Can you pull the trigger?

I don’t know. We have a chicken that clearly needs to go. She must be culled. We have no choice now. The big risk with keeping an egg eater around is that sooner or later she will teach the others to do it too. Then you not only have to cull the one, but the entire flock. And I definitely don’t want that. When I read the book “Omnivore’s Dilemma” a couple years ago, I recall the description that Michael Pollan wrote about taking part in a chicken slaughter for the first time. He’d never killed an animal and here he was with a knife in his hand and everyone waiting for him to kill the chicken. Strangely it was a very spiritual description of his experience.

Certainly taking the life of another being in order to feed yourself is a powerful act and not something to take lightly. I imagine that it would teach you something about your own mortality. I recently took a hunter course with the sole intent that sometime soon I would like to hunt. I feel that if I am going to eat meat, rather than passing the dirty deed of death onto someone else, I should experience the feeling of killing an animal. I should experience what that feels like. I do not think in anyway that it would be a pleasant experience. In fact, I think I would feel quite terrible about it. But is it not hypocritical to eat animals and not be able to pull the trigger yourself?

And so here I am, facing this dilemma, much sooner than I thought I would have to. We eat chicken. We have a chicken that we need to cull. And I don’t want to do it. Sure we could call up our friend who raises chickens and ask him to do it. That would be easier. But, I feel that I have a responsibility to do this. I feel that I should know what it feels like. I’m sure this won’t be the last time we have to cull a chicken. So am I just putting off the inevitable if I don’t do it now? And then if I can actually do it. Then what? Do we just bury her in the ground? Well then that seems like a waste, doesn’t it? They are food after all. And didn’t we move out her for food? To see and learn where our food comes from. Well, here it is…


The trouble with animals and the reality of rural living

Neither Darcie or I grew up in the country. We were both born and raised in the City. Our parents on both sides were city dwellers for their wholes lives as well. So the realities of living in the rural setting were unknown to us, aside from what others had told us to expect. But we both agreed, when moving out here, that we didn’t move here to have an easy life. We expected difficulties and challenges and we have had our fair share since Day 1, whether it be a flat tire, a broken garage door, a truck that breaks down, locking your keys in the car, being snowed in, dealing with a power outage, and so on – if it can happen to you, it probably will. Still, one thing that we had not yet experienced, but knew was an eventual guarantee, was DEATH.

To real farmers, I imagine, death is a common occurrence on the farm. It happens. It’s not taken for granted, per se, but kids who grow up with farm animals learn early on about the concepts of life and death, and are often present for both of those experiences on innumerable occasions through their young lives. Darcie and I, on the other hand, we had never experienced it. Sure, we have had pets that needed to be euthanized when they were old, but there was always a separation and a distance to it. We had never really seen something die. And certainly neither of us have killed anything ourselves.

Last winter when I had been studying up on raising backyard chickens for our tiny urban lot, I read several books on raising chickens, what they need to eat, how an egg is formed, building a coop, et cetera. Most of it was very positive, optimistic and cheerful. But one thing that worried me: What do we do when they get old or sick? This question was never really answered in the books I’d read, but to be honest, I didn’t really want to think about it. When the time came, I’d deal with it, I reassured myself. I recall reading an article though that was a criticism of the urban backyard chicken movement in the USA. Many cities and towns were now allowing people to have 3-4 hens – people, like ourselves, hipster environmentalists and animal lovers who wanted a taste of the rural life without losing the comfortable, easy life of the city. It is certainly an appealing idea! But there was starting to be a big problem with either old hens who’d stopped laying or those that had gotten ill. These well-intentioned folks had no idea what to do with them. The article talked about people abandoning these hens in fields, at vet clinics, and farms. They weren’t able to deal with the other side of farm life – or at least, did not feel that “urban” farm life needed to deal with that one dreaded fact: things die.

I certainly didn’t want to deal with it. I didn’t want to even think about it. When people would ask me what I would do when that inevitable time came I told them the truth: I have no idea. Well, in the past few weeks, this time came. First it was Ruth, our big black Australorp.


She had always had something strange about her from the get-go. She had an engorged crop (the crop is the area of the esophagus where digestion initially begins) and never really appeared that healthy. But she never looked to be suffering and ate normally. But then she gradually stopped laying eggs, which we thought might have been due to the winter as egg production usually slows down then. Then one day, out of the blue, we came home and there she was lying there, still. Ruth was dead. We were both pretty shocked by it. I picked her up – I’d never held a dead thing before (aside from a fish maybe) – we bagged her up and said, “well, I guess that happens.” I was a little sad, but it didn’t feel as bad as I thought it would.

