Orienting the house

In the planning stages of building the house we had known the importance of southern exposure for the purposes of solar gain for heating in the winter, solar photovoltaic panels, as well as limiting any north facing windows. Fortunately for us our best views of the river were south and east. To the north there really wasn’t much to look at except for our shop and the trees.


When we first bought the property, as part of the package came a Geotechnical survey. With us being so close to the riverbank this was a critical piece of information that we would have had to have done before building. The property coming with this saved us a few thousand dollars, which is always nice. Interestingly enough the fellow who owned the property originally (in fact, he owned all of the property along the riverbank from ours to about 5 miles downstream) stopped by to introduce himself. He still owned 40 acres down the road and was interested to see who the new people were. He and his wife had actually developed our property about 15 years ago with the intention to build their home there, though for whatever reason this never happened. He had gotten the Geotechnical done during that time. He explained that his intent was to build a 2000 sq.ft house with a walk-out basement into the hillside overlooking the river. Right here:


That would have been impressive for sure. But for Darcie and I we don’t have a giant pile of money to build something of that significance especially requiring that level of engineering to perform the proper ground preparation.

Also, once we started spending time at the land, we felt that you actually got a better view of the river, the sky, and the land by being a bit further back from the edge of the river bank. (Also the thought of precariously sitting on the edge made me nervous). With the cost of excavation and construction, moving the house back a bit just made sense to us.

Crystal Bueckert, our designer, came out for a site visit as we began nearing the completion of the design and had mostly finalized the size. We spent a couple hours with string and stakes, marking out and moving the footprint of the house. We eventually came to a spot that we felt captured the most ultimate views. It was always oriented for solar exposure with the long side of the house facing south, but moving the footprint closer and further and forward and backward really made a difference. It was pretty cool being able to sit in the living room or stand at the sink and see how the view changed. It was also really exciting to picture the house on the lot and begin to imagine what our life will be like.


Initial House Design Process

I thought we had a pretty clear idea about what we wanted in the house. We also trusted our designer to help guide us in the details. Our priority was to find an optimal balance of energy efficiency, maximizing the view, and the aesthetics of a modern design, while also respecting our budget.

Our aesthetic draws us to simplistic modern vernacular houses. These simple shapes (square or rectangle) also happen to be ideal for energy efficiency – less angles make for less escape points of energy and thermal bridging at corners. Additionally, these shapes allow for easier transfer of air and heat throughout the interior of the home. A peaked roof can be made to orient at the correct angle for solar exposure of a PV system.

That’s all well and good, but we also had this amazing view in front of us:


As if fate had made it so, the views were south and east. If we’d been north facing we would be in a bit of trouble for energy efficiency – in fact, we would probably fail.

When considering energy efficient and passive solar principles, you need thermal mass. The sun hitting a thermal mass like stone, tile or concrete allows it to warm the surface and passively radiate that heat for the remainder of the day. It just so happens that we quite like concrete floors. These can be very beautiful surfaces that you can polish, grind, or stain. Naturally these all add some cost to the finishing of concrete, however the costs are significantly less than adding flooring overtop. We need the concrete for the slab anyways, so why not use it for our thermal mass and our finished floor?

The more I read about energy efficient design principles, the more and more pleased I was to find that a lot of our aesthetics were coinciding with optimal energy modelling.

Our basic house idea was for a 1700-2000 sq.ft bungalow or 1.5 storey with three bedrooms (although we are DINKs now [dual income no kids], we will likely have some rug rats (concrete rats?) running around at some point)  and two bathrooms. Also, we wanted a living room and separate media/rec room. Because we will be canning and storing a lot of our own food a large pantry was also necessary. We want to have a lot of connection to the outdoors, not just through the windows, but also a few exit points to access a deck space and various parts of the yard.

As I’ve previously written, we’d spent quite a bit of time going through Pinterest and numerous design magazines choosing our inspiration photos. As part of our early design process, we also went through and measured the room sizes we liked in our house and those of some friends and family whose room sizes we thought were nice. Still the details of how it functioned needed to be put together. This is where the designer is key.

Crystal Bueckert, our designer, is great. At our first official design meeting she basically listened to us and did the first design exactly as we’d asked. We waited with excited anticipation for the first draft to come back. About two weeks later she sent it to us. Not only did she send us a floor plans but also a 3-D model with a virtual walk-through on our laptop and iPhone. We were so excited to see what it would look like. We opened it up and… we totally hated it!

She had done exactly what we had asked but we absolutely didn’t like it. It was not what we had envisioned at all. Ok, I’m being a bit hard on it. There were a couple things we liked and there was some things that had potential, but overall it was not good. At all.


The next design we revised a number of our thoughts and really tried to think about how we wanted the house to flow. We abandoned the 1/2 storey idea and went to a bungalow. We also changed the position of the living room and kitchen, which made a very significant change to the layout of the entire house… Although we wanted a relatively ‘open concept’ house (from both an energy efficiency and style point of view), we did not want it overly open and in the first design it was just too open.

The second design was a lot closer to what we were going for. Except for one big thing: we recognized that the kitchen/living room/dining room placement was actually a lot better in the first design, although the rest of the house worked WAY better than the first go around. Still we were getting closer.


Sadly, the third version was a bit of a mess, we had considered moving the mechanical room to the attic to free up floor space as we really wanted to keep it under 2000 sq.ft total. That quickly came to a halt when I had a nightmare about the water heater breaking, spewing water through the ceiling and down the walls – destroying everything I cared about. I told Crystal that we had to fit the mechanical room into the main floor. We also wanted (Darcie said ‘needed’) to switch the kitchen and living room again – a massive design change again.

I’m confident the fourth design is going to be very close to the final product. The layout flows beautifully and to solve the space problems we actually went smaller. Shrinking the size from 2300 sq.ft in design #2 to 2050 sq.ft. There are a few minor changes to make, but I feel like we are about 90% completed.


Now that we had the layout near completion we needed to figure out the big questions of wall systems and mechanical heating/cooling.


Heating a super-insulated airtight house in a cold Northern climate

The biggest question mark for us up to this point was, “How the heck are we going to heat this place?”

