Sunday, October 17, 2010

Journey to a Sustainable House

Before I get into the story about the creation of our “green”/sustainable house, I must clarify what this piece is not about as well as preface this story with some context.

This is a description of our journey in trying to create a sustainable home for our retirement. What it doesn't do is get into any degree of detail about the actual systems that we used; it’s more about the process, what we learned and how we got to where we are. If anyone wants more detail on systems, feel free to contact me.

As for the context: we live in Southern Ontario where heating is our most significant operating cost and issue to address.

I am an architect and my partner is an interior designer and it’s probably a miracle that over the past 25 years we have not killed each other over design-related activities. But miraculously, over time, we have actually managed to agree on many things when it comes to design. The good news about this story is that we were more (than less) on the same page about our new house. That is critical when entering into a venture as complex and demanding as this.

For further context, I am in the process of trying to extract myself from the drudgery of full time employment. The frenetically paced, endless cycle of 8-5, Monday to Friday, crank-out-another-environment-sucking-edifice BS has lost its lustre. My partner has been self-employed for over 20 years now, so he can be as busy or laid-back as he chooses and that’s essentially where I’d like to be as well. Neither of us is interested in getting rich or famous, so we’re not hamstrung by those superfluous needs.

Back in the late summer of 2008 we bought 56 acres of picturesque rolling hillside an hour and a half north west of Toronto. There were two goals for this: one, to have lots of privacy and two, to have the ability to grow our own food, and perhaps grow enough to share with others.

At that time, the real estate market was quite hot, even out in the boonies, and large acreages without development were tough to come by. If you weren’t willing to pay close to asking price almost immediately, you would loose it.

The area where we were looking was strategically chosen for its topography, distance from Toronto and cost of land relative to other areas of similar appeal.

Our current home at the time, a century log house that we added onto in 2001, was costing us more than we cared for in heat and electricity. We figured that we had maximized our growth potential in both physical space and equity, and as such we didn’t want to invest more money into “green” upgrades being as we wouldn’t likely make that money back upon selling. So it was time to cash in.

It was the fall of 2008 when we listed our house; two weeks before the worlds stock markets tanked. Our place was a perfect second home for well-heeled Torontonians (i.e. too expensive for locals) but that market dried up faster than a cup of water in the Mojave Desert. It took almost a year to sell and our sale price was substantially less than our original expectations.

So, by the fall of 2009, we had a beautiful, albeit expensive property, with a diminished cache to fund the new house construction.

We started the design process in earnest as soon as we sold the house. We figured we might be able to commence construction in the spring of 2010, but fortunately discovered in October that the contractor who did our current house was available for a winter build. That had a huge bearing on a lot of our decisions, so schedule became a significant driver.

The main objective was to not have a mortgage and to try to build-in as many “green” features that would minimize our operating costs down the road. But the battle between building what we could with the money we had, and building what would be readily marketable should we decide to sell, was the true tug-of-war we wrestled with constantly. Unfortunately the latter took precedence at the expense of the objective, but that is history at this point.

What we ended up with was a three bedroom house, but built in a not-so typical arrangement; one bedroom and full bathroom on each floor with the Master on the main. The site is sloped so the basement had a walkout. The footprint was just over 1100 square feet. When one includes the basement and a partial second floor, we ended up with around 2900 sq.ft of finished space; but that was about 1500 sq.ft. more than what I would have been happy with.

As a firm believer of doing the “right thing” when it comes to the environment, I was compelled to put my money where my mouth was. As a result, the list of sustainable objectives was long: it was to be built of straw bale construction and be super-insulated elsewhere, be off-the-grid, have passive indoor air quality control, radiant floor heat, and be passive solar design. It had to have EnergyStar appliances, a high-efficiency boiler, minimal interior finishes, composting toilets, solar hot water heat and rain-water-harvesting with a built-in greenhouse for growing veggies over winter. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a tall order for our budget.

The first thing to get axed was the composting toilets. In this case though, cost was not a factor. Besides the logistical issues of locating all the bathrooms above the composting unit, we were really concerned about the future salability. Nobody wants to, or is ready to, defecate into a black hole. The ‘eew’-factor is significant and I couldn’t convince my partner to take the leap. The sad thing is that these systems are fantastically effective, produce great compost and require little electricity to run, which is important when designing an off-grid residence.

