Raising the Bar in Canada

New Brunswick, Canada’s first net zero ICF home

By Vanessa Salvia
Photos by Teri-Anne Cormier

As a homeowner, would you rather pay $80 per month for heating and cooling costs or $500? Brad McLaughlin, general manager of MCL Construction Ltd. in the Quispamsis area of New Brunswick, Canada, bets that most people would choose to pay $25 if they could.

McLaughlin estimates that the three-bedroom, two-bathroom, two-story home would cost about $500 to heat and cool if it were built to minimum housing code standards rather than the Amvic ICF it’s made with. Eighty dollars may even be too high of an estimate, McLaughlin says.

The house was designed to be net zero. That means the home will produce as much energy as it would consume in a year. Energy saving assets include the use of triple-glazed windows, a low-flow velocity heat pump system, a heat pump hot-water tank and a battery that charges from the extra electricity and kicks in when there is a power outage. Forty-four solar panels provide what little energy the home does use. Usually, the home is selling power back to the grid.

The ICF home is the first of its kind in New Brunswick. But McLaughlin believes it won’t be the last. “This is obviously the direction that houses will go in the future,” he says. “If we’re going to reduce our carbon footprint this is the way we’re going to have to go.”

MCL Construction was started in 1978 and McLaughlin is the second generation to operate it. He left the family business and then returned to it six years ago, after his father had started using ICFs for basements and additions. MCL Construction had already been building R-2000 homes, a best-in-class energy rating system developed by Natural Resources Canada. An R-2000 home is 50 percent better in efficiencies than a code home.

The Quispamsis house is the province’s first net zero home to be certified by both the federal government and the Canadian Home Builders’ Association. After the Quispamsis home was built, it was on the real estate market with an asking price of $695,750. That may be a higher asking price than other homes in the neighborhood, but if the homeowner pays $25 per month (for a hookup fee they have no choice but to pay) rather than $500, that’s a savings of nearly $6,000 per year over the (long) life of the home.

“We’d been using ICFs for 10 years before building this home, putting ICFs in for either a frost wall, or the foundation or basement,” McLaughlin says. “Even though the existing home may not be as energy efficient, just by making that addition or that renovation more sustainable to return on the investment can pay off for your client pretty quick.”

McLaughlin has used other ICF systems but he uses a Canadian system called Amvic because he finds it to be a sturdy block that is also fully reversible. “If you mess up on a cut you can use that block somewhere else,” he says.

Four years ago, he built his own family home out of ICFs, “to the rafters,” he says, and decided to build this model home to help educate the community about the benefits.

“We were already building homes with tighter building envelopes, higher insulation values, smaller mechanical systems and so on,” McLaughlin says. “And because we did all our foundations out of ICFs we saw a real advantage to it. It’s really about the same size of frame for an ICF wall as it is to frame a wood wall. Your product might cost a little more but you get better insulation value.”

MCL Construction brings their customers and the general public to tour the model home. “Just to make them aware, that, you know, if you’re investing in a home invest in a home that you’re going to get a return on continuously,” he says. “This home is net zero, so it produces as much energy as it consumes in a year. By using this ICF wall that allowed me to reduce the energy consumption in that home. That’s really what it’s about . . . trying to get your building envelopes as tight as you can, massage your mechanicals appropriately, figure out based on four people how many kilowatt hours that house will consume and them you offset that.”

McLaughlin also appreciates that the use of ICF walls covers him in different ways. According to Canadian code, if you build a foundation it must be insulated to roughly R-20. By installing an R-22 ICF block that has no real thermal loss, McLaughlin can build his foundation wall and he doesn’t have to go back later and insulate it.

“It’s done,” he says. “So I basically have taken some time off my job, and labor tends to be one of the more expensive parts of a building.”

The Quispamsis home is a first step to educating New Brunswick people about the real values of ICF homes. It’s an unfamiliar technology to other builders and potential homebuyers in the area, but seeing how well the home performs is helping.

“Some are scared of it because it’s unfamiliar and maybe they don’t have the equipment to stage it,” McLaughlin explains. “And some builders are just code minimal.”

McLaughlin says “code minimal” builders are building to a code established 10 years ago, so that means a new home is already not very efficient for today’s world. But when he has the chance to explain all of the ICF’s benefits, potential homebuyers are into it.

Amvic has an R-30 block, and when the little bit of thermal loss is taken into account, it comes down to roughly R-29.4. “There’s hardly any thermal loss at all,” McLaughlin explains. “If I were to construct a wood frame wall that size and get the same effective value my walls would have to be extremely thick and then you need get a vapor barrier and you’re doubling the amount of lumber you use, which costs more. It’s a whole education process but you can show them the payback and that makes sense to them.”

Plus, the other less tangible benefits such as ICFs being quiet and strong. All that adds up to make ICF highly desirable at the end of the day.

McLaughlin installed a dashboard on the home, so that it is easy to see how much energy is being produced by the home’s solar panels and how much is being consumed. If there’s a bright sunny day and the home is producing a lot of electricity, McLaughlin says, the homeowners might understand that they can do an extra load of laundry that day. But on a low-power day, they might choose to conserve. In years past, a home’s primary energy use was through appliances. Now, it’s the occupants.

“It allows the occupants of the home to be smart because now they can decide how much energy they want to use or not,” he says. “Now appliances are so efficient that we’ve had to make the occupants smarter.”

The heat pump hot water tank is another brilliant energy-conserving choice. The Power Pipes drain water heat recovery unit recovers heat from the warm shower water as it flows down the drain. It works by using outgoing warm drain water to pre-heat incoming cold fresh water so the water heater has less work to do. This reduces the amount of energy used to heat water because this already-warmed water is returned to the hot water tank.

McLaughlin believes that homebuyers should invest a little extra more up front to get a home that returns savings over its lifetime. He recommends doing an energy analysis by looking at a code home you want to build and then seeing how the numbers change if you add more insulation on walls or increase the air tightness.

“That’s a really good process that a new home buyer should get into, and then just find the builders that do it,” he says. “At the end of the day your home is one of your biggest investments, and if it’s going to cost you a lot you’re not going to get your return out of it quick enough I don’t think. So if you invest a little bit more today in efficiencies you’re going to get a return a lot quicker and you’re way better off.”

Project Statistics

Location: Saint John, Quispamsis, New Brunswick, Canada
Size: 3,600 total square feet, with 2,300 square feet of living space
ICF system: Amvic, amvicsystem.com
Developer/Owner: Brad McLaughlin, MCL Construction Ltd., mclconstruction.ca
Drafter: Brickbuilder Designs, Graham Moore
General Contractor: MCL Construction Ltd.,
ICF Installer: MCL Construction Ltd.,
Construction time: 5 months, completed in May 2017

This article originally appeared in our November/December 207 issue.

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