First there are a couple of caveats:

  1. We had no natural gas to our site. This is probably a moot point anyway because even if we did have ‘natural’ gas we would not have used it. We did have a neighbour ask us if we would consider bringing it in. But this just seemed ridiculous to me. For a cost of $20,000 you can pipe in a non-renewable resource, then pay monthly fees for it for as long as it is available. And given the rising energy prices this cost is only going to go up and up.
  2. We do have power to our site, but we intend to be Net Zero or Net Positive if possible. The power delivered to our site comes from the Queen Elizabeth power station, which is a natural gas burning. This is a big reason why people in places where you “must” choose from grid-tied power (which is often still coal-based) or ‘natural’ gas will often select the apparent lesser of two evils and choose natural gas for heating/cooling and appliances. Still, there is a third option that people seem to forget – SOLAR POWER! For less than or equal to the cost of bringing natural gas to our site, we can put up solar panels and generate not only our own electricity for heating, but also our own power for running everything else in the house.
  3. We are putting in a wood burning stove as a back-up heat source. Now, I know Passivhaus purists think that this is a bad idea and Wolfgang Fiest, the Passivhaus guru in Germany, has outright said that there are no wood burning stoves that meet Passivhaus standard, but we don’t care. I know of nothing more comfortable than sitting next to a crackling fire. Also, wood is considered to be a renewable resource, cut down a tree for firewood and plant a tree in its place.

Ok, so now that we have the prerequisite information out of the way, there were still huge decisions to make. Over the past few months I’d read innumerable articles on heating options for northern climates and in particular, super-insulated houses, as well as received everyone else’s biases on the optimal heat source. I soon realized that there are dozens of different options and all of them have their own pros and cons.

Most Passive houses that I read about used a “Mini-split heat source”, the majority of which were made by a company called, “Fujitsu” out of South Korea. These are pretty cool little devices. The popular choice with most houses I read are the ductless mini-split. In a Passivhaus, the heat load is so low (usually between 10,000 to 15,000 BTUh – as an aside most standard furnaces are 60,000+ BTUh) that usually two of these little systems are sufficient for heating a 2000 sq.ft house with ease. As the name implies, they do not use any ductwork, and essentially function like a space heater mounted on the wall. There is a pipe with refrigerant that passes through the exterior wall to an outdoor unit that draws air in, preheats it and delivers it to the indoor unit for distribution. In the moderate climates of Asia, Europe and the US these are great. A major appeal for these is that in the summer they act in reverse providing air conditioning. However, in a northern climate, such as Saskatchewan, though these are likely not the best option. Previously these units would be able to preheat air as low as -5°Celsius (23°F). Fujitsu has recently come out with a new model for “Extreme Low Temp Heating”, which will heat up to -25°Celsius (-15°F) outdoor temperatures. Unfortunately, this is still not sufficient for our cold Canadian prairie winters. Last year we had a record number of cold days for the winter: 58 days of -30°Celsius (-22°F) or colder. A couple years ago for the entire month of December it did not get above -25°Celsius (-13°F) for a high! There will be a few days, every year, when it is -50°Celsius (-58°F) in the morning. That is insanely cold. If you have never experienced cold like that, it is really something to behold. Fujitsu would have to come out with a “Super-Duper Ridiculously Extreme Low Temp Heating” mini-split to cope with that I’m afraid.

If we were to use the mini-split system then we would need to have back-up heat sources in each of the rooms of the house such as radiant wall panels or baseboard heaters to manage the cold whenever it dropped below -25°Celsius (-13°F). Although these radiant heaters are relatively cheap at less than $100 each, I must admit that I think they are kind of ugly. Well, uper ugly. Even the fancy ‘modern’ ones are ugly. I KNOW, that shouldn’t be one of my criteria, but it is, I’m extremely particular and I think they’re ugly and cheap looking. And I think the mini-splits are ugly too! Gah, the truth comes out.

You see, we like minimalism, our house was going to be simply designed, no casing around doors and windows, no crown moulding, no baseboards. Adding BASEBOARD HEATERS just seemed like a mortal sin to our minimalist aesthetic.

Ok, breathe…

Another option that was brought forward was to use an electric reheat coil. Basically how this worked was like a typical forced air ducted system, but a little bit different. A no-brainer must-have for an airtight house is a ventilation system. If you don’t put one of these in then you are going to have serious problems from moisture build-up, mold and air quality. We had already decided that we would use a Vanee HRV (this was developed by Dirk Vanee through the University of Saskatchewan who is credited with developing the first widely available and mass produced HRV systems) in our place, which as with all other ERV/HRV systems, uses ductwork to each room or area of the house to deliver fresh air and draw out stale air. How the reheat coil works is by being mounted in the mechanical room at the outlet to the fresh air thereby preheating the air before it is distributed to the house. The cool thing about this is that you can use the ductwork already present for the HRV system, but only because it is a super-insulated house, in a conventionally built house you would need separate ductwork. For this reason, this leads to the claim by some that in Passive Houses “conventional heating systems are rendered unnecessary throughout even the coldest of winters” (a fairly misleading statement) as it uses the pre-existing ventilation system.

There are a few downsides with this system however, the longer the ductwork, the greater the heat loss prior to reaching its end point. We are a building a long narrow house and have one length of wall that is 48 feet. Secondly, this is basically a forced air system. A HRV flow rate is a lot less than a true forced air system, but essentially you are just heating the air, not surfaces as is the case with “radiant” heat. Thirdly, this system cannot be well-controlled, it is one system for the whole house. So in our living/dining room and master bedroom that get more solar gain, they would also get the same air heating, which could lead to overheating concerns. Fourthly, we would likely still need to supplement the system… and we’re not going to talk about that again.

A lot of conventional builders, and I’ll say “lay-people”, suggested in-floor heat. Actually they said if we didn’t use in-floor heat then we were idiots (OK, they didn’t quite call us that, but I felt their judgment). In-floor radiant heat is certainly appealing for a lot of reasons. We planned to install a 1.5” concrete slab topper on the main floor of the house for passive heating purposes as well as the required 4” slab for the basement. And we also really like the aesthetic of nicely finished concrete floors (remember we are modern minimalists). But there was one problem: concrete floors are cold. When we told people that we might not use in-floor heat in the concrete, this is when their judging eyes showed themselves.

Second, in-floor heat is indeed very comfortable. We have several friends who have in-floor hydronic heat and walking into their house and feeling the warmth in the winter is very pleasing.

Third, you don’t actually see the heat system. It is imbedded in the floors. No wall panels, no horrendous baseboard heaters.

