netzero house Archives - Vancouver Architect

Step Code Five: Get Ready to Build Net-Zero Homes

Step code 5 is becoming obligatory in most municipalities in the Lower mainland.

Energy efficiency first became a part of the BC Building Code objective back in 2008. Designers’ options to comply with the requirements comprised “prescriptive” and “performance” approaches, the first being a more common choice. The specific requirements for insulation, windows, heaters, lighting, and other equipment and systems focused on individual elements rather than the whole building as a system. Such an approach led to the performance below the projected possibilities. 

In contrast to that, the “performance” approach starts from a goal. It defines the desired overall outcome and establishes a structure to achieve it. Designers and builders can use software modeling and on-site testing to check the design and demonstrate how the constructed building will meet the requirements. Then they can determine which materials or construction methods will bring optimal results. Many green-building certification programs now take this approach.

The five-step code regulation sets performance targets for new construction, grouping them into steps. The so-called Lower Steps are easy to meet, while the Upper Steps require proper knowledge and efforts. As general guidelines, these will apply across various building types and regions of the province. 

The BC Energy Step Code is meant to ensure that new buildings will perform at their best. Still, it leaves builders and homeowners more flexible options to comply with the legislation. It will support innovative and cost-effective solutions, motivating designers to incorporate cutting-edge technologies, following the progress closely. 

Expectations are that the new five-step Code will keep innovative designs, materials, and high-performance systems getting more affordable and available. The higher steps should turn to a minimum requirement by 2032 in the BC Building Code and 2030 in the National Building Code of Canada.

Vancouver architect five step code
Vancouver architect

Benefits of the Five-Step Code

In Vancouver, for instance, step 3 (lower steps) is already the minimum. But a fully efficient, net-zero level home – step 5 – is an excellent idea for a number of reasons. Besides the obvious, like downsizing bills and doing your part for environment protection, net-zero homes come with increased comfort and resale value, to mention just a few. 

Lower energy consumption reduces overall housekeeping costs and even provides protection from future increases in energy prices, up to a level. Better air quality, achieved by using mechanical ventilation and materials with lower amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), means a healthier indoor environment. 

An energy-efficient building envelope improves overall comfort by maintaining steady indoor temperatures with lower variations. It’s supported by the effective use of daylight, which further reduces your electricity bill.

Moreover, reduced energy use significantly lowers greenhouse gas emissions. Increased insulation levels also reduce sound transmission from outside. Combined with passive solar design, it prevents discomforts during power outages, maintaining stable indoor temperature levels.

Last but not least, net-zero homes feature increased resale value. They are also getting sold more quickly than conventional homes.

The Five Steps

  • STEP 1: EnerGuide Rating System, Built Green Bronze: Code requirements promote a learning process. This step makes the industry more familiar with energy modeling and airtightness testing.
  • STEP 2: Built Green Silver – Making improvements to the building systems based on lessons learned from Step 1
  • STEP 3: ENERGY STAR, Built Green Gold, and Platinum. Further improvements, developing better enclosures and potentially smaller mechanical systems
  • STEP 4: R2000 – Construction of high-performance buildings based on lessons learned from the Lower Steps and facilitated by a mature market.
  • STEP 5: Passive House, Net-Zero Energy Ready

The BC Energy Step Code defines a straightforward path to achieving net-zero energy ready buildings. It starts from the basics, the enclosure-first approach, and guides to progress by helping to minimize energy demand through the use of highly efficient mechanical equipment. 

A continuous air barrier should be considered throughout the design process, to eliminate or severely minimize air leakage. As a result, the heating and cooling demands of the space get significantly lower. Designers and builders learn in the process, including feedback from energy modeling and airtightness testing. Steps 1 -3 (lower Steps) should require little to no market transformation. 

As technology availability develops, together with growing demands for better products and more efficient systems, the capacity to improve will also increase. 

Maple ridge modern home designer
Maple ridge modern home designer

How the Five-Step Code Works

The BC Energy Step Code is a series of measurable requirements. Step 1 requires confirmation that new buildings meet the existing energy-efficiency requirements, while step 5 represents a fully energy-efficient home that is net-zero energy ready. A Step 5 home is the most energy-efficient home level achievable today, and it complies with the Passive House standard.

