Jan 09, 2024

There’s a lot of green ideas working in this big blue house

Perched on the bank of Ottawa’s Rideau River is a special house, designed with climate in mind.

Outfitted with solar panels, an air source heat pump and electric boiler and furnace, Ottawa resident Bruce Fanjoy’s house is about as close to net zero as you can get.

“We're producing roughly the equivalent amount of energy that the house requires,” Fanjoy told Canada’s National Observer. “The solar array that we have is basically sized for the house.”

During the bright spring and summer months, the solar setup generates excess energy, which is automatically sold back to the utility company in exchange for credits. Fanjoy and his wife use those credits for winter electricity when solar energy production is low.

They have an air source heat pump — which functions like air conditioning and keeps the house pleasantly cool through Ontario’s humid summers — hooked up to an electric furnace in the basement. The heat pump “will function effectively to about -20 C, which takes care of most of the winter,” said Fanjoy. But sometimes Ottawa sees even lower temperatures: last winter, the Ottawa airport recorded seven days that hit -20 C or colder.

When the temperature dips below -20 C, the heat pump is no longer efficient “and the electric furnace just takes over,” said Fanjoy. “It's automatic and we don't notice any difference. The house feels the same. It's always a very comfortable temperature.”

But the house’s energy generation and consumption are only a piece of its nearly non-emitting equation.

Every design element is intentional. The big blue house is positioned to best take advantage of the sun, with the roof angled so the 33 solar panels have maximum exposure. The size and position of the home’s triple-paned windows were selected so the sun’s rays could stream in and passively heat the house during winter.

In November 2019, Fanjoy began construction of the home, dubbed the Millview House, using the internationally recognized Passive House standard as a guide. This sustainable construction concept creates buildings that consume up to 90 per cent less heating and cooling energy than conventional buildings. Although the couple’s home doesn’t have official Passive House certification, Fanjoy abided by the vast majority of its principles. The main exception? A wood stove they wanted for its usefulness in the event of power outages.

Things like how to position a house may seem obvious, but people and companies often don’t take the sun into account when they build homes, said Fanjoy. There are so many important details, like ensuring the structure is as airtight as possible so there are no drafts, and trying to make wall insulation wrap around the house continuously for the best heat-retaining results.

Fanjoy wanted a sustainable home years before he actually built one, but said it was his efforts to make a backyard skating rink for his kids that taught him “you're not going to beat nature, but if you work with nature, you can do beautiful things.”

He is very pleased with the end result and says it is the most comfortable home they have lived in.

“I may be just one person or one family, but … there's a certain amount of risk aversion in all of us and seeing it done makes it easier for others to make the choice,” said Fanjoy.

He says “a lot of people” have taken the first steps because of the Millview House, describing a variety of community members installing solar panels, heat pumps and buying electric cars. Fanjoy is hoping to be the Liberal candidate for the Carleton riding to run against Pierre Poilievre in the next federal election, and said he met some people who are planning to install their own solar panels during his recent neighbourhood canvassing.

Solar panels are a great place to start: the technology is essentially a power plant, accessible to homeowners, unlike hydroelectric, nuclear or even wind, said Fanjoy.

Heat pumps are also key to the solution, but most people will wait until they have to replace their gas furnace or central air conditioner to make the switch.

All these things require an upfront cost, but it's important to view it as an investment, said Fanjoy, adding that along with reducing your utility bills, you protect yourself from energy price inflation over the long term.

Of course, not everyone is in the position to build a house, he acknowledged, but those who are, have a unique opportunity before them.

“What I would recommend is if you're concerned about budget, which most people are, make it smaller,” he said.

“It's not something you do when you have more money… If you can afford a house, then you can afford a sustainable house.”

All the little things — like high-performance doors and windows, insulation and limiting drafts and gaps — add up, and he says there are many days in the winter when their home heats itself just from the sun coming through the windows, without any mechanical support.

“One of the challenges that we face in moving towards a more sustainable world is I think a lot of people think that we're going to lose benefits, it's not going to be as nice, we're gonna have to live in an austere environment,” said Fanjoy. “I don't think that's the case at all. We just do things differently, but it's going to be better.

“Now's a very important time to adapt… If you're in a position to do things a little bit differently, then now's the time.”

Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer