Pushing the limits of my mental health: Wood burning stove and chimney installation

Certainly we have had our ups and downs with the building of the house. From the nightmare with the basement depth to firing the septic contractor (aka Mr. A-hole) to the headache over the basement forming to the well water problems and the firing the idiot/criminal concrete contractor to the window delivery delays and mistakes (plus a number of smaller problems, delays in products, shipping wrong materials, etc etc) – we had had our fair share of issues, but through it all, although very stressful at the time, we had found a solution and I hadn’t gone entirely insane from stress and lack of sleep. That is until the wood burning stove and chimney were “installed.”

I’ll back up a bit. When we were designing and planning the house, the number 1 item that we wanted in our house was a wood burning stove. There is nothing that I enjoy more than sitting in front of a fire on a cool day. I was never entirely sure how to articulate my love for a fire before, that is until while reading our bible on house building, ‘A Pattern Language: A Timeless Way of Building’ by Christopher Alexander, and I came across his chapter on: The Fire.

“There is no substitute for fire,” he assertively writes, “Television often gives a focus to a room, but it is nothing but a feeble substitute for something which is actually alive and flickering within the room. The need for fire is almost as fundamental as the need for water. Fire is an emotional touchstone, comparable to trees, other people, a house, the sky.”

We had followed this pattern language to a ‘T’ when designing our main living space, the fire was the centre point of the room, it could be viewed from the kitchen, dining, and living rooms. There is no need for a TV in a room with a fire. In terms of placement, we sat it squarely in front of our main window – therefore when it is alight we can enjoy the fire, but when it is not then we can look beyond it to our view of the river and valley.

To make this all work, of course, we needed to ensure we had a beautiful but also highly efficient wood stove. We had done a lot of research on this and were most drawn to the Scandinavian stoves – Morso and Jotul in particular (which is not a surprise given our love of Scandinavian design – but they also make damn good stoves). We ended up choosing the Morso 2110 stove simply due to it’s interesting blend of traditional and modern styling, which we are hoping our home will also encompass. It is also sized well for our space, not too big and not to small, and really, although our house will be super-insulated, simply putting less wood in can reduce the risk of overheating. Indeed, having a wood burning stove in a super-insulated house can be considered unnecessary, however for us, 1. we wanted one, and 2. it is important for back up heating in the event of an extended power outage (of which we had had a few in the past winter).

We had actually purchased the stove last year, when we found it on sale at a fireplace shop in another city. It’d been sitting in storage since then and I was so excited to have it in place – after all, as you may see, I’d been obsessing about it for months.

So in the day following the pouring of the main floor concrete, we hauled the 300 lbs beast onto the main floor and unwrapped it.


Hello you handsome devil.

We had made some calls to our insurance company previously (who don’t like fire like I do), as you may guess your insurance premiums go up with a wood burning stove, but they also require that you have it installed by a “WETT (wood energy technology transfer) certified professional.” We found a company in town, Wheatland Fireplace, that had these certified installers and also sold the top-rated chimney and stove pipe, ICC Excel and Ultrablack.

Because I was paranoid and protective of the freshly completed concrete floors and that the stove be positioned precisely in front of the window, my contractor and I measured, levelled and positioned the stove so that the installers would not need to move the stove at all. I called them in the morning to tell them so and to NOT TO MOVE IT. My contractor, who was there as well told them to be “very careful” as the floors were finished.

IMG_2996And wouldn’t you know it, when I got home, this is what I found: a nice deep gouge and scratch right in front of the legs of the stove.

Are you f*cking kidding me?!

I called the company immediately, although they were closed for the weekend, “I’m not sure what part of DON’T MOVE the stove you didn’t understand.” Of course this being a finished concrete floor, there is no way to remove this scratch. It may lighten when we seal it and polish it or it may become more noticeable – either way, I was not happy.