According to the BC Building Code, all buildings belong to the two basic categories – Part 9 and Part 3. Part 9 buildings are three-story or less with a footprint of no more than 600 square meters. This category includes single-family homes, small apartment buildings, duplexes, offices, and industrial shops. For small buildings, lower steps are achievable using construction techniques and products commonly available in today’s market.

Part 3 buildings are complex, four stories and taller, with a footprint of over 600 square meters. Those are condos, larger apartment buildings, office buildings, shopping malls, hospitals, theatres, restaurants, and more.

The regulation is fully performance-based. Therefore, it doesn’t specify the materials and strategies but rather sets measurable execution targets.

The five-step Code recognizes three categories to meet: airtightness, equipment and systems, and building enclosure. The airtightness and building enclosure metrics take the enclosure-first approach, essential for minimizing heating demand. The equipment and systems metrics then define the total energy consumption of the building to establish optimal performance.

Building Envelope

Adding more insulation to walls is easy to design, build, and maintain. While new technologies might be the first thing to come to mind when looking for an energy-efficient home, it’s a good base that will ensure their performance. 

Without excellent insulation and proper enclosure, complex technology systems will not be able to perform as expected, turning more costly to operate and maintain over time. The building envelope is not only the correct path to high energy savings but also to the improvement of overall comfort and reduced noise levels. However, making major changes to the building envelope during a renovation can be difficult and costly. Hence, it’s better and more cost-effective to insulate and make the home airtight during construction.

The minimum levels of insulation are defined by R-values by Code. The minimum effective insulation levels by the BC Building Code are between R-15.8 and R-21.9. The requirements vary based on climate conditions, region, and some accessories. The Vancouver Building Bylaw, for instance, requires R-22 effective insulation since January 1, 2015.

Determining the right amount of insulation for a high-performance house depends on several factors, including the local climate, budget, and elements specific to your building. Some studies show that the optimal range comprises R-0 to R-10 under the slab, R-24 in basement walls, R-30 to R-40 for main walls, and R-60 to R-80 in the roof. Lower values are suitable for warmer coastal climates, and the higher ones apply to colder interiors and northern regions of the province.

north vancouver architects five steps code
north vancouver architects

Airtightness Testing

Airtightness testing of the building as a whole is an absolute necessity in all steps of the BC Energy Step Code. Whole-building airtightness testing utilizes blower door fans to pressurize/depressurize the building. This includes fan airflow and the pressure difference across the enclosure. The results of testing determine the overall building airtightness characteristics. 

Building airtightness is an energy model input, both at the pre-construction stage and after building completion. The steps for airtightness vary regarding the building type and size, as well as the testing standard used. Airtightness testing should be conducted by an Energy Advisor or other qualified contractor.

Mechanical Equipment and Systems

The mechanical equipment and systems have an enormous impact on the building’s energy efficiency, directly impacting overall energy consumption. The required capacity varies with the performance of the enclosure and vice versa. Heating and cooling, ventilation, water-heating systems are all part of the metrics essential for achieving net-zero levels as Step 5 of the Code. 

Backyard renovation or building a new home, financing your construction project

Five-Step Code Is the Future

The BC Energy Step Code is a result of a desire to manage a consistent set of higher-efficiency standards for the building industry. It offers local governments a simple and effective set of guiding standards to meet energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions targets.

Over the coming years, the Province of British Columbia will gradually align the base BC Building Code with the BC Energy Step Code standard, with the goal to make Lower Steps a standard practice for all new construction. 

The Energy Step Code Council encourages local governments by requiring the Upper Steps for any upcoming public-building project. These buildings are meant to serve as high-profile case studies. By referencing one or more steps of the standard, you are doing more for yourself and the community than just accessing co-benefits. It is a contribution to a growing effort to dramatically reduce energy demands across the country. 

By Aryo Falakrou (My Home Designer)

What Is A Passive House?

What Is A Passive House?

Why and How Can We Build One?

  1. Introduction to a Passive House
  2. The parties who need to be involved in the process?
  3. What incentives can a homeowner receive from municipalities? 
  4. The Passive House design-build process.
  5. Passive House costs
  6. Passive House Certification
  7. Net Zero Homes
  8. Passive House renovations

1- Introduction To Passive House

vancouver Passive house
vancouver Passive house

The Passive House movement started in Germany and is currently spreading all around the world because it offers builders and homeowners a chance to reduce their carbon footprint while saving energy.  

