Planning and designing the house

Well, I’m about done with planning and designing. About 3-4 months ago we thought we were close to being done designing the house. Like really really close. However even though it was “close” to being done. It was not feeling right. There was something off about it and we weren’t really sure why or what it was. It was tough to admit that as we had already spent a considerable amount of time and money getting the house to the point that it was in mid-October. We’d done eight designs by that point, which is quite a few to not have it complete or at least feeling good about it. The pressure was also mounting as we were getting close to our first time frame – to have construction drawings started by December. But the fact was we were not feeling good about it and we were a bit discouraged.

In the back of my mind was also the price tag of this place. It was creeping up and up. There were some costs that we had not accounted for when we first put together the budget, such as, septic system ($18,000), well-hook up ($8000), water treatment system ($10,000), kitchen appliances (not sure how that was forgotten – $10,000-$14,000). Also, the footprint of the slab foundation on pilings was also increasing. We really wanted to keep it to less than 2000 sq.ft. But that was just not happening and the rooms that we didn’t care about as much but needed (mechanical room, storage) were really taking up a large chunk of the space – taking away from the spaces we really wanted to be a certain size (living room, kitchen, bedrooms).

My mother is an interior designer and we had been a bit reluctant to ask her to give us feedback on it… Well, Darcie had been a bit reluctant. Understandably, who wants their mother-in-law to design their house? However we thought we better ask her what she thought and what changes she might suggest.

“Be honest.” We told her. Now, the one thing you have to know about my mother is that she is one of the kindest and most caring people in the world. Everyone who has met her agrees (not just me). After awhile of looking at it she said, “I’m sorry to say this, but this is just… bad.”

Ouch. Our hearts sank. We’d spent so much effort on this and, well, it sucked, I guess. Though this was followed shortly by an overwhelming sense of relief. We knew it was not good, but we were too close to it to see the truth.

Over the next few days we spent pretty much every moment that we weren’t either at work or sleeping (there was not much sleeping though) brainstorming, thinking, and redesigning the space. There were some very important things we needed to figure out: 1. How could we make this space smaller? 2. How could we save money? 3. How could we make it more functional? 4. Still keep the views of our land and the river valley focused? 5. And still maximize the Passive House efficiencies and principles of the home?

There were no easy tasks here.

We needed to start to question the things we thought we wanted (an office, 3rd bedroom, vaulted ceiling, several large windows to the east, kitchen separate from the living spaces) and those that we had adamantly refused to consider beforehand (basement, open kitchen).

Initially we had not wanted a basement. Basements are very popular in this part of Canada. It is highly unusual for a house not to be built without one. In a lot of other places, basements are not common due to high water table or rocky land. But that’s not the case here. Still basement can be a problem due to the lack of light compared to spaces above ground and you still have to be careful to grade and landscape properly to make sure that water doesn’t want to find it’s way inside. But really why were we so against it? These problems could be rectified. A basement is more expensive then a slab or a crawl space of the same size, but if we reduced the main floor size and put those things that didn’t need to be upstairs in the basement, we could thereby reduce the overall footprint making the extra cost of a basement justifiable. We started crunching some numbers. The slab with piles and grade beam was going to be ~$37,000 for 2000 sq.ft. I figured if we could reduce the main floor size by 200 sq.ft. at the anticipated cost of $250/sq.ft. then this would balance out the extra cost of doing an ICF (insulated concrete form) basement.

Ok, but how do you make a basement nice, comfortable, bright, and inviting?

Everyone suggested a walk-out basement. I don’t know why, but “walk-out” makes me cringe. I think it’s all of the fancy snobby acreages and suburban houses that have a “walk-out”. Everyone is all like “Oooo a walk-out.” It seems like it’s a pretentious thing that people with a lot of money do. Maybe that’s an unfounded statement (probably) but something about it just felt too… pedestrian. Too upper class. Too suburban. It reminded me of a perfectly manicured lawn, or maybe even an astroturf lawn, on a 1 acre “acreage” and a 7000 sq.ft. house for two people and their chihuahua. Gah.

I had to prove it to myself that a walk-out would be OK. We went on a house tour to some middle aged hippy folks’ acreage across the river from us. They had built an Eco-house about 20 years ago and on their land, with a natural hill, they tucked the house neatly into it. You still entered the house on level ground but then it opened to the south from the other side. The rooms in the basement were bright and airy and there was a nice little courtyard out the basement door. Hmm. Maybe… Maybe we could do this.

