The climate crisis is considered by many to be the world’s biggest existential problem. In Canada, buildings are a major producer of greenhouse gases.
Some Calgarians are taking the lead in building homes that are not connected to natural gas lines. Residents of the EchoHaven in the city’s northwest are working together to inspire others to create a more sustainable lifestyle.
Most standard homes in Calgary and surrounding areas use natural gas to heat their homes. This is not the case for the EchoHaven, a community of 25 homes.
The EchoHaven has no natural gas lines in sight and each home is run from the electric grid, in turn creating zero carbon emissions.
The inside of an EchoHaven home looks like a scene from a year-3000 movie. Solar panels are placed on the fronts and tops of each house and each home is constructed from recycled materials. Its residents all work together to create a carbon-neutral lifestyle.
But this sustainability comes at a price. These homes cost 12 to 15 per cent more than what a homebuyer would typically spend.
With a desire to use renewable energy sources, these homeowners have turned to solar panels to run their homes, which they typically report have lower utility costs. However, the initial investment is more costly.
These are not the only issues that lay ahead of the home buyer. People are required to manage their own home project and get into contact with the city to get the required permits, which can take a lot of time. That red tape won’t stop the homeowners interviewed for this article from being committed to lowering their carbon footprint.
‘We did this to be a positive example for her…’
Jaime Turner and his wife Briea Turner have started their new chapter in the EchoHaven – one that will help to show their nine-year-old daughter Charlotte the importance of sustainability and help combat the climate crisis.
They decided to make a change and built a more sustainable home made from recycled shipping containers in late 2019, early 2020 in the EchoHaven.
“We did this to be a positive example for her and to hopefully inspire others to ‘think outside of the box,’ or in our case, ‘inside the box,’” Jaime says. “And to help others to find the courage to pursue projects like ours.”
The community is currently home to 23 families and is one of the most unique neighbourhoods to be established in Calgary. Not only does it run from the electric grid, but to keep it more natural, minimal trees were also removed and only small spots of the ground were leveled. It is likely that when you visit the EchoHaven, you will see deer, birds, moose or other animals.
Breaking new ground
Dave Spencer, an architect and one of the founders of and a resident in the EchoHaven, came together with four other families with similar interests regarding sustainable living and decided to buy a piece of land in northwest Calgary in 2001. This land has now been built on and lots have been sold to 23 other families, with two empty lots remaining.
This new way of living was not popular in the early 2000s which led to a lot of delays and extra processes.
“It took us nine years, I think we set a record for getting approvals from the City of Calgary because they didn’t know what to do with us,” Spencer says. “ I mean, it was just completely off the map, so we had a lot of work to get to set that stage.”
This was in the early 2000’s when this style of home was not yet popular in the market. Now that time has passed people are now able to access permits more easily through the City of Calgary.
Brian Taylor, another founder of the EchoHaven, says that the creation of this new way of life in the city of Calgary was truly an educational process for everyone, which led to resistance.
“Anything unusual or different took months of extra time to get building permits, and that’s still true today,” he says. “Quite often, we have extra costs to get engineers to show that this is a viable way of doing things.”
Despite these setbacks, only two empty lots remain for new homes to be built on.
With the need to find new renewable energy sources, the community’s homeowners have turned to solar panels to run their homes, which typically have a larger investment value upfront.
Gursh Bal and founding partner Kai Fahrion started Zeno Renewables, a solar panel installation company in April 2015.
“Because we have all these abundant resources both on the social side of things as well as natural resources, we have a responsibility as human beings to use those resources responsibly,” Bal says. “So that’s where our vision comes from, is making sure that we use the resources that we have in a manner that is responsible so that we can so that we can increase the viability of humanity.”
Zeno Renewables helped the Turner family with implementing the necessary solar panels on their home to help reach their goals of cutting down on energy consumption.
The average solar installation on a home costs around $18,000 with a 25-year minimum warranty.
Before living in the EchoHaven, Jaime Turner was interested in shifting to a more minimalist lifestyle and focusing on sustainability.
“I’ve always been into technology, innovation, so electric cars and green homes called to me,” he says. “I started to see more unconventional builds appearing in blogs and stories online and one day while on Facebook in early 2018, I saw an ad for a company out of Edmonton advertising modern shipping container homes — I messaged them and as they say, the rest is history.”
This new way of life is exciting for the owners in this area as they work together to reach their sustainability goals.
