Apartment Therapy Makes a House Call

We finally had the house looking pretty sexy and ready to sell. Really it looked better than ever (isn’t that always the way, you finally get the house ‘done’ and then sell it, oh well). I had always wanted to photograph the house and submit it to Apartment Therapy. AT had been our go-to website for design inspiration for our old house and we’d referenced a number of house tours and features for our next place as well. Now that we had the house done and I had to take photos anyways in order to list it, I thought, what the heck I’ll submit it. I certainly wouldn’t have another chance. I really didn’t expect them to get back to us. But two days later they wrote back saying that our house had been selected from the “hundreds of submissions” they receive to be featured as a house call.

This is the post I wrote for them with the photos they used…

Kent & Darcie’s Dream Home (not my title, by the way)

Name: Kent & Darcie
Location: Caswell Hill neighborhood, Saskatoon, Canada

Our house is a very unique home in one of the most exciting and rejuvenated neighborhoods in our city. Built in 1912 by a successful farmer for his wife and eight children, the house retains the character of a Craftsman-style home while also enjoying all of the modern day comforts due to extensive renovations performed over the past seven years. Sitting on the incline of a hill and elevated from the road with a large retaining wall, the house enjoys expansive views of the city.

The house had been extremely run down when it was purchased in the mid-2000s. It had been the rental property of a notorious slum landlord for the previous 15-20 years and was known as the house to avoid on the block. A write-up in the newspaper described dozens of truckloads of garbage being hauled away, hypodermic needles strewn about and blood splattered walls. This certainly was a renovation not for the weak of heart or stomach. The first major renovation was in the mid-1990s, though it soon fell into dilapidation. Seven years ago when it was purchased from a rental company, significant work was needed again.

The renovations and restoration has been significant from top to bottom and inside and out. Intricate detail was paid to even the most minute parts of the home. The results speak for themselves.

The house is 1900 square feet over three stories with a full height basement adding 600 square feet. The style of home is known as a Craftsman Character home, which is common in the neighborhood, though no other houses enjoy the immense height of the house (approximately 45 feet tall) and the large windows and bedrooms are very unusual for this era.

The house design and style was inspired by the traditional homes of the Netherlands, of which a black house is not an uncommon sight, although in Canada this is somewhat strange. The interior design was influenced by Scandinavian aesthetics. We love natural materials and items with a story. We never collected antiques until we bought this house, but it forced it upon us. The items we’ve collected complement the house so well and speak to its past. But we are also modernists at heart. We love the design of Ray and Charles Eames and have collected a number of their items. Our favorite being the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman. Our other favorite piece in the house is the Ligne Roset Togo sectional sofa. The contrast of the original character of the house and the modern furniture makes the home so much more interesting and fun to live in.

This past year we removed our parking space in the backyard and designed and built a chicken coop/shed. We have been raising three backyard chickens since the spring. It’s something we’d always wanted to try and having fresh eggs every morning is beyond amazing.

I’m proud of the entire house. To have it taken from the brink of being condemned and to restore the beauty of the home by ourselves and the previous owner before us is such a great feeling of satisfaction.

Here is the link to the entire article on Apartment Therapy:

Kent & Darcie’s Dream Home

I had to chuckle initially at the title seeing as here we were about to sell the place. But really the house was our dream house. It’s just our dream had now changed and we were ready to move on.

Still it’s pretty cool to see our house and our design get such positive comments, be featured on one of my favourite design websites, to see it “pinned” on Pinterest and being shared around is pretty darn rewarding, I must say.

Preparing to change our life

After pre-empting our previous plan to sell our house and start building in the Spring of 2015, we now had to rapidly prepare to change our life.

It made a lot of sense to sell our house early: free ourselves of the stress of two places and two mortgages, have money in the bank account to finance our build, be able to focus on the house design, avoid the stress of moving and building simultaneously, be able to save some money over the winter, and experience the country life.

When I told our friends that we had decided to sell our house and move to a “cottage” they thought we were a bit crazy (almost as crazy as when we told them we were going to live in a yurt for the summer). That is until I should them a picture of “The Cottage.”