Trimming off a mere 200 sq.ft. from the main floor turned out to be super easy – one bedroom and the laundry room. Done. But why stop there? The smaller we made the footprint the more money we would save.

Weirdly enough as we made the main floor smaller it seemed to make the rooms and spaces more functional. Suddenly a lot of our issues with flow and function on the larger basement-less bungalow were being solved by simplifying and making the house tinier.

Finally we got it down to I think as small as we could at 1240 sq.ft. of interior space (including the 16″ thick walls the total was 1440 sq.ft.). Interestingly though that gives 2480 sq.ft. of conditioned floor space with the basement and main floor combined. So, making the house “smaller” and therefore cheaper, actually made it larger overall. That seemed like the best of both worlds! It kind of felt like cheating.

Making the main floor the size we did also allows us the option to leave the basement unfinished. I know that’s pretty lame, but it allows us flexibility now that we didn’t have before with the one level house (which would have all needed to be finished). This way if the budget gets overran in other areas then we can wait to finish the basement until later. The main floor has everything that Darcie and I need. The basement allows room to grow when required.

The sense of relief that came over us was immense. Although it set us back in the process by a month I’m so glad we took the time to analyze this more and really figure out what our needs were and where we want to spend our money.

Now we needed to figure out if this crazy walk-out basement idea was going to work or not (yes, more money is needed. Sigh).

Initial House Design Process

I thought we had a pretty clear idea about what we wanted in the house. We also trusted our designer to help guide us in the details. Our priority was to find an optimal balance of energy efficiency, maximizing the view, and the aesthetics of a modern design, while also respecting our budget.

Our aesthetic draws us to simplistic modern vernacular houses. These simple shapes (square or rectangle) also happen to be ideal for energy efficiency – less angles make for less escape points of energy and thermal bridging at corners. Additionally, these shapes allow for easier transfer of air and heat throughout the interior of the home. A peaked roof can be made to orient at the correct angle for solar exposure of a PV system.

That’s all well and good, but we also had this amazing view in front of us:

IMG_2293

As if fate had made it so, the views were south and east. If we’d been north facing we would be in a bit of trouble for energy efficiency – in fact, we would probably fail.

When considering energy efficient and passive solar principles, you need thermal mass. The sun hitting a thermal mass like stone, tile or concrete allows it to warm the surface and passively radiate that heat for the remainder of the day. It just so happens that we quite like concrete floors. These can be very beautiful surfaces that you can polish, grind, or stain. Naturally these all add some cost to the finishing of concrete, however the costs are significantly less than adding flooring overtop. We need the concrete for the slab anyways, so why not use it for our thermal mass and our finished floor?

The more I read about energy efficient design principles, the more and more pleased I was to find that a lot of our aesthetics were coinciding with optimal energy modelling.

Our basic house idea was for a 1700-2000 sq.ft bungalow or 1.5 storey with three bedrooms (although we are DINKs now [dual income no kids], we will likely have some rug rats (concrete rats?) running around at some point)  and two bathrooms. Also, we wanted a living room and separate media/rec room. Because we will be canning and storing a lot of our own food a large pantry was also necessary. We want to have a lot of connection to the outdoors, not just through the windows, but also a few exit points to access a deck space and various parts of the yard.

As I’ve previously written, we’d spent quite a bit of time going through Pinterest and numerous design magazines choosing our inspiration photos. As part of our early design process, we also went through and measured the room sizes we liked in our house and those of some friends and family whose room sizes we thought were nice. Still the details of how it functioned needed to be put together. This is where the designer is key.

Crystal Bueckert, our designer, is great. At our first official design meeting she basically listened to us and did the first design exactly as we’d asked. We waited with excited anticipation for the first draft to come back. About two weeks later she sent it to us. Not only did she send us a floor plans but also a 3-D model with a virtual walk-through on our laptop and iPhone. We were so excited to see what it would look like. We opened it up and… we totally hated it!

She had done exactly what we had asked but we absolutely didn’t like it. It was not what we had envisioned at all. Ok, I’m being a bit hard on it. There were a couple things we liked and there was some things that had potential, but overall it was not good. At all.

design1

The next design we revised a number of our thoughts and really tried to think about how we wanted the house to flow. We abandoned the 1/2 storey idea and went to a bungalow. We also changed the position of the living room and kitchen, which made a very significant change to the layout of the entire house… Although we wanted a relatively ‘open concept’ house (from both an energy efficiency and style point of view), we did not want it overly open and in the first design it was just too open.

