Fort St. James is becoming a leader in next-level energy efficiency thanks to a Vanderhoof-based company and a teacher who decided to go fully net-zero.
A net-zero rated home, according to the Canadian Homebuilders’ Association of British Columbia website, is a home which “produces as much energy as it consumes and is up to 80 per cent more energy efficient than a home built to conventional standards.”
Three net-zero ready homes, which are homes with the energy-efficiency rating but not producing their own renewable energy, had been built in Fort St. James as of 2019 by the Vanderhoof company Northern Homecraft Ltd.
The company became certified to build energy-efficient homes, but none at that point had the renewable energy source installed to make them fully net-zero by producing energy.
These previous homes were built ready for solar panels, should the homeowner decide to invest down the line.
Lynne George, a teacher at David Hoy Elementary, was close to retirement and wondering what she should do to plan for the future.
George is an active member of Greening Up Fort St. James, an environmental group in the community, and was looking to downsize after her kids had left home, with an eye to sustainability and potential changes in energy costs as she transitioned to a fixed retirement income.
“I was living in a five-bedroom house and paying for hydro and paying for natural gas. I don’t like the idea of piping anything, natural gas or any kind of gas anymore, I don’t think it’s necessary.”
“And I’ve always thought the world needs to think more progressively and towards saving our planet.”
So with these things in mind, George posed the question one day in the staff room, asking if anyone knew of builders they would recommend who could build what she had in mind.
“I said ‘Does anybody know anybody who can build a house cheaply? A small house.’”
By chance, a co-owner of Northern Homecraft Ltd. at the time, was in the staff room and told her about the company and said to George, ‘Google net-zero homes.’
George did just that and a video came up by Northern Homecraft featuring the first-ever net-zero ready single-detached home in northern B.C., built by Northern Homecraft, and it happened to have been built for a local couple George knew in Fort St. James.
The home was custom built in 2017 for Nancy and Tom Schlamp. Since then Nancy has been watching the difference in their heating and electrical bills.
Schlamp said the heat and power for the new two-story home, 1,300 square feet per floor, is the same as the one floor of the 1,100 square foot mobile home they moved from.
George had also recently watched an interview with Jeremy Rifkin, the author of the book The Green New Deal, and was thinking about the availability of energy in the future.
She contacted Shay Bulmer, owner of Northern Homecraft Ltd., and he did a site visit of the lot George owned in Fort St. James. He told her they could build a small, efficient home within her budget. Then she brought up solar panels.
“He looked at me and he said ‘are you serious?’” said, George.
Bulmer told her while the cost would be a lot more, it would likely be worth it in the long run and she said he was immediately excited about the prospect of the first fully net-zero home for the company.
Bulmer sat down with some of his design and development team, which includes an energy advisor and solar system designer and installer. They calculated what would be needed to make the home self-sufficient, and determined how many panels would be needed to power the two-bedroom home.
So they revised the budget with a few adjustments to the design and the solar panel array the team planned her two-bedroom, 850 square foot net-zero custom home.
“He had everything figured out,” said George.
She praised the efficiency of the team itself, completing the project on time in five months and on budget.
“He’s just very knowledgable,” she said of Bulmer. “And I think his heart is in the right place as far as being renewable.”
George brought her class on walks to see the home as it was being built so they could learn about the different stages of construction. She said on some visits, the contractors would take time to talk to her class, telling them about the different aspects of this net-zero home.
“He was so into it,” said George of one solar panel installer. “(The builders) are looking at it like kids are our future and they need to know because this stuff is going to take off.”
“I almost didn’t do it,” said George, who had worried about the negative impact of using materials for a new house.
But she said she is happy she made the leap and she even received a $15,000 rebate from BC Hydro because the house was so airtight, which helped offset the cost of the solar panel array.
Northern Homecraft won two awards for the Schlamp’s home: Best Certified Home - Custom at the Northern BC Housing Awards of Excellence, and Best Certified Home award in the Custom build category of the Georgie Awards by the Canadian Home Builders’ Association.
He said the company definitely felt like underdogs competing against more valuable homes in the southern parts of the province.
“I think the judges appreciated what we are up against in climate zone 7A, as well as some of the thoughtful ways we applied our mechanical technologies,” said Bulmer.
All of the net-zero ready homes the company has built so far were built in Fort St. James, something Northern Homecraft’s Shay Bulmer attributes to some open-mindedness to energy efficiencies on his clients’ parts as well as having one in a community where people can now see the benefits and talk to someone they know who has experienced living in an energy-efficient home.
Once people can understand how they work and how they retain value, Bulmer said he believes it can catch on.
“Without the opportunity for that conversation to come up in other communities, they might be a little slower at catching on,” he said, pointing out, people need to see that homes can be built to this level of efficiency in the northern interior climate.
He said he dreams of being able to build the first net-zero home in Vanderhoof one day.
“I hope people will understand there is a lot of financial benefit to an energy-efficient home,” said Bulmer.
Costs change rapidly due to fluctuating supply and shipping rates, and building net-zero buildings in northern climates is more challenging, but Bulmer estimates the cost to build a net-zero home to be around 15 per cent more than a conventional one.
George has been living in her home for almost a year and said she is ‘totally happy with how things turned out.’ So far, she anticipates getting a credit from BC Hydro at the end of the year.
She said when she finally retires her small, fuel-efficient car, she hopes her house can then power an electric car with the surplus.
“(The house) is exactly what I need. It’s the size I want, I don’t feel like I need more room, I have a crawl space underneath it if I need storage,” she said.