As the winter was drawing to an end and weather was starting to warm up we planned to get a couple more chickens. My concern was now with only two chickens left, if another one died, then the last one would too (chickens need companions and will die of loneliness if they don’t have a partner). Four weeks ago, at about 4am, the dog started barking (which she never does) and we were awoken to a horrible shrieking sound. I bolted up in bed and looked out the window. The fence around the chicken coop was shaking. I ran outside in the freezing weather. Whatever it was – a fox, a coyote, I don’t know – was gone, I had grabbed a flashlight and there 15 feet from the coop, our little Barred Rock hen, Hildi, was dragging her back leg and groaning. I rushed over and picked her up. We looked at her only to find a large tear of flesh from her side. The first thing I thought was, “what am I going to do?” Here this poor little bird was clearly injured severely. I’ve never felt so much sorrow for an animal before. We took her into the house, cleaned her wound and put a large bandage on her while we contemplated our options. I thought we needed to end her suffering. But I couldn’t conceive of killing her myself. The thought made my stomach turn and my heart ache. I know a real farmer wouldn’t have thought twice about what to do. He likely would have put her out of her misery immediately. But maybe she would be ok? How am I supposed to know? So instead we did what we do when our animal is in need of help. We took her to the vet. Although the vet initially thought she might make it, once they did an X-ray and found she had a broken leg, that was the end. She said, “we should help her go to heaven.” Gah, I felt so terrible. This was how death felt.

We were now down to our last chicken, Marge, the Buff Orpington. We needed her to have some friends though, quickly. Darcie made some calls and we found a heritage breeder who was willing to sell us two hens the next weekend. But in between the four days from Hildi’s death to us getting the new hens, perhaps out of boredom or trauma, I’m not sure, Marge started to eat her own eggs. Oh yes, it’s the worst! So disgusting. I frantically read information on how to stop egg eating, which I’d previously read is a very bad problem. If it becomes a habit/addiction it is impossible to stop. We tried using fake wood eggs (thought being that they peck the egg and hurt their beak) – fail. We tried draining the egg yolk and filling the shell with mustard (apparently they find mustard disgusting) – fail. She ate three mustard eggs, shell and all! We tried collecting the eggs as soon as possible, but working during the day, it was impossible to do so. We tried feeding her more protein (scrambled eggs for a week) – fail. The last option was to build a nesting box with a sloped bottom (the thought being here that they lay the egg and it rolls away down the ramp into a covered area). I built the box and we prayed that this would work. It was the last thing to do besides “culling” (the nice word for getting rid of or killing her). Fail. She started laying in other parts of the coop and we found the broken shells scattered throughout.

By this point we’d gotten our two new chickens: Mrs. Bouvier (a red Chantecler) and Jackie Brown (a cream legbar – notice the afro). They were super cool chickens. Very sweet and gentle. And Marge, well, she was a total ass! She would peck at them and chase them around. She was very mean. Let’s just say she wasn’t earning any sympathy given her current plight. We decided to give her one more week, try the nesting box, move them to the larger coop I’d built, give them more space, feed her lots of protein and hope that she snaps out of it. Well, day 7 is here. I walked to the coop only to find yet another egg shattered and eaten. Now what?

Final house design

Well, after twelve revisions and eight months of planning, designing, redesigning, changing, scrapping, planning, and redesigning some more we’ve finalized the house design at last. It’s funny, we had been so sure of what we wanted and didn’t want before, but gradually this all changed. I’m super happy with the design. And although it is different in some ways from our original plan (i.e. basement, open kitchen/living/dining room), it is more true to our original vision then we had ever expected: a quaint, simple, modern farmhouse. It’s crazy to think about how far our design gradually strayed from this original vision before we finally were guided back towards the root of what we wanted.

In a lot of ways designing the house has been a full circle – as we meandered away from our vision, only to come back to it. It was also an evolution. The final product was far better than what we had ever originally envisioned. So I suppose you must go through the process. You are never going to get what you want the first time through, despite how confident we felt that we knew exactly what we wanted. We didn’t. We needed to explore. We needed to think about all kinds of scenarios and possibilities before finally discovering what it is that we really want.

And so, here it is. I cannot wait to see this become a reality.


Is Passivhaus Appropriate for a Cold Canadian Climate?

This is something I’ve been wrestling with since we decided on building a super-insulated, highly energy efficient home. And really this is something that I think a lot of builders, architects, and designers of eco- and green homes have been debating about since the Passivhaus concept came to North America in the past few years. When we initially got going on our project I was pumped on the possibility of ‘not needing an active heating system’ – as Passivhaus enthusiasts have touted their homes on. However, that really is not quite true.

Although many of these Passivhaus homes in Europe don’t necessarily use a boiler or furnace as we do in Canada, they do still technically require some way of heating. Often that is a heating coil attached to the existing ventilation unit that warms the incoming ventilated air. For our house, the possibility of using such a system simply made no sense. Passivhaus often justifies some of its standards on “user comfort.” Certainly I agree that user comfort is critical, however, in order to meet some of the rigorous standards of Passivhaus, people have tended to sacrifice comfort to meet the certification. For example, in our project, indeed, we could have used this method of heating as a secondary option, but it would not be sufficient to meet all of our heating needs despite the super-insulation. Furthermore, we need a thermal mass (concrete floor) to take advantage of the solar gains to cut down on our heat load. Those of you who have walked around on a cold concrete floor know that this is pretty uncomfortable (as a physiotherapist, I cannot count the number of people I see who complain about knee, back and foot pain due to walking on concrete floors at work). That being said, a warmed concrete floor is very pleasant, and strangely comfortable. Given that we wanted a concrete floor for both thermal mass and aesthetics, it made no sense to me not to use in-floor hydronic heat. In this case, we had to choose user comfort over Passivhaus standards.

