Once you go black…

We’d really hummed and hawed about what to do about the basement parging for most the winder and early spring. Although our plan had been to do the house all black initially.

 

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But last year we’d hesitated. And I’m not entirely sure why. We couldn’t run the wood siding all the way to the ground, like the rendering shows, because of the 8” of foam on the exterior basement walls without some seriously extensive strapping. Alas we had the stucco guys parge the basement foundation and then leave it while we contemplated our options: leave it or go all black.

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While taking photos for the post about the concrete retaining wall, Darcie, my wife, said, “The house doesn’t look right. It looks like it’s floating. It’s weird.” She proceeded to spend the next several days playing with Photoshop, filling the gray parging with black and analyzing it from multiple angles. After a week of scrutinizing the Photoshopped images, she said, “Look. We should do this.” Pointing to an all black house.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned is that once my wife has made up her mind, it’s best not to disagree. It is only futile afterall. “Yes honey,” I replied (these two words are the most important for a husband to know, by the way).

So I called the stucco guys and asked them to come back. It ended up taking a number of weeks for them to finally show up (typical). But only a couple hours for them to transform the house.

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I gotta say, I don’t know why I’d hesitated, because once your go black… well, you know the rest.

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Wild Game Fence Construction and the Values of Naivety

One of our primary motivating factors for moving out of the City two years ago was to be able to produce, grow, harvest and consume our own food. Although we’d been “distracted” in the building the house (see previous 75 blog posts) for the past year and a half, with this now (relatively) complete, we could focus on the land and start to establish our garden and orchard.

We planned to get started with some of the orchard plantings this year, but before we did anything we would need a fence… And not just any fence but an Ungulate Fence! Also known as a Wild Game fence (although ungulate is much funner to say). This is no ordinary fence, mind you. This is a serious beast of a fence – at 8′ in height and made up of high gauge tension wire and heavy large posts, this fence will keep all large animals (deer, in particular, being the problem in our area) from decimating the garden, berry bushes, and fruit trees. You see, ungulates (deer and elk) can jump pretty darn high – up to 7′ straight up – and they like food, especially fresh tasty grade veggies and ripe berries. So, an 8′ fence is the minimum height to ensure your area will stay protected.

Last year we’d plotted out the site of the garden – between the shop and riverbank’s edge. And, well, it would be massive. Growing up, my parents had a large urban garden, which was about 50×75′. It was large enough to feed our family of four all year. My parents would freeze, blanche, and can fruits and vegetables in the autumn, which would last us until the following summer when the fresh produce would be ready again. I really had never tasted vegetables that were not grown in our own garden until I moved out of my parents house. “This is what people think vegetables taste like?”, was all I could think when I first shopped at the grocery store – blech!

So to some degree, it’s been the desire to get back to the land that has led us to this place.

Being that we had to build such a heavy-duty fence, I thought it would make the most sense to build the garden/orchard big. Like big big. My reasoning was that it would be a lot of work to build more fencing and prep the land again if we found we wanted it larger later. And in the back of my mind, the thoughts of a possible CSA food program, market garden, co-op garden, or U-pick orchard, is kind a long term potential but who knows.

Anyways, we plotted the garden/orchard out at just under a 1-acre area. That should do. I imagine it will eventually be likely 60% orchard and 40% garden vegetables.

The area though had never been planted with anything but pasture grass and all varieties of weeds were abundant. I’d tilled the area four or five times last summer in an effort to kill off as much as the weeds and quackgrass as possible. In the later part of the Fall, a friend of mine was able to bring in 25 yards of compost to help the soil.

And so the big project for the 2016 year was to build this mother of a fence and get some fruit trees and berry bushes in the ground.

We’d been able to purchase all of the game fencing used off of Kijiji last year from a farmer who’d raised buffalo (they can only jump 6′ high by the way).

And so in early June, on especially hot week, Darcie and I took a week of “holidays” to work on the fence.

I did find a very good article on how to build the wild game fence, which we read the day before starting. “We got this shit,” we said jokingly… We had no idea what we were about to get ourselves into… But you know what, sometimes a bit of naivety is a good thing when one lives out in the countryside.

The first three days were spent putting the posts in the ground. These are big awkward things – 12′ tall, 5-6″ in diameter and weighing about 40-lbs each. I used a post hole auger on the tractor to dig a 6″ hole which we then filled with water to allow the post to slide in. Darcie and I would then lift and drop it into the hole and get it level. From there, I’d stand on a ladder and using a 14-lbs post sledge hammer (I kid you not), I would pound the post into the hole to secure it as Darcie held it level. Um, it was a lot of work. And we did that 54 times for all of the perimeter posts. I didn’t even take any pictures of this work – mostly because I didn’t want to remember it.

The following day we convinced two of our good friends to come help us with the 12 cross beams that would need to secure the corners and gates.

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We used a chain saw to cut the 12′ posts to the correct length and then drilled pilot holes into the standing posts. We then pounded 10″ spikes through the posts and into the beams.

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The following day was easily the worst day of all though. And probably the one that from viewing you would not know we’d really done anything. At each section that a beam had been placed (12 in total) you need to string a diagonal tension wire to give added support and stability to the fence. This is a crucial part structurally and is terribly difficult. The wire is a 16-gauge high tension wire that comes wrapped on a spool. We needed about 90′ for each section to wrap it twice and secure it with a metal ratchet.

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Unfortunately when you try to unroll the wire off of the spool and cut it, it has so much tension that it would fire off of the spool like a tightly wrapped spring (which is pretty much what it is) and tangle itself into a terrible mess. The wire is crazy sharp too, so as I was cursing and swearing, trying to untangle it, it was cutting and slicing my arms and body. I looked like a whipping boy by the end of the day.