Fourth, it can be zoned and controlled. Each room or area can have a thermostat installed individually with piping running specifically to each room with a sensor in the floor that allows for it to be controlled. This was a big bonus, because rooms like the master bedroom and living/dining room do not need as much floor heat because the thermal mass and solar gain will heat these areas passively, whereas the north rooms and hallways do not have solar gain and so would need to have a higher floor temperature.

Ok, so you can begin to see where my bias was leaning. That is until I started to read about radiant floor heating in super-insulated and well-built houses:

“Radiant Floor Heating: Why radiant-floor heating systems don’t make sense for new, energy-efficient houses”

“All About Radiant Floors”

“Heating a Tight, Well-insulated House”

Damn. The basic argument was that radiant in-floor is nice and makes sense, in crappy houses. I don’t want a crappy house! Also the general agreement was that these systems were overkill. Passivhaus is called “passive” for a reason – reduce the use of non-passive, mechanical systems. The heat load, as mentioned of 10,000-15,000 BTUh, does not require a big system like a boiler, pump, and in-floor piping. In fact, when we talked to a couple friends who had built well-insulated houses with passive solar orientation they told us that overheating in the winter did happen and they would have to open their windows in the dead of winter. This seemed crazy!

Another concern was how we would deliver this heated water through the floor. Most systems use solar thermal panels that have water pumped to the roof to be heated through copper piping, then brought down to a storage tank and boiler that heats the water to upwards of 100°Celsius. This is then pumped through the floor in a closed loop system. As we found out from our recent well water testing, we unfortunately needed to use either a whole house reverse osmosis (RO) system or have water brought in by truck and stored in a cistern. The ramifications of this being that RO water is highly corrosive to copper piping. Crap! So what were we to do?

I had no straight answer and everything that I read either did not seem appropriate for our climate’s peak loads (coldest times of the year) or was apparently overkill. Sleepless nights were the result.

However, as I talked to others in the Passivhaus field, they admitted some problems with the Passivhaus model for a northern climate with frigid temperatures like ours. Passivhaus was really designed for moderate climates in Germany and a lot of the articles I had read were discussing moderate climates in the US. Indeed radiant floor would be overkill for those climates, but they do not get down to extremely low temperatures like us.

It was decided the best means of make this difficult decision was to sit down as a team and discuss. We had a meeting with our team of four engineers, all trained in LEED building, one with Passivhaus certification and one with R2000 and extensive energy modelling experience, the mechanical contractor and my wife and I. We went through made a list of advantages of each system – which essentially is what I wrote above.

In-floor hydronic heating was the clear winner.

All of my questions of setting up this system and concerns of overheating were alleviated in this meeting. We would use our solar PV system to power a simple, small 2-element, 100% efficient electric boiler by Argo. (We did briefly play around with the idea of an air-source heat pump hot water heater from Germany for both in floor heat and domestic hot water, but due to the high capital cost and potential issues of no one knowing how to service it here, we canceled this. Although the thought still seems intriguing, in another few years this may have been the best solution. Check out this article for more information). On the domestic hot water side, we selected a fairly straight-forward, 47-gallon Bradford White high efficient electric hot water heater. We also planned to insulate this with its own extra insulated jacket. Really, in the end, it came down what is the simplest, most cost-effective solution to meet our needs.

As for overheating, the engineers would design the system so that areas hit with solar gain would not overlap with those of the in-floor system, while those not receiving solar gain could be controlled separately to deliver us the best of both worlds. On the extremely cold days, our little Norwegian wood burning stove would take the edge off.

Boom. Decision made. Now I could sleep again.

PS. This post was edited from its original version on Nov. 23/2015.


Finding a Builder

Most people we talked to about building a house told us: “Whatever you do, take your time finding a builder.” I guess Darcie and I don’t like to listen to most people. We chose our builder after approximately zero hours of looking and after interviewing exactly zero other potential candidates.

Shortly after we had first talked to Crystal Bueckert at BLDG Studio about Passive House, my mom, an interior designer who had worked as a project manager at the University of SK, told me, “You have to meet this guy, Murray Guy!”

Murray Guy runs a company called Integrated Designs Inc., a local engineering consulting company, who are involved in design, project management, energy modelling, and building commissioning, on high performance and energy efficient commercial and public buildings. Their focus is to “deliver sustainable designs that are efficient, practical, and cost-effective. The integrated design process was developed specifically to deliver high-performance, cost-effective building solutions.” Sounds good to me!

Murray and his son, Taylor Guy, a carpenter by trade, have started an umbrella company called Eco-Smart Developments that uses the skill, knowledge and extensive experience of Integrated Designs Inc., to now build green, sustainable and energy-efficient residential houses.

However, we didn’t know this at the time.

My mom had simply said we needed to meet this Guy and discuss our ideas (she didn’t know he was involved in building homes either). Sure enough she called him up and told him about our plans to build a Net Zero house based on Passive House principles. He told her, “Oh, well then they have to come over and see the Net Zero house I just built. What are they doing tonight?”

After touring his house and discussing our plans we realized that this Guy was awesome! He was super-knowledgeable, very passionate, and was willing and able to build a house for us. He and Taylor had already assembled a crew of tradespeople who they trusted and could therefore eliminate the inefficiencies in time, cost, and materials of multiple trades coming into and out of a project.

Particularly with a Passive House, it is critical that all parties involved in the building of the house from the designer to the plumber to the dry waller and everyone in between, need to understand the overall goals of the house – that is, high performance and ultra-low energy. Minor mistakes (putting a hole in the vapour barrier, for example) become huge issues in an extremely efficient house. Eco-Smart had already taken steps to eliminate this by having a crew already assembled and on the same page.

Additionally, we had heard time and time again, about how difficult it was to get contractors out to rural areas. Murray and Taylor were not only willing to do the job but were excited about the potential project. Their excitement increased when they said a couple weeks later that we should take a drive and check out our property.

The following week, Darcie and I, Murray, Murray’s wife, Taylor and our dog, piled into my Subaru and drove out. They were thrilled about the site, the view and the possibilities. (Also they were the ones that suggested we put a yurt out on our site as they had built one on their property at Candle Lake where they’d built their cabin [the first Eco-Smart project]).

So that was how we chose a builder. I don’t know what the big deal is for everyone else. It was pretty easy I thought.


