The septic hits the fan

Oh boy, the excitement and speediness of the week prior came to a screeching halt when our project manager called notifying me that the septic contractor had not realized the depth of our basement. He would have to recalculate the cost of our septic system and get back to us. But he estimated the cost of this “mistake” (basement being OVERDUG) would be $12,000!!

I felt immediately sick to my stomach. The next three nights were completely sleepless. Over those days (and nights) I read more and learned more about septic tanks then anyone ever should. As the septic contractor told me, the maximum depth of a septic tank is 9′ (meaning 9′ of soil coverage). Our basement was 11′ and then with the clear out drain from the house this would put it at 12′. Three feet deeper then the maximum depth. This meant that he would have to get a “deep burial tank” specially fabricated to twice the thickness of the standard fiberglass walls. It would have to be structurally reinforced to withstand the pressure and he really couldn’t guarantee that we wouldn’t have problems with it.

All of this just sounded terrible to me.

But beyond this I was pissed off that this was NOW being discussed. Why did we not know this before? Why did no one discuss the depth of the basement of a potential issue? Unfortunately (for us) it was a total breakdown of communication. We had in fact had a meeting, reviewing a previous drawing of the house with the septic contractor. The depth of the basement was in there. But there was no discussion of maximum depths of septic tanks and no mention that the depth of our basement was an issue at all.

Nonetheless, we had to figure this out. I got on the phone with the owner of EcoSmart (and it’s parent company, Integrated Designs), Murray, and explained the issue to him. He is a stickler for lean construction including target cost design, planning and communication (in fact, he gives lectures around the country on avoiding these types of problems), and he was shocked by the issue, but assured me he would help to figure this out. There has to be a solution, he told me.

So over the May long weekend, myself, Murray, Taylor (the builder), and the house designer, spent hours trying to figure out alternates to this septic problem. Possibilities ranged from reasonable to crazy:

– Fill in the hole with three feet of dirt and move the foundation over – redoing all of the piles and structural slab (No, this would be more costly then the deep burial tank).

– Replace toilets with composting toilets (No, this did not solve the problem of the basement clear out drain for laundry, showers, sinks in basement)

– Build the structural slab up by 36″ (Possible, but costly and would need to take back to the Structural engineer to have this approved and redesigned)

– Use an effluent pump (Literally pushes shit up hill. Unfortunately this is against building code)

– Move the tank

The latter option was discussed immediately with the septic contractor, but he adamantly refused that this would be possible as the drain still had to pass under the 11′ basement. However, we had had a topographical study down several months ago which detailed the build site area and natural slopes of the land (which were impossible to see because of the mountain of dirt piled all around the house). However with the topographical study we could see that in fact there was at least two possibilities of alternate positions. The best option being to the east of the house.


As you can see in the picture above, a little old outhouse (about 70′ from the house) sits 10’6″ lower, which is nearly the same depth of the basement. We were going to grade and excavate from the east side of the basement anyways for the basement windows, so if we graded out a bit more then certainly we could make up the 36″ and then some.

However we needed the septic contractor to agree to this and then would need approval from the health region inspector.

So on holiday Monday morning, we met at 7:30am at our site with the septic contractor, house builder, building company owner, and Darcie and I. After about two hours of walking the site, talking, debating, and going over the drawings, the septic contractor finally agreed that we could probably make it work.


“However,” he said, “We are going to have to do something about this dirt. This is just too much to work with. We’ll have to move it a couple times to get in here.”

“Oh God, how much is that going to cost?” Is all I could think…

And so it begins…

On May 8th construction began. The night before we spent some time at the building site taking in the pristine landscape for one last time before it became a decimated countryside for the next year (or likely more). However nothing could have prepared us for what we were going to see the next day.



The morning came and the excavator was there at 7:30 am. I had a lot of paranoia about the depth of the basement (little did I know how this would come to haunt us later). I had heard several stories of excavators not digging people’s basements deep enough. At times even going 3′ too short and leaving an awkward looking house poking out of the ground. I did not want a pimple on the prairies. We wanted our house to hug into the land and look like it fit. We wanted to be able to walk from the grass to the house and only have to take a single step in. Because of that we had to dig the basement DEEP. Like really deep.

We had to have a Geotechnical Survey done of our land before building. Fortunately when we bought it, the previous owners had already had one done (with a $5000 price I was glad to know it was thrown in already). You see, being the river bank, even though we were 180′ from the river and about 60′ up from the water, there is still a risk of the land heaving. There isn’t much concern of erosion as where we are (on the concave side of the river bend) the erosion would happen on the other bank. Nonetheless the Geotechnical Survey said that we had to have concrete pilings and a structural slab basement.

