Bathrooms: Research and Design

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You can tell a lot about a place, be it a house, hotel, or a restaurant, based on the quality and cleanliness of the bathrooms. Whenever I go to a new house I always, inherently, check out the bathroom. Is it neat and tidy? Or is it grungy and smelly – does it have a crusty ring around the toilet? I will make immediate judgements about you, I’m sorry, I will.

Similarly, I will make the same judgements about a restaurant’s washroom. Is it dirty? Is the caulking around the sinks peeling away? Did they paint over the light switches – the same colour as the walls even? Are the fixtures falling off from the walls? If a washroom is gross, my bet is the kitchen will be gross too. I don’t know that I want to eat here.

Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not a germaphobe by any means. I’ll eat a dirty carrot right out of the ground. If I drop a piece of food on the floor, I’ll eat it, I don’t care. But, I don’t like the thought of pink eye or fecal matter on toothbrushes… Call me old-fashioned.

When we were designing the house, there were some considerations we made, first being that we did not want too many bathrooms. Our last house had 4 bathrooms. Too many! Granted they were very nice looking bathrooms. But, have you tried cleaning 4 bathrooms per week? It takes forever. Ug.

Still, you don’t want too few bathrooms. There’s a balance to be had. I like a half-bathroom for guests. A small sink and toilet, near the main space of the house. Certainly, you can use it too. But, there is no need for your guests to have to use the same bathroom you use daily to wash and clean. And worst case scenario, if you have people coming over, just make sure that guest one is clean! That way I won’t think you’re super gross.

An ensuite is nice and all, but that is typically reserved for off of the master bedroom, thus being just for the adults of the house. If this is only going to be you and your partner, and you’re not going to be having any kids, then go for it. Connect your master bathroom directly to your master bedroom. That way, your guests definitely won’t be tempted to use it. For us, though, we decided to make the main bathroom a separate room, off of the main hallway. It is directly across from our master bedroom, but not connected to it. This way kids can also use this bathroom. We also put in another full bathroom in the basement. I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a house with only one combined bath/shower in the whole house. With two parents and two teenagers trying to get ready with only one shower – well, let’s just say it caused a lot of unnecessary resentment and many arguments. Two showers are necessary. It will result in a 50% reduction of family strife (that’s my completely uneducated guess anyway).

Now let’s bring this back to my original point: Bathrooms are inherently gross. This is where all of the less desirable necessities of life take place. So it is understandable why bathrooms, not properly designed, can be even more gross. And why a clean and tidy bathroom is so impressive.

I hadn’t really been able to explain this well until I read this series of articles over at TreeHugger.com which completely made me shift my thinking about bathrooms: “The History of Bathrooms.” This series talks about how the bathroom developed and changed over the years and how various professions and innovations have changed it, as well as, how some cultures, particularly the Japanese, have a deep reverence for the bath.

OK, so let me give you a tour of ours.

Master Bathroom:

The first picture of this post (scroll back up quick) is of the Master Bath as you walk in the door. To the right is the hand-built white oak vanity. To the left is the walk-in shower and behind is a clawfoot tub. In the back right corner, behind the door is the “water closet.” A water closet is the enclosed room for the toilet. That way your mess is contained to that space. When you flush the toilet, the mist stays in there and doesn’t spread to all the other spaces in the bathroom (like your toothbrush and contact lens). I’d never seen a water closet before, but our old house had one and we loved it. That way, someone can be having a shower and the other person can still use the toilet. No need to poop in front of your spouse!

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I had written about refinishing this clawfoot tub that we’d bought on Kijiji for $75. It is neatly tucked into the corner of the bathroom, right behind the enclosed shower and underneath a west-facing window.

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A double sink was a must-have for us (trust me, it will save your marriage). This hand-built rift sawn white oak vanity was built by our friend, Ryan Unger of Rhine Artisans, who also did our kitchen. We wanted a mid-century credenza-type of vanity and he nailed it with this.

The light fixtures are from One Forty Three, which we used variations of for all of the bathrooms.

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When looking at bathrooms (endless, endless bathrooms) on Pinterest prior to building our own, I was constantly drawn to wall mounted and black fixtures. These Brizo faucets met both of these desires… though they were a bit of a splurge. The countertop is white Corian with simple under mounted sinks, which are easy to clean.

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The shower is a walk-in. It’s near the side door so we can come right in and wash off ourselves or dogs or little kids without needing to track through the whole house. I’ve never been a fan of the glass enclosed showers. They look nice when they’re clean, but the problem is, they are clean for about a half day between when you clean the bathroom and when someone has the next shower, otherwise, they always look messy. I prefer a simple curtain.

The other bonus of the Brizo Odin fixtures, aside from being sexy black, is that they are low flow too. Being an eco-house and on cistern water, we’re very conscious of our water use. This shower uses 2.0 gallons per minute (gpm) versus the standard 2.5-3.0 gpm.  AND! This has a wand shower. Let’s be frank here for a second, it is impossible to clean your… ahem… nether bits with an overhead shower, a wand hand-shower attachment will keep you… uh… very fresh.

Did I mention, that I tiled this whole bathroom too? This one took about 6 days and 10 hours per day. I tiled a wainscoting around the vanity and bath tub and floor-to-ceiling in the shower and around the entrance.

Guest Washroom:

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We installed three ultra-low flow toilets from Caroma, called Somerton Smart 270. These toilets are fantastic and conserve an amazing amount of water. A standard “low flow” toilet uses 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf). These dual-flush toilets use 1.28 gpf for a full flush and only 0.8 gpf for a small flush. One of the keys is a large drainage path. I was worried it may leave some stowaways behind, which I’d heard was a problem with ultra-low flow toilets, but this toilet is great. I would highly recommend it.

Another great part about this toilet, is the smooth sides on the base. If you clean your bathroom, you know that those stupid faux pipes on the side of most toilets are a haven for dust, hair and grim. I hate cleaning those. I was adamant that whatever toilet we bought had to have smooth sides. And, as if it couldn’t get any better, the toilet seat has a slick little button to quickly release it and easily clean. So smart, this Somerton Smart 270!

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It took us almost forever to find a tap that would work for this old-vintage sink. I think we ordered 5 different taps before we finally found this cheap $60 one from Home Depot. Works for me.

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OK, one other thing that is not easy to find is stylish rods, hooks, and toilet paper holders. They are 99% cheap plastic chrome junk. This, well, I’d Instagram this: #sexytoiletpaperholder?

Basement Bathroom:

The basement bathroom is where my obsession with Japanese bathrooms was most fully expressed. When I read about the fragrant smell and soothing nature of hand-built Hinoki wooden tubs I told my wife – “we have to get one!” That is until, I found the price… ~$9000 + shipping + taxes + import fees… OK, next best option:

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We installed this DEEP two-person soaker tub from Produits Neptune, called the “Osaka“. We actually had to put this tub in the basement before framing of the house was done. Being 52″x52”, there was no way this could be brought in after the fact. Granted, this is not a water-conservation tub, but we don’t use it everyday either, more like one every couple months, but it is glorious. When full, you can sit in chest deep water. Rather then getting a wooden tub, I clad the tub, back wall and ceiling in cedar. The condensation of the hot water of the tub and shower results in a beautiful and fragrant cedar smell. It might not be Hinoki, but it’s pretty darn nice.