A Passive House is a building constructed to certain standards and details in order to minimize the building’s energy consumption and its dependency on outsourced energies like hydro or gas. The building can be an apartment building, an institutional building, a commercial building or a single-family house. 

There are many programs that lay out standards to construct better and more energy efficient buildings. These include Leed, Built Green, r2000 and Net Zero. Many use rating systems or standards that rate the material source, construction practices and recycling methods. Some of the standards set by these programs are similar. Generally, a Passive House concentrates specifically on a building’s performance including: airtightness, indoor air quality, thermal bridges and insulation values within the building. 

If a designer and a contractor follow the required standards, the building will ultimately need to show proof of performance during and after construction which will entail several stages of examination before the building can achieve a Passive House Certification. 

In a nutshell, anyone interested in saving on their energy bill while they reduce their carbon footprint can choose to build a Passive House or do a passive home renovation. It might look more costly at the beginning but the investment pays of in no time. 

2- Parties Who Need To Be Involved In The Process

When a developer or a homeowner decides to build a Passive House, first he or she needs to discuss the options with a home designer/architect who has some familiarity with Passive House. 

In a normal building the designer/architect can take the lead on the design process and hand the final permit drawing which includes the structural drawings to the homeowner/developer to call for tender, but in Passive House there should be co-ordinations between the designer/architect, contractor and city staff and all other consultants from the beginning. 

The following is the list of the parties who are involved: 

1- Designer/Architect who is familiar with the process and knows how to deal with other parties

2- Energy Modeler (Sometimes the Designer can do this part, sometimes not. Some Designers prefer to leave this part to a third party) 

3- Passive House Certifier. This person cannot be the same as Energy Modeler. 

4- Building Envelope Consultant. In some cases a Building Envelope Consultant needed to approve the details of the exterior walls.

5- A Structural Engineer who has some knowledge on Passive House and modern framing. It is important to have this knowledge, as the structural elements are a key point in avoiding thermal bridges.

6- Energy Auditor (advisor) to determine the building performance. 

Most of municipalities require this stage for new homes. For a Passive House this stage will be more comprehensive.

In addition, the following consultants are required for any constructions regardless of whether it is a Passive House or not. These include: a Survey engineer, a geotechnical engineer, and a landscape designer.

3- What Incentives Can A Homeowner Receive From Municipalities?

In the City of Vancouver a standard thirty-three foot size lot has a certain maximum floor area depends on where it is located and the zoning in that area. Many lots are narrow and by adding the side setbacks to the equation the remaining width might be too limited. 

In a Passive House the thickness of the exterior walls and roof will be increased due to the amount of insulation required to meet a Passive House standard requirement. The City of Vancouver has established a specific department within the Development Department to deal with these issues and will allow some relaxations to the zoning. The

North Shore municipalities on the other hand have their own unique approach and projects needed to be discussed on a case-by-case basis, as there are many different requirements.

BC Hydro and Fortis BC have a rebate program for Energy Star appliances and all appliances in a Passive House should be energy star. 

Insulation for passive house
Insulation for passive house

4- The Passive House Design-Build Process

There are two stages to consider: 

  • Pre-construction Stage.
  • Construction Stage.

A- Pre-construction. 

The idea to build a Passive House could be generated by a well-informed homeowner, developer or builder, or in many cases by a designer/architect. 

Regardless of who starts the conversation be sure your designer has the required knowledge to be able to design a Passive House.  There are set work frames and standards that must be designed into the Passive Home. Once the client has approved an initial concept, the design will need to move into the modeling stage to make sure it meets the necessary requirements of a Passive House. Co-ordinations between the designer and municipal staff need to take place, so the modeling design maybe tweaked to meet building requirements.

During the concept approval stage, the designer may start conversations with a builder who is familiar with Passive House construction and details. After the building details are discussed and approved the modeling of the project can be finalized. 

At this point all construction details need to be discussed, reviewed and perhaps revised by a knowledgeable structural engineer in order to avoid any thermal bridging. 

Finally, the designer and builder need to co-ordinate construction details making sure all materials will be available when the construction starts.

B- Construction Stage

After the building permit is issued and the utilities lines are located and the builder is ready to set their work, an initial site meeting between the consultants, contractors and the client is necessary to make sure everyone is on the same page and everyone understands each other’s role and responsibilities. 

In this meeting the builder can present his or her expected schedule so that each consultant and sub-contractor know their timelines and expected inspections. 