As I started to inspect the work of the chimney installation, it got worse, I looked up and saw this:


Yes, that is daylight coming through. I’m going to venture a guess and say that daylight coming through the roof is not a good thing. I climbed up on the ladder for a closer look and found that they had attempted to fill a 1/4″ gap with silicone! That just seemed crazy to me – these are professionals?

And as if that wasn’t enough, that red band of tape that says “do not place insulation above this line”, was positioned about 10″ from the joists. We are placing 20″ of insulation in the attic.

Ok breathe, it is the weekend and nothing can be done until Monday. Over the weekend we covered all of the floors, upstairs and down with Ram Board, a temporary cardboard-type floor protector and wrapped the stove in bubblewrap and a blanket. As fate would have it, on Sunday night we had a massive rain storm, almost 3″ of rain fell over the next 24 hours, I barely slept as I feared what I might wake up to when I got to the house in the morning.

I arrived only to find water running down the shoddily installed chimney pipe, streaming onto the stove and puddling on the floor! I frantically wiped the floors with towels and pulled the blankets off of the stove. The Ram Board had miraculously done it’s job (thank god) in protecting the floors and the bubblewrap had preventing any water from entering or pooling on the stove itself. I left a garbage bucket on the stove to collect the water (it had to be dumped twice during the day).

Furious, I called the chimney installers, I was shocked at the nonchalant response to my concern of water pouring into the house. “We will be there in the next couple days,” they told me. No, you will be here today, I told them, this is a crisis. Of course, they did not show up that day or the next. On the third day the same installers returned – with more caulking in hand! I told my contractor to go on the roof and spray it with a hose to test it before they ;eft. After adding more caulking they sprayed it down while the watched the water continue to run down into house. So, naturally, what did the installers do? They drove to the city to get better caulking! Oh my god, I couldn’t believe it. More caulking was not the solution. But they told us they “guaranteed” this would work. Best stuff. Leave it for two days, then test it again.

I was obviously skeptical, but I waited the two days, in fact, I waited three days, and tested it with a light shower of water – shockingly, water continued to run in the house. I called them again and said that this was not acceptable. They need to replace and install the system – it was clearly not installed correctly and MORE CAULKING was not the solution (besides that when I was up on the roof looking at the gap, they must have used at least an entire tube of the stuff, it was glopped everywhere and was actually running down the roof, what a mess).

Over the next week, I was told on four separate occasions that the head installer was coming out the next day – he did not show up any of these days.

Finally on the fifth day the head installer finally showed up (really at the last minute as that afternoon it rained another 2 inches). I found out later that he was actually the only WETT certified installer with the company, the other two guys who’d come before were not. One of them had only been working there for a month. The head installer was able to fix the problem by tightening the storm collar and repositioning the flashing. The rain tested it out and it did not leak.

In hindsight, I am actually grateful that it happened to rain two days after the initial “installation.” Could you imagine if it hadn’t rained until a month later when the attic insulation was done and the ceiling was sealed off? We wouldn’t have known for months that it was leaking – until we started to notice a mildew smell or rotting of the pine ceiling. Oh, what a nightmare that would have been.


Siding & Soffits

We knew we wanted a black house. In fact, when designing the house, it was one of the only things that really remained consistent and we didn’t change our minds about (ok, truthfully, we strayed a little bit – testing the waters, but as they say, once you go black, you probably won’t go back… or something like that).
DSC_0395Our previous house had been painted black by the previous owners (we are since soul mates) and we loved it dearly. But really we did not not want to simply paint our new house black. Paint is great for covering up years of other layers of toxic paint, as in our old house, but not as an initial coat. So, what to do?

In the process of researching, planning and designing the house, we collected hundreds of inspiration pictures. The majority of my “architecture” folder on Pinterest is of black houses, and each one I’d look at and try to figure out what they used: paint, stain, or something else.

