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. (

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)