Designing a Home

Now that we’d bought land and decided to build a house, we had to actually sit down and think about what that house would look like, how we wanted it to function, and what are needs are now and in the future.

We do not intend to build another house ever again. We intend for this to be the house that we’ll live in until we are old and grey and they are going to have to drag us away from kicking and screaming (I fully intend to be like my Grandparents who are 90 and 88 years old were still living on their farm). This is a lofty task though! We’re both 31 years old – thinking about what our needs will be when we’re 90+ is a bit intimidating.

That being said, the process of designing and dreaming up our future home has been super fun, despite the challenges.

Both of us have always been drawn to interior design and architecture. My mom is an interior designer and Darcie had nearly moved to Toronto for interior design school. We’d already spent countless hours reading design magazines and blogs, posting on Pinterest, and redesigning our previous house.

Now we actually started to have to analyze all of those things that we liked, didn’t like, were intrigued by, et cetera, and try to figure out what it was about those things that we were drawn too and just as important, what it was we didn’t like.

Living in a 102-year old character house for the past four years, there were elements that we wanted to take with us and recreate and there were those that I can happily do without. In our old house, I loved the simplicity of it’s basic shape – a square with an evenly peaked roof and a balance of windows on either side – also, it’s 9-foot ceilings, the cast iron sinks and tub, and for an old house it had a very nicely sized living room, dining room and bedrooms. I also really liked having a living room and a separate media room (I’ve actually grown to loath a TV in a main living room). Also, our old house was painted black and our new house would most definitely include some amount black.


However, there were also a lot of things that we didn’t like about our house and I’m glad that we’ve experienced these so that we avoid and rectify these issues in the next place: Small kitchen (we are moving to the country in large part due to food. The kitchen is going to be a centrepiece), dark interiors (poor lighting, incorrect placement of windows, and dark walls and woodwork), bathrooms (why did we have 4 bathrooms?! The toilets and other fixtures were low quality), stairs (five flights of stairs, enough said), maintenance (old houses are constantly in need of repairs, I need a relatively easy to maintain house), drafty (Passive House!), and too big.

For a house designer we hired our good friend and architectural designer, Crystal Bueckert at BLDG Studio Inc. There was really no decision here, she was our one and only choice. Her houses are the coolest ones in town by a long shot. Plus she already knew a lot about energy efficient design and was trained in Passive House.

As a starter, we sat down with her and measured out all of the furniture in house that we were going to take with us. This way the house is designed in part based on our current interior design.

She also suggested that we put together a portfolio of all of the photos we liked and label what we liked about them. Well, frick, I had 500 photos pinned on Pinterest already and I like all of them!

Over the next couple weeks we started going through them and began to really consider if we thought they were just cool/interesting or if we would actually want to live in them (this is a VERY important distinction to make). We gradually narrowed it down to about 60 photos. After we scrolled through them looking at each of the photos, we realized that, hey, we got a pretty awesome looking house here!

There were trends that kept coming up in the houses we were drawn to: a simple vernacular house, white/black and wood exteriors, large wood-framed windows, light minimal woodwork, white walls, white subway tile, vaulted ceilings, concrete floors, and wood burning stoves.

Although we wanted a modern home, we do not want it to be ‘ultra’ modern or bring visions of science fiction or James Bond. We were particularly intrigued with Vernacular Architectural – designing houses that reflect local traditions and local needs. In SK, on the prairies, that is agriculture and farming. Essentially we’ve realized that we want a modern farmhouse.


What is Passivhaus?

I’d never heard of “Passive House” or “Passivhaus” (as the Germans or fancy pants folks like to call it, myself included) when we started the process of starting to design our house.

I had heard of “Solar Passive House” though. As far as the history goes as I understand it, in 1973 the OAPEC (Syria, Tunisia, and Egypt) issued an oil embargo on the USA – due to some silly war on a foreign nation that Americans had gotten themselves into, again (weird). The oil embargo caused a pretty major scare to oil loving North Americans. With this sudden rise in oil prices ($12/barrel!) and potential for oil shortage, people became very worried about what a world without oil could be like… “How else can we heat our houses?!” and “How will we drive our cars?!”

Strangely enough this led to some novel and creative ideas, like “Why not insulate our houses better?” and “Maybe I could use my legs for transportation or drive with my friends and colleagues to work” and “Why don’t we use that big flaming ball of fire in the sky to magically give us free heat and energy?”

These earth shattering and brain melting ideas led to some interesting developments, one of which was the “Passive Solar House.” Some of these were better than others. But the basic concept was quite simple: Face the house to the sun, put a bunch of big windows in front of the sun, use concrete or rock on the floor or walls (thermal mass), and then insulate the walls better to retain this heat. Ta-Da! Less oil and gas to heat our crappy leaky houses!

Unfortunately for the world and future generations, only a handful of these houses were built as the oil embargo was lifted and cheap oil flowed again allowing people to forget about solar energy and other sustainable/renewable resources. People went back to the way they’d always built homes and functioned as they always had in their day to day lives. It’s sad and a bit amazing to think of where we would be as a world now if we’d have taken those sustainable ideas of renewable energy sources and continued to apply and develop them to an even greater degree. We seem to be at a similar point in history now as they were 40 years ago…

Anyways, Darcie and I actually looked at a Passive Solar House in Saskatoon when we were house hunting 5 years ago. Admittedly, most of these homes had a number of issues (although I still believe that had the oil embargo lasted longer a lot of these issues would have been easily addressed on a large scale) including: poor ventilation (they were stuffy due to lack of airflow), too hot (they felt like a greenhouse and so were often later retrofitted with air conditioning), still leaked heat and cold (not airtight), there was no passive shading outside (again overheating in summer or not adequately heating in the winter), and too humid (again poor ventilation).

What is really awesome though is that there were a very small number of houses that totally nailed it! One of those houses, considered to be the first “Passive House” was built in Regina, SK by the Saskatchewan Research Council in 1977.


It’s pretty amazing that the first (unofficial) Passive House, using only two water heater for heat sources, was built in Saskatchewan. The Tyee has a great little write-up on it here: “Step Inside the Real House of the Future”

This house was built by some very forward-thinking people at the Saskatchewan Research Council, including Rob Dumont from Saskatoon (more on him later). They recognized some of the earlier problems with the Passive Solar House including air leakage and poor air flow/quality. They were able to develop a means of extreme airtightness and significantly reduce the leaking that happens in most houses. They also developed one of the first mechanical ventilation units that brought in fresh air from the outside, pre-heating it with stale interior air and circulating it through the home. Pretty neat!