The second item on the chopping block was, most unfortunately, going off-grid. The cost was almost double that of connecting to the grid and running cable underground for ½ kilometer! Even though we were prepared to pay for our electrical needs up-front, the specter of it putting us into a mortgage was enough to axe the initiative. The simple payback was somewhere in the neighbourhood of 15-20 years, so we figured if it pushed us into a mortgage, then borrowing costs would make the payback even worse. It was a very sad decision to have to make. Despite that, the house was designed to be converted to off-grid very easily and may still happen.

The next items to get jettisoned in quick succession were the solar hot water heating, rainwater harvesting and strawbale construction. The costs of the first two, like going off grid, were prohibitive as well as requiring significantly more space in what was to be a predominantly finished basement. Plus, all three would also require considerably more effort regarding approvals.

One of the things one must understand about the architecture business is that the approvals process is a minefield, so for in order for us to keep our schedule, we made every effort to not exacerbate it with unfamiliar systems. If you are planning on using unconventional systems, be sure to allow ample time for the approvals process.

Further, from a construction perspective, the strawbale turned out to be poorly suited for a multi-storey application. It also increased the footprint (22” vs. 10” thick walls), which resulted in significant increased material requirements and therefore cost implications.

The good news is that the remainder of the objectives was met. We have radiant in-floor heating with exposed coloured concrete slabs in the basement and ground floor... very chic looking. The envelope is around R40 above grade and R-15 below grade, consisting of a wrap of rigid insulation all around in order to minimize thermal bridging (a huge source of heat loss) and therefore allows the internal mass to moderate temperature swings. (If you’re interested in more on thermal mass go to: and )

The house faces due south to take advantage of solar gains in the winter. It has permanent sunshades on the south face and large porches on the east and west faces to minimize the solar gains in mornings and evenings. There is no air conditioning. So this summer, after several days of + 90F temperatures and high humidity (80%), the house only managed to get up to 79/80F, despite being completely exposed to the baking sun. Large ceiling fans in the Great Room made that space comfortable and portable fans are used elsewhere as needed.

Now in the fall, the sun warms the place to 78F when it’s only 45-50F outside all day and 35-40F overnight: it’s wonderful free heat.

The windows are large on the south, east and west facades but are protected by the sunshades and porches respectively. We decided to choose low-E coated double glazing for the all the windows from both a cost and functional perspective. Because we wanted large casements, triple glazing would have limited their sizes. Unfortunately our budget only allowed us to purchase PVC windows. PVC is one of the bad-boys of constructino materials. The toxicity of their manufacture is extremely high and you should avoid them if you can. Fibreglass is a far better solution, or wood.

Practically every window is operable, enabling flow-thru breezes during the summer. Both skylights in the Great Room are operated manually to readily exhaust heat thru natural convection if required.

A wood-burning, zero-clearance, EPA rated fireplace becomes the centerpiece to the Great Room which includes the kitchen. In our previous house we had the same unit, and by virtue of running the furnace fan constantly, it could heat the entire house when it was as little as 32F outside, without the furnace heating element kicking in. But it only worked well because we had an air distribution system. The new place does not, so I am expecting the fireplace may end up super-heating the Great Room but with little benefit to the rest of the house. Stay tuned.

To meet the requirements of air exchange for the very air-tight construction that is needed today, we incorporated an "earth-tube" system. This is simply comprised of 4 - 4" diameter tubes that are buried 4' below the ground to pre-heat or pre-cool the incoming air. Heat exchangers typically do this function but they are expensive and require long term electrical supply, which we wanted to avoid.

To conclude, if we had to do it all over again, I would not have excluded all the features that got eliminated, but reduced the size of the place to try ot offset the increased cost. It must be noted though, that this is not a direct proportional relationship. A custom home is expensive, regardless of what your systems are. Reducing square footage will not garner you significant savings; however adding square footage will definitely guarantee you extra cost!

If you want a sustainable house, IMHO, excessive square footage flies in the face of sustainable principles. Work hard with your designer and architect to pare down your square footage as much as possible. A new house is an assault to the environment by virtue of all the products that go into it and the waste stream that ensues. Further, the carbon footprint of operating and maintaining that structure over its lifespan are colossal. “Smaller, smaller, smaller” should be your mantra.

There are numerous techniques to achieve this goal. Vertical space often compensates for lack of horizontal space. Large expanses of glass also work to eliminate that closed-in feeling. Multi-purposed rooms can rid you of those “dead” rooms that only get used on rare occasions. Determine your needs, not your wants, and follow through with only addressing those. Get rid of bulky furniture or don’t buy it when shopping for any new stuff.