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The shower is completely open to the tub. All of the fixtures in this bathroom are from a Canadian company called Rubi – notice the wand shower *wink wink*. I also tiled this whole bathroom too, three full walls, in these 4×4″ white tiles. This was probably the most difficult tile job in the whole house. At least with 3×6″ brick laid subway tile there is some room for error. But these grid laid square tiles, especially with the dark grey grout, show every error or not perfectly square corner and wall. I had some choice words for the framers while I tiled this bathroom…

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In the floor of the shower I asked the concrete guys to very slightly grade towards the drain. This shower is about 60×48″ so there is no standard shower base that would fit here. This option worked great.

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I’d asked the lumber yard for 6′ lengths of cedar that would only have needed to be slightly trimmed for the shower, instead I got 7-9′ lengths and had to cut every single board. I was a bit annoyed by this waste. But after I finished the shower and walked into this space right next to the tub/shower, it looked terribly boring with just a drywalled wall. I ended up using the scrap pieces on the back wall – a happy error.

I admit that this toilet-next-to-sink setup is a recipe for a cesspool of bacteria, but it simply didn’t work to hide the toilet in another water closet in the basement. I just won’t brush my teeth down here.

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This sink is from Rubi as well. It was a nightmare to get a sink down here too. We’d ordered a different sink with a shroud base for the pipes from another place, but they sent the wrong base. Then we sent it back and the new one they sent was the right base, but wrong sink. Then we scraped that sink and bought this one, but forgot to return the taps, so we had to send the taps back and get new taps… sigh…

 

 

Blue Heron EcoHaus in Western Living Magazine and Green Building Advisor

Our house was recently featured over at Western Living Magazine, a Canadian-based modern architecture and interior design magazine. They interviewed our designer, Crystal Bueckert, and included a few quotes from me as well. The write-up is excellent and I’m happy to see how good the house shows.

The article shows a number of photos that I haven’t even posted here yet! I hope you enjoy the little tour.

Check it out here:

Inside a Beautiful, Eco-friendly Saskatchewan Farmhouse

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On the flip-side of modern design, as some of you already likely know, our house was also a featured green house blog over at the excellent Green Building Advisor website. This website is not about trendy design/architecture, but is about building excellent, high quality and, primarily, energy efficient homes. If you are planning to build a green home, this website is a must resource. I was honoured to be asked to be a contributor to the website for the past year. Most the articles I wrote were already featured on this blog, but the comments section for each entry offers a wealth of valuable information from some of the top green builders, designers and architects in North America. It was a very humbling opportunity for me. It was a 16-part series that I hope offers valuable information to others who are venturing down the road of green building.

Recently, I came across a very interesting article written on Green Building Advisor in which a respected green building designer modelled our house comparing it to a German-biult Passive House. The implications of this and the discussion points are fascinating to read and there are nearly 50 comments on it that offer further wonderful insights: A Lesson From the Kranichstein Passive House

As for my articles on Green Building Advisor:

  1. Is Passive House Right for a Cold Canadian Climate?
  2. Heating a Superinsulated House in a Cold Climate
  3. Choosing a Super-Insulated Wall System
  4. How Small Can We Go? 
  5. Picking High Performance Windows
  6. Let Construction Begin
  7. Making an ICF Foundation
  8. Dealing with Really Bad Water
  9. Adding Walls and Roof
  10. Placing Concrete Floors
  11. Siding and Soffits at the Blue Heron EcoHaus
  12. Insulation, Air-Sealing and Solar Array
  13. Blower Door Testing
  14. Adding It All Up, Part 1
  15. Adding It All Up, Part 2
  16. Adding It All Up, Part 3

Floor plan: the long-winded version

I’ve had a few questions over the last number of months about our floor plan. How we decided on things and why. Way back before we started construction I’d wrote extensively about the design and planning of the house. It wasn’t easy! We thought we knew exactly what we wanted initially. But it really wasn’t until we had 13 designs/redesigns that we felt really good about the house we were going to build. If you’re curious about that process, please read the links as I go into a lot of detail about the process, decisions, considerations and some of the struggles that went with that.

Despite all of that prep work, it’s really difficult to fully imagine what the house will be like, how it will flow, and if you will have any regrets (even if you have a 3D walk through), until you’ve actually lived in it. We spent 10 months planning and designing the house and I’m glad we took that much time to do it (I’m grateful for the patience of our house designer and friend, Crystal at Bldg Studio). We maybe could have even spent longer, but I’m not sure that we’d have changed anything. Nearly all of the things I’d, let’s say “tweak” if I could, I don’t think I’d have realized until we’d actually lived here awhile. The funny thing is, and I’d been told this before, after you build your first house you’d know exactly how you’d want to build your second house. Don’t get me wrong though – I love our house and I’m so happy with so many of the decisions we made early on, but I think I’d know how to make our next house even better (or maybe by the third or fourth)…

Anyways, my plan here is to show you our floor plan and then walk through some of the things I’d change if I were to do it again.

The first and most important thing was to not build too large. We wanted a quaint, modern farmhouse. We’d lived in a large house (6 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms) and it was just too much – too much space, too much stuff, too much cleaning. Between that house and the new one, we lived in a very small 600 square foot cabin with two small bedrooms and 1 bathroom for 14 months while we built. The cabin was too small, but we realized that we didn’t need as much space as we thought we might.

After 13 house designs, we finally settled on the following, a bungalow with a full height basement with a main floor square footage of 1440 sq.ft. to the exterior walls (remember our walls are 16″ thick) which equalled an interior floor space of 1240 sq.ft. The interior basement space is the same size, so that gives us an overall heated interior floor space of 2480 sq.ft. The ceilings are 9′ in both the main floor and basement.

Ok so onto the floor plan. For reference’s sake to the proceeding floor plan, the house is square to the four directions: top is North, bottom is South, left is west and right is east. On our land the best view, facing the river, is south and east. We have a shelter belt of trees (spruce, pine, and amur cherry) blocking the prevailing winds from the North and West. Our yurt and chicken coop are about 50′ from the west door (left side of picture). The edge of the river is 160′ from the south/west corner of the house (including hillside).

We wanted to have the house feel very open and connected to the beautiful surrounding landscape so it’s really difficult to fully understand the layout of the house without seeing where we live…

This is our front yard:

So when designing the house, our priorities were: 1) to maximize the connection to the land and views, 2) to optimize our energy efficiency, and 3) to be cost effective.

