• Photo courtesy of Sevag Pogharian

It was destined to be a beacon of environmentally conscious living. It had all the makings of a model for how all Canadians will one day live. But just weeks before completion, Sevag Pogharian’s Alstonvale Net Zero House went up in flames.

The Montréal-based architect and McGill professor set out to build a home that would not only achieve net-zero status — effectively generating as much energy as it consumes — but also promote an energy-efficient lifestyle. The Alstonvale Net Zero House was one of 12 building projects commissioned by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) as part of a push for more sustainable housing developments. The house was designed to generate enough electricity to meet domestic needs, charge the battery of an electric car and run a small greenhouse.

Yet the net zero energy home, worth about $800,000, caught fire one sunny afternoon in May 2010. It’s not yet clear what caused the fire, but Pogharian suspects polyurethane insulation may have played a role. The spongy stuff that puffs up like hair mousse when sprayed into the gaps in walls to seal them was applied just hours before the flames broke out. Nicknamed “solid gasoline,” polyurethane combusts when improperly applied or exposed to heat.

Despite the accident, the experience sparked a new vision for Pogharian. Today, he advocates for the idea of a net-zero energy lifestyle, albeit with a few caveats.

Powering an electric car and growing one’s own food doesn’t cover the gamut of energy needs in a person’s lifetime, he says. An efficient house also doesn’t account for the carbon emissions from a vacation in the Caribbean, for instance, or offset the energy that goes into making your purses or sneakers. But the idea of a net-zero lifestyle is something people can aspire to in an effort to live more efficiently, Pogharian says. The next step, he says, would be to develop a net-zero neighbourhood, which would allow several green homes to share in energy-efficient facilities.

As for insulation, Pogharian has sworn off polyurethane — just in case. Today, his go-to material is mineral wool.

For a list of some successful energy efficient housing projects, here’s a list of some of Canada’s greenest homes.

EQuilibrium
The EQuilibrium sustainable housing demonstration initiative, launched by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) in 2007, awarded contracts to 12 building teams for homes that would be sustainable, energy-efficient and deliver electricity to the power grid. The result: 11 energy-efficient dwellings, from the Moncton VISION Home in New Brunswick to Harmony House in Burnaby, B.C., all of which use creative means to power themselves.

Zero to hero
Edmonton, Alta.’s Mill Creek Net Zero Home gets its energy fix from solar panels that cover the roofs and awnings over each window. It could fill hundreds of bathtubs every year with the water it saves by reusing dirty shower water to flush the toilets. Its cellulose fibre insulation is made from recycled newspaper and cuts heat loss by one-third that of conventional homes. To top it off, owners Conrad Nobert and Rechel Amores saved $25,000 that would have gone to building a garage by giving up their car.

It’s alive!
It’s the toughest “green” certification yet. Eco-Sense in Victoria, B.C., is North America’s first private home to achieve Living Building status. Constructed using a sand-clay-straw mixture, the structure is strong enough to support a second story and withstand earthquakes. Locally-mined pumice serves as insulating material — none of that polyurethane, thank you very much — and a composting toilet renders flushing obsolete. Owners, residents and builders, Ann and Gord Baird, offer workshops on how to follow their example. Read more at http://www.islandnet.com/~anngord/builders.html

Passive House of style
Ottawa’s Rideau Residences blend into the New Edinburgh neighbourhood with red clay brick, eastern white cedar, concrete and a steel exterior. On the inside, the structure reveals energy-saving tricks, such as a staircase designed to maximize ventilation indoors and airtight walls using, among other materials, polyurethane, that make it Canada’s first residential home designed, built and certified to the Passive House standard. To literally top it off, solar panels on the roof allow developer Chris Straka to sell electricity back to the municipal grid. While it doesn’t generate enough power to sustain itself, this old house is as close to net zero as it gets.

And the Oscar goes to…
Maple Leaf Homes, a manufacturer based in Fredericton, N.B., has won awards for its energy efficient modular houses. In 2012, a bungalow in Bathurst, N.B., was named Energuide Rating Service Most Efficient House of the year at the Canadian Home Builders Awards of Excellence. With a combination of 20 photovoltaic panels, a geothermal heating system and thermosolar power to heat water, this house produces more energy than it consumes, meaning at the end of the year, there’s no power bill.