SUSTAINABLE BUILDING STANDARDS
Updated: Sep 5
Early on in our decision making process, it was clear that we wanted a comfortable and energy efficient house and this led us to the Passive House standard very quickly.
But how does a Passive House stack up against other programs? How do you even determine an energy efficient house? What is the best path to follow? What are the most popular programs? And which program might provide us with good resale value down the road?
Our search into energy efficiency programs uncovered quite a few standards and programs. To be honest, it is confusing. We have struggled to understand it all. So, let’s see if we can provide some clarity and create an overview that may serve you in guiding your next decisions.
Alright, let’s do this…
So how does it all stack up?
Looking at the promoted energy efficiency of each program outlined in summary form below, we have mapped them out against one another, and here is what it looks like:
NOTE: This is not a scientific comparison. Unfortunately, specifications and requirements differ and even inside of a program, there may be multiple ways to comply with the requirements. On the engineering side, one could model a house and implement measures from each program to evaluate the energy rating in a tool, but unfortunately that goes beyond the capacity of our blog and it would still not reflect actual values. Please treat this a general guide to get you in the ballpark and provide you with an overview.
Looking at the total energy balance (energy consumption and energy generation), a net zero home or a house certified as Living Building are the best options. In order to get to such a balance, a house needs to first be very energy efficient to begin with, i.e. it needs to use as little energy a possible so that there is a low need for energy generation. A Passive House does exactly that; it uses up to 90% less energy. And a Passive House can easily become a net zero house when adding renewable energy sources to provide the low energy required.
As an official government program, R-2000 is the best option and it while it does not provide the same energy efficiency as some of the other programs, it does come with other added environmental benefits.
LEED is a good program, but certification is complicated, and energy efficiency is not necessarily a primary focus. It may be best suited for larger commercial and public buildings rather than single family homes.
The most comprehensive, forward looking and inclusive program is the Living Building Challenge.
Its drawback right now is the limited awareness, knowledge and builder’s expertise of the program and how to achieve all the requirements. We like this program for its overall sustainability and ambition for societal change.
Overall, we wish there was better transparency and comparison between the different programs and certification.
For our own home build, we are happy to proceed with the Passive House standard as it is very energy efficient, can be upgraded in future with renewable energy and provides the added benefits of home comfort and financial savvy.
In terms of marketability, we are debating on getting an EnerGuide evaluation completed as well.
How did we come to this overview and our conclusions?
Well, we did a lot of research into the different programs. To share some of our findings, link the respective websites and guide your energy efficiency journey, we have summarized all the references below. We have listed them as follows:
First, we discuss government managed programs and regulations, that is building code, EnerGuide, Energy Star, R-2000 and the 2030 Challenge.
Secondly, we mention privately managed programs that are most relevant, including Net Zero Energy (Ready), LEED, Passive House and the Living Building Challenge.
Finally, we list out other regional programs and programs not directly focused on energy efficiency.
The Government of Canada issues model codes for the Provinces to adopt and revise, including provisions for energy efficiency. The Ontario Building Code includes a Supplementary Standard SB-12 which allows builders multiple avenues to comply and it refers to an older version of the EnerGuide rating system for energy efficiency (more on that in a moment).
Most builders choose a cost-effective prescribed design package for their projects to meet the standard, which is not likely the most energy efficient. There are no mandatory compliance requirements, test mechanisms or recorded energy performance scores. Energy ratings do not need to be published or disclosed.
Due to the voluntary testing, rating and disclosure, you most likely won’t know the energy efficiency when buying a new home. So really, what are you getting?
The primary focus of any building code is safety, not energy efficiency.
Public regulations such as the building code will always lag behind because they take the longest to get developed and adopted over time. Industry, private and voluntary programs will always be ahead and legal if they comply with minimum code requirements.
In a fast-paced real estate market like Ontario, especially around the Greater Toronto Area, the current code requirements favor the construction industry where the general focus is on property development, bringing residential units to the market and providing job opportunities.
