Interview with Melissa Ollsin and Charlie Appleford

How many years have you been working as a design/build company in Victoria? I’ve been in the industry for 30 years now and Appleford Building Company became licensed and insured with Pacific Home Warranty for building new homes in 2008. That was when the province enacted regulations to strengthen consumer protection and improve the quality of residential construction. Melissa joined the company at that time and we were eager to start working with our own designs.

You have plenty of experience with energy-efficient construction with a focus on high-quality green building and innovative design. Though most people know your company as Appleford Building Company, can you tell us about your sister brand, Sol Sustainable? Appleford Building Company will carry on specializing in custom renovations and Sol Sustainable specializes in high-efficiency custom homes suited to our unique climate. Melissa is of Mexican descent, so sunny Victoria days enjoyed in our new home inspired “Sol,” Spanish for the sun.

We’ve always been interested in sustainability. Melissa grew up very close to the land on Salt Spring Island so when I joined her there, we incorporated eco-friendly design elements into the cottages we built. We used timbers that we logged with our Belgian horse, Zach. At home, we collected rainwater for our garden and converted our work truck to veggie fuel.

We eventually built our own house using passive design principles. And we love it! Sol Sustainable is the logical next step in manifesting our interest in energy-efficient construction and our desire to share this passion with others as we face the growing pressure of climate change.

What exactly is passive home building and why should consumers be interested in this process? Passive home buildings can consume up to 90 percent less energy than conventional homes. Designs for these homes focus on using solar gains to heat your home, then retaining the heat by using more insulation in the roof, walls, and slab, eliminating thermal bridging, using triple-glazed windows, and making your house almost completely airtight. Fresh air is then supplied through mechanical ventilation.

At Sol Sustainable we like to strive for net-zero design. This means we build homes that don’t consume any heating or cooling energy; they have the potential to produce energy that can be sold back to the grid via BC Hydro’s net metering program.

At Appleford Building Company, we are experts in making substantial improvements to older buildings to bring them up to code and improve efficiency where possible. As new technologies become available, we recognized that building new homes is where the most significant sustainability can be achieved. We want to design homes from the ground up with energy efficiency as a priority.

What has been the greatest benefit to you as the homeowner of your own passive house? The greatest benefit to us is that we have joined the ever-expanding movement of people building low-footprint homes and that in doing this, we are taking action against climate change. It feels good to be part of this forward-thinking movement. A great benefit of our passive house is how warm it is even on cold nights. Throughout the night our concrete floors slowly release the energy collected from the sun during the day, making it feel like we have heated floors. We haven’t even hooked up a heating system. Because of the design, our house is also always flooded with light.

What are the main factors to consider when building green? Personal priorities in terms of functional design and aesthetic vision are important, but considering the greatest positive impact on the environment should be at the fore. We built our 2,400-square-foot passive home for $195 per square foot, similar to the cost of building a conventional house. The primary material used was an insulated concrete block. It’s a good choice for the planet and it compares well to the cost of building a conventional style home.

How will the new building code affect how clients need to build? Will they be required to incorporate sustainable building practices into new home construction? Yes, sustainable building practices are now required with the new building code. What’s interesting about the new code is that it does not specify how to construct a building with respect to energy efficiency, but identifies an energy-efficiency target that allows the designer/builder and energy advisor to decide on how to meet it. This opens the door for companies like ours to use the innovative approaches and materials we’ve been learning about and utilizing all along to exceed the basic energy efficiency design requirements and continue growing in this regard.

Sol Sustainable is one of the few companies that has been designing and building passive and net-zero ready homes in Victoria. How does this give you a leg up in the market as new home builders are required to follow the current building codes? Experience counts in being able to determine which materials to use, the different assemblies to be able to attend to, and how to approach the different areas of the step code. For example, knowing how to obtain the qualifications of the blower door test will be new to many builders; that’s how you can determine if a building is airtight, an important element of sustainable design. They will need to know how to approach the myriad of other construction aspects that go into making a home net-zero, window and door assemblies, outsulation, and so many other considerations.

Lastly, as a husband/wife team, what is the secret to your success? We love each other and are inspired by ecologically sound design. Our strengths are different and that’s a benefit to us. Melissa is the project manager, the detail-oriented planner, while I’m the artistic and hands-on driver of our projects. We are both motivated by a genuine aspiration to leave this planet a better world for future generations. The people who want to work with us feel the same way; that’s the secret sauce.