Then we had to hold the wires in place between the beams and ratchet them tight with the world’s worst tool (see above photo) to tighten the wire. There’s so much tension on the wire and it needs to be very tight that I completely buggered my wrist that day. It would be 3 weeks before it would be feeling better.

Sigh.

The next day, which according to the instructions was “the most difficult and tedious” part of the fence build (oh great), was to string the actual fencing.

We had two 440′ rolls of the fencing that we rolled over to the long side of the fence. We unrolled a hundred feet or so at a time and stood it up to the first fence post and hammered it in using the heavy-duty fencing staples. Then we went section by section, unrolling a length, standing it up and hammering it in. The trick is to leave some wiggle room when pounding in the staples so that the fence wire can move a little bit back and forth. Once we got halfway down or around the corner I used the tractor to tighten the wire. The instructions suggested using two 2x4s and bolting them together between the fence and the slowly snugging the wire, which really worked like a charm.

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Once we had it snug we tightened up the staples in the corner and put 4 staples on each standing post (not too tight though). It went like this all around the fence. Honestly, of all of the fence building, this to be the easiest part. (Easy being a relative term of course).

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In this photo you can see those cursed diagonal tension wires.

Once my wrist had recovered sufficiently a few weeks later, we were able to put up the gates.

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And there you have it. A real-live DIY wild game fence.

Let’s never speak of this work again.

Life out here

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for the past 3-4 months. When I’d been researching the building of the house – and in particular, reading a number of blogs like this one (a cathartic rant on the trials, frustrations and triumphs of building a green home – is that a reasonable tag line thus far?), I’d get to “the end” of the blog and think, OK, how do they like living there? What is your life like now?

I have kind-of written about this before, from an eco-perspective, but now I want to write this from a life-perspective.

The funny thing is that really life just starts to gradually get back to normal – whatever that new normal might be for you. For Darcie and I, we really weren’t entirely sure what that would actually be. We’d lived in the City for our whole lives, except for the 14 months of living in the small cabin down the road from our future home. And this certainly was not a “normal” time.  Living in a tiny space and spending all of our free time dominated by the house build.

Indeed I’ve still been conscious of the house (at times more than I’ve wanted to – more later), but, as I’d told friends when we were nearing the end of the build, “I can’t wait to not have all of my thoughts be entirely about the house.” And over the past few months, they haven’t! I wasn’t sure where my thoughts would go though and what exactly I would start spending all of my new free time on.

Here are a few…

Happily, I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time in the kitchen, which is, most definitely, my favourite place in the whole house. I love to cook and finally having a space to spread out in with a lot of counter space, a big sink and plenty of storage has made cooking so much more enjoyable then it ever had been.

I’ve fallen hard into old-style, traditional artisan bread baking using naturally leavened yeast, which has become by far, the most satisfying cooking I’ve ever done.

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Bread baking like this is an amazing combination of alchemy (turning 3 mundane ingredients, tasteless flour and water and a bit of salt, into deliciously rich and complexly flavoured bread), culture (humans have been baking bread in this way for nearly 10,000 years), tradition (there is nothing like breaking and sharing home-made fresh bread with friends), and art (these things are so darn pretty! And never the same).

I never would have attempted this in our old house, but for whatever reason, this place has inspired me to do so.

Since starting bread making with wild fermented yeast, we’ve also become somewhat obsessed with other means of fermentation. We recently have made sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi. And as soon as the garden is up, I’ll start sour pickles, beets and carrots. I’m grateful for the counter space as it is now regularly covered with crocks and jars, in addition to the mess of containers from my bread and other cooking.

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We also decided to purchase a canoe this year to start to explore the river. We’d debated about kayaks and even paddle boards, but a canoe, at least to begin with, seemed to be the most logical.

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As you may have noticed, the scenery out here is pretty amazing. We have a family of whitetail deer living in the valley across from the house, a trio of eagles the frequent us with fly-bys on a daily basis, recently pelicans have been fishing our front and even trumpeter swans have come by, in addition to the usual Canadian geese, multitude of waterfowl, and even the odd stray goat (we woke up to a goat staring in our front window the other day – most peculiar!).

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Did I mention that I found a dog too? No? Well, I did. It was actually several months ago while driving into work that I spotted a black and white streak in the ditch. At first I thought it was a skunk, but as I got closer I realized it was this mutt:

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Pretty cute. This was the day I found her shortly after taking her to my sister’s house. Honestly, how could I not stop and pick her up in the middle of nowhere? We put out “Dog Found” signs and reported her to the local animal shelter, but no one claimed her. For whatever reason we thought, sure, we could keep her (even though we were still not even moved into the new house and had a tonne of work yet to do. What’s a little more stress?). Read: this was a bad idea.

We did try to keep her. We even drove into town each weekend for obedience classes and woke up at 5:30am every morning to take her our for a long walk, but unfortunately she simply did not get along with our long-time French bulldog, Fiona.

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Actually they really and truly hated each other – with a passion. That burned deep inside their little souls. We kept the pup for about 4 months, before finally realizing that we could not have her anymore. Fortunately she ended up going to a really good home. My wife’s colleague trains dogs and was overjoyed to take her in.

As the Spring has turned to Summer, our thoughts started to turn towards the garden and orchard, that we’d been determined to create. Little did I know that although the house took 8 busy months to build that the outdoor work – well, it might take a lifetime.

Oh, to be so naive. Is it a blessing?

The trials and tribulations of concrete

 

The last of the work on the house was a concrete retaining wall and front step/pad and a side door pad. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be done with contractors (and spending 1000s of dollars). One of my friends, Dan, who had worked for a large concrete contractor in town had recently started his own company, called Old North Concreteworks. When he’d told me about this over the last winter – I said, “Dude! Why didn’t you start your company last year?!” With all of the headaches we’d had with the concrete before during the build it would have been so nice to have someone with a such an experienced and trustworthy knowledge of concrete.