The second design was a lot closer to what we were going for. Except for one big thing: we recognized that the kitchen/living room/dining room placement was actually a lot better in the first design, although the rest of the house worked WAY better than the first go around. Still we were getting closer.

design2

Sadly, the third version was a bit of a mess, we had considered moving the mechanical room to the attic to free up floor space as we really wanted to keep it under 2000 sq.ft total. That quickly came to a halt when I had a nightmare about the water heater breaking, spewing water through the ceiling and down the walls – destroying everything I cared about. I told Crystal that we had to fit the mechanical room into the main floor. We also wanted (Darcie said ‘needed’) to switch the kitchen and living room again – a massive design change again.

I’m confident the fourth design is going to be very close to the final product. The layout flows beautifully and to solve the space problems we actually went smaller. Shrinking the size from 2300 sq.ft in design #2 to 2050 sq.ft. There are a few minor changes to make, but I feel like we are about 90% completed.

design3

Now that we had the layout near completion we needed to figure out the big questions of wall systems and mechanical heating/cooling.

-K

Heating a super-insulated airtight house in a cold Northern climate

The biggest question mark for us up to this point was, “How the heck are we going to heat this place?”

First there are a couple of caveats:

  1. We had no natural gas to our site. This is probably a moot point anyway because even if we did have ‘natural’ gas we would not have used it. We did have a neighbour ask us if we would consider bringing it in. But this just seemed ridiculous to me. For a cost of $20,000 you can pipe in a non-renewable resource, then pay monthly fees for it for as long as it is available. And given the rising energy prices this cost is only going to go up and up.
  2. We do have power to our site, but we intend to be Net Zero or Net Positive if possible. The power delivered to our site comes from the Queen Elizabeth power station, which is a natural gas burning. This is a big reason why people in places where you “must” choose from grid-tied power (which is often still coal-based) or ‘natural’ gas will often select the apparent lesser of two evils and choose natural gas for heating/cooling and appliances. Still, there is a third option that people seem to forget – SOLAR POWER! For less than or equal to the cost of bringing natural gas to our site, we can put up solar panels and generate not only our own electricity for heating, but also our own power for running everything else in the house.
  3. We are putting in a wood burning stove as a back-up heat source. Now, I know Passivhaus purists think that this is a bad idea and Wolfgang Fiest, the Passivhaus guru in Germany, has outright said that there are no wood burning stoves that meet Passivhaus standard, but we don’t care. I know of nothing more comfortable than sitting next to a crackling fire. Also, wood is considered to be a renewable resource, cut down a tree for firewood and plant a tree in its place.

Ok, so now that we have the prerequisite information out of the way, there were still huge decisions to make. Over the past few months I’d read innumerable articles on heating options for northern climates and in particular, super-insulated houses, as well as received everyone else’s biases on the optimal heat source. I soon realized that there are dozens of different options and all of them have their own pros and cons.

Most Passive houses that I read about used a “Mini-split heat source”, the majority of which were made by a company called, “Fujitsu” out of South Korea. These are pretty cool little devices. The popular choice with most houses I read are the ductless mini-split. In a Passivhaus, the heat load is so low (usually between 10,000 to 15,000 BTUh – as an aside most standard furnaces are 60,000+ BTUh) that usually two of these little systems are sufficient for heating a 2000 sq.ft house with ease. As the name implies, they do not use any ductwork, and essentially function like a space heater mounted on the wall. There is a pipe with refrigerant that passes through the exterior wall to an outdoor unit that draws air in, preheats it and delivers it to the indoor unit for distribution. In the moderate climates of Asia, Europe and the US these are great. A major appeal for these is that in the summer they act in reverse providing air conditioning. However, in a northern climate, such as Saskatchewan, though these are likely not the best option. Previously these units would be able to preheat air as low as -5°Celsius (23°F). Fujitsu has recently come out with a new model for “Extreme Low Temp Heating”, which will heat up to -25°Celsius (-15°F) outdoor temperatures. Unfortunately, this is still not sufficient for our cold Canadian prairie winters. Last year we had a record number of cold days for the winter: 58 days of -30°Celsius (-22°F) or colder. A couple years ago for the entire month of December it did not get above -25°Celsius (-13°F) for a high! There will be a few days, every year, when it is -50°Celsius (-58°F) in the morning. That is insanely cold. If you have never experienced cold like that, it is really something to behold. Fujitsu would have to come out with a “Super-Duper Ridiculously Extreme Low Temp Heating” mini-split to cope with that I’m afraid.

