By Gordon Wornoff
Creative Eye: My House Design/Build/TeamCanadian Contractor editor pick
CHBA award-winners tackle net-zero renovation in Vancouver
According to the Canadian Home Builder’s Association, the country’s most impressive net zero home is a renovated 1967 bungalow in the Oakridge area of Vancouver. My House Design/Build/Team was nominated for seven awards at the CHBA’s annual spring National Awards for Housing Excellence, and they walked away with “Best Single Room Renovation” for a project in Surrey, as well as “Best Custom or Renovated Net Zero Home” for their finespun net zero “Modern Cottage.”
The company founder, Graeme Huguet, says it’s the first net zero renovation in all Greater Vancouver and it’s certified Platinum by “Built Green,” a third-party certification body that considers energy consumption, occupant health, and conservation of building resources.
The following is an interview between Gordon Wornoff and Graeme Huguet. It has been edited and condensed.
What are some key details of this project? How did it come about?
This bungalow was owned by a senior couple in the area looking to create a living-in-place environment that would be their last major residence. They wanted a healthy, family-friendly home for their kids and grandchildren. They also wanted it to be high-performance, in terms of both energy efficiency and operating costs. They wanted to pursue the idea of net zero with renewable energy as well, so we used solar.
Tell us more about getting to net zero.
If we’re talking about west coast building, we’re talking about the BC Energy Step Code. It’s basically mandated by the province that by the year 2032 all new construction will need to meet net zero ready or Passive Certification. Many of the municipalities already have the step process in place for high-efficiency, energy efficient certifications on homes. So net zero and passive certifications have always been a priority to us as a company and they’re becoming a higher priority across the entire province.
The municipalities of Vancouver City, West Vancouver and others are using this opportunity in the Step Code to put forward their agenda, which is to make sure that projects are high performance in their wall assemblies, the mechanical systems. Vancouver is dictating carbon neutral projects – so no gas appliances or furnaces – only electrical. This is where it’s all headed.
“Modern Cottage” falls in that category – it’s in Vancouver and we rebuilt this existing home to these new construction standards. High performance has been the standard of our construction for the last 20 years. I’ve been building this way for 30 years, but the standards have only really been around for 20.
What were the challenges of getting modern high-performance standards out of a 60-year-old house?
To someone who does high performance building on a regular basis, it doesn’t matter if it’s a renovation or a new home for us. We build and rebuild so many homes to these high-performance standards and have numerous awards from national, provincial, and local levels for best high-performance. It just means you must take a holistic approach to any renovation. You can’t take an existing house and make it a high-performance house. You must holistically rebuild the house.
The first thing on any project or renovation or new home is you need a good energy advisor. That’s the person who works with your design from the very beginning.
In this case, there were no additions to the home. So, we gutted it back to the studs to get our air barrier and vapor barrier and proper insulation and built out from there. Some of the benefits the homeowner realized is this house didn’t end up in the landfill. This house was taken apart and then rebuilt in a high-efficiency manner.
What were some key pieces of technology in this project?
Building in a high-performance way means you are very deliberate with everything outside the building envelope. In other words, from drywall in is your finished product, but up to drywall is how you create a high-performance home. It’s all the things you don’t see, like what’s in the wall, how the wall is assembled. There are many different methods, many different types of insulation, whether it’s batt, it’s rigid, spray, interior, exterior, and so on. The building assembly is what allows you to accomplish what you’re looking for. That’s number one. The mechanical system is also very important. However, there are no regulations really, or building inspection on mechanical systems themselves.
We use a third-party mechanical engineering firm for design and quality control because it’s not just about how the gas or electricity was hooked up. It’s about duct sizing, it’s about the balancing of air. In this case, the homeowner has asthma, so air quality was the most important thing. Whether it was heated or cooled air, they wanted to make sure the filtration was maximized. We put in an electronic air filter, as well as ultraviolet – which does not just filter the air – it purifies the air because it kills off bacteria and mold to 0.3 microns which is smaller than pollen. So, if the windows and doors are closed, it provides an atmosphere equal to or better than most hospitals.
Once we finished insulating, we use Aerobarrier to air seal the house. It combines pressurizing the house and releasing aerosols that fill in any gaps in the building envelope. This allows us to get down to less than one air exchange per hour, creating an extremely tight envelope.
Does focusing on your client’s long-term health – in this case treating asthma – does it give you an advantage over other builders? Does it show you care more?
Absolutely. I think what it draws attention to the most is that we’re designers. We’re a design and build firm. Most designers don’t talk about these issues in the design phase and that’s exactly where it needs to be talked about. It’s too late once you’ve got a finished set of plans and a permit to talk about these types of goals.
Most designers and architects are mainly focused on what the client asks for rather than educating and communicating what options and better building practices are available to the client. Most builders are looking for speed and cost savings. We also look to be on time and on budget. But there’s a difference between speed and building towards a cost rather than an end result.
The downfall of a good build is when builders cut corners in areas that are unseen. It’s behind the drywall and the homeowner doesn’t know the difference because they haven’t been educated on what those differences are.
We do weekly webinars on different subjects for our clients. We cover healthy and energy-efficient homes. We also do one on multi-generational living which is super popular right now. We’ve recently done a house with great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and kids all living together.
When I got involved in the construction industry, I made building science the foundation of my understanding, and it should be for anyone understanding what high-performance building even means.
How big is your company? How many projects a year do you complete?
We do 25 to 50 projects a year. My wife and I are often asked what we do for a living, and we say we provide 50 families full time employment. We have full-time staff; we have full-time trades. We also supply two to 300 other part-time jobs to people in our community through sub trades, local manufacturers, and suppliers. That’s no exaggeration. We have longstanding partnerships with local companies that align with our values.
Our team is the biggest thing we have going for us. We’ve got 15 people that have been together for more than 20 years. We’ve got another 15 that have been here for 10. Having good people is one thing, but having good people for a long period of time is essential to build and adapt processes that are 100 per cent consistent. Each team member, no matter what project, can deliver a consistent product to our clients whether that’s a small, medium, large renovation — or a whole house.
Our niche is high quality renovations and custom homes. In our marketplace — in Greater Vancouver — I don’t like using the term high-end or luxury, or anything like that because that’s really based on loose visual perceptions. Imagine someone walks into a home and says, “oh this is really high end,” and they have no idea how the house was built, how energy efficient it is, what the actual quality is. So, I say high-quality, healthy homes.
Where is your company headed?
We have several other projects that stem from My House Design/Build/Team. One is a dedicated design-only company that’s just a design studio. We’re also producing our own millwork, so we have a dedicated kitchen and bath subsidiary. We are looking forward to doing more high-performance building – not just in single family residential but in smaller commercial projects and other specialty projects.
But it’s not my name on the company. This is all possible because of a great team. That’s why the company is called My House Design/Build/Team. That is the actual incorporated name and I put it that way because I’ve always found that there was no one person that made any project happen – it was a team effort. And that includes everyone on the build and behind the scenes.