One of the first “something else” option we were initially really drawn to the traditional Japanese siding treatment called “Shou-sugi-ban”. Taken from a Treehugger article on this process:

This is a traditional Japanese method of preserving cedar, where it is burned enough to create a layer of char on the outside. The char serves a number of functions: it seals and preserves the wood, it makes it significantly more fire-resistant, and termites and bugs hate it.

Shou sugi ban house in Alaska

It is said that this type of treatment can allow the wood to survive for 80-100 years without maintenance and much longer if treated with oil every 15 years.

Here is an impressive video of the traditional process in Japan:

Ok, so just imagine doing that 200 times over to clad your moderately sized house. Now that is labour intensive! Most people nowadays, from what I’ve read, use a blow torch to char each board, then dunk it in water, scrub the charred bits off, and then oil it. Even with a blow torch this a crazy amount of work, but in the end you get something really impressive and completely unique.

I really thought we were going to do this for our place, however, there were a few reasons we abandoned this idea. Firstly was the obvious: OMG, that would be so much work!! Second, cedar is crazy expensive right now, running in the range of $7-9 per sq.ft. But the final reason, was that we had heard that someone had decided to do a house in shou sugi ban in the City. Curious to see it in real life, we drove over to take a look at it. And well, to be honest, we really hated it. Perhaps it was just the people who did it did a bad job, but it looked really… gross. It basically looked like a house that had had a fire recent go through it (which I suppose is true). I think I would like to test it out on a shed or coffee table or something before I invest thousands of dollars into the siding of my house and ended up hating myself over it.

So, we turned to the natural and perhaps, most obvious option, stain. Stain is all well and good, but you really need to stain your wood every 5 years (or less) to preserve the wood and keep it looking good. And really, you still should use cedar to have optimal rot protection with plain old stain. That is until my wife came across a little black Swedish house.

Black house in Sweden

Granted, this house is actually sided in plywood, which I would never do, but what intrigued me was the rich black colour, that the grain of the wood still came through (not painted), and that they had used a siding that was not cedar.

As I read more into this, they used “black tar” for the siding. Through some detective work, we eventually found this same house linked to a Swedish product called “Auson black pine tar.

I had never heard or seen this product before but  I was very intrigued. Also, it was Swedish, and seeing as our house had a lot of Scandinavian inspiration, this only seemed fitting.

We found that the product was available in Canada through a website called Solvent Free Paint. Score. We emailed the company to learn a bit more about it:

Genuine Pine Tar is one of the more effective wood preservers we’ve seen, and it is all-natural, which is amazing. In Scandinavia, they have been using Pine Tar for around 1500 years as a preservative on everything from stave wood churches to wooden splint roofs to Viking ships, and it is still the predominant choice for continuing to preserve these old wooden structures to this day. Amazing. In fact, the heritage arm of the government of Québec has been making studies on this here with respect to preserving wooden roofs, and their current recommendation is to use pine tar.
Pine Tar is made from burning the pine resin out of the stumps of pine trees. The sticky resin is then collected and cleaned to various degrees, and pigment is even added for colour. In this state, Pine Tar has the consistency of molasses and can be used for preserving wood, even below grade. Above grade, we recommend mixing the pine tar 50/50 with Allback Purified Raw Linseed Oil and applying warm so that the pine tar and oil mixture really penetrates the wood. This mixture offers the best of both preservation and nourishment for the wood; it also takes down the stickiness of the surface so that it is more pleasant to touch or walk on.”
Even better, this product is ideal for use in Scandinavia, where pine and spruce are much more readily available and cedar is not. It preserves the wood and needs to be recoated only once every 15 years.
Bingo, we’d found our product. We ordered a few litres of this stuff. We had debated about using cedar for our soffits as well, but once we saw this, we realized we could use pine with a natural clear pine tar for much less than half the cost of cedar still.
IMG_2921We started out with the soffits, which would be easiest to install first. Yes, it is true that most people use aluminum or vinyl vented soffits, which are fool proof but are so fucking boring. Instead,  we purchased 1×6 tongue and groove clear white pine. Now one thing you need to know about staining (or painting) wood for siding or soffits, is that you mustn’t let any part of the wood be left untreated (otherwise the lifespan of the wood will drop by 50-75%, so preparation is key)! That is, you must stain all six sides of the wood. For the tongue and groove pine, this meant that yes, we had to stain the tongue AND the groove, which is a crazy, tedious and annoying task.
We had about 800 sq.ft. of soffits to stain, all sides, twice. It took us about 14 hours, but it looked pretty nice by the time we were done. The pine tar was actually easier than we expected it would be to use. Once mixed 50/50 with the linseed oil it was really just like a slightly thickened stain. It brushed on easy and evenly. However, we had to keep it warm. On the hot 30 degree Celsius days it was easy, but on the cooler day we had to heat it up on the stove in the shop. Also each coat took about 4-7 days to dry and still had a bit of residue on it that hopefully will dry someday. Surprisingly, it was not at all sticky (I had fears of moths and dust sticking to the house).
Now as for venting of the soffits, there is a calculation of square footage of ventilation versus square footage of attic space which is approximately 1 sq.ft of venting to every 100 sq.ft of attic. We figured out that that meant about 3/4″x30″ gap lengthwise along every fourth board, would be about right. We used a router to cut the gap and covered it with a bug screen. Here’s a photo:
I was so impressed with how well these turned out. Much better than I’d expected to be honest.
Next up was the siding, which I was most excited about. We ordered the clear white pine siding as a “shiplap reveal” in 1×8.
That pile took a ridiculous amount of time for us to work through. I had expected it to go relatively quickly seeing as we did not have to stain a stupid groove, but 30 hours later we were finally done. Exhausted, but man did it look badass.
Over the next two weeks the contractors, chipped away at installing the siding. This too took much longer than they had expected too, particularly from having to stain the ends of each cut. But seeing that siding go onto the walls, I knew we had made the right decision.
(Yes that is a chimney pipe, more to come).

Main Floor Concrete

We were very happy with how the basement concrete slab turned out. Tyco Concrete had come through for us on short notice and they had done a really nice job. So one week later we had them come back in to do a second pour, this time for the main floor. We had really debated about how we would like to finish the main floor concrete though despite months of reading and looking.

I should digress for a moment and simply state our reasons behind the concrete floor in the first place:

  1. Thermal mass – thermal mass is a the ability of a material to absorb and store energy (heat in particular). For passive solar heating in the winter months, the sun shining on the concrete will act like a battery, gaining heat during the day, and allowing it to release the heat in the evening. You could use a tile or brick to similar effect. A large brick or stone wall would also work, but you need the sun shining on it. Conversely, in the summer and “shoulder” (April and October) months you really don’t want the sun shining on the thermal mass as this can lead to overheating (thus the importance of passive shading and overhangs).
  2. In-floor heating – we still need a heat system. It is true that our thermal mass is not quite as good as if it had no in-floor heat (a colder mass will heat MORE than a mass that is already pre-heated) – however who wants to walk around on a cold concrete floor in the morning, honestly?
  3. Concrete is sexy.

Okay so now that that is cleared up, we had to decide on how we would like to eventually finish the floors. We had already decided that acid staining and dyeing the concrete was really not our thing – much too fancy-pants for us. That basically left us with two options: power trowel (same as the basement) or grind and polish. Both looks we really like.