If we were to use the mini-split system then we would need to have back-up heat sources in each of the rooms of the house such as radiant wall panels or baseboard heaters to manage the cold whenever it dropped below -25°Celsius (-13°F). Although these radiant heaters are relatively cheap at less than $100 each, I must admit that I think they are kind of ugly. Well, uper ugly. Even the fancy ‘modern’ ones are ugly. I KNOW, that shouldn’t be one of my criteria, but it is, I’m extremely particular and I think they’re ugly and cheap looking. And I think the mini-splits are ugly too! Gah, the truth comes out.

You see, we like minimalism, our house was going to be simply designed, no casing around doors and windows, no crown moulding, no baseboards. Adding BASEBOARD HEATERS just seemed like a mortal sin to our minimalist aesthetic.

Ok, breathe…

Another option that was brought forward was to use an electric reheat coil. Basically how this worked was like a typical forced air ducted system, but a little bit different. A no-brainer must-have for an airtight house is a ventilation system. If you don’t put one of these in then you are going to have serious problems from moisture build-up, mold and air quality. We had already decided that we would use a Vanee HRV (this was developed by Dirk Vanee through the University of Saskatchewan who is credited with developing the first widely available and mass produced HRV systems) in our place, which as with all other ERV/HRV systems, uses ductwork to each room or area of the house to deliver fresh air and draw out stale air. How the reheat coil works is by being mounted in the mechanical room at the outlet to the fresh air thereby preheating the air before it is distributed to the house. The cool thing about this is that you can use the ductwork already present for the HRV system, but only because it is a super-insulated house, in a conventionally built house you would need separate ductwork. For this reason, this leads to the claim by some that in Passive Houses “conventional heating systems are rendered unnecessary throughout even the coldest of winters” (a fairly misleading statement) as it uses the pre-existing ventilation system.

There are a few downsides with this system however, the longer the ductwork, the greater the heat loss prior to reaching its end point. We are a building a long narrow house and have one length of wall that is 48 feet. Secondly, this is basically a forced air system. A HRV flow rate is a lot less than a true forced air system, but essentially you are just heating the air, not surfaces as is the case with “radiant” heat. Thirdly, this system cannot be well-controlled, it is one system for the whole house. So in our living/dining room and master bedroom that get more solar gain, they would also get the same air heating, which could lead to overheating concerns. Fourthly, we would likely still need to supplement the system… and we’re not going to talk about that again.

A lot of conventional builders, and I’ll say “lay-people”, suggested in-floor heat. Actually they said if we didn’t use in-floor heat then we were idiots (OK, they didn’t quite call us that, but I felt their judgment). In-floor radiant heat is certainly appealing for a lot of reasons. We planned to install a 1.5” concrete slab topper on the main floor of the house for passive heating purposes as well as the required 4” slab for the basement. And we also really like the aesthetic of nicely finished concrete floors (remember we are modern minimalists). But there was one problem: concrete floors are cold. When we told people that we might not use in-floor heat in the concrete, this is when their judging eyes showed themselves.

Second, in-floor heat is indeed very comfortable. We have several friends who have in-floor hydronic heat and walking into their house and feeling the warmth in the winter is very pleasing.

Third, you don’t actually see the heat system. It is imbedded in the floors. No wall panels, no horrendous baseboard heaters.

Fourth, it can be zoned and controlled. Each room or area can have a thermostat installed individually with piping running specifically to each room with a sensor in the floor that allows for it to be controlled. This was a big bonus, because rooms like the master bedroom and living/dining room do not need as much floor heat because the thermal mass and solar gain will heat these areas passively, whereas the north rooms and hallways do not have solar gain and so would need to have a higher floor temperature.

Ok, so you can begin to see where my bias was leaning. That is until I started to read about radiant floor heating in super-insulated and well-built houses:

“Radiant Floor Heating: Why radiant-floor heating systems don’t make sense for new, energy-efficient houses”

“All About Radiant Floors”

“Heating a Tight, Well-insulated House”

Damn. The basic argument was that radiant in-floor is nice and makes sense, in crappy houses. I don’t want a crappy house! Also the general agreement was that these systems were overkill. Passivhaus is called “passive” for a reason – reduce the use of non-passive, mechanical systems. The heat load, as mentioned of 10,000-15,000 BTUh, does not require a big system like a boiler, pump, and in-floor piping. In fact, when we talked to a couple friends who had built well-insulated houses with passive solar orientation they told us that overheating in the winter did happen and they would have to open their windows in the dead of winter. This seemed crazy!

