I met a fellow active community member recently. She mentioned that she had read about the Mill Creek NetZero Home (MCNZH) here, and included a short lament about how her family would afford to upgrade her own home. I felt a pang of guilt - why should my family be empowered to build our way to energy independence when so many others aren't?

For The Record

For the record, we can afford to build this home due to a mixture of a very simple lifestyle, luck, fiscal prudence, fortunate career choices, and luck with real estate (did I mention luck?).

My wife and I started relatively well-paying IT careers circa 1999. From the beginning, we followed the philosophy described in the book Your Money or Your Life. In the book, they talk about how we immediately become consumers once we start making a bit of money. We fill our lives with things - TVs, computers, cars - and we become enslaved by debt along the way. Some night while drinking beer with an old buddy, we realize that the happiest days of our lives were back when we were poor students. We had nothing, and yet we were happy. How could that be? Well, my wife Rechel and I decided to never stop living like students. We have made a lifestyle of enjoying the free and cheap things in life. A vacation in an old VW Jetta is just as enjoyable as one in a Jeep Grand Cherokee. A bike ride on a summer day is really the best thing that I can think of doing - and it costs nothing. We don't feel that we've missed out on anything. We've just centered our lives around the important things, very few of which costs any significant amount of money.

This generally anti-consumerist approach easily translated into a green (and even cheaper) lifestyle as we became more environmentally aware. We gave up one of our cars early on, and 1.5 yeas ago we finally gave up our remaining car. It's hard to overstate how much money we've saved by going car-free (it's also hard to explain how much it's improved our lives, but that's another post entirely). It's just stupid how much extra we work for our automobiles in this society. 

So we've had disposable income and a low cost lifestyle from the start. We were fortunately both in professional careers and we were lucky enough to keep advancing in those careers. The next key was how we invested our money. We decided to avoid stock markets early on. I'm a big picture kind of guy, and I just couldn't get over the fact that infinite growth is impossible in a finite system. Since that's a fact, when you decide to invest in the stock market, you're basically betting that you're going to get out before growth stops (and reverses). We saw no reason to believe that growth would continue for another 40-odd years, so we stayed away from stocks and mutual funds. Instead we invested our extra money in GICs, energy efficiency, paying off debt and real estate. The GIC money is still around, untouched by the recent market meltdown (we're going to pull most of it out to pay for the MCNZH), and the energy efficiency investments (in light bulbs, insulation on our current house, a new fridge, a front-loading washing machine) have been paying us back every month tax free since we made them. We have also always aggressively paid down our mortgage.

Finally, we bought the house two doors down from us in the summer of 2005. That was right before the big real estate boom, and the fact that we were sitting on two properties during that boom, combined with the factors mentioned above, is why we can afford to build a Net Zero home in the middle of the city.

Green Homes For All

As resources become more and more depleted - I'm thinking specifically about natural gas here - northern communities like Edmonton will face an increasingly severe crisis. Our homes require enormous inputs of fossil fuels to stay warm. It's scary really. Since it enters our home silently through a tiny pipe, we really have no concept of the huge quantity of energy that we use for heating, but if we heated with wood, the average home in Edmonton would burn enough to completely fill a large 110 square foot bedroom. That's packed tight, and it would probably take a week's worth of work to split it and pack it. This enormous amount of energy, if we don't make our homes energy efficient, will eventually need to come from coal. That's a big fear of mine - that Edmonton will one day have a grey haze of coal smoke blanketing it in winter.

Those who can afford to build new (hopefully only tearing down really old houses and deconstructing them as much as possible before doing so) should build Net Zero or near Net Zero homes. Others who own their own home should radically renovate them for energy efficiency. I'm not talking about putting in new windows and adding an inch of foam on the outside. I'm talking about bringing them as close to Net Zero as possible.

Talking about money is tough, but I think that this post is long overdue. We will probably spend over $500,000 building the MCNZH. So how do we prepare for a world that is scarce in natural gas when it costs $500k to completely rebuild a home?

How To Afford It - Individual Actions

You should get yourself into a Net Zero or near-Net Zero home. I think it's the best decision that a person living in our cold city can make. If you don't have $500k lying around, here are some ideas:

  • Co-habitation - don't have the money to build/renovate a super-efficient home? How about you and your brother combined? What about your parents? Your best friend? This is thinking outside the box a bit here - after all, we're Albertans, wasting space is what we do best - but I think we need to change our expectations a bit given the energy crunch that's coming our way.
  • Retirement fund - give up on Freedom 55. Seriously, if growth hasn't permanently ended yet, it will before you're ready to cash in, or even worse, while you're cashing in. Pull your money out of mutual funds and invest in something real - energy efficient housing stock.
  • Do it yourself - take some time off and start insulating.

