Willowview Heights becomes first multi-unit residential building in Canada with Net Zero Ready label

October 14, 2021

The National Affordable Housing Corporation’s (NAHC) Willowview Heights includes one multi-unit residential building in Saskatoon that will achieve the first Net Zero Ready label for a multi-family residential building in Canada. 

It’s part of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association Net Zero Home Labelling program, with a goal to understand the best way to make multi-family residential buildings (MURBs) Net Zero, modular, affordable and marketable.

Early adopters in this program are working out the kinks so they can bridge the gap for the early majority, says Sonja Winkelmann, director of Net Zero Energy Housing at CHBA.

“The builders and owners engaged in this program are the ones that step up and volunteer,” she said. “They’re enthusiastic, they’re engaged, they’re the ones putting in the time and effort to figure this out for the rest of the industry.” 

Winkelmann said she’s especially excited about the Willowview Heights project because it’s a modular, purpose-built rental that hits a particular niche from an affordability standpoint — homes that are family-oriented, low-rise, medium-density, and mixed-income are in short supply.

And Big Block’s energy efficiency approach in Willowview Heights is leading the way in the industry.

“It encourages more builders who are already building multi-unit residential buildings to explore going to the higher levels of energy efficiency,” Winkelmann said.

Stacie Beever, chief operating officer for the NAHC, agrees. 

“The decision to pursue higher levels of energy efficiency can be a daunting one, especially for affordable housing providers,” says Beever. “Most are still unfamiliar with the construction and ongoing operating costs of Net Zero and often have to exercise greater caution because they operate with very limited budgets. 

“As the construction industry works towards building more Net Zero energy housing, their experience will help reduce the unknowns for housing providers like us. Now that we’ve seen what is possible with one of our six buildings at Willowview Heights, we will be more comfortable building even more of our rentals to this energy level in the future.” 

The future of construction

One of the ways the Willowview Heights project gained its Net Zero Ready status was through modular construction.

Grandeur Housing was the modular builder on the project, and general manager Derek Hiebert says modular construction is inherently well-positioned to be a Net Zero producer.

“The benefit of the factory setting where we construct gives us a much higher probability of inspecting and ensuring that some of these more stringent Net Zero requirements are met because of the quality control system we have,” Hiebert said.

Modular construction also lends itself well to repetition and the ability to duplicate results on a consistent basis. Whether a new Net Zero MURB project is in Regina or Calgary, the Grandeur crew will be the same people working on it, applying what they’ve learned from one project to another.

“Those lessons I learned in Saskatoon, I can apply to anywhere in the country,” Hiebert said.

One of the modules from the Willowview Heights project leaving the Grandeur factory in Winkler, Man.

The environmental benefits during the modular construction process also shouldn’t be discounted.

“We don't throw a lot in our dumpsters,” Hiebert said. “We can use materials cut from this project on the next project. We’re conscious about how to use our resources as effectively as possible.”

He’s particularly excited about modular being part of the Net Zero solution as the industry moves toward requirements that all construction becomes Net Zero.

Heibert says the Willowview Heights project will be a game-changer in terms of showing what can be done.

“I love that we have partners like Big Block that see the potential and see the future and are willing to partner to go there. … This Willowview Heights project will be a showpiece for a while.”

Net Zero is modular

Alex Miller, CEO of Big Block Construction, says the best way to get to Net Zero is through modular construction.

“If you’re going to build a multifamily project and you’re considering sustainability, modular has to be on the table,” he said. 

“You have to revolutionize the way you build if you’re going to start talking about building a greener product.”

Not only is the building sound and energy-efficient, but the people living there also have their needs met through affordability and a healthy, comfortable building.

“[The owners] have to build to their members’ needs and they have to ensure that the project is going to be there and stand the test of time and be sustainable for many generations,” Miller said.

He notes that there are three groups associated with any build: the people living there, whether rental tenants or condo owners; the owners of the project, whether non-profit or for-profit; and the community at large.

“Everyone benefits from building better developments,” he said. 

“If we’re ever truly going to make a change in our community and advance both our building practices and processes, we need to ensure that we are working together in collaboration and sharing that knowledge across the entire community to ensure that we are building better communities and building better projects.”

He says that through the NAHC’s Willowview Heights development, the partnerships made and knowledge gained are the foundation for future projects. 

“It absolutely can be a scalable, affordable, Net Zero, repeatable project done anywhere in Canada.”

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