It is a good idea to schedule another meeting after the excavation is done and make a mockup of the wall and roof assembly so each and every trade knows the exact requirements, timeline and details of the project. Assuming everyone knows this can cause many problems down the road.

After the framing is done, the designer or Energy Advisor will inspect the framing to minimize thermal bridging in the framing. If there is an issue now will be the time to explore alternative solutions.

After the insulation and vapour barrier is installed the energy advisor will have to do a door blow test to determine the airtightness of the building. If the building is large or has multi stories tests can be done in multiple stages.

Any deficiencies have to be taken care of at this stage to make sure the building has the desire airtightness. If desired, the designer can request more testing prior to the drywall installation. 

After the drywall installation, all cabinets, mirrors and other finishings a second air blow test should be performed. 

At this stage the Passive House Certifier would need the reports and documentation to start the certification process. The designer or the modeler can help facilitate this step. 

The rest of building inspections related to final occupancy will be the same as any other buildings. 

Passive house builder
Passive house builder

5- Passive House Costs

Even though many people might think building a high performance house will be very costly the reality is it is not. Of course any higher quality product requires more upfront investment. But if you think about the house as a long term investment the Passive House will ultimately require less maintenance and less energy to operate and will therefore require less money in the long run.

Here are some rough approximations of costs you can expect.

  • Starting from pre-construction the cost of the designer and structural engineer will be fifteen percent over a regular house. 
  • The modeling, inspections, door blow tests, and certification will cost minimum of fifteen thousand (check with your designer).
  • During construction the extra material won’t be a huge cost but the trained labor to be able to build it will be more than regular construction. 
  • There are savings on heating and cooling system. The Hrv unit used in a Passive House is more costly than in a regular house but the heating system is way less costly.
  • The windows and exterior doors will be fifteen to twenty per cent more. 

Overall, the upfront cost of building a Passive House can be as little as fifteen percent above average construction prices. Think of it like buying an electric car, you pay more up front, but you save on monthly gasoline and maintenance charges.

If someone has a limited budget and wishes to build a Passive House, they can reduce the cost of their home’s finishing budget in order to recoup the cost of building a high performance Passive House. 

Energy saving homes
Energy saving homes

6- Passive House Certification. Why Certify?

The global certifying body for Passive Houses is located in Germany. But there are several identities in Canada who can do the certification of your house.

The designer/architect should take the lead and gather all the reports and documents to pass to the certifier so they have everything they need to issue the certification. 

Once a building is certified, the owner will receive a plaque to proudly hang on the wall.

The honour of hanging this plaque is almost like showcasing your Olympic gold medal to your friends, family or the public. It’s an honour to show the achievement the developer and all the team has accomplished. 

By doing so, the building will be register on the world wide directory of Passive Houses. 

Anyone who is thoughtful about:

  • Their investment
  • The environment
  • And the well being of the building’s occupants

will want to consider the advantages of building a Passive House as its high quality design delivers on all fronts.

7- Net Zero House

A Passive House has three different classes:

  • Standard or Classic,
  • Plus and
  • Premium.

The class a Passive House gets is determined by the dependency of the building on a power grid. A Premium Passive House will have no dependency on a power grid and will be self sufficient for all its energy consumption. 

The Premium Passive House is often referred to within the construction industry as a Net Zero building. Not all Net Zero buildings are Passive Houses as a less efficient building can be Net Zero as well. 

The difference is the energy production in a non-Passive House building needs to be higher to recover the energy loss of the building. Remember what makes a Passive House unique is that the overall energy loss in a Passive House is minimized so the occupants need less energy to keep the building running. If someone wants to have a Net Zero Passive House the cost of the energy production will be less as well. 

8-Passive House Renovations

It is possible to turn an existing building into a Passive House. A program called EnterPHit exists for retrofit projects and refurbishing components of an existing building.

These renovation projects have to go through the same steps as a new construction except it is often much more difficult because the existing foundation and wall insulation all has to be upgraded to meet the Passive House standards. In addition, to eliminate the thermal bridging, windows and exterior doors have to be replaced and the building modeling should make sure the building will perform after final inspection.

If you have questions please forward them to: Home Designer:

Aryo Falakrou at the following email: info@myhomedesigner.com

For more information on Passive Houses visit: passivehousecanada.com

For a free consult on building a Passive House or a Passive commercial building please give me a call: Aryo Falakrou at:

604-929-6696.