Main Floor:

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The main door is on the north east corner. We have a driveway that comes to the back of the house (north side) and in the next year or so we will build a detached garage on the north side of the house. One thing that bugs me in some homes is a main entrance that opens into the heart of the house, like right into the living room. I don’t like that. It seems like such an invasion of privacy to me. Not that we get many strangers coming to our house, but even still I find it very nice to be able to greet people at the door, give them lots of room to take their jacket and shoes off and then allow the house to be “introduced” or revealed to them as they’re welcomed into the main living space. The one thing I would change in the entrance way now is I would have made the window smaller. It faces east and is a beautiful view and brings in some awesome light, but it doesn’t need to be as big as it is (48″ wide). Being east facing it’s an energy loser for us. Oh well.

As you come into the house from the main entrance, the space really opens up to the great room which is essentially, a large wall of windows. The south facing windows are all 16″ from the floor and are 68″ tall (this was purposeful so that the top of the doors line up with the top of the windows creating a continuous symmetrical line around the house). They let in a tonne of natural light and frame the river and river bank. They also function for passive solar heating in the winter. The windows are like a massive, constantly moving and changing landscape portrait (we don’t need any landscape portraits in our house!).

I will say that we purposely put the small half bathroom near the main entrance for two reasons. The first was that we did not want a door coming off the main space to a bathroom. That’s gross. Second, we spend a lot of time outside, we get dirty, and we did not want to be tracking mud and dirt into the house to use the washroom.

We placed a large storage closet in the hallway leading to the great room, which stores our recycling, vacuum, dog food and a bunch of other miscellaneous stuff. Don’t underestimate the amount of storage you need! It’s the difference between a cluttered or a clean house.

The great room includes our kitchen, living room and dining room. This is where we spend 90% of our time. I love this space. We’d actually debated about about not doing an “open” kitchen, but I’m so glad we did it this way. The kitchen really is the heart of the home. We have friends and family over almost every weekend and I cook a lot. There’s nothing worse then being stuck in the kitchen while all your friends are visiting in the other room. This way, I can be preparing food while still visiting with everyone and often now people are willing to pitch in and help with food prep and cleanup. Success.

The kitchen island is 8’x3′ with an induction cooktop. We have a floor to ceiling pantry, and cupboard with a built-in fridge, microwave and oven behind the island. I highly recommend extending the cupboards to the ceiling. I’ve never understood why some people stopped their cupboards at 7′ and then have an awkward space between there and the ceiling which simply collects dust. We use a small step ladder to reach the top cupboards which stores those occasionally/rarely used kitchen appliances we all have. In the northeast corner of the kitchen is open shelves which holds glasses, coffee cups and some pretty things. We’d been hesitant about open shelves, but I think in the right amount they look great and are very practical. The kitchen sink faces an east window overlooking the river. Having a window with a view in front of the sink makes doing the dishes so much more enjoyable. We extended the east counters and lower cupboards nearly all the way to the corner window to maximize our storage space. All of our lower cupboards are drawers and they are great. The window seat also has drawers underneath for more storage. We do not have any upper cupboards or shelves on the east wall. It is very clean, tiled from counter to ceiling. Our total counter space is around 15′. In the book “The Pattern Language” (which we relied on heavily for the design), Christopher Alexander recommends a minimum of 14′. I’d thought that was excessive initially, but I’d say he’s bang on. I can be baking bread, fermenting sauerkraut and kombucha, have a sink full of dishes and ones drying beside it, and still have plenty of room to prepare dinner.

On the other side of the island we have three stools and on the end facing the sink is an open lower shelf to store our heavy cast irons pots. Check out this post for a photo tour of the kitchen.

The dining table is between the island and the south windows. The table is 101″ by 33″ and seats 10 people comfortably. I have to admit I had no idea if our spacing was going to be right until the day we moved our table and chairs in and had our first meal. This is the difficult part about designing a house – how much space do you leave between things? It is such a subtle amount, we’re talking 1-2″ of space that will make something comfortable or cramped. I’m glad to say that we nailed this though (thanks in large part to my mother who is an interior designer and helped us with all of these tricky spacing decisions). But when designing your own house these are the decisions that make a huge difference – and you need to know your furniture. For example, can you have someone sitting at the island on the stool and someone sitting on a dining chair behind them and still have room for some to walk between them? Trust me, I would be so annoyed if I couldn’t do this.

The rest of the great room is occupied with the living room, which includes a lounge chair, sectional couch and area rug. I’ve never been a big fan of area rugs before we lived here, but putting a nice wool rug down (especially on concrete floor), not only is nice for your feet and to give kids an area to play (“don’t leave the rug!”) but it also differentiates space nicely. We placed the wood burning stove in front of the window. When people had looked at the plans initially they’d said, “you really want to do that?” I have to say that this is one of the best decisions we made. The stove is a very attractive Morso stove from Denmark. A lot of people will tuck a stove into the corner of a room, but I love a wood burning fire and again, as written in “The Pattern Language” (have you bought it yet?), all people in the space should be able to see and enjoy the view and heat of the fire. Also, the stove does not block our view by any means, if anything, it makes it more interesting.

I will also say one more thing about the height of the window sills – this was very intentional, placing them at 16″ creates the same height as your standard dining room chair. This way you have natural bench seating throughout the house.

Behind the couch on the far west wall of the great room is a nook for our amp, record player, speakers and LPs. I’m glad that we added this, but my only regret on this space is we could have made the whole room about 10-12″ wider, which would have allowed me to put a narrow credenza or bookshelf behind the couch. Oh well – next time!

The door on the south side is mostly glass and leads onto our large deck.

The master bedroom is not overly big. We had had a gigantic, massive bedroom before and it just seemed unnecessary. I just sleep here. We did not put in a walk-in closet. We had one before, but it allowed us to collect more clothes that we didn’t wear. Having enough space is good, but having too much space you can lose track of what you have and eventually you realize you have a tonne of junk you don’t wear and don’t need. I like the closet size. There’s more than enough room for Darcie’s and my clothes but if we fill it up then that means we need to get rid of stuff. The window in this room is really big. It’s cool, but it is unnecessarily large. I like being able to wake up to the sun and see the river while I lie in bed, but it doesn’t need to be as wide as it is. It could easily be three-quarters to half the size and still give us the things we like about it.

I do wish that we could have found a way to put in a laundry shoot. I know that a lot of places don’t allow these, but we could have done it where we are.

We did not do a true ensuite bathroom. This was done for a couple of reasons, the first was that we wanted the shower and bathroom to be accessible for whoever is in the second bedroom. Typically if you have an ensuite you need another bathroom on the same floor with a tub/shower. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of cleaning bathrooms all day. I did that in our old house – remember, we had FOUR bathrooms! So unnecessary. We also wanted the shower to be close to the outside door so that we could come in, strip off our clothes and go right into the shower – we are dirty people out here. The bathtub is the old clawfoot tub we refinished which is a real beauty. I love the double-sink and the large vanity. No more are Darcie and I trying to push each other out of the way for sink or mirror space – it will save your marriage! We also put in a “water closet” which is the tiny doored room in the bathroom for the toilet. We had this in our 100 year old house and it was very smart. Do you know how disgustingly dirty toilets can be when flushed? Yucky.