As far as systems are concerned, insulate it as much as possible and eliminate thermal bridging. (The building “envelope” is considered a system.) Disregard the talk about diminishing returns on spending more on insulation. That worked in a pre-peak oil world. The more you can do to slow the transfer of heat (either into or out of the building) the better.

Thermal mass is important. This helps to regulate the internal temperatures. New construction has become flimsy in order to cut costs, and subsequently fails miserably at being an efficient heat sink. Concrete, although not the most environmentally friendly materials, is very effective at providing internal mass which helps to regulate internal temperatures; in either hot or cold climates. Water can also be used but is more complicated for achieving this objective.

Prioritize your sustainable wish list. The things you need to consider are: physical footprint, carbon footprint, water footprint, long term operational and maintenance costs, indoor air quality (toxicity of construction materials), and embodied energy in construction materials. It is still more expensive to build a sustainable house than a conventional one, no matter what anyone tells you. You may need to let go of some of your ideals. This is where addressing square footage is key.

Further, attempting to go about a project like this on your own (i.e. without an architect and/or contractor) might sound appealing, but then be ready to spend a lot more money and time than you otherwise would by hiring professionals.

It will also take its toll on your relationships and any other activities of your life at the time. It is a demanding process, so make sure you, and those around you are prepared for the additional stress. Despite us being in the business, we found it to be a very taxing and exhausting experience. Both the design and construction process is fraught with constant challenges.

And when you do hire an architect, make sure they practice substance over style, and that they are local to your area. Architecture was always indigenous, up until the late 20th century. It’s time it went back to its roots. Your contractor should also have as much experience as possible in sustainable construction techniques. Check out their respective work and make sure they are not simply blowing “green”, as is becoming common these days.

Finally, you will get immense satisfaction at knowing that your project tread more lightly on the earth, will cost less to operate and maintain, won’t make you sick to live in it, and will serve as a working model for other sustainable projects in your area.


Tommy Krenshaw said...

A gift.

Thank you.

mila59 said...

Enviro -- thank you so much for going to the trouble of posting such a great description of your house-building process. There's so much to think about here. I'm a little sad about the goals you had to give up, but life is nothing if not a compromise, eh?
I'm guessing the straw-bale design was primarily jettisoned because of the permitting process? I don't believe it's even allowed in Massachusetts although I'm not sure.
Questions: What are you doing for hot water? I know you gave up on solar hot-water-heating...but what about your regular hot water? The Archdruid (John Michael Greer) claims it's something everyone could do at minimal cost...we looked into it very seriously and came up with a $10,000 (U.S.$) for an integrated system from Germany. Considered a home-equity loan but scrapped the idea -- we don't have the money and like Freedom Guerrilla, don't want to be in debt! Also have (arguably) too much shade over the roof. But anything we build or retire to will have a solar hot water system for sure.
And what is your water supply to the house? Do you have a gravity system? If you believe in "The Long Emergency" or something akin to that...will you have a water supply?
So many questions...sorry to be a bother, but it's all very interesting.
Thanks for writing.

mila59 said...

P.S. Glad you didn't kill each other! "They" say that remodelling or constructions projects are some of the biggest relationship-killers! :)
I've got my husband looking at this too...he's got all kinds of architecture and construction background...thought he'd be very interested in your experiences.

Envirofrigginmental said...

Hi Mila,

To answer your questions on hot water, we use the boiler that supplies the radiant heating. It uses a separate tank but I'm not 100% sure about it's operation. I've been meaning to find out and will get back to you.

For drinking water, we have a drilled well that is about 170' deep but uses a special submersible pump that uses less electricity than a typical one. I will get the details.

As far as the strawbale is concerned, it was a multitude of factors: approvals, timing, construction complications and the subsequent addtional materials required. The other factor is finding a contractor to do it. There aren't a lot around and it is quite an endeavour to take on yourself.

For a single storey house though, I would highly recommend it and am anxious to actually do one. There is a school near DC that was done in strawbale... it's an amazing product... and to think it's considered waste!

Giving up on some of the initiatives was very disappointing. But in our case, what really caused the plug to be pulled was schedule. We were fortunate to be able to stay in our former house for 8 months from when it sold, but it meant we needed to design it, get a building permit and get it finished for move in within that 8 month period. That's not a lot of time when you are still in the research stage of some of the systems.

Feel free to ask questions. ;-)

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