How To Afford It - Collective Action

One obvious answer is that the government should be subsidizing these things. The incremental cost of building a new home so that it achieves 85% of what a Net Zero home does is only $20,000 - $25,000. Every new home should be built to that standard (that is, R50 walls with a super-tight building envelope and good windows). The province could both enforce it and subsidize it. Furthermore, the province should be converting our fossil fuel money into green homes for all - there should be subsidies of at least $50,000 for the complete energy efficiency retrofitting of older homes.

I hate to dwell on how poorly things are run in this province, so I'll refrain from getting too upset that the government will just keep doing what it's doing, which is nothing. Let's just forget about any level of government. I think that what we need to do is start renovating houses as a community. Let's start holding energy efficiency Barn Raisings in this city. I just stumbled on the concept, and I think it's brilliant. Get 20-40 people together, make a plan, buy materials and then super-insulate and seal a whole house in a weekend. It's a community-based solution that everyone benefits from. After all, energy security is everyone's problem.

Similarly to how Habitat For Humanity builds houses, a group in Cambridge has been holding these barn raisings for awhile. I think we should start seriously considering energy efficiency barn raisings to help increase Edmonton's energy security moving forward. In fact, I plan to make this a project once I'm done with the MCNZH project. Imagine it. We'll be meeting and helping our neighbours, saving the earth, saving resources, and learning new skills. Sounds like the right thing to do. We should all be able to afford the security that a Net Zero or near-Net Zero home can provide.

(cross posted at

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I think your idea of the co-op "energy efficiency Barn Raisings" is great. As an IT professional myself, I'm not too sure where to start when it comes to housing construction or renovation, but rest assured, I'm a quick learner. I would rather learn how to do the work myself and do it myself then pay someone else to do it. And if I'm going to be paying someone 10-20K for materials and/or labor, I'd rather know it is going to like minded individuals. If you can get a dozen people together to build a co-op, where we can all share in the experience and reduce some of the cost, I think the net benefit would be great.

I could definitely see myself contributing until the late hours of the long summer weekend/evenings more then a couple times a month.

Keep this in mind...

As an apartment dweller, I've often wondered about what it would take to renovate apartments to make them net zero or near net zero buildings. I have repeatedly met with comments meant to discourage because of the amount of work that it would take. I wonder what could be done if we rallied all the tenants in our building.

The payback would be greater for apartments because there is less outdoor wall space per unit. It makes a lot of sense actually.

I live in a downtown condo and have been extremely frustrated with the energy efficiency of the building. I believe in high-density housing where possible and I would love to be part of a project that created an energy efficient apartment building.

Natural gas prices will be less than US$7/MMBTU in 5yrs from now; the futures markets allow buyers to lock in at these prices if you are convinced prices will go higher.

Quatar can deliver LNG to North America for

Over-insulating is a waste of resources just like under-insulating. By looking at the cost of money (fixed mortgage rates), energy futures markets, and current building costs it is possible to determine the optimal level of insulation.

My calculations indicate a 2x6 wall with OSB glue & nailed (for air tightness) + 1" of low-density foam board is close to optimal.

I'm looking at the long view. In 25 years, I believe that North America will be in the midst of a massive energy crisis. In 50 years, we will hardly be producing any natural gas at all.

I don't think that LNG will be available in large enough quantities, and even if it is it will be very expensive.

I disagree that 2x6 wall + 1" of foam is enough. R40 with no thermal bridging (and super airtight) should be the minimum. I think that investing in insulation is so important because once you do, it "generates" energy every day of every year from there on in. Insulating less, on the other hand, necessitates future energy production that may or may not be possible in an uncertain future. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush...

I agree that we don't know with any degree of confidence what the cost of energy will be in 25 years.

With insulation you seem to be forgetting the diminishing returns. Going from R10 to R20 cuts heat loss in half, adding another R10 saves only 1/6th, and adding another R10 to that to get R40 saves a measly 1/12th... it just isn't an efficient use of insulation.

There are diminishing returns, but when you double R value, you halve heat transfer. It doesn't cost much more money or space to move from R20 to R40, and you are halving heat transfer when you do so. Moving from R40 to R80 is where I see the strong diminishing returns.