A ton of people (upwards of 30,000) came and looked at this house in the late 1970s and 1980s. Two of those were a couple of German professor dudes named Wolfgang Feist and Bo Adamson. They studied that SK house and two others in the US that had also proven themselves to be extremely energy efficient. They returned to Germany and over the next several years studied and refined what they had seen abroad with the goal to apply it to the building of new German homes. Eventually this led them to founding the “Passivhaus Institut” and developing two basic requirements that all true Passive Houses must meet:

1. Every building must pass a blower-door test demonstrating exceptional airtightness. The Passivhaus airtightness standard (0.6 AC/H @ 50 Pascals) makes the Canadian R-2000 standard (1.5 AC/H @ 50 Pa) look lax by comparison.

2. Every building must consume no more than 15 kilowatt-hours of energy for heating/cooling per square meter of floor area and 120 kilowatt-hours per square meter for total energy consumption. While R-2000 and most other green building standards govern only energy used for heating and cooling, the Passivhaus standard applies to all energy — including lights, appliances, entertainment and hot water heating.

Ok, yea so what do those numbers mean?

The first one applies to air tightness of the building’s envelope (the walls, roof, windows, doors, and floor). Most houses are terribly leaky. I know ours is. It’s 102 years old. Even though the windows have been replaced we can feel a draft near most of them and there are cold spots throughout the house. That’s why we run our furnace, like most households, all the time. Passive House air tightness looks to eliminate air leaks and drafts to extremely minute levels. This is tested with a blower door test, which is just like it sounds: seal the doors, run a fan at the door, create negative pressure and measure air leakage. For comparison sake, most conventional houses leak at a rate of 15.0 air changes per hour (AC/H). To be certified as a Passive House, air leakage can be no more that 0.6 air changes per hour!! It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize what a massive effect that would have on your need to heat (or cool in hot climates) your house, once it’s heated, it stays heated and you need a lot less heat to make it comfortable.

The second applies to how much total energy the house consumes. This applies to all components of a home that make it function. A high level of insulation, proper solar orientation, passive shading in the summer, solar gain in the winter, and a simple layout of the home will each have fairly significant effect on how much energy the house will require. Still, comparison helps here. Consider this:

  • The average Canadian home consume 59% of total energy in heating
    – 43,506 Btu/ft2 per year
     (137.2 kWh/m2 per year)
  • Homes built to today’s Passive House Standard, consumes 6.4% of total energy in heating
    – 4755 Btu/ft2 per year
    – (15.0 kWh/m2 per year)

Ok so basically a Passive House is 30x more airtight than a standard house and consumes 53% less energy for heat. That makes for a seriously energy efficient house. (http://design-build-energy.com/passive-house/)

Essentially this shifts the conversation of house building away from “How am I going to heat my house?” to “How am I going to keep the heat in my house?” Consider a coffee mug versus a thermos. A mug of coffee will be cool in a matter of a few minutes while a well-insulated, air-tight thermos can keep it hot for hours.

I had never thought of these common sense concepts before when considering building a house until we told our house designer and friend, Crystal Bueckert at BLDG Studio, that we wanted a “Net Zero” house. She said “Nah, you need a Passive House.”

You see, a Net Zero house can get to net zero how ever it wants as long as you balance the energy you use by what you can replace. So theoretically you could have a regular old leaky house but as long as you replace all your consumed energy with solar panels, a windmill, geothermal, etc, etc. then you could still be “net zero.”

Passive House makes reaching net zero relatively easy. You consume way less energy, so throw a few solar panels on the roof and, boom, you’re net zero. In fact, most Passive Houses with PV panels are Net Positive houses in that they feed back onto the grid as they are netting more energy then their super-insulated and airtight house needs.

Now that’s sustainable living.


Yurt + Fire

I think we finally completed the yurt. After putting the whole thing together a few weeks ago we still had to put all the finishing touches together. The biggest thing left to do was install the wood burning fireplace and chimney.

We actually bought the fireplace a couple months ago – before we’d even received the yurt. We knew we were getting a 15 foot diameter yurt. I measured it out on the ground and it seemed pretty small to me initially. Cozy, let’s say it seemed cozy to me. It came in at 177 square feet. We wanted to be able to go and hang out in the wintertime in it so we needed to have some type of heat source. An electric space heater is just not as quaint and ambient as a wood burning stove though.

Because the space was small, we needed an equally small fireplace. And so my hunt began for the world’s smallest fireplace (that didn’t cost a a small fortune).

We found some pretty cool fireplaces. One company from Sweden called Jotul (pronounced “Yo-tel”) we’d seen when we were in New York state this past spring. They make really beautiful cast iron heritage-type Scandinavian stoves. This one, the Jotul F602 was great – only 12.5”x19”.

That’s pretty tiny! But unfortunately the long side would be jutting out into the room all awkwardly. Plus the price came in at $1300 + tax. Sorry Jotul, maybe next time.

As the search continued, I found another Scandinavian fireplace company that I liked even more: Morso. This was an even cooler Scandinavian company with even nicer fireplaces than Jotul. This little guy, called the Morso 1410, was so sweet.



Plus it had a fancy little squirrel on the side! And you could boil tea on top! And, and it was only 15.5”x17.5”. I was really excited about this stove. We search their website and found that there was actually a dealer in Prince Albert, SK, of all places. We requested a quote… $2300. Frick. How could I justify spending that much on a fireplace for the yurt. The cost of the yurt was not that much more than the fireplace. Even still, the squirrel almost had me convinced.

I was starting to get a bit bummed out about the cost and options for small stoves. In my desperation, I started googling “world’s smallest stove”.  Wouldn’t you know that there’s a stove called “The Hobbit”.


It’s only 12”x12”! Sure it needs extra mini logs, but it had the “The Hobbit” in the same typeface as “The Hobbit Movie” scrawled on the top. I started composing an email to the company asking for a quote and shipping cost and how soon we could get and so on and so on.

Darcie, finally couldn’t take my insanity over finding a tiny stove. “What do people use for ice fishing shacks or campers? There has to be somewhere we can buy a small stove locally.” She’s always so logical.