Nonetheless we, being one of his first contracts, would be able to get the pads poured early as soon as the ground had dried and thawed. Retaining walls are tricky and we’d had a lot of settling over the wintertime. But around the area of the retaining wall we had watered and backfilled last year to try and expedite the settling. It seemed that we’d been successful in this regard as the land had really not dropped at all there over the winter. For the retaining wall, Dan first poured a 6” footing extending 6’ perpendicular to the house with the retaining wall form built on top. He and I then backfilled to the form with dirt and crushed rock (tamping down at each bucket load) to bring this up to the point where they would be able to join an 8’x6’ pad to the top of the retaining wall – essentially creating an upside down ‘L’.

The side door pad would be simpler – 4’x7’ and 4” thick.

A few days before the planned pour date, he sent me two different options for finishing the concrete edge:

 

 

 

“Hmmm… Neither,” I told him.

Do this:

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Alyson Fox House

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yup, that’s what I want, no edge, just poured.” If you’ve read this blog for anytime, you may realize by now that Darcie and I like things that other people don’t normally do – at least not around here. Dan suggested a “mag finish” in which he lightly brushed the top of the concrete in a swirled, random way to get some grit to the top so it would not be slippery.

The day of the pour came and when we got home wouldn’t you know, we had a two pads and a retaining wall poured! Success.

I messaged Dan to see how the day went. “OK I love the top,” he said. Excellent, I thought, I would like to collect a royalty fee now every time you use this. “But…” he said, it was essentially the worst day of his life otherwise. The concrete truck they’d ordered broke down on the way out to our house. We are 30 minutes away from the city and it was a very hot day – that’s not a good combination for concrete. The concrete was starting to set as they poured it. Fortunately they were able to get it in place, not being a lot of concrete really – but our very sandy soil didn’t hold the retaining wall forms very well, despite being heavily reinforced, and the wall had bowed. He was not happy about this and insisted that he would fix it, suggesting that he rent a large concrete grinder to take out the bow later.

I really wasn’t surprised to hear that they’d had issues. It always seems to be that way with our place… Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

For Dan though, the day only got worse. After finishing our place they had to rush over to my neighbor’s house a ½ mile away to pour a sidewalk along his garage and house. The concrete truck broke down again! And he poured the hardest concrete of his life, he said. He had to use all of his might to smooth and level it. In the process and stress of it all, the concrete had started to stick and cure to his legs. After they’d gotten it all down and finished – he attempted to pull the concrete off of himself, but with that came a lot of his skin. Yucky.

A few days later Dan returned and ground the bowed section out, exposing the aggregate in a very interesting and dramatic fashion, which I was pleasantly surprised with. As has seemed to have been the way with our house too – right to the bitter end – many of the seeming mess-ups or frustrations end up turning out creative and interesting solutions. I would not have asked for the wall to be finished the way it was, but pleasingly, I’m happier with it then I would have been had it all worked out just as planned.

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Swirled, “mag” finish
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Yes it rained last night.
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Ground and polished retaining wall

 

 

 

That’s a big deck!

January to March had been fairly relaxing. The previous year and a half had been incredibly busy/hectic/stressful with planning and building the house and we thoroughly enjoyed our hibernation time in the new house over the winter. But now that Spring has sprung itself we were looking forward to getting outside and crossing a few things off of our to-do list.

I have to continually remind myself to: “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life.” -Socrates

Although we are going to be getting more projects done, we’re also trying to take things easy and be a little gentler on ourselves. There is really no rush or pressure to do anything at any specific time.

Still, the Spring/Summer To-Do list includes (but not limited to): backfill, grade, deck, plant grass seed, build garden fence, prep garden, plant garden, concrete patio, retaining wall, walkway, driveway, irrigation, dog run, general yard clean up, plant trees… I’m sure there’s more.

One of the first priorities was to get the deck built (it would make all of those other projects so much better by being about to recover on the deck after a hard days work). We elected to have our framing contractors come back to do it as soon as the snow and land was dry enough to start. The weekend before we had to backfill around the house as it had settled a lot over the winter. The wooden stairs we’d been using dropped at least 12″. And as the snow melted we had a mini waterfall along the side of the house.

It was gruelling and dirty work backfilling, shovelling, grading and tamping. We were fortunate enough to have our neighbour (best neighbour ever) offer to bring his payloader tractor over to help us out. We must have moved 20 yards of dirt that day.

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We’d designed a BIG deck to take up most of the south side of the house with a size of 16’x40′ (about half the size of the house!).

I’d really wanted to have the deck clad in cedar, but the cost was absurd – exactly double the cost of treated lumber. I’m not a huge fan of treated lumber, but for 50% the cost, I can learn to live with it. Besides we would not be staining the cedar had we done it, so in 5-10 years treated and cedar look nearly the same – a light grayish colour.

The Monday after completing the backfilling the builders were able to come out. And by Tuesday evening, Darcie and I were having dinner on the new deck.

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As we sat there on an unusually warm April evening, eating our dinner with our legs dangling off of the side of the new deck, drinking wine and looking out over the river, a bald eagle soared over our heads and into the distance. Both of us stopped and looked at each other, “Could this moment get any better?”

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Kitchen Tour

We relied heavily on the Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander for our kitchen design.

I love what he writes about kitchens:

FARMHOUSE KITCHENS
This pattern defines an ancient kind of kitchen where the cooking and the eating and the living are all in a single space… Make [the kitchen] large enough to hold a good big table and chairs, some soft and some hard, with counters and stove and sink around the edge of the room; and make it a bright and comfortable room… Give the kitchen light on two sides.

COOKING LAYOUT
Cooking is uncomfortable if the kitchen counter is too short and also if it is too long… There is no need for the counter to be entirely “built-in” as it is in many modern kitchens – it can even consist of free-standing tables or counter tops.