The material cost for my preferred 2x6 wall construction is about $1.05/sf (studs, OSB, cavity insulation, & foam board).
For a double stud wall R40, I come up with $1.50/sf.
I have 8100F degree-days, and under 7000F degree-days during the heating season. My cost for heat is under 2c/1000BTU. The cost of the 8400 BTUs lost through 1sf R20 in a year is 16c. Doubling to R40 would save 8c/yr, so after 5yrs it won't pay for itself.

I'm actually doing a double-wall on the indoor pool I'm adding to my house (2x6 on the outside, 2x4 on the inside) which works out to just over R30. The economics make sense vs my basic R20 wall since the indoor design temp is 26C vs 18-20C for normal indoor living space.

The other diminishing return aspect is effort; focusing more attention on the high heat loss areas such as windows gives much greater energy savings.


Ralph, Please share the calculations you used to come up with the following numbers:
- Cost of heat under 2c/1000BTU
- 8400 BTU of heat loss through an R20 wall per year
The heat loss calculation I did for my house came out to around 45,000 BTU per hour at -20C. During the coldest part of the winter when it was around -30C, the display on my boiler showed it was running at around 54,000 BTU/hour. Given that the boiler isn't 100% efficient and the actual temperature was less that the temperature for the calculation, I think I ended up pretty much accurate. What I can't understand is how our numbers are so far apart - I'm looking at tens of thousands of BTUs per hour and your talking about 8400 BTUs per year.

I think you missed the /sf in my post.
sf=square foot, and so the 8400BTU is per square foot.

Cost of heat; I use a geothermal heat pump with a system COP of ~3.0. I pay 12c/kWh, which gives me 3412BTU * 3.0COP or ~1.2c/1000 BTU. Another example of heat cost here is Oil; at 60c/liter it is ~2c/1000BTU.

Current spot market Natural Gas prices are US$3.58/MMBTU. Triple that (to account for markup & pipeline charges, etc) and converting to CAD gives about 1.3c/1000 BTU. In large markets that are close to gas supplies the price should be closer to 1c/1000 BTU.


p.s. how did you do your heat loss calculations?
Hot2000's design heat loss for my house was 52888 BTU/hr.
At -30C outside I was using ~42,000 BTU/hr (30,000 BTU/hr from my heat pump & ~12,000 from under-floor hydronic heat from an electric boiler).

Sorry it's taken me so long to respond - my carpenter finished the interior renovations and after he left I realized that I should have done a better job of labeling the pairs of CAT5 cables we pulled to every room in the house. I've spent the past two weekends putting ends on cables then testing outlets to see which came live.

The software I used was HOT2XP v.2.74 - essentially a simplified version of HOT2000. Saying it's a simplified version perhaps understates its capability; I was able to enter enough details of my house (such as the exact size of my windows and doors) that I was pretty confident it had an accurate description of my house.


I appreciate the comment about how expensive your house will be to buy however I believe that people focus solely on that cost because it is so easy to see. What most people don't consider is the ongoing cost of ownership, the value of their comfort and the value of piece of mind. Today's Edmonton Journal had an article of a couple that bought their brand new "dream home" only to have it turn into a nightmare. They have problems with the master bedroom dropping to 13 degrees during the winter and with mold due to excessive condensation from, presumably, the lack of insulation. The article is here: Dream Home, Nightmare Problems. I think by the time these intangibles are added up, your home looks like a pretty good deal.

I agree Ken. Of course :)

We have had to dig deep to finance this house, but at every step of the way we have known that we're investing in quality - of durability, of life, and of investment.



I've used Hot2XP as well. Both Hot2000 and Hot2XP are OK (i.e. +-5%) for modeling the energy use of many homes. For energy efficient homes and more unconventional designs it can be way off. As I mentioned in my previous post, the peak heating load was much too high.

I think PHPP may do a much better job of modeling energy use than Hot2000 and probably even Hot3000 when it reaches release version.


If you had known back then that shale gas would have been successful, what (if anything) would you have done differently?

With the ability to produce now from shale gas, North America will have a stable and inexpensive supply of natural gas for many years to come.

The biggest mistake that humanity ever made was squandering our precious gift of fossil fuels when it seemed that we had a "stable and inexpensive supply" back when Jimmy Carter asked Americans to choose a different path and got turfed because of it.

I wouldn't change a thing. Whatever respite that shale gas gives us should be used to build green infrastructure (super efficient houses and buildings), retrofit existing infrastructure, and build up renewable energy capacity. Why does there have to be a crisis for us to think ahead a few years?

Our house will be providing benefits to its inhabitants when there is no natural gas (conventional OR shale gas) left in the ground.

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