This is Rob Dumont's home (see this pdf file) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It was built in 1992, and it still stands as one of Canada's most energy-efficient homes. Rob Dumont was also involved in building the Saskatchewan Conservation House in Regina, in 1977. That was the prototype house that proved that the best building technique for cold climates is to build highly airtight, highly insulated houses.
So, when building a home like the Mill Creek NetZero Energy Home - that is, a cold climate home that produces as much energy over the course of a year as it consumes - the two most important steps to take are to insulate and seal it.
Rob Dumont often says: "Anything that has moving parts will fail; in fact, it must fail, because there is no such thing as a perfect bearing."
So, any component in a home that has moving parts will eventually cause you hassles. Also, it almost always consumes energy in order to work.
The beauty of insulation is that it is pretty much ageless. It saves energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and as long as it is kept dry it will never wear out.
I think that the best type of insulation is cellulose fiber insulation. It's made of used newspapers that are ground up and laced with a fire retardant (borax, I think). So it has an extremely low amount of embodied energy, and in fact putting it in the walls of a building that will last possibly hundreds of years is a form of carbon sequestration - the carbon in the newsprint will remain out of the atmosphere for the life of the home.
Peter Ameron of Habitat Studios is the builder of the Mill Creek NetZero Energy Home. As the pioneering leader of the Riverdale NetZero Project, he is the most qualified person in Edmonton to build this home. This is how he and his team built the Riverdale home's walls:
The idea is that you build a double wall - two two-by-four walls 16 inches apart (16 inches is 1/3 of a piece of plywood for the bottom and top plates). When the wall is filled with cellulose insulation, it has an insulating value of R56.
That's super insulation. No moving parts, saves energy 24/7, and lasts forever. The Mill Creek NetZero Home will use the same technique.
This is no-brainer. Air moving in and out of a building is probably the biggest waster of energy in the country.
Peter knows airtight:
"The builder, Peter Amerongen, has been sealing R-2000-equivalent houses for 20 years. Habitat Studio & Workshop uses an approach developed by Mr. Amerongen in the mid-1980s and written up in a Fine Home Building magazine in May 1994. This approach combines a variety of techniques and has been very successful in routinely sealing houses with complex forms without much fuss" (from the riverdalenetzero's technical section).
So you basically want to be living in a plastic bag, and then you provide fresh air to the house mechanically using a Heat Recovery Ventilator, a device that warms the fresh outside air with the stale outdoor air to recover about 80% of its heat before it's expelled.
Not Rocket Science
You'll notice that Peter's been sealing houses tightly since the 80s, and the date on the above-mentioned Saskatchewan Conservation House is 1977. In other words, we've known how to build super-efficient houses for a long time. Unfortunately, for the past 50 years we Albertans have been blessed/cursed with very cheap energy in the form of natural gas. Humans invariably waste what they have in quantity, it seems.
Those days are numbered now. Western Canada's natural gas production is on the decline. Where we will get our natural gas in 20 years is a mystery to me. Not much of it will be from our province.
So it's time to start building right. The Mill Creek NetZero Home is giving it a shot.
Repeat after me: "Insulate and seal...Insulate and seal..."
(cross posted at raisingspaces.com)