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SUNNY COUNTER
Dark gloomy kitchens are depressing. The kitchen needs the sun more than other rooms, not less… Place the main part of the kitchen counter on the south and southeast side so that sun can flood in and fill the kitchen with yellow light both morning and afternoon.

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OPEN SHELVES
Cupboards that are too deep waste valuable space, and it always seems that what you want is behind something else… Cover the walls with narrow shelves of varying depth but always shallow enough that things can be placed on them one deep – nothing hiding behind anything else…

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COMMUNAL EATING
Without communal eating, no human group can hold together…Make the common meal a regular event. The lunch can become an event; a gathering; something that each of us put our love and energy into on our day to cook.

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The kitchen island and lower cabinetry are all rift and quarter sawn white oak. We designed the kitchen with Ryan Unger of Rhine Artisans. A good friend and an amazing wood worker. It was really fun designing the kitchen with him. It was his suggestion to do the interesting Japanese dovetail joinery on the kitchen island.

The pantry cupboards are a sprayed white maple. We had debated about natural wood here as well, but I like the transition of the white pantry cabinetry as it meets the white pine ceiling. Sometimes, rarely, there is such a thing as too much wood.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to find bar or counter stools. It seems mandatory that they be either super ugly or crazy expensive. Darcie found these 3 for $40 on Kijiji and painted the upper legs and seats black.

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Above the fridge is an open cabinet to display items, cookbooks, and old witch hazel bottles.

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I’m not a fan of cabinetry hardware (same a counter stools – ugly vs. so pricy). All of the lower cabinetry (primarily drawers, which are the best) have beveled edges on the top and bottom to easily open and close the drawers and doors.

Also the corner cabinet is drawers. Yes it is. You lose a little bit of space, but man oh man, so much more functional.

All of the appliances, with the exception of the dishwasher, are from Fisher-Paykel. The clean, simple and sleek lines complimented the simplicity of the kitchen design very nicely. They are mid-range price point, about on par with KitchenAid, and have good consumer ratings. We’ve been really pleased with them so far. The dishwasher is Miele, which was actually ccheaper than the Fisher-Paykel dishwasher (that are notoriously prone to break down).

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We had a big old 100 year old farmhouse sink in our old house and loved it dearly. It was so big you could practically have a bath in it. If I could have taken one thing with me from that old house it would have been that sink. No matter though we found a close second in this 33″ wide fireclay sink from Alfi. I like the double sink too – much less wasted water. The faucet was a splurge for us: Bronze-finished Brizo Solna.

We have a LOT of counter space. The last few places we lived had absolute minimal counter space making cooking a frustrating experience. The Pattern Language recommends somewhere around 14 feet of counter space! To be safe, we did 16 feet.

The outer counter is a poured white concrete. It has a creamy, organic finish to it and compliments the white oak quite nicely.

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The entire east wall and north corner (where the open shelving is) are tiled. We like to frequent (fancy hipster) coffee shops, the counter to ceiling subway tile, was certainly inspired by these places.

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Who doesn’t love a corner window seat?

And, yes, that’s a bear skull on the counter… it’s vintage from the 70s though so it’s not that cruel… and it probably died of diabetes or something.

Wood: Grains, stains, and lye washing

I’ve had a few comments lately relating back to a previous post “Real Scandinavian White Washing” that I wrote awhile ago. A couple folks were asking if I could post some comparison photos of the woods we used in the house.

We used three primary woods in the house (after much debate and hours of Pinterest):

  • White Pine – plain sawn for the main floor ceiling
  • White Oak – rift and quarter sawn for the kitchen cabinetry and main bathroom vanity
  • Douglas Fir – rift sawn for the window sills, doors and trim

All of these woods are in the same colour range, fairly light and soft. We do have some furniture with dark woods of walnut, cherry, and teak, but we wanted the palate for the house to be light and airy.

A couple things to consider about wood is how it is cut as this can dramatically change how the wood will look and how it will take stain or oil.

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From Schenk & Co.

This image very nicely shows how distinctly different (in this case a red oak) can appear simply based on how it is cut. Plain sawn wood is the most common and affordably available wood as there is very little waste and it is easier to cut. However, oak is (or at least was) often desired as quarter sawn – giving very interesting “flecking” of the wood grain. A lot of heirloom antique furniture was made with quarter sawn oak. But this is only present on the very outer portion of the tree so it is generally less available.

We chose to do rift and quarter sawn white oak due to the softness of the finish. I was not interested in any “wild” grain on the kitchen cabinetry. Plain sawn oak reminds me too much of the 80s/90s golden oak craze, which gave oak such a bad wrap for a long time. Rift sawn white oak has made oak cool again.

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We chose to do white oak on the lower cabinets, island and butcher block. This photo also shows the lye-washed pine ceiling.

For the white pine ceiling, we only had the option of plain sawn and to be honest I’ve never seen pine as anything else other then this cut.

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White pine ceiling in the bedroom

Douglas Fir though might be one of the most interesting wood grains. It is DRAMATICALLY different as plain sawn or rift sawn. We chose to do rift sawn for the sills, doors and trim as it is more subdued. It also has a much tighter grain, making it appear pinkish in colour. However I built a little media box in plain sawn Douglas Fir – there is nothing plain about this grain though! It is bananas!

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This is a media box I built in the basement for the TV. This is CRAZY wild plain sawn douglas fir grain. I like it – in small doses like this.
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All of the doors on the main floor are rift sawn douglas fir. Comparison between the white pine and douglas fir.
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Comparison of rift sawn douglas fir window sills next to the white oak window seat bench.

All of the woods shown we treated first with the WOCA wood cleaner to remove any crap, dirt, etc., and to open the grain to receive the next treatment. Everything was the brushed with the WOCA wood lye “white”. This is the key ingredient. The lye removes the yellowing agents from wood – these are the things that cause wood to discolour over time from white to yellow – as most lighter wood do (spruce, pine, fir, maple). The lye enhances the natural colour of the freshly milled wood.

