Builder recognized for healthy home

Niagara-on-the-Lake is the Niagara region's jewel on Lake Ontario and the oldest and one of the prettiest towns in Canada. But it's perceived by many as an expensive place to buy a home.

John Thiffault of Carriage Lane Homes decided to do something about affordability - starting with one single home in Virgil, an amalgamated corner of Niagara-on-the-Lake populated by orchards, vineyards and wineries.

Thiffault, a carpenter turned custom home builder, has constructed more than a dozen homes in Niagara-on-the-Lake since 1989. Carriage Lane's first home in Virgil is not only environmentally significant but the 1,692-square-foot bungalow on a 50-by-120 foot lot is priced at less than $360,000.

"My obsession is getting better value for the dollar," explains Thiffault. "You can easily drop $70,000 on a solar power system, but other considerations are the reduction of the demand (for energy) by creating an envelope that's at net zero energy without compromising the integrity of the architecture. That's our goal - the marriage of historic design and function."

Net Zero Energy Healthy Housing is a CMHC initiative that "combines passive solar, energy efficient design, construction and appliances, integrated with commercially available on-site renewable energy systems to achieve net zero energy consumption on an annual basis ..." Essentially it's a home so efficient that it produces as much energy as it uses.

That's where Paul Klassen entered the picture. Following a stint in Thailand where he constructed homes for victims of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, he met Thiffault through their church.

"My interest is in the technology, but also in keeping it mainstream and affordable," says Klassen, a former orchard manager with a passion for environmental friendly technology, and co-owner of an excavating company. "You can do anything with unlimited money. Most people don't have that."

Although Thiffault lives in a century home in Queenston, another historic suburb of Niagara-on-the-Lake, he wants to proceed with Klassen's technological know-how to construct homes so energy efficient that they'll reverse the electricity meters on his homes.

Calling upon his years of experience, coupled with his wife's eye for design, Thiffault has integrated into his Virgil home insulation that exceeds the housing code, low-E argon windows, a high-efficiency furnace, heat recovery ventilator and central air supported by a commercial-grade instant water heater - about the size of a knapsack - that supplies hot water on demand and feeds the radiant in-floor heating system.

"I don't want batteries and windmills and solar panels that make the whole process too micro and finicky," says Thiffault. "You can't even get people to change a HEPA filter these days ... Sometimes we should just be thinking about what's better for the environment."

Thiffault has received approval for Healthy Housing recognition from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, an award given to builders who demonstrate concrete understanding and use of healthy home construction.

Since its inception 13 years ago, only 51 Ontario builders (four in the GTA) have been recognized with Healthy Housing Recognition, and Carriage Lane Homes is the first on the Niagara Peninsula. The award goes to a builder permanently, as opposed to needing to be approved with every home constructed.

"We're healthy house-driven as opposed to energy driven like R2000," says Bill Crawford, chief technical adviser research for the CMHC. "Those are (Ministry of) Natural Resources initiatives that we complement rather than compete against. Our emphasis is on air quality, environmental conservation, energy efficiency, waste control, and it has to be affordable, which are our five guiding principles."

"I think that more builders are catching on to the healthy home principles, and all of those who've so far been recognized have all gone above and beyond the minimums," says Crawford.

Thiffault and Klassen's home includes hardwood and tile instead of broadloom, non-toxic Eco-Spec paint, a whole house reverse osmosis water filtration system and solid wood cabinetry to cut back on volatile organic composites.

Their next house will likely integrate technology that will provide more energy than it needs.

"We're not there yet, but within the next two years we'll be doing it," he says, pointing to the solar panels with which they're preparing to experiment. "It's important to me personally to be able to integrate architectural beauty with energy efficiency."

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