, was heated during a -30°C cold snap on 5,000 watts of power — a rate he says is comparable to “three hairdryers.”

In this sense, sprawl is less an issue than the desire to rethink the suburban model, says Spencer. “There should be options for people and we’re just trying to demonstrate how to do it better,” he says.

For more information on how to green your home, see How To Add Green Home Products To Your Reno and Understanding The Program That Sets The Green Building Bar.

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