Land Ark Homes blazes trail in net-zero construction, where cost is prohibitive for many builders

Watercolour Westport features move-in- and net-zero-ready homes inspired by heritage Ontario cottage architecture. (Supplied)

One Ottawa homebuilder is so passionate about net-zero construction that it is teaching other homebuilders how to emulate its techniques.

In a small eastern Ontario village, Land Ark Homes is building Watercolour Westport, a walkable, net-zero-ready community with “village charm, cottage style homes and urban amenities,” according to Land Ark founder Stephen Rolston.

“We fell in love with Westport over 25 years ago,” said Rolston. “Our connectedness to the land goes way back. We think Westport is a better place to call home.”

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While Westport’s charm is certain to be a selling point, it’s the homes themselves that Rolston expects will draw in buyers. 

A net-zero-ready home is built from the ground up with energy efficiency in mind. Each home in Watercolour Westport is “ready” to be fitted with a renewable energy source such as solar panels and is built using materials and techniques that reduce energy consumption. 

Those include above-grade insulation, triple-paned windows, cold climate heat pumps for heating and cooling, electric hot water heaters, LED lights, and a super-tight building envelope. The homes also come equipped with an EV charging station in the garage. 

All of these improvements over current builder standards make the homes more efficient to heat, cool and power, according to Land Ark general manager Kevin Rankin, lowering the amount of energy they consume and reducing their carbon footprint. 

And for buyers, it can mean an energy bill as low as $0. 

“We’re really bringing innovation and proven technology to community design,” said Rankin. “Part of innovation is implementation; it’s not just the idea. It’s fascinating for me to bring and apply proven technology to new homes so that people can live better lives and live more sustainably.”

The Westport project is also unique in that it creates a net-zero community that adheres to a traditional suburban neighbourhood layout, while maintaining walkability with sidewalks, trails and nearby amenities. 

“Most guys doing net zero are in urban areas, where natural gas is prevalent,” said Rolston. “That’s their backup. We don’t have natural gas in the village. So we took lemons and made lemonade and found out how to get to net zero over the last five years.”

In the first phase of the project, Land Ark built and sold 25 new net-zero homes in the Watercolour Westport community. 

“The entire community is a net-zero-ready community,” said Rankin. “The proof of concept is in. We’ve got 25 families living in these beautiful homes, living more sustainably than they otherwise possibly could anywhere else in eastern Ontario.”

In phase two, Rankin said they plan to build approximately 300 sustainable houses on the 232-acre property over the next 30 to 40 years. That amounts to around 30 homes each year.  

“We’re excited about extending and scaling that in this next phase,” he said. “We’re introducing a broader range of homes and we’re starting to bring more innovation and technology into it to build on that theme of more sustainability and more resiliency.”

Net-zero building standards have begun gaining traction among Canadian homebuilders, but Rankin said too many are still sticking to the status quo. 

In 2022, about 425 new-build homes in Canada met net-zero standards. Because of that, Rankin estimates that upwards of 90 per cent of new homes will be obsolete in the next few decades. 

“Most of the technology we’re talking about here has been known by the best building experts in the world, including many in Canada,” he said. “We’ve done tremendous amounts of testing over the last 40 years. It’s just that it takes a builder, it takes a visionary, to say we need to do this; we need to take advantage of this technology.”

It’s technology that Land Ark believes will be beneficial for homebuilders to implement. To encourage that transition, Land Ark has been hosting homebuilders based in Ottawa to teach them how to build net-zero homes. 

While upfront costs can be three to four per cent higher, Rankin said a sustainable home “is going to be more valuable and last longer than ever. It’ll appreciate in value more than an obsolete home. The economics now, and the social and environmental benefits, are better than ever.”

In Ottawa, demand for net-zero and net-zero-ready homes is on a steady rise, but it’s a slow burn, according to Jason Burggraaf, executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’​ Association. 

In the capital region, he estimates that there are currently around three dozen homes that meet net-zero standards. Costs, he said, is one of the biggest barriers to more widespread implementation. 

“There’s definitely still a price premium,” said Burggraaf. “You have to make the choice to invest in it. That’s still the biggest roadblock in all this, making that choice to invest in it versus those more cosmetic pieces.”

Training, however, is starting to catch up. While labour shortages have hindered operations for many homebuilders, tradespeople entering the industry are better educated on energy-efficient technologies and how to implement them. 

“It’s throughout their entire training now,” Burggraaf said. “It’s not like it’s just one component of it. I think the skills are there, we just need more people to meet the shortage.”

While there are still challenges, Burggraaf said net zero is no longer considered a niche market. Consumer demand, he said, is on the rise as buyers become more conscientious of their environmental impact and the cost of their energy bill. 

As consumer demand increases, Burggraaf expects more homebuilders will start prioritizing net-zero standards. 

“We see more and more homes every year,” he said. “Consumer demand is really what’s going to push the marketization of net-zero homes. The more people who want that technology, the cheaper it will be to build and the more products there will be on the market. We’re already starting to see homebuilders bring net-zero models into their portfolios.”

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