I think most people pictured a little shack with weathered cedar boards, creaky old doors, a broken window or two, a moss covered roof, and an old coonhound sitting on the deck next to a rocking chair. But this wasn’t your average cottage.

This was an architecturally built guest house with two curtain window walls, one facing east to the sunrise and the river, the other overlooking an immaculate 40 acre property.

Still this cottage comes in at just under 750 sq.ft. with two bedrooms and one bathroom. For some people the thought of downsizing from a 1900 sq.ft. three storey house plus basement, with 5 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms is a bit intimidating – but we were so excited about it. That big old house, although beautiful, had been wearing on us the past year or so. We’d spent a lot of time and money renovating it and making it our own, but it never quite felt right to us. There was always so much to do and maintain and it seemed that something was always in need of repair. We’d always dreamed of building our own house in the country, so once we entered down that path, the old house became less and less appealing to us. It seemed like a burden and we were looking forward to moving onto the next chapter.

But there was a lot of work to get there – like a ridiculous amount of work.

I think I had blocked the memory of our last move from my memory completely – like disaster survivors do – a coping mechanism to allow you to move on with your life.

We first had to go through the house and make a list of all of those things that I’d either put off doing because it was going to be such a nightmare and/or I had neglected to do because I hated the thought of it. These are all of those annoying little things that don’t necessarily take a lot of time, but they really suck doing. Or, alternatively, they take a LONG time to do and they really super suck doing.

So for the next month, every single night we were fixing, patching, replacing, painting, scrubbing, filling, caulking and all sorts of other ungodly tasks. This was also the same point at which we moved our chicken coop. Once we moved the coop out of the backyard, didn’t have out chickens anymore, and instead had a boring white fence and parking spot again, the house really didn’t feel like it was ours anymore. We didn’t belong here anymore.

We finally were ready to sell the house.

Opening Doors

While the design of the house with Crystal was moving forward and we’d decided to work with the EcoSmart Team, we were also finishing up the Yurt build. Things were such a whirlwind around that time and we were excited to be finished the Yurt so that we could “relax” and enjoy the rest of the summer, spend time in the yurt, and focus on the design of the house. Though for us fate had another idea.


One morning, I called up my good friend, Benjamin, and asked him if I could take some cindercrete blocks from his retaining wall he was demolishing. I hadn’t talked with him for awhile and naturally he asked what I needed them for. “Well, it’s a long story,” I hadn’t told him about our recent life transformation, “we bought some land south of town on the river, and we’re going to build a house, but I need the blocks to build a foundation for our chicken coop when we move it out.”

“No way!” He replied, “Where?”

I started to describe the directions to him, but midway through he interrupted, “You didn’t by the place with the awesome outhouse, did you?”


Sure, enough he knew the spot dead on. Turns out his wife’s parents own a tree farm just up the road from us. It had been for sale for a couple years, but they’d recently taken it off of the market. I knew that her parents lived somewhere south of Saskatoon, but south covers a lot of area. “We’ve been coming down there for years and swimming off your sandbars and playing with our dogs out there,” he said.

I knew I should have put those no trespassing signs up earlier!

A couple days later – in fact, the day before we planned to build and finish the yurt – his in-laws, Doug and Linda, rode down the gravel road on their bikes to introduce themselves and invite us for coffee. Absolutely, we wanted to visit their farm. We’d actually looked at it on MLS while it was for sale when we were looking at property. It had two houses on the site, one theirs and the other a modern little guest house that I thought was pretty cool.

Three days later, exhausted from building the yurt, we were tired and wanted to go home, but thought, let’s go for coffee and check out their place. If we didn’t go today, who knows when we’d have another chance?

Doug and Linda fed us coffee and we brought cupcakes. They gave us a tour of the house and grounds, but I was really excited to see the little guest house that they called “The Cottage.”

Linda told us that they’d lived in the Cottage for three years while renovating the main house. “It’s a shame no one is living in it now. We tried to get a student in horticulture to come rent, but it’s tough to get a renter this far out.”