“Yea, ok, whatever, I’m busy,” I replied as I composed my lengthy email to the Hobbit stove guys.

Meanwhile, she started searching Rona, Home Depot, and Canadian Tire. You know, boring places.

“What about this one?” She asked.”It’s only 19″ deep by 26″ wide. That might fit nice.”

Oh, um, that’s actually pretty nice. And it would totally fit given that the yurt is a circle the width didn’t matter as much as making sure it was not too deep.

Sure it didn’t have a squirrel embossed on the side and it wasn’t a super cool Scandinavian company. But it was only 800 bucks and there were two in stock just down the street at Canadian Tire. Good ol’ Canadian Tire. You can’t go wrong! 10 minutes later this affordable little non-Scandinavian stove was in the back of our truck.

Now I like fire. But putting together a chimney made me a bit nervous. As with everything else we’d been doing… I had no idea what I was doing.

I’d been sent instructions with the yurt on how to install a fireplace and chimney system. And the instructions with the fireplace were also quite thorough. I needed to get good quality double-walled stove and chimney pipe. I didn’t want to mess around buying something cheap.

I decided to go to a legit fireplace shop. They’d know what they’re doing, right?

Wrong. They’re idiots! I, at least, watched some YouTube videos on how to put together a chimney pipe. You would think these guys would at least be able to have an intelligent conversation about it. I went to the shop and asked the fellow if he could confirm the components I needed. “Uh, ya, I guess that’s it.” That wasn’t really the vote of confidence I was looking for.

I bought the stuff even so and set off to put it together. As I unpacked the boxes, I quickly realized that I was missing the pass through for the wall and support base and brackets for the chimney (I’d specifically asked for all of this). The next week I went back. “I’m pretty sure I need these support brackets,” I said. “No no, you’ve got all of the stuff you need,” he replied, making me out like I was the idiot. Not wanting to seem like an idiot (in case I was), I took the wall pass-through and left.

This time, I decided to try and put it together like this guy had suggested. Really there was no turning back at this point. I measured it out and cut a whole through the yurt wall. Well, I guess that’s the point of no return, I thought. I started putting the pieces together… frick. As I started to hoist the chimney pipe (about 8 feet tall and roughly 40 lbs), I realized, as I’d suspected, that there was absolutely no way this is going to be self-supporting. I’d watched YouTube for goodness sake! And YouTube said I needed support brackets. It also really did, there was no way this would hold. So I taped the hole shut and went back to town. Again. Third time.

Finally, last weekend we got the fireplace and chimney installed. It wasn’t easy. But nothing seems to be easy around here. Still, having that first fire in the yurt, all of the difficulty and the weeks of trying to figure it out, just melted away…




(Originally posted September 15, 2014)


Paint it Black

I love black. Black is the new black, I say. The white door on the yurt was just not flying. We debated about painting some kind of mosaic of fish and swords and skulls, but in the end decided that a black door would be best. You just can’t go wrong with black.



(Originally posted August 28, 2014)

The Big Coop Move

When we purchased the land, one of our first thoughts after the excitement of closing the deal was… “Crap, what are we going to do with our chicken coop/shed.” I’d spent a ton of time on it, too much money, and plus it was just way too awesome to leave behind.


I started to look into our options. I made a few phone calls to some moving companies and eventually found one that was willing to come by and take a look at it for us. My original thought was to hire a picker truck and flat bed trailer. I was told the cost would be $350/hour. Ouch. But if that’s what it took, then so be it.

They had their operator come by and take a look at it for me. “Ha, not a chance, buddy,” were his first words to me. I felt deflated. With the power lines overhead he would not be able to lift it and to get a truck and winch in there simply wasn’t enough clearance in the back lane to drag the coop out and onto the truck bed. Double crap.

“Ok, is there anything else we can do?” I begged him. “What is this thing anyway?” He asked. “Uh, it’s a shed and uh, a chicken coop.” (At this time we had not been publicizing our illegal activity). “You have chickens in the city?? Right on, man!” He told me that he raised free-range organic chickens just outside city. I didn’t even have to ask him where his farm was, I had an overwhelming sense that I just knew. “It’s just near Pike Lake,” he said. Ha, I knew it! “That’s where we are too!” I said. I explained our location and he was familiar with it. From that point on he was way more motivated to help us out. “Ok, let’s figure this out,” he pondered.

He explained that he could perhaps get a big forklift, slide it under the back, wrap the coop/shed in chains, drag it out, then come around to the front, lift it up with the forklift, turn 90°, drive down the alley, and place it onto a flatbed trailer. All of this sounded terrifying and dangerous. But we had no other options. “It’ll definitely be one of my toughest moves,” he said, “But I’m 90% sure it’ll work.” Also it was a lot cheaper that $350/hour.

We set a date for two weeks from then.

During that time, Darcie and I found a spot and laid down cindercrete blocks that I salvaged from my buddy’s retaining wall that he was tearing down. The next weekend, we slaved like prisoner’s on hard labour (perhaps paying penance for our illegal city chickens?), breaking the ground and laying and levelling the bricks.

D-Day finally came. 9am Saturday he would be there. At 9:20 I heard some heavy machinery rolling up the alley. It’s go time.

We’d had a friend come by and take apart the fence (as I was still lamed up because of having my face jackhammered in surgery the week before). He brought the forklift around and gently slid it under the back of the coop/shed. It went, really, just like he explained, only smoother. I was so impressed. I had totally expected the coop to just disintegrate or at the least to break in two as he lifted and dragged it, but it held together and in the end there was not a nick or scratch on it.




We drove out to the property with him following us. It was so exciting to see the coop being hauled down the road like that.

When we arrived at the land, he got out and exclaimed, “How did you score a place like this!?” He was impressed, to say the least, with our view of the river. He also offered to take me hunting if I wanted because, he explained, this was a prime spot for deer trails along the lower river valley. “You could sit here in your lawn chair and hunt.”

Then it was onto the easy part. He lifted the coop/shed off and placed it gently on the foundation we’d made. Done. OMG, that was awesome.




(Originally posted August 28, 2014)

Backyard Chickens

Ok confession time. Darcie and I are evil criminal masterminds. It’s true! You’d never know it by looking at us, but for the past 6 months we’ve been breaking the law... by keeping really cool chickens in our backyard in Saskatoon!