NOTE: An important consideration here though is that you need to keep the wood out of the sun before treating it with the lye. Even a few hours, and definitely a few days, of exposure of the untreated wood to UV rays will cause it to yellow. The lye won’t be able to help you much if the process of yellowing has already started.

We were very careful to make sure the wood was covered and tarped during its transportation and we kept it in a dark area while it acclimatized before applying the treatments.

All of the white pine and Douglas fir was then treated with two coats of WOCA master oil “white”. The oil penetrates the wood and protects it from dirt and wear. I much prefer oil-treated wood over varnished wood. The natural hand that you get with oiled wood is far more pleasing to me.

The white oak cabinetry though was treated, after the lye, with a protective poly spray coating – standard for kitchen cabinetry. This is a clear coat so it does not change the colour of the wood, but simply provided a very strong protective layer to the wood.

I’ll plan to post a some house tour photos shortly to give you an idea of the space.

Musings on Passive House Standards and the Costs of New Home Construction, Part 3

If you have not yet read my posts (rants) in Part 1 and Part 2, maybe check those out first.

Have you heard of the Pareto Rule before? It’s more commonly known as the 80/20 Rule. It says that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

I think that Passive House (PH) follows this rule to a T. It has certainly been our experience in building an extremely energy efficient home and following the principles of PH. I believe that 80% of the benefits of PH come from about 20% of the cost and effort (from Part 1 of these posts, I noted that our financial cost was about 8% more than a standard house construction). Whereas to get that last 20% to the hit the PH certified requirements, you’re going to have to spend 80% more… At least this was my assumption.

Still being the curious person I am and because I kept getting asked about it… I just had to know. How close does our house come to the PH standard?

The only way to find out would be to either track the house over the next year or to have someone run the house through the Passive House Planning Package software (PHPP) to predict our values.

As you may recall, we were never pursing PH certification, right from the beginning we were told the cost-effectiveness (80/20 rule) was just not there. Maybe if there was some incentive or rebate for going full-out, one could justify it. We were also told that there was no need to use the PHPP as it was too expensive. This latter statement however is simply not correct.

I decided to ask around and see who could put our house through the PHPP for us. Or at least get a price quote for it. Maybe it would be too costly and so I wouldn’t bother if it was. After a few emails, I was eventually referred to a very well-respected PH consultant out of Alberta – Stuart Fix at ReNu Building Science. I sent my email explaining that we’d already built the house and so really can’t change anything now, but due to curiosity I was wondering if he could run the house through the software. No problem he said. The price we were given was entirely reasonable and was actually less than what we had paid to run the house through the inferior HOT2000 software prior to building. Crap!

After a couple weeks we received the results, not surprisingly: we weren’t a Passive House. But the results on the various aspects of the house were very interesting and lead to some interesting points of discussion.

Based the three criteria for PH certification, recall:

  1. Space Heat Demand: max. 15 kWh/m2a  OR  Heating load max. 10 W/m2
  2. Pressurization Test Result @ 50 Pa: max. 0.6 ACH
  3. Total Primary Energy Demand: max. 120 kWh/m2a

Our results were as follows:

  1. Space Heat Demand: 37 kWh/m2a
  2. Heating load: 22 kWh/m2a
  3. Pressurization test result (assumed 0.6 ACH, prior to testing)
  4. Total Primary Energy Demand: 116 kWh/m2a

So, you can see that the only criteria we met was the Total Primary Energy Demand. The blower door test we did later came back at 0.72 ACH (we’d run the software assuming 0.6 ACH as a target). As a result of the actual pressurization value, this would correspondingly increase the other values, but, for argument’s sake, let’s simply say that the Total Primary Energy Demand we either met, or were very close to meeting, while for the Heat Demand and Heat Load, we were WAY above the German PH maximum values.

I won’t reiterate why this makes sense given the climatic and heating requirement differences of the Canadian prairies versus Germany (see Part 2). But I had to ask the PH consultant:

“If we were still in the planning stages of the house, what would be your recommendations to try and reduce these two values (Space heating demand and heating load)? Not that we would change anything at this point, but I’d be curious as to how we would have gotten those values lower – and if it would have been at all possible with our type of house and in our climate to feasibly meet the PH requirements as stated?”

​The ways to reduce the heating load & demand are as follows:
  • More insulation (you already have great R-values)
  • Lower airtightness (dropping from 0.6 to 0.3 has quite an impact, but you’re already doing tremendously well)
  • Add more south glazing, reduce all other glazing. (You already have a great balance of glazing)
  • Build a larger home (!?!?… small homes are the hardest to make meet an intensity based target, as they have the largest surface area to volume ratio. Meaning that a larger building squeezes more floor area into slightly more exterior envelope area, reducing heat loss per unit of floor area. The Germans do this to motivate one to build multi-family dwellings… but the result in North America has been a lot of larger single family homes getting certified).
​Your home is a great example of why you don’t see certified Passive House buildings taking off in Canada. It’s damn near impossible to design a compliant home, without either blowing the bank or ending up with a solar oven. I’ve designed many compliant buildings, and 99% of them end up backing off on insulation and glazing to be around where your home is. You’ll note that local Net Zero Energy homes have similar envelope performance to your home; it’s most cost effective from that baseline to invest in ​solar PV generation than to add more insulation.​

Under the section of the report on Energy Balance Heating, I asked, “I was surprised by the amount of heat loss through the walls as well as the windows – is that due to the size/number of south windows? Or does that relate to the number of windows on the east/west and north sides more so? How could we have changed that to reduce the heat loss?”