Grind and polished concrete – not our place

The grind and polish look is something I really like. You need a concrete grinder machine with diamond discs starting with very rough grits of 80 and 120, which grind the top layer of concrete off exposing the pea gravel aggregate that sinks to the bottom and progressing up to finer and finer grits. Eventually getting up to 800, 1200, 2000 grit discs that give a highly polished look to the floor. You get a lot of interesting variation and different colors of the pea gravel coming through (although some people specify all grey or black pea rock if they want something more consistent). There is a couple downsides with this for us though. Firstly the concrete topper they were going to pour was only going to be 1.5″ thick, which is pretty darn thin. Although you are only taking about 1/8″ or so off the top, we had 1/2″ PEX in-floor piping and metal concrete mesh overtop – grinding too much off could be a horrible thing. We had seen this first hand – a good friend had built an eco-house in town and wanted a ground and polished concrete floor. Unfortunately the contractor ground off about 1/4″ too much. It looked great initially, but the layer of concrete over the in-floor heat was so thin that in the next few weeks the concrete started to crack badly following the pattern of the in-floor lines… It looked so bad. On a thicker floor you’d have nothing to worry about, mind you. But needless to say I was a bit paranoid of that risk. The second consideration is that you need to grind and polish before drywall as it makes a crazy mess. And you can’t grind and polish until it has cured for one month. That would mean that we would have to put the interior on hold for a month which we really did not want to do.

The other option was to simply power trowel the main floor, same as the basement. We have seen this look a lot in some more modern homes and I really like the simplicity of it. It is not complicated at all and is in fact the simplest, cheapest and easiest way to go (pour and trowel is about $2.50/sq.ft completed while the the grinding and polishing cost would be an additional $5-6/sq.ft above and beyond). You pour floor, power trowel the crap out of it and call it a day (in 28 days you can seal it, buff it, wax it, whatever). As I said we liked how the basement floor turned out, particular the very “swirly” areas, as my wife calls them. I hoped that we could make the floors slightly different then the basement floor still though. I looked into the possibility of adding a bit of black pigment to darken the grey slightly – however I abandoned this idea after I was told the pigment dries the concrete faster and can lead to an uneven finish.

Eventually the decision came down to, what is the simplest option? Through this process we have found ourselves periodically down a rabbit hole wondering how we got here and how everything became so complicated. Our answer in those situations, or when we’ve debated about two or three different things is – simple is always better. The more complicated, the more things can go wrong.

So I told the concrete guy, “finish the concrete just like the basement – only, more swirly please.” (He told us that the metal blades of the power troweled as what make it swirled and darker, but troweling longer and on a higher speed for the blades, they can darken the concrete more).

The morning of the pour was crazy again, our builder did not realize they were coming so early with the concrete truck and he’d left a bunch of stuff around the house. I received a text at 6:30am from the concrete guy – “someone has to get over here and move all this shit – truck is here.”

IMG_2982Fortunately we are living very close right now so I threw on some clothes and was out the door. We frantically (concrete starts to cure as soon as it leaves the plant – being 30 minutes from the city, every extra moment counts) moved a trailer, two big garbage bins, scrap wood, plywood and all sorts of junk. Meanwhile the rest of the concrete crew was even more frantically throwing down the concrete mesh (which provides structural support, like rebar, in thinly poured floors like ours). This stuff was crazy heavy and looked so cumbersome to work with, but these guys were pros, they had the whole floor laid and secured in about 20 minutes.

And so the pour began again. I could not stay and watch and truthfully, I did not want to see it. Seeing that grey/brown sludge of mud being rolled in and dumped on the floor simply made me nervous. I just wanted to see it pretty at the end.


When we got home all was quiet again. We went to the back door and peaked our heads in.


So swirly!


So very swirly!

High performance windows installed

Windows are one of the most critical elements of a Passivhaus and any super-insulated energy home. The placement of the windows, the type of glazing, the type of coating, and the frames all have an integral role in how much or how little energy your home will use. But what most energy aficionados consider to be the most important is the frame. For us, the only real option was fiberglass. Most regular home install run of the mill vinyl, wood or metal – but these materials are simply highly inferior to fiberglass when it comes to energy performance.

