Below Zero

Inside a Lawrence Park home that generates negative energy bills

Paul Jackson, a tech CEO and investor, tries hard to minimize his carbon footprint. “I bike 12 kilometres to work every day,” he says, “and don’t eat too much meat.” In 2019, he and his wife, Kathleen, a market­ing research consultant, made plans to build a 6,000-square-foot house near Lawrence and Yonge for themselves and their two children, but they began to worry about betraying their principles: such a large home would surely put strain on the environment. So they opted, with the help of Jack Zhou, a sustainable energy consultant, to design a net-zero home. They knew the endeavour would be challenging, but as an entrepreneur, Paul was a practised troubleshooter.

Superficially, the house seems conventional: a split-level clad in brick, alum­inum and lava stone, with high ceilings and broad-plank oak floors. But it’s supported by a suite of state-of-the-art mechanical systems. The roof has 49 photovoltaic panels. Beneath the property is a geothermal system—a set of looped pipes that runs over 56 metres underground and regulates the indoor climate. The building envelope is tightly sealed with spray-foam insulation and double-paned, UV-protected windows. “People think you have to sacrifice windows to have a net-zero home,” says Paul, “but we probably have more windows than any house on the street.”

The build came with its share of headaches. Early on, just after the excavators had dug out the foundation, Paul brought friends over to see the pit. One of them pointed to the bottom. “Is that broken pipe supposed to be there?” the friend asked. It was a piece of the newly installed geo­thermal loop, which the digger had shattered. “Tradespeople aren’t used to doing the things we did,” says Paul.

Still, he says, the results were worth the hassle. The home distributes heat evenly, without drying out the air in winter or forcing the family to run an air conditioner in summer. The solar panels generate excess electricity, which Paul sells back to the city, resulting in negative energy bills. And, if they eventually sell the home, its net-zero properties will boost the asking price, particularly as the city toughens up energy standards. Best of all is the sense of ethical satisfaction the couple derives from the project. “There’s a certain peace of mind,” Paul says, “in knowing that, while the world burns, you’re finding ways to make things better.” And all without having to trade eco-functionality for style.

Forty-nine sleek black solar panels generate a whopping 15,000 kilowatt-hours per year. “The energy we don’t need goes back to the grid,” says Paul, “and we sell it for the same rate we would buy it for. When’s the last time you got a hydro bill where the city owed you money?”
With its spray-foam walls and retractable soft cover, the pool is so well insulated it barely needs to be heated
The kitchen finishes are simple and unobtrusive—quartzite countertops, laminate cabinetry and a soapstone backsplash
Paul and Kathleen grew up in homes with sunken living rooms—a nostalgic architectural feature for them
The home has three inset fireplaces that shine orange light upward through a cloud of water vapour, creating the illusion of flames
A geothermal system made up of looped pipes runs over 56 metres underground and regulates the indoor climate—no furnace or AC necessary
The automated blinds open and close at different times based on season, ensuring that they maximize solar gain in winter and minimize it in summer
The basement bar—with its stools, displayed bottles, chandelier and wall-mounted TV—is meant to evoke a classic London watering hole