And yes, we have an outdoor shower.

The second bedroom is a fun little room. It’s not a perfect square due to the stairs on the north side of the house. Currently it’s Darcie’s sewing room, but it will make a fun kids room. There is an option of extending the raised platform to make a sleeping space under the window or to put bunk bends towards the other end. Kids love nooks and alcoves (according to both my childhood memories and “The Pattern Language”) so the raised platform above the stairs, walled on three sides gives a nice little space to cozy up and read a book or hide away.

I really like the side door at the end of hall leading to the coop and yurt. It is glazed like the door leading to the deck so it brings nice light into the hallway, but it also has a small transom window above it that opens. This way we have cross-ventilation through the whole house. From the transom to the operable window above the kitchen sink and from the north side window (at the top of the stairs) to the small operable window adjacent to the wood burning stove.

Phewf! That took longer than I thought to write about. OK, onto the basement.

Basement:

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At the bottom of the stairs is a wide landing about 6′ wide. This is wider than your standard hallway by quite a bit. But, in a basement it’s nice to feel like you are not tunnelling under ground or in some dark space, which basements can often feel like. The ceilings are very high, just over 9′ tall, which makes it not “feel” like a basement. We also placed large windows on the east side and one on the south, they are 5′ and 10′ wide. We did not put more south windows down here due to the deck above.

The first room at the bottom of the stairs is the cellar. This is an unheated space, but not sealed from the rest of the house. We’d considered making it a true cold room with venting to the outside and we could still do this, but I’ve been reluctant to do so as I’m worried it will be a big energy draw to the rest of the house, even if we totally seal it. Also, with a fridge and freezer in there I question whether it would even be cold enough with venting. Currently it primarily functions as a large pantry with lots of shelving for dry goods. Living outside of town it’s nice to have a bit of stock pile of food including canning that we’ve done.

We wanted a large laundry room with a sink and cupboard space. It’s very nice to have a contained space for this and a place to hang clothes to dry and do ones ironing. It is also easy to let stuff pile up and simply close the door on it!

The mechanical room is really big, but it also holds our water tank. Now that we’ve lived with the water tank and I’ve recognized my dread of having 2000 gallons of water leaking into my basement – doing it over, I’d likely put the tank underground in a cistern outside with a pipe leading in. That way if anything were to fail with the tank, well, it would just water my grass rather than flood the basement. We might still change this at some point down the road, but of course, it is always more work and money after the fact.

The family room is also very large, nearly the same size as the “great room” on the main floor. You might we recall that we have exposed concrete walls in the basement and exposed steel beams so this definitely has a pretty industrial feel down here. We have a TV and sectional couch (and area rug) in the corner against the wall of the mechanical room. The rest of the space is fairly open although Darcie has a large weaving floor loom on the other side… It would be a perfect size for a pool table, but Darcie disagrees.

The bathroom down here is really cool. I’d wanted to do a Japanese bath, like a real hand-built wooden tub, that is, until I found out the cost is ~$9000. Scratch that. Instead we found a deep round two-person tub that we wrapped in cedar. It is open to the shower that is also open to the rest of the bath. Here’s a photo I took awhile back. I like the other bathrooms in the house a lot, but this one is rad.

Under the stairs is another cellar, this one is where I make my beer and wine and where we let the ferments sit. I’ve put a bunch of shelves under the stairs for storage. Can’t have enough storage, I tell ya.

And lastly, is the basement bedroom. This bedroom is pretty bad-ass with two walls of exposed concrete. Teenager-me would have loved this room (I still do, but I would have really loved it then).


 

All in all. We really are happy with the layout of the house and the planning time we spent to get it as “right” as possible. Sure there a couple minor things we would have changed, but they certainly are not major things. It’s not easy to get it perfect – in fact, it might be impossible. But I’d recommend when planning and designing your house to tour as many homes as possible. If you get into a space that feels good, try to analyze what it is – is it the window placement, the size, the spacing? Take measurements of your furniture and make sure your architect or house designer lays out your rooms so that you have proper spacing. Measure your favourite rooms in your current house or the houses that you go into and say, “Oh I like this.”

Buy and read “The Pattern Language.” It is worth it’s weight in gold.

Talk to people who have built and ask them what they “nailed it” on and what they wish they would have done differently (everyone will have at least a few things). Do smart things. Design it for yourself. Don’t design it for someone else or “resale value.” That’s silly. But, at the same time, I’d caution you against doing something very “out there” – unless you’ve done a lot of houses before and you’ve evolved to the “out there” point. You never know, your first home build, well, it might not be your last.

An outdoor shower

Well, it seems that summer is over and I’ve barely written about it. This is what we woke up to on Tuesday morning (October 4th):


Yup, welcome to Saskatchewan. It was +20°Celsius on the weekend. Sigh.
Anyways, on to the memories of summer now.

There were a handful of things we really wanted when building and designing the house: a black house, a wood stove, a farmhouse sink, a clawfoot tub. And… an outdoor shower.

I’d only used an outdoor shower a couple of times in my life, but it had left a distinct impression on me. There’s something wonderful about showering in nature. Exposed to the elements. I can’t really put my finger on it. But anyone who has experienced this agrees – there is something primal and extra-ordinary about it.

We’d had the plumber run both a hot and cold water line to the outside of the house that we would be able to hook up washer lines to attach to a shower. We found an outdoor showerhead and attachments from “Speakman” on Amazon (it still amazes me all the crap they have on there) for less than $200.

Initially I’d considered making the shower a fixed structure to the house as I’d seen in California and some other permanently warm climates. But this really didn’t seem like a great idea for us (see snow above) and due to excessive water and possible soap staining the siding.

A freestanding and portable shower made the most sense, something that could be stored in the shop over the winter and transported out easily in the summer.

This is what I came up with.

Honestly, it’s the only way I wanted to shower all summer. Good thing the neighbors don’t live too close. 

Once you go black…

We’d really hummed and hawed about what to do about the basement parging for most the winder and early spring. Although our plan had been to do the house all black initially.

 

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But last year we’d hesitated. And I’m not entirely sure why. We couldn’t run the wood siding all the way to the ground, like the rendering shows, because of the 8” of foam on the exterior basement walls without some seriously extensive strapping. Alas we had the stucco guys parge the basement foundation and then leave it while we contemplated our options: leave it or go all black.

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While taking photos for the post about the concrete retaining wall, Darcie, my wife, said, “The house doesn’t look right. It looks like it’s floating. It’s weird.” She proceeded to spend the next several days playing with Photoshop, filling the gray parging with black and analyzing it from multiple angles. After a week of scrutinizing the Photoshopped images, she said, “Look. We should do this.” Pointing to an all black house.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned is that once my wife has made up her mind, it’s best not to disagree. It is only futile afterall. “Yes honey,” I replied (these two words are the most important for a husband to know, by the way).

So I called the stucco guys and asked them to come back. It ended up taking a number of weeks for them to finally show up (typical). But only a couple hours for them to transform the house.