Frick, I thought. We would have rented this place! But we had just slaved away building a yurt for the purpose of it being where we would live next summer. “Out of curiosity, how much would you have charged?”

On the drive home I got thinking though. I said to Darcie, “What if we rented that place… Like now? Like if we sold our house and lived here for the winter and then in the yurt next summer?”

This whole process of finding and purchasing the land, beginning the design process of the house, and meeting the neighbours had seemed so fateful – so many chance encounters, coincidental meetings, amazing timing – here was just another one. We’ve compared this whole experience to opening doors. A new door comes up in front of you. Do you open it up and go through? Or are you worried about what might be on the other side? Are you willing to see where this next door might take you? We’d already come this far, so why not walk through another door?

By the time we got back to town, we’d made our decision. We were going through the door.

I called Linda and told her, “Yea, so we were talking and I think we’d like to rent your place. When could you have it ready for us?”

Well, so much for the rest of our “relaxing” summer. We were moving to the country.


Choosing a super-insulated wall system

After deciding on the mechanical system of the house we needed to choose what type of wall system we were going to use. As I’ve learned, for an Eco-house, there’s more than one way to skin a cat! (who came up with that saying?!) Again, it was a matter of weighing the advantages of each and ensuring that our contractor felt comfortable with whatever system we decided on.

Passivhaus tends to utilize a double-wall system, although there is no set way to do this, as long as you meet the Passivhaus criteria.

Examples of Passivhaus wall systems.

This method is nothing new, there are many houses from the 1970s that utilized a system of a 2×6 wall at 16″ on centre (o/c) and offset with a 2×4 wall 16″ o/c for an interior wall. Nonetheless, biggest concerns in ensuring an exceptional envelope of a Passivhaus or any other super-insulated home is: thermal bridging and airtightness (and to a lesser degree the overall R-value).

Thermal bridging is basically an easy pathway for heat to flow out of your home. In a conventional single 2×6 wall, this happens every 16″ as the 2×6 piece of wood is connecting the inside to the outside with out a “thermal break”.  This is why a R19 insulation in a 2×6 house actually has a lot less R-value.

Airtightness is how leaky is your house? While thermal bridging can be limited by proper construction design. Airtightness can really only be ensured while on-site building the house. Airtightness is tested with a blower door test and is rated based on “air changes per hour a 50 pascals of pressure.” As previously mentioned, Passivhaus standard is 0.6 ACH. The Canadian R2000 is 1.5 ACH.

 R-value is of course also important, but less so than reducing thermal bridging and ensuring excellent airtightness. This is because R-value is a rating of the “effectiveness of insulating materials.” You could have an R50 house, but if it is leaky and has thermal bridging it will not function like a “true” R50 house.

In the last 10 years, there have been numerous high-performance, high-tech wall systems that have been developed such as Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF – concrete poured into thick pieces of foam) and Structured Insulated Panels (SIPs – OSB laminated to the inside and outside of a big piece of foam), both of which eliminate thermal bridging altogether by not utilizing timber at all.


Passivhaus’ use a variety of options, though many that I’ve read about use some form  of double-walled systems often with SIPs on the outside and 2×4 timber framing on the inside. An 8″ thick SIPs panel is about R33 on it’s own so add that to the R11 of a 2×4 wall and you get a well-insulated house with minimal thermal bridging.

We had already decided that we would be best served, given our rural location and 55km distance from town, to pay our contractor to be at the site working – instead of driving back and forth with lumber. As such, we wanted to utilize a company that could provide either a prefabricated wall systems (which could be erected very quickly on site) or a “kit” (all of the wood cut to size to be put together like a model). Because we have a large shop on site, the materials can be all shipped at once and stored inside. Also, this significantly reduces onsite waste and chance of error.

One of the companies we looked at was Pacific Homes out of Victoria BC, who our builder has worked with on previous projects. This company produces a “Smart Wall” system – a prefabricated timber wall that eliminates thermal bridging and significantly increases R-value. A standard 2×6 wall is R19. The 2×6 Smart Wall is R31.