As a result, the basement the depth was affected by the following: walk-in main level, pilings, structural slab, 8″ of under-slab EPS insulation (R32), 9′ ceiling, interior grade beam, and interior I-joists. All of this added up to a basement that was a whopping 11′ underground at the back. That’s deep.

The excavator as he was digging told the project manager that he had never dug a basement that deep before.


Getting home that night and seeing the hole in the ground was shocking. My first thought was, “Oh my God, our beautiful site is a mess!” Followed by, “Holy shit, that is a mountain of dirt!” Followed by, “What in the world are we going to do with all of this crap?” And lastly, “Whoa that’s where our house is going!”


It was surreal looking at that hole and realizing that we had made that happen. There was no more talking. Now we had some serious action.

Due to the depth of the basement, the excavator had to dig a ramp so that the piling truck could drive into the site. Early the next week, 24 pilings were dug. Half of them we 22′ deep and the other half were 18′ deep. Incredible! There was no seepage and no water found, but they said that the clay they dug up was as thick as concrete.



Taylor, our contractor with EcoSmart Developments, was biting at the bullet to get going. The same day that the pilings went in, he and his partner, Curtis, had the pilings filled with concrete and supported with rebar. The following day he had the void forms around the pilings and the forms built for the footing. And before the end of the week had the concrete poured for the footings and ready to cure for the weekend. The rapid progress, in one week, was amazing. We had the thought that this just might go faster than we had expected.



That is until the septic contractor came by the site and with horror asked, “What have you done?! Why is this basement so deep??!”

Oh no.

3D sneak peek

Our house designer, Crystal Bueckert at BLDG Studio, uses a program called “BimX” to transfer her CAD drawings from 2D format to an awesome 3D virtual reality extravaganza! Some people are naturals at being able to read a blueprint and imagine the space. I can get a sense of that, but having it in 3D and being able to do a virtual walk-through is a totally different experience.

Here are a few screen shots of the 3D walk-through on the final construction drawings:

This is the “front entrance”. I always call this as the backdoor (my wife calls it the front door) as it is on the north side of the house. There are only three windows on the north. One narrow window beside the “back” door so we can see who is there. One at the end of the hallway for ventilation. And one in the bedroom for fire safety and ventilation.


This is the west side of the house (opposite of the river side). The side door leads to the chicken coop and yurt. Yes, that is an outdoor shower beside the door (one of my favourite features).


This is the southwest corner of the house. The deck is 20’x30′ and faces south.


The “Great Room”. This room faces south with the large (almost 6 foot tall windows) bringing in a lot of light and  passive solar gain in the winter months. The overhangs of the roof completely block the unwanted heat when the sun is higher in the sky in the summer (this BimX program allows you to put in your GPS coordinates and perform solar studies to track the light coming into the house at different times of the year – so cool). The ceiling will be finished with whitewashed tongue and groove clear pine. The floors will be either a polished concrete or troweled and sealed (still deciding how much work we want to do on that). The window sills, door trim and miscellaneous wood finishing will be in whitewashed Douglas fir. The windows sills are about 14″ deep, and about 16″ from the floor, meaning there are natural window seats throughout the house. We are not having any baseboards and instead will have a “gallery” finish in which the drywall slightly floats off the bottom of the floor.


The kitchen seems pretty stark in this photo, but you can get the idea (our kitchen cabinet maker is doing his own 3D rendering that will be a bit more true to the final product). The tall cabinets and entire island (including butcher block countertop) will be wrapped in white oak and finished in a whitewash lye with clear coat overtop. The upper pantry cabinets will actually go the full height of the 9′ ceilings and we won’t have open shelves, but instead will have upper cabinets as well. The lower cabinets will be a white slab with a white concrete countertop. We found a pretty awesome fireclay farmhouse apron sink to sit under the east window overlooking the river. I do the dishes and do not want to be staring at a wall while doing them. The east wall will be tiled from counter to ceiling in either a white subway tile or white square tile (yet to be decided).


The master bedroom faces south and overlooks the river. Yes, eye masks will be a necessity.


It was tough to get a decent shot of the master bathroom, but this room is going to be pretty awesome I think. It will have a large shower, double sink vanity, water closet for the toilet and a vintage clawfoot tub. Darcie is currently refinishing one that we found on kijiji for $75 last year. It is turning out really well and I will post some photos of it later. The bathroom will have a tiled wainscotting that I cannot wait to install.


It’s time to make this place a reality. Construction starts now.

High Performance Windows

One of the things I am most excited about in our house are the windows. We have a lot of windows in the house, 25 to be exact. And they are not terribly small. Even before knowing anything about energy efficient building, I’d always loved homes with large expansive windows overlooking a beautiful view. However, when building an extremely energy efficient home, the placement, size, glazing, window to floor ratio, and type of window matter a lot.