Ideally, if the insulation in all areas of the building cost the same, you’d want to balance the R-values so that the heat loss intensity rate is the same through all envelope elements. Your exterior above grade wall has the highest relative rate of heat loss, so that’d be the place to add more insulation first if you want to improve performance. If you want to optimize R-value ratios this way, it’s smartest to add in the cost/ft2 of each insulation type, then you can maximise your return on investment. For example, adding 1″ of cellulose in the attic is much cheaper than an inch of foam outside of a wall.
The glazing of course has the highest rate of heat loss, but that’s just because you max out at around R10, where your opaque assemblies are R50+.
Your North, East, and West windows are NET losers of heat, while the South windows offer a net gain. This is as expected, and is really the basis of Passive Solar design, that a South window can actually HEAT a building throughout the heating season, with the right recipe. If you wanted to optimize the glazing further, you can add more South glazing while removing glazing on the other elevations (North being the biggest drag on efficiency), which will continually reduce the annual heating demand (how much energy is consumed to heat). This is a Red Flag area though, following this path of more South glazing will eventually cause overheating throughout the year. Prediction of overheating / discomfort is an area where the PHPP is very poor, and I’ve been burned in the past on some projects where we pushed the Passive solar too far in an attempt to reach certification. I now use IES<VE> as a energy modelling tool because of its ability to accurately predict overheating.
“Did you have any thoughts or considerations you would have given us had we run these numbers off the bat with the house planning? “
I’d honestly say you’ve done a great job on your home. It’s pretty much impossible to meet the PHI Passive House criteria for a small single family home in Saskatchewan, without significant and typically unjustifiably cost. The PHIUS criteria is based on a more climate-specific analysis, which attempts to stop investment in conservation at the point a little bit beyond where renewable generation is more feasible. Meaning it’s more realistic to meet the PHIUS+ targets, though we’re not seeing much uptake in the Prairies.​
All of this was very interesting and at the same time reassuring to me. Like many others, I had put a lot of credence on the PH standards as the be all and end all (even still despite reading and appreciating the issues I’ve previously discussed). It was good to hear that the assumptions we’d made were in the end in line with the reality of trying to build a PH in Saskatchewan.
Even still there was one last thing that I just had to know… it kept coming up again and again. It was one of those pesky assumptions we kept getting asked about. And one of my recently reposted blogs on Green Building Advisor brought it back to my mind again… German windows.
It is regarded that the German (or Polish and Lithuanian) Passive House certified windows are the creme de la creme of windows. They are attractive, heavy, thick (6″ wide!), and expensive. But if you want to reach Passive House standards, you gotta have ’em! (Or at least that’s what they say).
I felt a little bit guilty asking for quotes on windows that we were never going to buy, but my curiosity just couldn’t be helped. I wanted to know how expensive PH-certified windows would have been for our place. We’d heard outrageous prices of up to $80,000 for some homes.
We tendered a couple of quotes and received a reply from Optiwin of Lithuania. The salesperson was exceptionally thorough and I was really impressed with his communication (which made me feel more guilty). After a couple of weeks I received the pricing back. I was actually surprised that the cost of the PH windows was only $17,000 CDN more than the windows we purchased from Duxton Windows. Although they would have been certainly way outside our budget anyway – they weren’t 400% more than the price we paid by any means (just a measly 75% more). Nonetheless, I really had to pause again and wonder, why? What would make these windows $17,000 better than the fibreglass, triple pane windows we got? The U-factors and solar heat gain coefficients were not that big a difference. Maybe the the locking mechanisms of the windows could get you a bit lower on your airtightness – but $17,000? How long would it take you to save on heating bills to justify that “investment”?
All this being said, I’m happy to have answered my lingering questions and to confirm some of my assumptions. The bottomline, of course, though is that you want to be able to sit back and be happy with what is around you. To know that you did the best you could in building a sustainable home for the future.
I can’t complain.
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Musings on Passive House Standards and the Costs of New Home Construction, Part 2

If you have not read Part 1 yet, please go back and read it first. 

In mid-November of 2015, just prior to us moving into the house, we were asked to be apart of the Passive House Days tour (a world-wide weekend of awareness of Passive House and energy efficient building). Well, not “officially” – we were asked to be apart of the tour by the event organizer in Saskatchewan who is the Passive House (PH) consultant on what should become the first certified PH in the Saskatchewan. Even though we did not build a PH, we did follow their standards as closely as I could justify, but from the beginning we were not pursuing certification.

Although all of the visitors on the PH Days Tour were very interested in our house, our process, and why we did the things we did, one question we got a lot was, “If you were following the PH standards why not go all the way for certification?”

First, let’s back-up a little bit. Indeed the principles of a PH are second to none. From Passipedia: “Passivhaus is a building standard that is truly energy efficientcomfortable and affordable at the same time.” So simple. Brilliant even. I wanted to build a PH. Who wouldn’t?

Strangely, if you visit Canadian Passive House Institute (CanPHI) website there are total of 5 projects that have received Canadian PH certification. If you look up the PH Project Database there are a grand total of 23 houses in all of Canada that have received certification.

Why the discrepancy you may ask? Why so few certified projects?

This is a bit complicated and took me awhile to figure out. But here are the basics as I understand it: the Passivhaus standards were developed in Germany for German buildings in the German climate (obviously). However, when other builders in other countries tried to build a “Passivhaus” in say the USA, England, or Canada, they realized something profound: Hey… wait a second… I don’t live in Germany!

Maybe trying to build to German PH certified standards in Minnesota or Saskatchewan is going to be really difficult? Maybe impossible? Or maybe possible but really expensive? Or maybe possible but a really uncomfortable building to actually live in?

Still PH institute satellites started to spring up in most countries around the world. Slowly, Passive Houses, built to the German requirements, started to be built in other countries with the first certified Canadian building being built in 2009. The uptake, however, was certainly not rapid nor widespread. Why? Was it not as the PH Institute of Germany said that these buildings are “truly energy efficientcomfortable and affordable”? Or is it just that we are too cheap and/or lazy and/or complacent to meet those strict German requirements elsewhere?