Our master plan was foiled last week by the stealthy detective work of Animal Control Services, who read about us having backyard chickens in the StarPhoenix newspaper.

We’ll get to that but first, a bit of background information.

I’d always thought that chickens were pretty neat. I’m not sure exactly when Darcie and I became interested in backyard chickens, but I recall looking at magazines of people with beautiful homes and couple of chickens pecking around in the backyard.

Last year, the Better Good Store in Saskatoon (a sustainable, ethical home products shop) put on the Yard + Garden Tour through their neighbourhood. Darcie and I decided to go along and check it out. She had just recently quit her high-stress sales job in which she had travelled the province weekly and we were now looking for a way to get away from that lifestyle become more sustainable at home.

The garden tour was inspiring. All of the homes were very similar to ours – small urban lots without much room for what I would typically consider to be a garden. However these people had knocked it out of the park! There was food forests and permaculture and, yes, backyard chickens. Four of the eight houses had chickens. They stole the show. Darcie and I left the tour and decided that night that we needed to get chickens.

Darcie, in quitting her job, had also decided that she was no longer going to drive a car. She had purchased a bicycle and was going to ride that as her means of transportation (which she totally has! Even through -40° celsius winter mornings. She is hardcore). We now had a useless parking space in our backyard… we started to envision this as the future home of our yet to be purchased chickens.

Within about two weeks I had researched plans about chicken coops and sheds online (we needed a shed to store Darcie’s bikes). There was a really deadly shed (yes, sheds can be deadly if done right) and a sexy chicken coop (seriously) that I came across. There were no plans for building, but in my naivety I thought, “Hey, I’ve never built anything in my life before, but how hard could it be to simply morph these two highly involved and clearly very skilled constructions into one ultra-awesome coop/shed masterpiece?”

I enlisted the services of my friend Benjamin who actually had built stuff before: decks and fences for money and his own extensive home renos; and we set to work building the coop/shed.

First, we moved the fence and levelled the ground. This took one entire day. The ground might as well of been concrete as it had been used as a parking spot for decades. The two pickaxes we used barely seemed to make a dent.

The next day Ben and I built the foundation. Then it was nighttime. Crap, I thought we’d be done by now. Also Ben had to go back to work the next day so it was just up to me and Darcie.

I had the week off so I spent 10-12 hour days constructing, researching, undoing, and redoing, and of course, not sleeping due to fear of failure and embarrassment. By the following weekend though I was pleased that it wasn’t looking half bad.

After three weeks the coop was completely done and was looking pretty dang nice. I was also quite impressed with myself having never built anything before. Sure it wasn’t totally square, but it close enough, and I couldn’t push it over with both hands so I was happy.

Here are a few process shots for your viewing pleasure:

Before (boring parking spot):


Framing the base:


That’s a wall:


Now it’s looking like something:


Now it’s really looking like something!


Ta-Da! Finished!



Not too shabby I thought. I totally wanted to show it off and post it on Instagram – but I had to stop myself. We couldn’t let people know what we were doing! It had to remain a top secret black ops type of thing. So when people would ask me what I’d been up to I’d simply say “oh, just building a boring old garden shed.” Of course that didn’t quite get across to people what I was doing. It was a bit underwhelming, but oh well.

Over the fall and winter months I read about chickens. First some websites likewww.backyardchickens.com and a few other blogs. I then read a short book from organic gardening magazine on raising backyard chickens. Though the best resource was “A Chicken in Every Yard” which I picked up from Turning the Tide bookstore. I also bought “Backyard Chickens for Dummies” (it seriously exists). By the late winter I was as ready as I possibly could be to have chickens. I’d also researched a chicken supplier of heritage birds who was just south of Swift Current SK. The difference between heritage chickens and the others was that heritage, as the name implies, are long standing breeds that have been pure bred (like a cat or dog) to maintain certain characteristics of that breed that were present before the “modern” breed of chickens – those of which have been more scientifically bred to produce a greater number of eggs or rear more meat – often at the sacrifice of the overall health of the bird in the long run. Anyways we’d decided on three chickens to start with and elected to go with a variety pack: Buff Orpington, Black Australorp, and a Barred Plymouth Rock. April 12th was the day we drove to the Swift Current poultry and exotic bird show.



They were a lot cuter than I expected. I dunno I always thought chickens were pretty ugly beasts, but these guys were downright handsome little devils. From right to left, we named them Hildie, Marge, and Ruth.

We had a lot of fun with these little guys introducing them to our neighbours, friends and family.  They were 8-week old “pullets” – basically teenagers. They don’t start laying eggs until they are fully mature at about 16-20 weeks old. So for 12-weeks these guys freeloaded off of us. Eating lots of feed and making us clean up after them every week.


After all the preparatory work and reading I’d done I was really surprised at how easy they were to take care of. Certainly they required some basic knowledge and understanding (what to eat, how often to clean the coop, how to clean it, when to introduce them to other pets, etc etc), but overall they weren’t that much work. Basically we’d let them out of the insulated henhouse in the morning. If it was cool in the night then I would turn on the heat lamp I’d installed (I also installed a thermometer inside the coop that we could monitor from inside our house to make sure they didn’t get too cold). In the morning they’d trot down the ramp, eat some food, take a few craps, and drink some water. The rest of the day they’d scratch around in their coop and then at night they’d walk up the ramp and back into their henhouse. Pretty simple.

For the first few nights they weren’t sleeping on the roosts. I’d read that it was instinct for them to sleep on the planks of wood that I’d installed in the henhouse. But instead I’d find them sleeping on the nesting box, in the nesting box, or huddled in the corner. C’mon you dumb chickens! It’s supposed to be instinctual! So for the next few days, after dark, we’d open the henhouse and place them on the roost. Most mornings they were elsewhere, but after a week Ruth stayed on it all night, and by the next night all three perched there until morning. Since then we’d never had an issue. Great success!

We resisted introducing them to the dog for several weeks out of fear that she would kill them or more likely that the hens would peck out our French Bulldog’s eyeballs. Needless to say, Fiona, the dog, was highly curious of these weird creatures that had suddenly shown up in her backyard.