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I gotta say, I don’t know why I’d hesitated, because once your go black… well, you know the rest.

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The trials and tribulations of concrete

 

The last of the work on the house was a concrete retaining wall and front step/pad and a side door pad. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be done with contractors (and spending 1000s of dollars). One of my friends, Dan, who had worked for a large concrete contractor in town had recently started his own company, called Old North Concreteworks. When he’d told me about this over the last winter – I said, “Dude! Why didn’t you start your company last year?!” With all of the headaches we’d had with the concrete before during the build it would have been so nice to have someone with a such an experienced and trustworthy knowledge of concrete.

Nonetheless we, being one of his first contracts, would be able to get the pads poured early as soon as the ground had dried and thawed. Retaining walls are tricky and we’d had a lot of settling over the wintertime. But around the area of the retaining wall we had watered and backfilled last year to try and expedite the settling. It seemed that we’d been successful in this regard as the land had really not dropped at all there over the winter. For the retaining wall, Dan first poured a 6” footing extending 6’ perpendicular to the house with the retaining wall form built on top. He and I then backfilled to the form with dirt and crushed rock (tamping down at each bucket load) to bring this up to the point where they would be able to join an 8’x6’ pad to the top of the retaining wall – essentially creating an upside down ‘L’.

The side door pad would be simpler – 4’x7’ and 4” thick.

A few days before the planned pour date, he sent me two different options for finishing the concrete edge:

 

 

 

“Hmmm… Neither,” I told him.

Do this:

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Alyson Fox House

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yup, that’s what I want, no edge, just poured.” If you’ve read this blog for anytime, you may realize by now that Darcie and I like things that other people don’t normally do – at least not around here. Dan suggested a “mag finish” in which he lightly brushed the top of the concrete in a swirled, random way to get some grit to the top so it would not be slippery.

The day of the pour came and when we got home wouldn’t you know, we had a two pads and a retaining wall poured! Success.

I messaged Dan to see how the day went. “OK I love the top,” he said. Excellent, I thought, I would like to collect a royalty fee now every time you use this. “But…” he said, it was essentially the worst day of his life otherwise. The concrete truck they’d ordered broke down on the way out to our house. We are 30 minutes away from the city and it was a very hot day – that’s not a good combination for concrete. The concrete was starting to set as they poured it. Fortunately they were able to get it in place, not being a lot of concrete really – but our very sandy soil didn’t hold the retaining wall forms very well, despite being heavily reinforced, and the wall had bowed. He was not happy about this and insisted that he would fix it, suggesting that he rent a large concrete grinder to take out the bow later.

I really wasn’t surprised to hear that they’d had issues. It always seems to be that way with our place… Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

For Dan though, the day only got worse. After finishing our place they had to rush over to my neighbor’s house a ½ mile away to pour a sidewalk along his garage and house. The concrete truck broke down again! And he poured the hardest concrete of his life, he said. He had to use all of his might to smooth and level it. In the process and stress of it all, the concrete had started to stick and cure to his legs. After they’d gotten it all down and finished – he attempted to pull the concrete off of himself, but with that came a lot of his skin. Yucky.

A few days later Dan returned and ground the bowed section out, exposing the aggregate in a very interesting and dramatic fashion, which I was pleasantly surprised with. As has seemed to have been the way with our house too – right to the bitter end – many of the seeming mess-ups or frustrations end up turning out creative and interesting solutions. I would not have asked for the wall to be finished the way it was, but pleasingly, I’m happier with it then I would have been had it all worked out just as planned.

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Swirled, “mag” finish
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Yes it rained last night.
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Ground and polished retaining wall

 

 

 

That’s a big deck!

January to March had been fairly relaxing. The previous year and a half had been incredibly busy/hectic/stressful with planning and building the house and we thoroughly enjoyed our hibernation time in the new house over the winter. But now that Spring has sprung itself we were looking forward to getting outside and crossing a few things off of our to-do list.

I have to continually remind myself to: “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life.” -Socrates

Although we are going to be getting more projects done, we’re also trying to take things easy and be a little gentler on ourselves. There is really no rush or pressure to do anything at any specific time.

Still, the Spring/Summer To-Do list includes (but not limited to): backfill, grade, deck, plant grass seed, build garden fence, prep garden, plant garden, concrete patio, retaining wall, walkway, driveway, irrigation, dog run, general yard clean up, plant trees… I’m sure there’s more.

One of the first priorities was to get the deck built (it would make all of those other projects so much better by being about to recover on the deck after a hard days work). We elected to have our framing contractors come back to do it as soon as the snow and land was dry enough to start. The weekend before we had to backfill around the house as it had settled a lot over the winter. The wooden stairs we’d been using dropped at least 12″. And as the snow melted we had a mini waterfall along the side of the house.

It was gruelling and dirty work backfilling, shovelling, grading and tamping. We were fortunate enough to have our neighbour (best neighbour ever) offer to bring his payloader tractor over to help us out. We must have moved 20 yards of dirt that day.

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We’d designed a BIG deck to take up most of the south side of the house with a size of 16’x40′ (about half the size of the house!).

I’d really wanted to have the deck clad in cedar, but the cost was absurd – exactly double the cost of treated lumber. I’m not a huge fan of treated lumber, but for 50% the cost, I can learn to live with it. Besides we would not be staining the cedar had we done it, so in 5-10 years treated and cedar look nearly the same – a light grayish colour.

The Monday after completing the backfilling the builders were able to come out. And by Tuesday evening, Darcie and I were having dinner on the new deck.

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As we sat there on an unusually warm April evening, eating our dinner with our legs dangling off of the side of the new deck, drinking wine and looking out over the river, a bald eagle soared over our heads and into the distance. Both of us stopped and looked at each other, “Could this moment get any better?”

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Musings on Passive House Standards and the Costs of New Home Construction, Part 3

If you have not yet read my posts (rants) in Part 1 and Part 2, maybe check those out first.

Have you heard of the Pareto Rule before? It’s more commonly known as the 80/20 Rule. It says that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

I think that Passive House (PH) follows this rule to a T. It has certainly been our experience in building an extremely energy efficient home and following the principles of PH. I believe that 80% of the benefits of PH come from about 20% of the cost and effort (from Part 1 of these posts, I noted that our financial cost was about 8% more than a standard house construction). Whereas to get that last 20% to the hit the PH certified requirements, you’re going to have to spend 80% more… At least this was my assumption.

Still being the curious person I am and because I kept getting asked about it… I just had to know. How close does our house come to the PH standard?

The only way to find out would be to either track the house over the next year or to have someone run the house through the Passive House Planning Package software (PHPP) to predict our values.

As you may recall, we were never pursing PH certification, right from the beginning we were told the cost-effectiveness (80/20 rule) was just not there. Maybe if there was some incentive or rebate for going full-out, one could justify it. We were also told that there was no need to use the PHPP as it was too expensive. This latter statement however is simply not correct.