It seems like this is something that these PH satellites were struggling with as discussed herehere and here.

A few years ago though, some people started to say, this is silly – why are we following German standards and requirements for our buildings when we don’t actually live in Germany?

The German PH standards are as follows:

  1. Space Heat Demand: max. 15 kWh/m2a  OR  Heating load max. 10 W/m2
  2. Pressurization Test Result @ 50 Pa: max. 0.6 ACH
  3. Total Primary Energy Demand: max. 120 kWh/m2a

Simple enough right? Hit these numbers using the PH planning software and your building can be certified as a PH. Where’s the problem?

The Pressurization Test for 0.6 ACH is strict, but not impossible. There had been many houses built to this level of airtightness before PH came around. Rob Dumont’s own home in Saskatoon in 1992 tested at an awe-inspiring 0.47 ACH.

Jumping to the third requirement, the Total Primary Energy Demand of 120 kWh/m2a ensures essentially that you are not wasting energy or are at least using it wisely. It forces you to use energy efficient lighting, appliances and mechanical systems. I don’t think anyone can argue with that as being important to green building.

The real problem though, in my opinion, is the Space Heating Demand of 15 kWh/m2a or heat load of 10 W/m2. These numbers dictate the maximum space heating allowed for each square meter of a building. Remember – this is based on a German climate.

In Germany the number of heating degree days (HDD) is around 3100 compared to over 10,000 HDD in Saskatoon. So that means there is over three times as much heating requirement in Saskatoon as compared to Germany. Besides that, who really cares what your heating demand is? With the maximum energy demand of 120 kWh/m2a already stated, what difference does it make whether you use 50% of that to heat your house or 10% in terms of your overall efficiency? This is my real beef with PH and the one that most others working towards PH in countries that have climates other than a German one tend to struggle with too.

Recently the PH Institute in the USA (PHIUS) split off (or was banished – depending on what you read) from it’s affiliation with the German PHI. This allowed them to develop their own standards and specific requirements for climate zones in the USA (Minneapolis also has different heating needs compared to Miami) and also to use North American calculation values instead of European. As a result it is now easier – ok, let’s say, attainable – to hit the PH targets for your Minneapolis house using a Minneapolis climate to calculate your requirements. Now that makes sense to me.

Sadly, the Canadian PH Institute has been resistant to following their American counterparts and has continued to align itself with the German requirements. Thus making it darn near practically impossible to meet the PH standard and become certified by the Canadian PH Institute.

There is a small loop-hole of sorts though, a Canadian house can pursue certification via the PHIUS, which is somewhat closer to our climate in the northern States. Although the conversion is not exact, the Space Heating Demand requirement for the northern USA is about 30 kWh/m2a (or double that of the German standard maximum). That’s better, but still the maximum heating degree days in Saskatoon are more than any other place in continental USA. Nonetheless, there have been a few of PHs in Canada that have used the US system to become certified (ok, like maybe 10 or 12).

I told you this was complicated…

Anyway, let’s try to bring this full circle, back to my original question of why don’t we just build all new houses in Canada to the PH standard?

I hope that I have presented the argument that it may not be realistic to build a certified PH in Canada and follow the original edicts of the German Passivhaus Institute of “energy efficientcomfortable and affordable.”

From Part 1 of this post, you may be able to see that there is a HUGE chasm between how most new homes in Canada are currently built as a result of our pathetic building code allowing inefficient homes to perpetuate, and the extremely difficult PH standards currently set in Canada.

Unfortunately, I think the CanPHI has done itself a disservice in not distancing itself from the German PH Institute. By not developing it’s own Canadian climate specific standards for the unique climate zones of our country, which maybe (just maybe) one day could be adopted on a large nation-wide scale.

Until such a time that the CanPHI recognizes this and modifies their requirements appropriately and regionally, I doubt that PH will ever gain much more than a very small handful of faithful followers willing to spend, at all costs, to meet an arbitrary set of values developed on the other side of the world.

That being said, I do KNOW that you CAN in fact build a house in Canada that IS energy efficientcomfortable and affordable.

But it isn’t a Passive House. 

Because that’s what we’ve done.

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Musings on Passive House Standards and the Costs of New Home Construction, Part 1

A friend of mine sent me this article for Tree Hugger yesterday about an Irish county that made the Passive House standard for all new home construction. This is a pretty big deal. The question then came up – why doesn’t Canada (or the USA) adopt such strict and stringent standards to their new home construction? Certainly the Paris Climate Conference of 2015 has finally made it official what everyone and their dog already knew: the world is overheating and we need to do something about it before we all die. Building better homes could make a massive difference in our world’s energy use. It is well-known that a certified Passive House uses 80-90% less energy than a standard house.

The problem, as usual though, in making such rigorous standards mandatory is a combination of bureaucracy, status quo, and resistance to change. In this post and my next, I will make the argument that I believe there is a skewed perspective on both sides of this battle in Canada.

Did you know that the minimum standard for wall construction in Saskatchewan (a province that has frigid winters of -40° temperatures for long stretches and over 10,000 heating degree days per year) is a 2×6 wall with batt insulation? The effective R-value of this wall is only R17.5 due to thermal bridging (as the wood studs bridge between the inside and outside of the wall). This standard must be out of date, you say? In fact, this was recently upgraded to this absurdly pathetic level in 2012 (it was only a 2×4 wall before that). Shameful.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, most homes in Saskatchewan feature R12 in basement walls and only R40 in the attic. There is no requirement for insulation under the slab of the house. Also, the building code requires only double-pane windows – such insufficient windows account for a massive amount of heat loss of up to 50% (these are usually vinyl framed windows, though sometimes wood or aluminum). And placement of these crappy windows can lead to further issues with heat loss due to inadequate southern exposure and large windows on the north side of house. Furthermore, air leakage rates in most new homes is about 2.0 ACH@50pascals (which is actually one of the lowest values tested in Canada). (Source: Energy Standards by Ken Cooper)

I assume that you can get the picture that our homes are generally very inefficient (don’t think that this is specific to Saskatchewan – this is relatively consistent across North America).