Another major criticism of Passivhaus standards is both the annual energy consumption and annual heating/cooling consumption standards. These standards are very strict at 120 kWh/m.sq./yr and 15 kWh/m.sq./yr. I’ve previously written about these as well. But is this actually possible to attain in a very cold Canadian climate? Indeed this has been shown to be possible in a handful of projects in Canada. But not that many. Why is that? Recently we’ve run our numbers through the HOT2000 software, which is a Canadian software for energy efficient homes to calculate energy consumption. It’s not as thorough as the PHPP Passivhaus software, but it’s pretty good, and a lot cheaper to have done.

Ok so here are our numbers:

House size 1240 sq.ft (main floor) + 1240 sq.ft (basement) = 2480 sq.ft of treated floor area = 230 m.sq of total treated floor area.

Estimated Annual Space Heating Requirement: 7159 kWh / 230m.sq. = 31.13 kWh/m.sq/yr

Estimated Annual Electrical Space Heating (minus expected wood stove use): 2342 kWh / 230 m.sq. = 10.18 kwh/m.sq/yr
Estimated Annual DHW Heating: 3409 kwh
Estimated Annual Appliance: 8760 kWh
TOTAL ENERGY CONSUMPTION: 19,328 kWh / 230 m.sq = 84.04 kWh/m.sq/yr
First let me explain a couple things. One, we expect to use our wood stove a lot in the winter. I love a wood fire, there is something incredibly comforting about watching wood burn. Two, I do think that the annual appliance use is on the high side and I would also argue that our total space heating is also a bit high when comparing it to the Mill Creek NetZero house, an eco-house project using the same wall system in a similar climate. Nonetheless, let’s give these numbers some context:
Our House Projected Annual Space Heating = 31.13 kWh/m.sq/yr
Our House (minus wood stove heat) Annual Space Heating = 10.18 kWh/m.sq/yr
Passivhaus Annual Space Heating Standard = 15 kWh/m.sq/yr
Ok, so you can look at the comparison numbers I’ve provided above for Passivhaus and the average Canadian home versus our place at 31.13 (overall heat requirement) and 10.18 (electrical space heating requirement). Both of these numbers are A LOT less than the Canadian average. I’ll use the 31.13 number because it is the highest possible use we would need in an extremely cold year without using any wood heat. That is 77.3% less than the average house in Canada! Pretty awesome! And yet, it is twice as high as the Passivhaus standard!!
I’ll remind you that we are using the following: R100 ceiling, R56 above grade walls, R32 below grade walls and R32 under slab insulation. We are also having significant south glazing and minimal north glazing. We will be installing the highest efficient fiberglass windows and we expect the airtightness of the house to meet the Passivhaus standard of 0.60 air changes per hour at 50 pascals. So, WTF?
The bottom line here is that Saskatchewan is a lot friggin’ colder than Germany. The number of heating degree days in Germany in 2014 was 3100. The number of heating degree days in Saskatoon in 2014 was 6035. Well, that’s about twice as much, which would account for our need for twice the heating load – makes sense! Therefore, I have a hard time understanding how the standards of German Passivhaus can be applied to a very cold Canadian climate.
If we look at the overall Total Energy Consumption (84.04) however we are actually significantly lower than the Passivhaus standard of 120. This begs the question of, in Germany, what is accounting for the 105 kWh/m.sq/yr difference of energy if not for heating? Is their appliance and hot water use that much higher? Or is this particular standard higher to account for the larger homes and buildings that are typically built with Passivhaus? (This brings up another criticism of Passivhaus penalizing smaller homes. Check out this article for an exhaustive list of criticisms of Passivahus in North America. Passivhaus US and Canada have recognized the limitations of the European standards and are taking steps to try to modify these to be appropriate in North America. However at this time, the standards are still up for debate).
Anyways, what do these numbers really mean, except to compare apples (Germany) to oranges (Saskatchewan)? We weren’t going to be pursing Passivhaus certification anyways (at an approximate $10,000 price tag for certification, I’d rather put that money into solar panels). But I think it provides an interesting discussion. In the end we will be building a highly efficient, super-insulated house that will consume about 75-80% less energy than the average Canadian house. We truly won’t know our overall energy consumption until we actually live in the house so all of these numbers are a bit arbitrary.
Yes, you can build a “true” Passivhaus on the prairies, but you’d be looking at making huge financial investments and sacrificing comfort to meet the standards.
I’m reminded of a discussion I had with a local energy efficient home builder recently. He said: “Anyone can build an extremely energy efficient house with enough money. But to build one on a budget, now that is something impressive.”
In the end, we are building on a budget, which should come in at or below the cost of building your average stick framed house and our energy bills (100% electric) should be in the range of $100/month. I think I can live with that.