I decided to ask around and see who could put our house through the PHPP for us. Or at least get a price quote for it. Maybe it would be too costly and so I wouldn’t bother if it was. After a few emails, I was eventually referred to a very well-respected PH consultant out of Alberta – Stuart Fix at ReNu Building Science. I sent my email explaining that we’d already built the house and so really can’t change anything now, but due to curiosity I was wondering if he could run the house through the software. No problem he said. The price we were given was entirely reasonable and was actually less than what we had paid to run the house through the inferior HOT2000 software prior to building. Crap!

After a couple weeks we received the results, not surprisingly: we weren’t a Passive House. But the results on the various aspects of the house were very interesting and lead to some interesting points of discussion.

Based the three criteria for PH certification, recall:

  1. Space Heat Demand: max. 15 kWh/m2a  OR  Heating load max. 10 W/m2
  2. Pressurization Test Result @ 50 Pa: max. 0.6 ACH
  3. Total Primary Energy Demand: max. 120 kWh/m2a

Our results were as follows:

  1. Space Heat Demand: 37 kWh/m2a
  2. Heating load: 22 kWh/m2a
  3. Pressurization test result (assumed 0.6 ACH, prior to testing)
  4. Total Primary Energy Demand: 116 kWh/m2a

So, you can see that the only criteria we met was the Total Primary Energy Demand. The blower door test we did later came back at 0.72 ACH (we’d run the software assuming 0.6 ACH as a target). As a result of the actual pressurization value, this would correspondingly increase the other values, but, for argument’s sake, let’s simply say that the Total Primary Energy Demand we either met, or were very close to meeting, while for the Heat Demand and Heat Load, we were WAY above the German PH maximum values.

I won’t reiterate why this makes sense given the climatic and heating requirement differences of the Canadian prairies versus Germany (see Part 2). But I had to ask the PH consultant:

“If we were still in the planning stages of the house, what would be your recommendations to try and reduce these two values (Space heating demand and heating load)? Not that we would change anything at this point, but I’d be curious as to how we would have gotten those values lower – and if it would have been at all possible with our type of house and in our climate to feasibly meet the PH requirements as stated?”

​The ways to reduce the heating load & demand are as follows:
  • More insulation (you already have great R-values)
  • Lower airtightness (dropping from 0.6 to 0.3 has quite an impact, but you’re already doing tremendously well)
  • Add more south glazing, reduce all other glazing. (You already have a great balance of glazing)
  • Build a larger home (!?!?… small homes are the hardest to make meet an intensity based target, as they have the largest surface area to volume ratio. Meaning that a larger building squeezes more floor area into slightly more exterior envelope area, reducing heat loss per unit of floor area. The Germans do this to motivate one to build multi-family dwellings… but the result in North America has been a lot of larger single family homes getting certified).
​Your home is a great example of why you don’t see certified Passive House buildings taking off in Canada. It’s damn near impossible to design a compliant home, without either blowing the bank or ending up with a solar oven. I’ve designed many compliant buildings, and 99% of them end up backing off on insulation and glazing to be around where your home is. You’ll note that local Net Zero Energy homes have similar envelope performance to your home; it’s most cost effective from that baseline to invest in ​solar PV generation than to add more insulation.​

Under the section of the report on Energy Balance Heating, I asked, “I was surprised by the amount of heat loss through the walls as well as the windows – is that due to the size/number of south windows? Or does that relate to the number of windows on the east/west and north sides more so? How could we have changed that to reduce the heat loss?”

Ideally, if the insulation in all areas of the building cost the same, you’d want to balance the R-values so that the heat loss intensity rate is the same through all envelope elements. Your exterior above grade wall has the highest relative rate of heat loss, so that’d be the place to add more insulation first if you want to improve performance. If you want to optimize R-value ratios this way, it’s smartest to add in the cost/ft2 of each insulation type, then you can maximise your return on investment. For example, adding 1″ of cellulose in the attic is much cheaper than an inch of foam outside of a wall.
The glazing of course has the highest rate of heat loss, but that’s just because you max out at around R10, where your opaque assemblies are R50+.
Your North, East, and West windows are NET losers of heat, while the South windows offer a net gain. This is as expected, and is really the basis of Passive Solar design, that a South window can actually HEAT a building throughout the heating season, with the right recipe. If you wanted to optimize the glazing further, you can add more South glazing while removing glazing on the other elevations (North being the biggest drag on efficiency), which will continually reduce the annual heating demand (how much energy is consumed to heat). This is a Red Flag area though, following this path of more South glazing will eventually cause overheating throughout the year. Prediction of overheating / discomfort is an area where the PHPP is very poor, and I’ve been burned in the past on some projects where we pushed the Passive solar too far in an attempt to reach certification. I now use IES<VE> as a energy modelling tool because of its ability to accurately predict overheating.
“Did you have any thoughts or considerations you would have given us had we run these numbers off the bat with the house planning? “
I’d honestly say you’ve done a great job on your home. It’s pretty much impossible to meet the PHI Passive House criteria for a small single family home in Saskatchewan, without significant and typically unjustifiably cost. The PHIUS criteria is based on a more climate-specific analysis, which attempts to stop investment in conservation at the point a little bit beyond where renewable generation is more feasible. Meaning it’s more realistic to meet the PHIUS+ targets, though we’re not seeing much uptake in the Prairies.​
All of this was very interesting and at the same time reassuring to me. Like many others, I had put a lot of credence on the PH standards as the be all and end all (even still despite reading and appreciating the issues I’ve previously discussed). It was good to hear that the assumptions we’d made were in the end in line with the reality of trying to build a PH in Saskatchewan.
Even still there was one last thing that I just had to know… it kept coming up again and again. It was one of those pesky assumptions we kept getting asked about. And one of my recently reposted blogs on Green Building Advisor brought it back to my mind again… German windows.
It is regarded that the German (or Polish and Lithuanian) Passive House certified windows are the creme de la creme of windows. They are attractive, heavy, thick (6″ wide!), and expensive. But if you want to reach Passive House standards, you gotta have ’em! (Or at least that’s what they say).
I felt a little bit guilty asking for quotes on windows that we were never going to buy, but my curiosity just couldn’t be helped. I wanted to know how expensive PH-certified windows would have been for our place. We’d heard outrageous prices of up to $80,000 for some homes.
We tendered a couple of quotes and received a reply from Optiwin of Lithuania. The salesperson was exceptionally thorough and I was really impressed with his communication (which made me feel more guilty). After a couple of weeks I received the pricing back. I was actually surprised that the cost of the PH windows was only $17,000 CDN more than the windows we purchased from Duxton Windows. Although they would have been certainly way outside our budget anyway – they weren’t 400% more than the price we paid by any means (just a measly 75% more). Nonetheless, I really had to pause again and wonder, why? What would make these windows $17,000 better than the fibreglass, triple pane windows we got? The U-factors and solar heat gain coefficients were not that big a difference. Maybe the the locking mechanisms of the windows could get you a bit lower on your airtightness – but $17,000? How long would it take you to save on heating bills to justify that “investment”?
All this being said, I’m happy to have answered my lingering questions and to confirm some of my assumptions. The bottomline, of course, though is that you want to be able to sit back and be happy with what is around you. To know that you did the best you could in building a sustainable home for the future.
I can’t complain.
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Musings on Passive House Standards and the Costs of New Home Construction, Part 2

If you have not read Part 1 yet, please go back and read it first. 