First, and perhaps most important, is which direction your windows should face. Obviously in the northern hemisphere, the sun is in the south. Therefore, the majority of your windows should face south and be able to take in the sunlight through the winter months when the sun is lower in the sky to provide some passive heating. Conveniently the sun is higher in the sky in the summer, so as long as you have properly sized overhangs or shading in the summer then you can prevent overheating. Recently we were in a neighbour’s house that was not designed with energy efficiency in mind. They have large south windows that are completely exposed, as well as some larger east and west facing. Even though they would (theoretically) have a great view, they had the interior blinds drawn on almost all of the windows!  Interior blinds and shades do very little to prevent overheating as the light/heat has already entered the space and will simply heat the blinds and radiate inside anyway.

For us, we maximized our southern exposure (but not too much as you can still overheat in the winter – even at minus 40° Celsius). And minimized our northern, eastern and western windows. Fortunately for us our best view is to the south and east. We do have a couple large windows on the east side of the house to take advantage of the river valley and our unobstructed view of the sunrise (to not put windows there would be foolish). We would have liked to have put more windows on the east, but in order to do so that would require shutters on the exterior, thus obstructing the view anyway. Shutters are really the only way to “shade” light from the east and west as the sun is too low in the sky throughout the year (at sunrise and sunset) to actually “shade” it. As for the north we don’t have much of a view, and so only have two windows. One in a bedroom for ventilation and fire safety and the other in the hall for ventilation. Northern windows really don’t provide any benefit in energy efficiency and are actually an energy penalty.

As for glazings, these are really amazing and can help with heat gain or blocking unwanted heat.The glazing does not at all block the view. I think of it like sunscreen. On the east and west windows, you want more sunscreen because you don’t want to overheat. On the south you want minimal sunscreen because you want that good passive heating in the winter (as long as you account for passive shading in the summer).

Ok so what type of windows do you buy? Wood, PVC or fiberglass? We had really hoped that we would be able to afford fiberglass windows. These are simply the best for energy efficiency, durability and quality. The frames themselves are made of 60% glass (fiber-glass) and so they move with the expansion and contraction from the heat and cold of the windows. Consider -40°Celsius outside and +20°Celsius inside. That is a 60° change that occurs through about a one inch space. PVC and wood will flex and bend at a different rate then the glass, leading to more air leakage, reduced air seal, and eventual failure of the window over time. Fiberglass however does not have the same issues. Duxton Windows has some excellent information on their website.

Duxton fiberglass windows

Now that we had an idea of what we wanted, we needed to determine which supplier to go with. We priced out Duxton (fiberglass), Accurate Dorwin (fiberglass) and Plygem (PVC/wood). We did not consider any of the crazy German imported windows. Shockingly, people actually do this (this is where the economics of Passive House and extreme energy efficiency clash with reality and sustainability, as I’ve written about before). I was actually talking to a house designer the other day who was raving about some German windows they’d started to import. Indeed they are impressive windows – but they are coming from fricking Germany! My thought when building a “sustainable” home is that we should be really considering if we are spending our money wisely or if it could have a better effect elsewhere (for example, spending $15,000 more on windows to get a marginal energy improvement versus $15,000 in solar panels). AND if you are importing your high performance windows from 4000 miles away and shipping them on a cargo ship across the ocean… well… is that sustainable?!

Anyways, I knew that the fiberglass windows would be more expensive than wood/PVC – but how much more was the question? When we received the quotes back I was pleased to see that the fiberglass windows came in only 20% more expensive then PVC. For the added efficiency, durability, warranty and, not to mention the larger viewing area of the window (fiberglass is stronger therefore can have a smaller frame and more glass) it was a no-brainer to go with fiberglass. We ended up choosing Duxton over Accurate Dorwin due simply to the fact that our designer had recommended them. The price difference between the two companies was marginal.


In designing the house and choosing the windows I tend to think about what Christopher Alexander of the Pattern Language says: “light on two sides of every room.” I loved reading this book because it was all about aesthetics. Written in the 1960s, it did not give a crap about energy efficiency. It was a nice reality check against all of the energy efficient dogma that in some cases can really get out of control. You still need a home that you actually want to spend time in.

Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander

Final planning

We have spent the past 9 months exhaustively planning this house and finally the light at the end of the tunnel is almost here. The design is done, the quotes have been tendered and received, the design fees have been paid (almost), the development permit approved, and we are just waiting on the appraisal from the bank and stamped drawings from the engineer. Initially the planning process was fun, but about three months ago we had pretty much had enough of it.And now, well, we have definitely had enough of it.

