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Can You Build A Net Zero Multiplex?

Updated: Mar 10

simulated monochrome line drawing, small multiplex front sketch

A Net Zero multiplex done the right way can increase the profitability of your investment.

By the end of this post, you'll understand some ways in which high-performance construction can be implemented so that you achieve a superior building without spending significantly more money or at least get higher sale price or more rental revenue regardless if you're building in Vancouver, the Lower Mainland, or anywhere else in British Columbia.

Almost all individuals or firms investing in construction projects dismiss high-performance construction strategies such as Passive House or Net Zero because most buildings constructed to these standards cost more to build and offer only subjective or moral benefits.

simulated watercolor painting of a small modern multiplex surrounded by vegetation

However, avoiding Net Zero and Passive House outright passes up on an opportunity to increase your short- and medium-term return on investment. You can prioritize profits AND embrace sustainability by improving the multiplex's performance whether building a rental or a building that will be stratified.

The Dawn of Net Zero Multiplexes

In the quest for sustainable living, the concept of net zero energy homes — an ambition for buildings to produce as much energy as they consume — has sparked a small revolution, reshaping how we envision our living spaces. Traditionally, this concept has been applied only to single-family homes where the owner is willing to spend more to obtain qualitatively more. As more high-performance projects — single family homes, public multifamily housing projects, community centres — have been built, the net zero principle now casts its gaze towards a less sentimental frontier: the multiplex.

simulated digital painting of a modern multiplex

Understanding the Foundations

At its core, Net Zero Home is a straightforward yet ambitious goal; drawing a roadmap towards reducing carbon footprints. It demands that a home uses only as much energy as it consumes — a delicate balance using primarily renewable sources. This principle has been a beacon for environmental stewardship, but the projects often focus on increasing the renewable energy generation by adding solar panels and wind turbines to account for the energy used. This is an expensive approach and doesn't actually improve the performance of the home in any way. Additionally, solar panels have an effective lifetime of around 20 years or so and then should be replaced.

Simultaneously, the multiplex emerges as an investment opportunity within the urban fabric, accessible to homeowners and professional developers alike. Characterized by its multifamily setup and small size, the multiplex offers a versatile solution to increase density gently and to reduce the housing shortage. This condensed multifamily configuration is conducive also to a multigenerational family; homeowners can remain in their neighbourhoods but also be close to extended family for various kinds of support.

A Convergence of Ideals

Combining the benefits of net zero and the advantages of a multiplex isn't isn't merely an architectural experiment — it's a response to a growing demand for sustainable, energy-efficient living spaces that are built economically. the city of Vancouver is leading the charge, offering zoning incentives for buildings that meet Passive House or Net Zero standards - what Vancouver calls "Zero Emissions Buildings". Such initiatives point to the viability of net zero multiplexes and highlight their potential to redefine market norms - what buyers and renters will come to expect.

simulated rendering of modern multiplexes with solar panels and lush vegetation, glowing interior lights in evening, tilt shift

However, the journey towards this ideal is paved with challenges, chief among them the common upfront additional costs. Yet, herein lies the opportunity for innovation without breaking the bank. The question isn't really, "Can you build a net zero multiplex," but instead, "How can you build a net zero multiplex affordably?"

Intelligent design principles are often not applied to buildings of any type. The common approach to high performance is to design to the building code minimum requirements as usual and then ADD elements such as extra insulation, triple-glazed windows, solar panels, and lots of expensive ventilation equipment. However, intelligent design principles applied independent of "high-performance" will result in a construction cost that is LOWER than that of typical construction.

Intelligent Design

Most of us get caught up with aspects of architectural design - style trends, buildable area - that should be secondary or lower in priority instead of starting with choices that make more of a difference to the construction budget.

simulated digital painting of a small modern multiplex, cherry blossom trees, spring

Start With A Plan

No, not a floor plan. The first step is to plan how you will be designing. Determine your targets. Engage all the necessary consultants. Get a builder on board right from the start. Not doing these things is what causes changes of plan down the road that cost the owner money.

Building Orientation

Multiplexes are typically on a constrained city lot, so the building form is very generally a rectangle. The side walls are longer than the front and back walls and are closer to the side lot lines. Being close to the neighbour means that the wall is allowed less window opening; depending on which direction it faces, this may help or hinder.

The goal is to bring plenty of sunlight in early in the day but reduce it later in the day. Hence, rooms with larger windows should face South and East. For example, bedrooms typically should be located on the East portion of the building if on the front or back, and living areas should be toward the South. If you're near a mountain such as on the North Shore, this analysis becomes critical to best leverage the sun.

simulated digital painting of a small multiplex complex with lush vegetation and water feature and decks

Plan the Ventilation and Plumbing Layout

While this may be one of the less glamourous aspects of a building's design, it makes a huge difference. Poorly planned systems cost more to install, cost more to maintain, cost more to operate, and cost more to replace at their end of lifespan than well-designed systems. Reducing the complexity of the layout and bringing plumbing fixtures closer together - thereby making the system more compact - brings the cost down.