In mid-November of 2015, just prior to us moving into the house, we were asked to be apart of the Passive House Days tour (a world-wide weekend of awareness of Passive House and energy efficient building). Well, not “officially” – we were asked to be apart of the tour by the event organizer in Saskatchewan who is the Passive House (PH) consultant on what should become the first certified PH in the Saskatchewan. Even though we did not build a PH, we did follow their standards as closely as I could justify, but from the beginning we were not pursuing certification.

Although all of the visitors on the PH Days Tour were very interested in our house, our process, and why we did the things we did, one question we got a lot was, “If you were following the PH standards why not go all the way for certification?”

First, let’s back-up a little bit. Indeed the principles of a PH are second to none. From Passipedia: “Passivhaus is a building standard that is truly energy efficientcomfortable and affordable at the same time.” So simple. Brilliant even. I wanted to build a PH. Who wouldn’t?

Strangely, if you visit Canadian Passive House Institute (CanPHI) website there are total of 5 projects that have received Canadian PH certification. If you look up the PH Project Database there are a grand total of 23 houses in all of Canada that have received certification.

Why the discrepancy you may ask? Why so few certified projects?

This is a bit complicated and took me awhile to figure out. But here are the basics as I understand it: the Passivhaus standards were developed in Germany for German buildings in the German climate (obviously). However, when other builders in other countries tried to build a “Passivhaus” in say the USA, England, or Canada, they realized something profound: Hey… wait a second… I don’t live in Germany!

Maybe trying to build to German PH certified standards in Minnesota or Saskatchewan is going to be really difficult? Maybe impossible? Or maybe possible but really expensive? Or maybe possible but a really uncomfortable building to actually live in?

Still PH institute satellites started to spring up in most countries around the world. Slowly, Passive Houses, built to the German requirements, started to be built in other countries with the first certified Canadian building being built in 2009. The uptake, however, was certainly not rapid nor widespread. Why? Was it not as the PH Institute of Germany said that these buildings are “truly energy efficientcomfortable and affordable”? Or is it just that we are too cheap and/or lazy and/or complacent to meet those strict German requirements elsewhere?

It seems like this is something that these PH satellites were struggling with as discussed herehere and here.

A few years ago though, some people started to say, this is silly – why are we following German standards and requirements for our buildings when we don’t actually live in Germany?

The German PH standards are as follows:

  1. Space Heat Demand: max. 15 kWh/m2a  OR  Heating load max. 10 W/m2
  2. Pressurization Test Result @ 50 Pa: max. 0.6 ACH
  3. Total Primary Energy Demand: max. 120 kWh/m2a

Simple enough right? Hit these numbers using the PH planning software and your building can be certified as a PH. Where’s the problem?

The Pressurization Test for 0.6 ACH is strict, but not impossible. There had been many houses built to this level of airtightness before PH came around. Rob Dumont’s own home in Saskatoon in 1992 tested at an awe-inspiring 0.47 ACH.

Jumping to the third requirement, the Total Primary Energy Demand of 120 kWh/m2a ensures essentially that you are not wasting energy or are at least using it wisely. It forces you to use energy efficient lighting, appliances and mechanical systems. I don’t think anyone can argue with that as being important to green building.

The real problem though, in my opinion, is the Space Heating Demand of 15 kWh/m2a or heat load of 10 W/m2. These numbers dictate the maximum space heating allowed for each square meter of a building. Remember – this is based on a German climate.

In Germany the number of heating degree days (HDD) is around 3100 compared to over 10,000 HDD in Saskatoon. So that means there is over three times as much heating requirement in Saskatoon as compared to Germany. Besides that, who really cares what your heating demand is? With the maximum energy demand of 120 kWh/m2a already stated, what difference does it make whether you use 50% of that to heat your house or 10% in terms of your overall efficiency? This is my real beef with PH and the one that most others working towards PH in countries that have climates other than a German one tend to struggle with too.

Recently the PH Institute in the USA (PHIUS) split off (or was banished – depending on what you read) from it’s affiliation with the German PHI. This allowed them to develop their own standards and specific requirements for climate zones in the USA (Minneapolis also has different heating needs compared to Miami) and also to use North American calculation values instead of European. As a result it is now easier – ok, let’s say, attainable – to hit the PH targets for your Minneapolis house using a Minneapolis climate to calculate your requirements. Now that makes sense to me.

Sadly, the Canadian PH Institute has been resistant to following their American counterparts and has continued to align itself with the German requirements. Thus making it darn near practically impossible to meet the PH standard and become certified by the Canadian PH Institute.

There is a small loop-hole of sorts though, a Canadian house can pursue certification via the PHIUS, which is somewhat closer to our climate in the northern States. Although the conversion is not exact, the Space Heating Demand requirement for the northern USA is about 30 kWh/m2a (or double that of the German standard maximum). That’s better, but still the maximum heating degree days in Saskatoon are more than any other place in continental USA. Nonetheless, there have been a few of PHs in Canada that have used the US system to become certified (ok, like maybe 10 or 12).

I told you this was complicated…

Anyway, let’s try to bring this full circle, back to my original question of why don’t we just build all new houses in Canada to the PH standard?

I hope that I have presented the argument that it may not be realistic to build a certified PH in Canada and follow the original edicts of the German Passivhaus Institute of “energy efficientcomfortable and affordable.”

From Part 1 of this post, you may be able to see that there is a HUGE chasm between how most new homes in Canada are currently built as a result of our pathetic building code allowing inefficient homes to perpetuate, and the extremely difficult PH standards currently set in Canada.

Unfortunately, I think the CanPHI has done itself a disservice in not distancing itself from the German PH Institute. By not developing it’s own Canadian climate specific standards for the unique climate zones of our country, which maybe (just maybe) one day could be adopted on a large nation-wide scale.

Until such a time that the CanPHI recognizes this and modifies their requirements appropriately and regionally, I doubt that PH will ever gain much more than a very small handful of faithful followers willing to spend, at all costs, to meet an arbitrary set of values developed on the other side of the world.

That being said, I do KNOW that you CAN in fact build a house in Canada that IS energy efficientcomfortable and affordable.

But it isn’t a Passive House. 

Because that’s what we’ve done.

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Musings on Passive House Standards and the Costs of New Home Construction, Part 1

A friend of mine sent me this article for Tree Hugger yesterday about an Irish county that made the Passive House standard for all new home construction. This is a pretty big deal. The question then came up – why doesn’t Canada (or the USA) adopt such strict and stringent standards to their new home construction? Certainly the Paris Climate Conference of 2015 has finally made it official what everyone and their dog already knew: the world is overheating and we need to do something about it before we all die. Building better homes could make a massive difference in our world’s energy use. It is well-known that a certified Passive House uses 80-90% less energy than a standard house.