I keep thinking to myself “haven’t we talked about this house long enough??” But there are so many important little details that go into the planning and building of a house. I may have had a small idea of this before, but really this whole process shines a completely different light on the importance of Planning. When moving into and renovating an old house, you learn to live with and work with the idiosyncrasies and nuances of an old house (nothing being level, that weird door, baseboards not quite lining up, that one awkward window that looks onto nothing, and so on), but when building a house, you really don’t want to start off with any of those weird things. I am very detail oriented and like to research things to the n-th degree, much the chagrin of my wife from time to time – except in this process. My anal-retentiveness has finally come in handy!

If you are planning to build a house, and are not detail oriented then you need to learn to be one. Otherwise you are liable to get a home that may be close to what you had asked for but not entirely what you had expected. I cannot tell you how many little mishaps, potential mistake, errors and omissions we have already caught and corrected. It is crazy to me at times, but really there are so many aspects that even the people you are paying to know about all of it may miss some of these details or do it the way they always have done it (even if you specifically say you want something else). So it’s all on you. You’re the only one there to make sure that it is done how you actually want it. Which means you have to research and know enough to at least ask the questions that will lead to ensuring that you will get what you want.

I have learned now to tell our team that when we want something, I ask to confirm that it was done, and then follow-up to make sure. I’m certain that the various people working on the house will be completely sick of me pestering them by the end, but I don’t care. I want to make sure that our house turns out as we have intended it to.

And if there is something that I don’t know about then I ask someone who does know to check it. And then double-check it and then triple-check it. Incredibly, on triple-checks we have still caught errors.

In the end, all of this stuff is just on paper. We actually haven’t even done anything yet. So we will see what the actual build process goes like. I’m hoping (wishful thinking perhaps) that because of the significant focus on the details in the planning stages that maybe, just maybe, the build process will go smooth. But this hope is not going to allow me to assume anything. At all. Ever. IMG_2699

It is done.

We were left with no choice for the little chicken. Yes, we could have called up a “real” farmer to do it. But that would be a cop-out. As I said before, we needed to do this ourselves. We came out here to learn about food and see where our food came from. This was going to be an experience we were going to have at one point in our future, so why avoid the inevitable? So Saturday morning we started reading about how to cull a chicken. Well, let me tell you, there is much dispute about the best way to do so. There are more ways than one, and all of them are terrible. I won’t go into the gruesome details, but reading about it made my stomach turn. All I cared about was that it would be fast and would not cause any undue suffering to the chicken. One of the resources I came across in our little personal library of country life/gardening/raising chickens was The Encyclopedia of Country Living. There was a whole section titled “killing chickens.” I had to laugh, although it was quite morbid, but killing chickens was clearly not considered a big deal to the author at all. She recommended killing chickens who were late layers, slow layers, too broody, didn’t lay often enough, were sick, were old and definitely those that were egg eaters. We also came across a very “interesting” YouTube video that posted. In this video, the lady kills an older chicken, but does it with a fair bit of compassion for the animal. The actual killing part is quite horrific to watch, but everything before and after was very good (and highly informative). There was this strange inconsistencey in my mind while watching the video – like, she seems too nice to be able to do that, or something – I’m not sure how to explain it. The video also went onto show how to process the bird (the nice word for gutting and making it into food). So armed with some knowledge we set out to do something we’d dreaded doing. We picked up our little chicken, thanked her for all of the eggs she’d provided us, said our good-byes, and then just like that it was done. The actual moment of the axe swinging down and that “oh my God” realization was terribly overwhelming with the weight and emotion of what I had just done rushing over me. But after a few moments, I composed myself and we went about the rest of the job. We got a bucket of hot water and took to plucking her feathers. Strangely, when this was complete (which was as easy as the book and video had said) our hen, that only a few minutes before had been scratching around eating grass, had transformed into “chicken.” In fact she looked like any other chicken that I’ve bought from the supermarket dozens of times before. She had suddenly become… food. Well, not quite yet. We still had to “process” her. My wife, Darcie, the pretty, sweet and gentle lady that she is, did this task. Who knew she was a natural? This part of the process was actually fascinating. Both of us had taken human anatomy in University that had labs with cadavers (the nice word for real human body parts) so this was just really interesting to see everything. I’m sure a lot of people would think this might be the worst part, but to us, it was interesting and, although it was gross, it also wasn’t that gross at all. And then there it was, a ready to roast chicken. We bagged her up and into the freezer she went. For the rest of the day and for about a week following, both of us felt pretty horrible about it though. I actually woke up a few times in the night with the vision of my axe swinging and her dying. I thought about it a lot, although I didn’t want to think about it at all. But now, I feel better about it. Both of us feel that it was a right of passage. Not something we wanted to do. Not something we enjoyed. And not something that I want to do again (although I’m sure it will only be a matter of time). But it was something we did and something that we had to do to learn about ourselves and about where our food actually comes from. We feel a sense of accomplishment that we did what was best for the chicken, for ourselves, and that we did it together.