Although we did not build a Passive House, we followed the principles of this as closely as we could financially justify (which is the rub, more on this in my next post). For a quick comparison, our house has R56 walls, R80 attic, R32 basement walls and under-slab. Our latest air tightness test was 0.72 ACH@50pascals (and with some extra tightening we’re hoping to get this to 0.65 or less at the next test). We used triple-pane fibreglass windows. The design of the house maximized heat gain through the south windows and minimized heat loss through the windows on the east, west and north sides. Passive shading with our roof overhangs prevents overheating in the summer. The positioning of the house is directly south (a luxury we have living on an acreage). We also installed PV panels to offset our meagre energy use, which are becoming more and more affordable.

Now, a lot of people wonder and ask (I know I did prior to building), that it must cost substantially more money to build a house to this level of efficiency?

The simple truth is that it does not have to.

The general consensus is that a new custom home in Canada, excluding the cost of purchasing land, is between $200 and $300 per square foot to build (a contractor spec “cookie cutter” home built to the minimum standard with minimal features and cheap finishing can be $175/sq.ft or less). Indeed this is large range – for a 1500sq.ft home you could either spend $300,000 or $450,000. But for argument’s sake, let’s say $250/sq.ft is a realistic cost of a new custom home (we will also assume that most people would not build to the bare minimum construction standard of a spec house and see the benefit of adding triple pane windows and a 2″ layer of EPS foam on the outside of their 2×6 wall).

OK so where are the extra costs?

I would say that the design planning and orientation of the house will be the single biggest factor in determining your initial and long-term costs in a high performance, energy efficient house. It does not cost anymore to build a house with your windows facing north instead of facing south. Positioning the long side of your house to east does not cost anymore than facing it south. Designing correct overhangs for shading does not cost anymore than designing insufficient overhangs. Designing outcroppings, bay windows, and cantilevers does not cost anymore to design than a rectangle or a square-shaped building. Placing operable windows appropriately for cross-ventilation does not cost anything extra either. But all of these decisions and factors can have huge ramifications on the cost of construction and/or long-term costs of operation. We had several team meetings during our design process (including a Passive House certified designer, contractor, and LEED engineers) to decide on which systems would be best suited to be optimally energy efficient, be comfortable to live in, and also to make sure everyone, including sub-contractors were on the same page. This extra consulting time accounted for 2.5% of our overall cost.

In terms of actual construction costs, we built a double 2×4 stud wall that is 16″ wide. The cost of materials for this wall system versus the cost of 2x6s and the 2″ of EPS foam is almost negligible. Framing labour costs were slightly more though as each exterior wall was built twice (accounting for an additional 2% of the overall budget). Remember though our design is simple, a rectangle, meaning four walls – no bays or outcroppings. We also invested 20% more in purchasing fibreglass framed triple-pane windows versus the usual vinyl or wood triple-pane windows (accounting for an additional 1.75% of the overall budget). Insulation costs slightly more but pays for itself in short order when compared to long-term operation costs (the upfront cost is an additional 2% of the overall budget). Airtightness of the house did not cost us anymore than the standard vapour barrier (although it does require some attention to detail by the tradespeople) with the exception that we needed to install a heat-recovery ventilator which cost $1200 (0.3% of the budget).

But there are also some possible cost savings to consider. One can get away with a smaller mechanical heating system due to the lower heat load required in a super-insulated and airtight house. For us, our mechanical system cost about the same as a standard house due to us deciding to install in-floor heating and a wood burning stove. Although you certainly could get away with baseboard heaters or a very small forced air furnace combined with a heat coil on your HRV if you so chose (for us we wanted the in-floor heat and a wood stove – you can read about our reasons for this here and here). Most new houses also have air conditioners installed. We do not (cross-ventilation, insulation and proper shading is all that is needed).

The bottom line is that it cost us about 8% more to build a house that is in the range of 75-80% more efficient then a standard new custom home.

After these extra costs are accounted for the rest of construction costs are basically the same as any other house – how much do you want to spend to finish the house is based on your taste and how much you want to invest in your bathroom fixtures, lighting, hardwood flooring, custom cabinets (vs. Ikea), appliances and so on. Also, how much sweat equity do you want to do yourself? All of this will have a big impact on your end costs (consider, painting our house took 5 full days, but saved us about $6,000+. Installing the tile in the bathrooms and kitchen ourselves took 10+ full days, but saved us another $8,000).

Ok, so you’re probably thinking, how much did this damn house actually cost you? Tell me already! Although I haven’t done our final-final tally yet, it is in the range of $280/sq.ft. But this also includes the cost of our 6.2 kW solar PV system, our septic system, and the cost of trades to travel the 30 minutes to our house each day. Removing these factors, to build the same house in an urban area, you could easily do it for $250/sq.ft.

Say… that’s pretty much the same as what we said a typical new house would cost, right?

So why the heck isn’t everyone doing this??

Well, it goes back to the fact that there is an unfounded assumption that building an energy efficient house costs a lot more (I think we’ve shown that it simply does not have to). It also does not help that energy costs from non-renewables such as coal-fired electricity and natural gas are very cheap still (even so, those extra 8% in building costs for us should be paid back in less than 12 years in monthly energy bill savings). And the public outcry for action is not yet greater than the apathy of maintaining the status quo on the part of our government, the building industry, and those contractors who have been making a tidy profit on their suburban sprawl spec houses.

Part two to come…

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