The problem, as usual though, in making such rigorous standards mandatory is a combination of bureaucracy, status quo, and resistance to change. In this post and my next, I will make the argument that I believe there is a skewed perspective on both sides of this battle in Canada.

Did you know that the minimum standard for wall construction in Saskatchewan (a province that has frigid winters of -40° temperatures for long stretches and over 10,000 heating degree days per year) is a 2×6 wall with batt insulation? The effective R-value of this wall is only R17.5 due to thermal bridging (as the wood studs bridge between the inside and outside of the wall). This standard must be out of date, you say? In fact, this was recently upgraded to this absurdly pathetic level in 2012 (it was only a 2×4 wall before that). Shameful.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, most homes in Saskatchewan feature R12 in basement walls and only R40 in the attic. There is no requirement for insulation under the slab of the house. Also, the building code requires only double-pane windows – such insufficient windows account for a massive amount of heat loss of up to 50% (these are usually vinyl framed windows, though sometimes wood or aluminum). And placement of these crappy windows can lead to further issues with heat loss due to inadequate southern exposure and large windows on the north side of house. Furthermore, air leakage rates in most new homes is about 2.0 ACH@50pascals (which is actually one of the lowest values tested in Canada). (Source: Energy Standards by Ken Cooper)

I assume that you can get the picture that our homes are generally very inefficient (don’t think that this is specific to Saskatchewan – this is relatively consistent across North America).

Although we did not build a Passive House, we followed the principles of this as closely as we could financially justify (which is the rub, more on this in my next post). For a quick comparison, our house has R56 walls, R80 attic, R32 basement walls and under-slab. Our latest air tightness test was 0.72 ACH@50pascals (and with some extra tightening we’re hoping to get this to 0.65 or less at the next test). We used triple-pane fibreglass windows. The design of the house maximized heat gain through the south windows and minimized heat loss through the windows on the east, west and north sides. Passive shading with our roof overhangs prevents overheating in the summer. The positioning of the house is directly south (a luxury we have living on an acreage). We also installed PV panels to offset our meagre energy use, which are becoming more and more affordable.

Now, a lot of people wonder and ask (I know I did prior to building), that it must cost substantially more money to build a house to this level of efficiency?

The simple truth is that it does not have to.

The general consensus is that a new custom home in Canada, excluding the cost of purchasing land, is between $200 and $300 per square foot to build (a contractor spec “cookie cutter” home built to the minimum standard with minimal features and cheap finishing can be $175/sq.ft or less). Indeed this is large range – for a 1500sq.ft home you could either spend $300,000 or $450,000. But for argument’s sake, let’s say $250/sq.ft is a realistic cost of a new custom home (we will also assume that most people would not build to the bare minimum construction standard of a spec house and see the benefit of adding triple pane windows and a 2″ layer of EPS foam on the outside of their 2×6 wall).

OK so where are the extra costs?

I would say that the design planning and orientation of the house will be the single biggest factor in determining your initial and long-term costs in a high performance, energy efficient house. It does not cost anymore to build a house with your windows facing north instead of facing south. Positioning the long side of your house to east does not cost anymore than facing it south. Designing correct overhangs for shading does not cost anymore than designing insufficient overhangs. Designing outcroppings, bay windows, and cantilevers does not cost anymore to design than a rectangle or a square-shaped building. Placing operable windows appropriately for cross-ventilation does not cost anything extra either. But all of these decisions and factors can have huge ramifications on the cost of construction and/or long-term costs of operation. We had several team meetings during our design process (including a Passive House certified designer, contractor, and LEED engineers) to decide on which systems would be best suited to be optimally energy efficient, be comfortable to live in, and also to make sure everyone, including sub-contractors were on the same page. This extra consulting time accounted for 2.5% of our overall cost.

In terms of actual construction costs, we built a double 2×4 stud wall that is 16″ wide. The cost of materials for this wall system versus the cost of 2x6s and the 2″ of EPS foam is almost negligible. Framing labour costs were slightly more though as each exterior wall was built twice (accounting for an additional 2% of the overall budget). Remember though our design is simple, a rectangle, meaning four walls – no bays or outcroppings. We also invested 20% more in purchasing fibreglass framed triple-pane windows versus the usual vinyl or wood triple-pane windows (accounting for an additional 1.75% of the overall budget). Insulation costs slightly more but pays for itself in short order when compared to long-term operation costs (the upfront cost is an additional 2% of the overall budget). Airtightness of the house did not cost us anymore than the standard vapour barrier (although it does require some attention to detail by the tradespeople) with the exception that we needed to install a heat-recovery ventilator which cost $1200 (0.3% of the budget).

But there are also some possible cost savings to consider. One can get away with a smaller mechanical heating system due to the lower heat load required in a super-insulated and airtight house. For us, our mechanical system cost about the same as a standard house due to us deciding to install in-floor heating and a wood burning stove. Although you certainly could get away with baseboard heaters or a very small forced air furnace combined with a heat coil on your HRV if you so chose (for us we wanted the in-floor heat and a wood stove – you can read about our reasons for this here and here). Most new houses also have air conditioners installed. We do not (cross-ventilation, insulation and proper shading is all that is needed).

The bottom line is that it cost us about 8% more to build a house that is in the range of 75-80% more efficient then a standard new custom home.

After these extra costs are accounted for the rest of construction costs are basically the same as any other house – how much do you want to spend to finish the house is based on your taste and how much you want to invest in your bathroom fixtures, lighting, hardwood flooring, custom cabinets (vs. Ikea), appliances and so on. Also, how much sweat equity do you want to do yourself? All of this will have a big impact on your end costs (consider, painting our house took 5 full days, but saved us about $6,000+. Installing the tile in the bathrooms and kitchen ourselves took 10+ full days, but saved us another $8,000).

Ok, so you’re probably thinking, how much did this damn house actually cost you? Tell me already! Although I haven’t done our final-final tally yet, it is in the range of $280/sq.ft. But this also includes the cost of our 6.2 kW solar PV system, our septic system, and the cost of trades to travel the 30 minutes to our house each day. Removing these factors, to build the same house in an urban area, you could easily do it for $250/sq.ft.

Say… that’s pretty much the same as what we said a typical new house would cost, right?

So why the heck isn’t everyone doing this??

Well, it goes back to the fact that there is an unfounded assumption that building an energy efficient house costs a lot more (I think we’ve shown that it simply does not have to). It also does not help that energy costs from non-renewables such as coal-fired electricity and natural gas are very cheap still (even so, those extra 8% in building costs for us should be paid back in less than 12 years in monthly energy bill savings). And the public outcry for action is not yet greater than the apathy of maintaining the status quo on the part of our government, the building industry, and those contractors who have been making a tidy profit on their suburban sprawl spec houses.

Part two to come…

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