Allow adequate space in the building to run the necessary pipes and ducts early in the design process. Not allowing this space results in lost useable area later on, and longer duct/pipe runs with more bends - thereby increasing the cost of installing those pipes and ducts and increasing the cost of the equipment needed to deal with the more complicated configuration.

Optimize Windows

Windows that extend to the floor increase heat gain that you have to spend money on air conditioning to overcome and heat loss(that requires more heating equipment and increases operating costs. A ratio of total window size to total wall area should be around 25%.

A single, large window will perform better for solar heating, indoor light, and keeping conditioned air inside than multiple, small windows because the window frame is the poorest performing component. Architecturally trendy windows that are horizontal or vertical slender "strips" actually cost you a lot of money in both the short and long terms since they have a lot of frame with minimal glass. Each linear foot of frame costs a certain amount to install; a skinny window means high installation cost again with minimal useable opening.

simulated digital painting of small, modern multiplexes with lush landscaping by a paved lane on a clear blue summer day

Be Judicious with Siding Variety

A building's facade should have variety, but too many different materials increases the cost to install them. Each additional siding material is usually a separate company that the primary builder needs to coordinate both in contract and on site. Coordinating the sequence of installation can slow everybody down, thereby extending the construction period.

Every transition between one material and another is a location where the builder loses efficiency and must install additional pieces. Variation of the building exterior can be achieved by using different colours of a material and sometimes by changing the orientation of a board or plank material.

Unpacking the Benefits

The allure of a net zero multiplex extends beyond its environmental impact. For investors, the proposition offers enhanced market appeal, eligibility for governmental incentives, and significant operational cost reductions. For example, Vancouver's zoning rules illustrate a tangible incentive, permitting up to 23% additional floor space. North and West Vancouver have yet to reveal their appetite for similar levels of performance. The CMHC offers a 50-year mortgage for multiplexes of 5 dwelling units or more that achieve a particular energy savings.

simulated digital painting of a small modern multiplex, tropical vegetation, golden light, pond

Yet, the advantages are not solely financial. Residents of net zero multiplexes enjoy superior indoor air quality and comfort, thanks to meticulous design and construction practices that prioritize well-being alongside efficiency. As the availability of high-performance building products improves, more construction workers become familiar with improved installation techniques, and more owners learn how to build better, renters and buyers will begin to include the health and comfort aspects in their choice of home. Climate resilient construction is a benefit to not only the occupants but creates a longer-lasting building that provides value for decades more than typical.

Navigating the Challenges

The path to realizing a net zero multiplex is not devoid of obstacles. The integration of necessary technologies, new materials, and new construction details requires careful consideration to ensure compatibility with net zero goals without resorting to costly or complex solutions. Moreover, achieving net zero status - as with Passive House buildings - often involves a paradigm shift, not only in design and construction practices but in educating the market and potential tenants about the value and functionality of such buildings.

simulated watercolor painting of a small modern multiplex surrounded by vegetation

Where To Start

All of this might sound good and even persuasive enough to get you on board. Making that presumption, you're probably still left wondering where to start. Humans are creatures of habit; the inertia of the design and construction industries makes it difficult to adopt a new paradigm.

Embracing A Pragmatic Strategy

As we stumble with varying amounts of enthusiasm and reluctance into a new era of residential development, the potential for net zero multiplexes to revolutionize the landscape is immense. My SAPPHR™ Strategy is a structured and comprehensive approach to navigating these waters, blending sustainability with profitability through a focus on optimization and efficiency. I don't believe that anyone should have to settle for anything less than ultra high-performance buildings.

Your project could be a far superior offering for possibly zero extra cost by leveraging the lessons learned from numerous Passive House projects and other multifamily buildings to make the right decisions the first time. You could have happier extended family or be choosing from higher condo sale offers; you could charge higher rents or have happier tenants who stay much longer.

On the other hand, you could be building exactly the same thing as everyone else for the same cost and likely be dealing with construction site change orders and delays. Your family would miss out on a healthier and more comfortable indoor environment, or your sale prices would be industry average.

The SAPPHR™ Strategy is a framework and methodical progression through pre-design and design to delete assumptions, optimize design, and unnecessary construction work. You can download a copy of the SAPPHR™ Strategy client manual at the link below.

For those poised to take the first step to better buildings, I offer a free, 30-minute consultation - the Diagnostic Session. Consider this an invitation to explore the possibilities that net zero multiplexes present. Engage in a free Diagnostic Session to tailor an actionable plan to your project's needs. You're not just investing in a property; you're contributing to a sustainable future, crafting a legacy for either your family or for your brand.

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The information included in this article is to an extent generic and intended for educational and informational purposes only; it does not constitute legal or professional advice. Thorough efforts are made to ensure the accuracy of the article, but having read this article, you understand and agree that Daniel Clarke Architect disclaims any legal liability for actions that may arise from reliance on the information provided in this article. I am an architect in BC, but readers are recommended to consult with their own architect on their specific situations before making any decisions or exercising judgement base on information in the article.



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