On a positive and hopeful note, there is a proposal by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks stating in their 2018 proposal for “A Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan” that there is intent to “work with the Ontario Real Estate Association to encourage the voluntary display of home energy efficiency information on real estate listings to better inform buyers and encourage energy-efficiency measures.”
Amongst all Canadian Provinces, Ontario ranks third in the latest 2019 Provincial Energy Efficiency Scorecard released by Efficiency Canada, see their link at the bottom.
This rating scale includes a label of the energy efficiency score and is issued by Natural Resources Canada. It intends to provide a unified rating system that displays a home’s energy consumption and the associated efficiency rating.
EnerGuide rating is measured in Gigajoule (GJ) consumption per year, sort of like the liter per 100km of gas your car uses. In this system, the lower the number on the scale, the better. As you will see on the label, a typical new house is rating at a score of 109 GJ/year.
Evaluation is voluntary, but there are builders who offer this rating as part of a new construction project, or you can get an evaluation done later.
This system does not give you a certification of energy efficiency to a certain standard, but instead gives you a rating, so you have an overall indication where your home falls when it comes to the evaluated consumption. But it’s up to you to interpret what energy efficient really means.
Energy Star was adopted in Canada from the USA and is managed by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). The main goal is for a home to be 20% more efficient than the local building code in terms of space and water heating. This is supposed to be achieved with upgraded windows and doors, better insulation, certain targets for air tightness and energy efficient appliances and lighting.
Energy Star is a voluntary program for new homes and certification can be achieved via prescribed design methods or actual testing through an energy simulation carried out by a private service organization or energy advisor.
Both Energy Star and EnerGuide are mass marketed systems and can be seen in conjunction of each other. Most people will be familiar with seeing the labels on appliances or windows, often together. When it comes to homes, neither rating is very common yet, but again, they are actively being promoted by government and industry.
This is a voluntary standard published and managed by NRCan aimed at 50% energy efficiency over the current building code. It is more innovative and driven towards new technology adoption. R-2000 is based on similar principles as Passive House like air tightness, ventilation systems and insulation (the name being derived from R-value of insulation…), but also includes water conservation. Under this standard, your home will still have heating and air conditioning, albeit with a focus to use generally more efficient equipment than a usual home.
Under this program, the builder must be trained, and evaluation happens through a 3rd party inspector.
The 2030 Challenge
Initially developed in the US and known under Architecture 2030, this non-profit organization promotes that all new buildings be designed to be carbon-neutral by the year 2030 (including 100% energy efficiency or net zero energy balance). The original idea is to make homes very efficient and combine them with renewable energy sources.
In Canada, the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change agreed to a net zero energy ready model building code by 2030. This just means that buildings are to be energy efficient and ready to take on renewable energy from sources on the same property, in the same community or from a “clean” power grid. It also means that the federal model code will slowly migrate to this concept, with provincial building codes to follow suit.
Net Zero Energy (Ready)
Net Zero Energy buildings (or ZEB, zero energy buildings) essentially means that the house produces at least the same amount of energy as it consumes. This is best achieved by having a building that consumes very little energy, i.e. it is very energy efficient, and uses a form of renewable energy generation. Net zero energy ready simply means that by adding renewable energy sources later, the building can achieve a full net zero energy balance in future.
The Canadian Home Builder’s Association (CHBA) introduced a formal program in 2017 that includes a 100% net zero certification or a net zero ready certification. As per their standards, net zero energy ready is a building achieving 80% energy efficiency over the current building code standards. To achieve these levels of energy efficiency, the Net Zero Home principles are essentially the same as the Passive House principles.
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is a program first introduced in the USA and managed in Canada by the Canada Green Building Council. LEED is more comprehensive when it comes to environmental factors of a building and energy efficiency is just one of the factors. There are four certification levels (certified, silver, gold and platinum) and the level depends on a points rating in eight different categories for homes: Innovation & Design, Location & Linkages, Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy & Atmosphere, Materials & Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, Awareness & Education.