We compiled a list of “attributes” for each option that we felt were most important in our decision-making process:

– R-value

– Airtightness

– Ease of construction

– Construction labour time

– Material waste

– Total cost (time/money/energy)

Options for walls were as follows:

1.  Pacific Homes 2×6 Smart Wall with 4″ of rigid foam (EPS) on the outside. 

This option was appealing due to it’s low cost and simplicity. However that simplicity quickly got tossed as we are quite certain that we want to use cedar siding on the house. Trying to secure cedar siding to foam is not possible without significant strapping and labour to ensure everything is kept in place. This would work for stucco, but it would not be ideal for us. R-value of about R45. Airtightness might be less than other options given that this is really a single-wall system.

2. Pacific Homes 2×6 Smart Wall with offset 2×4 standard wall at 16″ o/c.

This is a simple option as well. The outer wall would be prefabricated  and shipped. Given the prefabrication, the house could be framed with roof, windows and doors installed in 2 weeks (same as option #1). The internal framing could be done after and standard cellulose batts used inside. The good thing about this over the first is that the plumbing and electrical would not pass through the 2×6 outer wall therefore eliminating potential air leakage. The cost of this one was quoted at about $5000 more than option #1 due to the extra 2x4s and insulation batts. R-value for this was R41.

3. 14″ thick ICF

ICF uses styrofoam forms with concrete poured into it. It’s appealing for a few reasons: no thermal bridging, super strong walls (disaster protection), has a good R-value (R48) and is naturally airtight (expect in the corners and around openings which of course need to be sealed like any other system). It’s a bit controversial though and quite a bit more costly in terms of time, money and energy. It is a labour intensive project and we simply did not think it would be worth it in our case.

4. 8″ SIPs with 2×4 standard wall at 24″ o/c

SIPs are touted as an energy conscientious option that can be installed extremely quickly. A 2000 sq.ft house can be erected in two days. SIPs uses two sheets of OSB laminated to a slab of EPS foam. It is very strong and does not require further framing. The R-value of an 8″ wall is R33 so combined with a 2×4 wall at 24″ o/c you get R44. I thought this would be a pretty excellent option. SIPs are only marginally more expensive then a standard wall system (and when you factor in the reduced labour cost, it is negligible) and are quite a bit less than ICF. Unfortunately, SIPs have been found to have some pretty serious problems with moisture build-up, airtightness problems, and early decay. None of those sounded good to me. Sorry SIPs, not for us.

5. 16″ Deep Wall System

One of the engineers on our team had worked with a group from Edmonton AB who utilized a “Deep Wall System.” I had never heard about this, but was intrigued.

Deep Wall System – Mill Creek Net Zero House, Edmonton AB

Essentially this uses a 2×4 wall 16″ o/c on the outside and 2×4 wall 24″ o/c on the inside. A 3/8″ thick piece of OSB is cut 16″ inch wide for the header and footer. The 2x4s are spaced and secured to the headers and footers with a 3/8″ OSB sheet on the outer wall. Essentially you make a box with a mesh on the inside. The 16″ cavity is filled with blown in high density cellulose. This gives an incredible R-value of R56! As if that’s not impressive enough, the material cost of building is about the same as a standard 2×6 wall (not including cost of extra labour time for framing mind you). The airtightness on the Riverdale NetZero house was 0.59 ACH and the Mill Creek NetZero house was 0.36 ACH. Amazing. As I later found out, the energy guru and one of the creators of the Saskatchewan Conservation House  (the house that inspired Wolfgang Feist and led to the German Passivhaus Institut), Rob Dumont, developed and used this exact method on his house in Saskatoon SK.  He built his house in 1992 and at the time was considered to be the most well-insulated house in the world (the airtightness was also an incredible 0.47 ACH). Why didn’t they just tell us that in the first place!? There would have been no decision-making necessary. We would have just done what he did.  We will still have a company cut all of the lumber to size and ship as a package. Although this system will take a bit more time to complete (due to framing labour) the advantages of this wall system for us far exceeded the other options.

I’m super excited for our super-insulated and locally developed wall system.