“Fiberglass is created by pulling strands of glass through a heated die, resulting in a material that is strong, resilient, and suited to all weather conditions… Energy efficient frames have low conductivity that discourages the transfer of heat or cold into a building. Fiberglass has a much lower conductivity than metal options; simply placing a hand on a fiberglass frame compared to an aluminum frame in -20°C weather makes the difference very clear… Fiberglass is much less conducive to allowing cold temperatures to pass through the frame, thus helping to prevent condensation and loss of heat… Subjected to temperature extremes, windows must remain stable, with minimal expansion and contraction to keep an excellent seal. Considering that the bulk of a window is glass, what better material to surround it with than glass? Hence “Glass on Glass Advantage”. Composed of about 60% glass, fiberglass, like plate glass, has a very low rate of expansion and contraction. Fiberglass maintains an excellent seal with reduced movement relative to the plate glass. Superior stability also results in greater longevity, fewer seal failures, and better paint adhesion.” -Duxton windows

Although we are targeting Passivhaus performance levels for our house, actually purchasing “Passivhaus Certified” windows was simply far too cost prohibitive (~$90/sq.ft.) and must be shipped across the ocean from Germany (that is a big carbon footprint to overcome). There is one Passivhaus manufacturer of windows in Canada that I’m aware of called Northwin, but we didn’t pursue a quote from them, the only reason being is that no one around here had any experience with them, and from what I was told the cost was extreme. I had wanted a recommendation or at least a review from someone who had worked with, lived with or installed them before.

One of our friends had built a very energy efficient house and installed Fibertec windows out of Ontario. Although they were beautiful looking windows, they had nothing but problems with them (air leaking, condensation). My thought is that these windows, made in a warmer part of the country, were not designed with a cold prairie climate in mind (I have no evidence to prove this, mind you). As such we avoided any manufacturers outside of our climate zone. That basically let us with two fiberglass window manufacturers: Duxton windows and Accurate Dorwin, both from Winnipeg MB.

We knew people who’d either installed or worked with these windows before and each of them were happy with them. We received quotes from each of them and they were essentially equal (Duxton being $500 more). We ran the two windows through the energy modelling software and Duxton came out the winner. I’d also talked to a Passivhaus engineer who’d found that Duxton “performed very well in the PHPP.” My wife also liked the name “Duxton” better.

They are a pretty impressive and innovative company. We actually met the owner, Al Dueck, and had a drink with him at a Building Green conference a few weeks ago. The company has recently developed a quintuple paned window! Five panes with a rating of R20! Outrageous.

We ordered the windows way back in early May, before the ground had even been broke on the foundation. I’d been expecting this to be more than an ample amount of time for them to be fabricated and delivered. Well, I was wrong. So very wrong. Although I was told that they would be ready in 6 weeks, they weren’t actually delivered and installed for nearly 10 weeks. Fortunately for us, our builder and the subcontractors were willing to continue on and not wait.

We had everything coordinated when they confirmed at last that the windows and doors had been sent out. Our builder, received the shipment, unloaded them and said “WTF!” We were missing all of the doors and one of the largest windows. It was the end of the day and we scrambled to try and find out which of the three shipping companies may have lost them… but all of them confirmed, when I called them frantically, that they had received the same items. It wasn’t until the next day that we received a sheepish email from Duxton that they had “forgotten” to ship them. Oops!? What a headache.

Not only were we trying to coordinate the shipping, delivery, installation of the frames and smaller windows, but also the “site glazing” (6 of the windows were too large and heavy to be sent as a single piece, therefore the glass and frame were sent separately and had to be installed by another subcontractors). Basically there was a lot of pieces that had to fall into place. And none of them did. But after hours on the phone rescheduling everything, like most (kind of) things, in the end it worked out. The windows and doors arrived and were installed. And they look super sexy.


Frames only. Waiting for site glazing.
The triple pane pieces of glass. These made me so nervous. I did not want to be around when they were installed.
Almost all installed. Note – no door and no window on the far end.