When it comes to energy efficiency, LEED ratings are measured based on a design model of the actual building versus a baseline building. On average, energy efficiency is modelled between 20% to 30% better than a standard or baseline building. A downfall of this model is that it does not measure the actual energy performance during or after construction and that building owners may not actually experience the calculated savings.
LEED is probably the best-known program when it comes to environmental factors of a building. While LEED for Homes is a more recent certification, LEED istelf is most common in larger commercial and public buildings, especially in office buildings.
For an explanation of a Passive House, please visit our blog post “What is a Passive House”. For energy efficiency, Passive House aims at a 90% energy efficiency over a regular building. Certifications are issued by the Passive House Institute.
In 2015, Passive House Classes were introduced (classic, plus and premium) to recognize even better energy efficiency of the house and renewable energy being produced on site. Passive Houses with renewable energy generation may produce significantly more energy than their primary energy demand and thus also classify as Net Zero Energy buildings.
The Living Building Challenge
The Living Building Challenge by the International Living Future Institute does not aim at the reduced impact of a building but making a positive impact. This goes beyond energy efficiency and into many other aspects of a building. The certification program consists of seven “petals” or categories: Place, water, energy, health & happiness, materials, equity and beauty. To achieve the certified status, buildings are audited against actual performance after at least 12 months of building operation.
The organization offers multiple different certification models, from the Living Building Challenge to Core Green Building, Zero Energy, Zero Carbon or individual petal certifications.
For energy efficiency, the program declares the imperative of the building needing a net positive energy balance of producing 105% of its energy need by renewables on site not using combustion. This is looking at the total energy demand not just the need for primary energy used in heating, cooling or ventilation.
The Others (regional and alternate programs)
To round out the picture, we also like to mention other programs that we feel may not be as present in Toronto or as immediately focused on energy efficiency.
BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) looks at the overall sustainability of buildings. Its categories evaluate energy and water use, health and wellbeing, pollution, transport, materials, waste, ecology and management processes. Buildings are rated and certified on a scale of 'Pass', 'Good', 'Very Good', 'Excellent' and 'Outstanding'.
This program is based in the UK and while it gets referred to frequently, we feel that it is not well adopted in Canada and some of its requirements have been surpassed by other systems at this stage, making its future relevance questionable.
Initiated by Velux, the window maker, the International Active House Alliance is an association of businesses and researches promoting the Active House concept, which is based on 3 key principles: Comfort, Energy and Environment. The program’s focus is more on the living experience and comfort inside the home rather than energy efficiency.
Since the program is initiated and coordinated by many building component businesses, we feel there is a bias towards certain products by the organizations involved instead of really focusing on the benefits. However, this organization comes with the marketing power of the businesses backing it.
Managed by the Green Building Initiative, this is a US and Canadian program with several certification levels, but mostly focused on commercial and public buildings rather than residential buildings / single family homes.
This is a non-profit organization that is based in Western Canada. We feel it is not currently relevant in Ontario and there is overlap with other programs. The program includes 4 certification levels modeled after EnerGuide ratings.
WELL Building Institute
The WELL Building Standard promotes requirements and measurements for buildings, interior spaces and communities that supporting human health and wellness. It is comprised of 11 areas, including air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, community and innovations. Energy efficiency is not part or priority of this standard.
RESET is a building certification which places focus on the comfort and health of the building’s occupants, focusing on indoor air quality. Unlike LEED and WELL's indoor air quality testing, which is completed in one day, RESET relies on data gathered over three months from real-time sensors and monitors in order to be certified. This program is based on a Chinese company that is promoting the air quality sensors and it’s probably best suited for marketing the air quality in buildings where there is pollution.
Regional programs promoting energy efficiency:
As a homeowner or future home builder, you may also select a program from another region that is not as present in Canada. As long as you can comply with the building code, these programs are fair game and you can also benefit from their certification:
Green Star from Australia
Nordic Swan and Miljöbyggnad from Scandinavia
DGNB from Germany
HQE from France