Burnaby couple's home showcases future of green building

By Jennifer Moreau, Burnaby NOW

 

In the 1950s, great minds from Monsanto Chemical Company, Walt Disney Imagineering and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came up with the ultimate "Home of the Future," a wondrous and elevated cross-shaped marvel made entirely of plastics.

Millions flocked to see the (fittingly named) Monsanto House of the Future, on display at Disneyland in California. Everything in the space-age home was plastic: walls, ceilings, floors, furniture, dishes - even the clothes were polyester. When crews tried to demolish the monstrosity a decade later, legend has it the wrecking ball bounced off the plastic exterior.

If you ask Vancouver architect Chris Mattock what the house of the future looks like, he's apt to describe something more along the lines of his latest project, Les and Linda Moncrieff's new home in South Burnaby.

"Harmony House," as it's been named, is anything but plastic. The wood-frame home is mostly made of recycled and repurposed materials and low-toxicity interior finishes.

It's a demonstration house created as part of a Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation move to encourage green building practices and homes that are net-zero energy, meaning they produce as much energy as they consume. Harmony House is one of two net-zero energy homes in B.C. and 12 in Canada that are part of the CMHC project.

"The idea of the initiative is to push the building industry into the future," says Mattock, a silver-haired, bespectacled man dressed in all black. "CMHC is thinking by 2030 that all new homes will be built to the kind of standards that this home has."

 

Ambiance and features:

On a dull, winter afternoon, the immense empty living room of Harmony House is filled with a warm, orange glow from the natural light streaming through the triple-glazed windows. The floors are Douglas fir, recovered from old bridges; Mattock tried to use recycled or locally sourced materials as much as possible.

With all the glass and natural light, there's a somewhat seamless connection between inside and outside.

The view overlooks Burnaby's South Slope and the ruddy fields of Richmond across the Fraser. The home's entire orientation seems turned on its side. While the fronts of neighbouring houses all face the street, Harmony House faces south to bring in as much light, heat and energy from the sun as possible.

The 4,700-square-foot home has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, an office, a solarium and a large kitchen with an attached dining space, but because of the open design, most of the main floor feels like one giant room.

The walls are two to three times better insulated than a standard wall of the same size, the kitchen tiles are made of recycled glass-powder and clay, and rainwater is collected on the roof for use in the garden.

The lights are remote-controlled with a radio, so there are no wires running to the fixtures. (The fewer wires in the wall, the more insulation you can use.)

The appliances are highly efficient, and the home has a "green switch" so you can turn off all the unnecessary devices and lights with one flick.

The south-facing roof is covered in photovoltaic panels that absorb energy to heat water and power the home.

 

How it all started:

The Moncrieffs are an affable couple. Les is a semi-retired health-care practitioner, focusing on hypnotherapy and acupuncture.

Linda is originally from Thailand and has a job at the local Walmart. With their rental income and savings, they managed to cover the costs of building the 4,700-square foot Harmony House. The new home was built on the empty lot left in the wake of a fire that ravaged the Moncrieffs' rental home in 2005. The couple used to live there but bought a second home in New Westminster and rented out their Burnaby house. Mattock, a long-time family friend, had been selected to participate in CMHC's "Equilibrium Sustainable Housing Demonstration Initiative," a plan to design, build and showcase the next generation of green housing.

Mattock convinced the Moncrieffs to let him build their new home, and as part of the deal, CMHC threw in $60,000 to help with the design, reporting and public education costs. Construction started in August 2010, but the entire project lasted three years.

 

Can people actually afford this?

When asked how much all this cost, Linda's eyes widen.

"Really expensive," she says.

The final costs have not been tallied, so Mattock only has preliminary figures. In all, the Moncrieffs estimate they spent $900,000, while Mattock says a standard home of comparable size would cost around $800,000. Les guesses with all the companies sponsoring the project, they received about $200,000 to $300,000 in products.

Mattock says a mid-level Vancouver home would cost about $170 per square foot to build, and by comparison, Harmony House cost roughly $191 per square foot. But, Mattock points out, it's a demonstration house, so they've gone all out in terms of green features.

The photovoltaic panels alone totalled about $60,000. It costs about 25 cents per kilowatt-hour to generate your own electricity using PV panels, but if you buy energy from B.C. Hydro, it only costs nine cents per kilowatt-hour.

Mattock admits the home is probably not cost-effective for now, but as energy costs go up in the future and solar panels become cheaper, it will be more affordable to generate one's own power.

And, Mattock adds, building to a net-zero-energy-ready level will likely be the new standard, meaning future homes will need to be tightly insulated and requiring about 20 per cent of the energy a normal house uses.

"To be net-zero energy ready, the increase is eight per cent of construction costs," Mattock says.

Once the home is net zero energy ready, owners can add power-generating systems, like solar panels.

And while not everyone has enough money to build a state-of-the-art, green home from scratch, there are lessons to take away from Harmony House.

"Certainly you can take a conventional house and incorporate a lot of the technology," Mattock says.

When building a new house, the most cost-effective thing is to make it airtight, Mattock says. The second most important thing is to have a ventilation system that brings in fresh air but also captures the heat of the outgoing stale air - that way there is no lost heat.

 

THE END:

The Moncrieffs are renting a nearby home and hoping to move into Harmony House on Feb. 1. In the meantime, the house is open for public tours on weekends throughout January. To view the home, go to 7990 Joffre Ave. (not far from Marine Drive and Boundary Road) on Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. or on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Mattock hopes people at the open house will realize it's possible to have a very energy-efficient home that enjoyable to live in.

"It's also to show we can build buildings that dramatically reduce our impact on the environment," he adds.

For more on the project, go to www.harmony-house.ca.

 

SIDEBAR:

Harmony House, and all the trials and tribulations of the building process, have been caught on tape as part of a documentary project led by Sustainability Television. To check out the online version, go to www.sustainabilitytelevision.com.

 

Les and Linda Moncrieff in their new net-zero energy home in Burnaby that produces as much energy as it consumes.
 
Photograph by: Larry Wright, BURNABY NOW



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