“What also surprised us was just how cool our forever home turned out,” Turner says. “How well it’s performing for us overall and how cool it is to live in EchoHaven with other like-minded people.”
Making net-zero living a reality
Amelie Caron, the founder of Ecosynergy, a homebuilding and renovation consulting team that works on creating customized plans for efficient homes, has worked alongside Turner and his family to help reach their goals. Caron is an Architect Technologist who entered the realm of energy-efficient homes in the early 2000s after meeting an energy mentor.
“I drank the Kool-Aid full on, I worked with him for about two-and-a-half years and then I left to just get more experience,” she says.
After re-establishing herself, Caron continued to expand her knowledge in this space and went to Danube University in Austria to complete her master’s degree in building science.
Now back in Calgary, she has been working in numerous neighbourhoods, including the EchoHaven, to help people meet their energy goals. Caron helped the Turner family to assess if their home was airtight, had enough solar panels for their energy needs, heating and cooling regulation systems and more.
The Turner family has now offset their energy consumption by 65 per cent. Slowly working toward meeting their goal of net-zero, the Turners outsourced an energy advisor and met Caron.
“So the mathematical definition [of net zero] is really a house that will generate the same amount of energy as it uses,” Caron says. “Carbon neutral is the one that you cannot have fossil fuels, meaning you have to generate everything with renewable energy.”
This is also explained in the Handbook of Efficient Energy. “A Life-Cycle Zero Energy Building is a building where the primary energy used during operation and the energy embodied within its constituent materials and systems, including energy generating ones, over the life of the building are equal to, or less than, the energy produced by its renewable energy systems, writes authors Delia D’Agostino and Livio Mazzarella.
Dave Spencer and his partner are fully net-zero and say that the transition to renewable energy has saved them money every year.
“Last year we made $125 in credit in addition to paying nothing for electricity,” he says. “60 per cent of our heating is from passive solar and the rest is electrical radiant heating in the house — so we have no natural gas connection whatsoever, which saves $500 a year.”
Costs of energy efficiency
Normand Mousseau is a theoretical physicist whose research includes numerous different areas closely related to physics, complex materials and natural resources. His interest has always been in the climate crisis which led him to study gas issues, energy issues and shale.
“The idea was that there was no energy crisis in the sense that access to energy is not a problem,” Mousseau says. “The problem is access to clean energy in some way, and a bit of the problem is the cost.”
With the low availability of net-zero builds in Calgary, many have stuck with traditional builds due to lot availability, available supplies and cost. One challenge is that people are unable to buy a lot in a new subdivision to build their own house and are required to buy from a developer who has their own builders.
“So it’s getting to be really difficult to build your own and you end up having to find a builder that knows how to build these things,” Taylor says. “But those are relatively uncommon because those builders are used to doing things a certain way that they have done for decades and often have resistance to change.”
On average, the cost to build a more self-sufficient home is higher than a traditional home due to the required items like solar panels, heat pumps, and ventilation systems for an airtight space.
“If you just want to hit the energy targets, if it is a new home, it costs eight to 12 per cent depending on how you want to do it,” Caron says. “For an existing home, our case study we are building now we are looking at 15 per cent capital.”
Supports are available
Despite the capital increase, Turner and his family want others to know that the solutions are there.
The Government of Canada is finding ways to help Canadians so the future can be more green.
The Canada Greener Homes Grant is providing grants of up to $5,000 for home evaluations to help start the process with building a new home, or updating your current home to become more efficient.
Currently in Canada, over 700,000 individuals qualify for this program.
With more and more opportunities being created to help reach the 2050 net-zero plan in Canada and the demand increasing for more sustainable homes, the increase of homes similar to those in the EchoHaven may come sooner than many may think.
This new way of life shown to be possible by the Turners and the others in his neighbourhood could inspire change in Alberta.
If you are concerned about the future, climate change and the transition from oil, the best thing you can do is to stop contributing, say sources interviewed for this story.
“Build a net-zero home or a passive house and you will feel really good about it,” Spencer says. “Because now you are in that country, you’re reducing the impact of your carbon footprint and reducing the impact on the environment, you are contributing to the environment and contributing to your welfare and healthier family.”
The comfort of these homes has changed the way people live both physically and mentally, as they know they are doing their part for the environment.
Corrections: A previous version of this story misspelled EchoHaven. The story has also been updated to reflect the current name of Zeno Renewables, which recently rebranded.