Retro Reductions: Project offered as template to cut consumption

Deep energy reduction, they call it, so deep in some cases that bills flutter out the window and return, almost magically, as cheques.

Lorraine Gauthier doesn't have to imagine this as a utopian
vision. As president and manager of the Now House Project, she's championing the cause, turning old, inefficient homes into near-zero, net-zero energy consumers or even energy producers.

"We're not builders or renovators," said the design consultant. "It's the idea. We look for more opportunities to do public projects."

And there's no magic in what she does. Gauthier spoke last week at a sustainable building
forum in Kamloops, spreading wisdom about cutting energy consumption and costs through retrofitting.

Worldwide, buildings represent the biggest opportunity to save energy, by a long shot, she noted. Almost half of the country's greenhouse gases come from buildings.

Yet new-builds represent only a small portion of energy-saving potential: two-thirds of the houses that will be in use in 2050 are already built.

In 2006, when CMHC invited designs from across the country for its Equilibrium Sustainable Housing

Demonstration (a Sun Rivers training-house project was part of the second round two years later), Gauthier and her partner, Alex Quinto, saw a prime opportunity.

"We were one of 12 teams across Canada given a chance to go ahead with a project."

They saw in the little 1½-storey wartime bungalows - hammered out across the country to meet the needs of returning war veterans in the 1940s - a template for energy retrofitting in the 21st century.

Scores of such houses are found around Kamloops, built along modest lines but to lasting standards. Yet they are far from efficient.

"This was an opportunity to do a million across the continent because there's that many still standing."

There is a vast amount of material available for retrofitting older homes, so much that people can be overwhelmed, Gauthier said. Open houses held by Now House seemed to support the observation.

"It was pretty expensive and people and average homeowners would be reluctant to take on the costs."

There is strength in numbers, they learned. After their first project in Toronto, they took on five houses belonging to a community housing agency in Windsor, Ont. This allowed them to test various approaches.

"What that showed us was the economy of scale," she explained. "We went on to do 95 houses in the City of

Windsor because we found out it was cost-effective in the first five."

Those first five were a success beyond their ambitions. The project drew interest and awards nationally and internationally. Windsor, which had seen a lot of plant closures, was buoyed.

"It cheered up the community. Everybody loved these houses."

Completed in 2010, the Now House Windsor 5 project was recognized for achieving close to net-zero energy use. Net-zero homes produce as much energy as they produce on an annual basis.

They focus on four areas: building envelope, appliances, lighting and mechanical systems. From their first house onward, they embraced the wisdom of KIS - keep it simple.

"As unsung as insulation is, it remains the crÈme de la crÈme," she said. "If you're trying to reduce energy use, you start there."

With solar panels, it becomes possible for homes to produce more energy than they consume. These fortunate few receive payment from Ontario Hydro. Here in B.C., hydro credits homeowners when they send energy back into the grid.

Beyond insulation, the Now House Project looks for passive changes that can bring about surprising savings.

Upgrading and enlarging south-facing windows, for example, brings in more light for less electrical consumption and extra thermal energy in winter.

She looks ahead to future advances in technology that will make retrofitting old homes cheaper and more cost-effective: "nanotechnology" offering super-insulation with just a thin film, or paints that could achieve the same effect.

In Maple Ridge last week, she met with the community to determine whether a project can take root there. "If

I can help move a community along, it's going to help break the logjam."

Costs go down and efficiency goes up as the project takes on more houses. Contractors can develop assembly-line processes.

"I think that's what a community-style project could do - break those barriers down. That's where Now House is going."

"What if communities got together? What if groups of neighbours got together? There's no question it's going to be more difficult, but that's the challenge going forward."

The project has encountered its share of challenges already, something akin to herding cats. Different contractors have different approaches to retrofitting and not everyone's thinking on the same page.

"That's not too helpful to move the program along. I think it's changing because here I am speaking at a green energy conference," she added.

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