However after about 6 weeks, Fiona didn’t seem to care about them anymore and the chickens equally seemed uninterested in her. Also, they were getting bigger and, although their coop was plenty big enough for them, they seemed a bit bored. Cooped up, you might say (ha!).We discussed it and thought, maybe we should try letting them out in the backyard and seeing how they do. We were prepared for the worst: feathers, blood, eyeballs, all of it.



But none of that happened! In fact, it was positively uneventful. Boring you might say. I had prepared myself for blood and there was none. They just walked around, took a couple of craps, and when Fiona tried to sniff one they freaked out and ran back into their coop.

In late June we got our first egg courtesy of Ruth. We were so excited about it. But then had to laugh, why were we so excited that a chicken had laid an egg? Isn’t that their job? Isn’t that just what chickens normally do? Still it was pretty awesome.


Also, the chickens were being regularly let into the yard in the morning when I got up and when we were in the backyard. Fiona was less than impressed.


Around this time we were asked by Laura and Cory at the Better Good if we’d like to be apart of their Garden + Yard Tour this year as they had planned for it to go through our neighbourhood.

Hmm… we’d been trying to keep this super duper secret thus far, but at the same time we wanted people know what we were doing. I’d been reading books about urban farming and urban homesteading and certainly backyard chickens was a big thing that these movements talked about. We’d also already bought our land by this point, so we thought, what the heck, let’s do it.

By the way, Saskatoon, our city, is a funny place. We have many young, forward-thinking and progressive people doing a lot of very interesting things in a variety of disciplines, but for whatever reason, our city hall and council are very happy with the status quo (i.e. doing nothing progressive or forward thinking). It took 10 years for us to develop a city-wide recycling program for goodness sake.

As the time got closer to the garden tour, Cory called me and said that the StarPhoenix, the local newspaper, was very interested in the backyard chickens and wanted to do a story on it. They’d be coming on the tour and wanted to talk to us.

Ok, now we hadn’t planned for that. We were a bit nervous now. I was fine letting a hundred or so people in on our secret backyard chicken operation, but the whole city… yikes.

But as we talked with Cory and Laura, we realized that we were actually in a unique position, we had planned on listing our house this Fall (another post on that later) and moving the chicken coop out to our land at the end of month. Our good friends were kind enough to agree to add our hens to their existing flock, so really, we had nothing to lose. If we got in trouble it really wouldn’t be a big deal. So we thought, ok, bring on the press! Let’s confess!

The Garden Tour was August 17th and it was super fun. We had about 120 people through our backyard and the response was completely positive. Everyone was so interested in the chickens and our coop. We fielded innumerable questions about what our neighbours thought (they thought it was fun/cool), if we’d had any complaints (no), if they stink (no only if you don’t clean the coop), if they are loud (no they’re not roosters; they make a bit of squawking in morning when they wanted out and occasionally bok-bok-boking, but that’s about it), and many others. There were several people interested in starting their own flock in the city and a few others that also had chickens (co-conspirators!).

Also the StarPhoenix came through a took a bunch of notes and photos. After the tour, we waited for the article to be published and for any fall out.

Oh and I was going for surgery the next day.

The article was published in Monday’s paper. It was short and sweet and had a lovely description of our little setup. Hildie, the Barred Rock, was also featured in a photo (article is at the end of this post).

On Tuesday, as I lay on the couch moaning and bleeding out of my face while Darcie tended to my post-surgical wounds, the doorbell rang. “Um, this looks serious,” she said. A person in a fancy uniform was standing at our door. Darcie opened the door. Animal Control Services. Wow that was faster than we had anticipated. “I’m here about a report of chickens in your backyard. Are you aware of the bylaw?” “Yes, I am”, Darcie said. I was ready to be dragged off in handcuffs, crying and bleeding. Darcie told her, “They’re actually going to be moved out at the end of the week and the coop as well.” She also asked what the complaint was? “It’s regarding the newspaper article,” the official person lady said, “I’ll be back next week to make sure they’re gone.”

Just as Darcie sat back down and I breathed a sigh of relief that we hadn’t been thrown in shackles and strung up in the town square, the doorbell rang again. What the heck now?

It was the reporter from the StarPhoenix. “What was that all about?” She asked. Darcie explained to her that we’d been busted. “Well I’d like to interview you about the chickens and the bylaw and why you have them despite it. Can you do it now? I can have a photographer here right away.” Darcie tried to explain that I was on death’s doorstop, but I, like trooper I am, said to just do the interview.

For the next half hour Darcie talked to the reporter, took a short video, and had a bunch of photos snapped. The reporter told us it would likely be a front page article. Oh damn. (See attached article at the end of this post).

On Thursday the news broke. Sure enough, It was front and centre on page #1. Darcie smiling and holding Marge (the Buff Orpington) and the headline reading “Councillor says chickens can be deadly.” Frick. That really doesn’t sound like what we were going for. We don’t want to be the crazy evil chicken people. However as you read the article it quickly became clear that that statement was simply ludicrous. They had interviewed three city councillors, the first guy was very deadset against chickens. Reading his comments was like reading an article on The Onion. His statements were so preposterous that I was laughing out loud at several occasions. The second councillor was also misinformed quite badly, but at least he was open to a pilot project for chickens in the city. And the third, one of the only rational voices on the city council, Charlie Clark, commented that he actually lived next to a house that kept backyard chickens, was completely supportive about it and had many valid, well-informed and thoughtful ideas about backyard chickens.

The response to the article from the public was remarkably and overwhelmingly positive. I read through all of the Facebook comments that I could that were linked to the article through various sources or shared on other pages. I was surprised at the incredible majority (well over 95%) of people who were in favour and supportive of having chickens in the city. It was also very rewarding to hear the comments from our neighbours (who we had not previously talked to about chickens), who enjoyed the quiet clucking they heard in the morning and that it “made them love their neighbourhood even more” and others who said they’d “miss not hearing the clucking.” We were also very happy to read a number of comments from people who were on the tour that were inspired by our mini urban homestead.

Overall we have really enjoyed the process of having chickens in the city, although short-lived due to our move out to the country. It has been such a pleasure to have the hens in our backyard. It brings a great sense of satisfaction when you can learn about something, research it, make it into a reality and see other people be inspired and excited about it too.


YARD TOUR SHOWCASES SUSTAINABILITY – The StarPhoenix – August 18, 2014

COUNCILLOR SAYS CHICKENS CAN BE DEADLY – The StarPhoenix – August 22, 2014

(Originally posted August 24, 2014)