Another concern was how we would deliver this heated water through the floor. Most systems use solar thermal panels that have water pumped to the roof to be heated through copper piping, then brought down to a storage tank and boiler that heats the water to upwards of 100°Celsius. This is then pumped through the floor in a closed loop system. As we found out from our recent well water testing, we unfortunately needed to use either a whole house reverse osmosis (RO) system or have water brought in by truck and stored in a cistern. The ramifications of this being that RO water is highly corrosive to copper piping. Crap! So what were we to do?

I had no straight answer and everything that I read either did not seem appropriate for our climate’s peak loads (coldest times of the year) or was apparently overkill. Sleepless nights were the result.

However, as I talked to others in the Passivhaus field, they admitted some problems with the Passivhaus model for a northern climate with frigid temperatures like ours. Passivhaus was really designed for moderate climates in Germany and a lot of the articles I had read were discussing moderate climates in the US. Indeed radiant floor would be overkill for those climates, but they do not get down to extremely low temperatures like us.

It was decided the best means of make this difficult decision was to sit down as a team and discuss. We had a meeting with our team of four engineers, all trained in LEED building, one with Passivhaus certification and one with R2000 and extensive energy modelling experience, the mechanical contractor and my wife and I. We went through made a list of advantages of each system – which essentially is what I wrote above.

In-floor hydronic heating was the clear winner.

All of my questions of setting up this system and concerns of overheating were alleviated in this meeting. We would use our solar PV system to power a simple, small 2-element, 100% efficient electric boiler by Argo. (We did briefly play around with the idea of an air-source heat pump hot water heater from Germany for both in floor heat and domestic hot water, but due to the high capital cost and potential issues of no one knowing how to service it here, we canceled this. Although the thought still seems intriguing, in another few years this may have been the best solution. Check out this article for more information). On the domestic hot water side, we selected a fairly straight-forward, 47-gallon Bradford White high efficient electric hot water heater. We also planned to insulate this with its own extra insulated jacket. Really, in the end, it came down what is the simplest, most cost-effective solution to meet our needs.

As for overheating, the engineers would design the system so that areas hit with solar gain would not overlap with those of the in-floor system, while those not receiving solar gain could be controlled separately to deliver us the best of both worlds. On the extremely cold days, our little Norwegian wood burning stove would take the edge off.

Boom. Decision made. Now I could sleep again.

PS. This post was edited from its original version on Nov. 23/2015.

 

Designing a Home

Now that we’d bought land and decided to build a house, we had to actually sit down and think about what that house would look like, how we wanted it to function, and what are needs are now and in the future.

We do not intend to build another house ever again. We intend for this to be the house that we’ll live in until we are old and grey and they are going to have to drag us away from kicking and screaming (I fully intend to be like my Grandparents who are 90 and 88 years old were still living on their farm). This is a lofty task though! We’re both 31 years old – thinking about what our needs will be when we’re 90+ is a bit intimidating.

That being said, the process of designing and dreaming up our future home has been super fun, despite the challenges.

Both of us have always been drawn to interior design and architecture. My mom is an interior designer and Darcie had nearly moved to Toronto for interior design school. We’d already spent countless hours reading design magazines and blogs, posting on Pinterest, and redesigning our previous house.

Now we actually started to have to analyze all of those things that we liked, didn’t like, were intrigued by, et cetera, and try to figure out what it was about those things that we were drawn too and just as important, what it was we didn’t like.

Living in a 102-year old character house for the past four years, there were elements that we wanted to take with us and recreate and there were those that I can happily do without. In our old house, I loved the simplicity of it’s basic shape – a square with an evenly peaked roof and a balance of windows on either side – also, it’s 9-foot ceilings, the cast iron sinks and tub, and for an old house it had a very nicely sized living room, dining room and bedrooms. I also really liked having a living room and a separate media room (I’ve actually grown to loath a TV in a main living room). Also, our old house was painted black and our new house would most definitely include some amount black.

blackhouse

However, there were also a lot of things that we didn’t like about our house and I’m glad that we’ve experienced these so that we avoid and rectify these issues in the next place: Small kitchen (we are moving to the country in large part due to food. The kitchen is going to be a centrepiece), dark interiors (poor lighting, incorrect placement of windows, and dark walls and woodwork), bathrooms (why did we have 4 bathrooms?! The toilets and other fixtures were low quality), stairs (five flights of stairs, enough said), maintenance (old houses are constantly in need of repairs, I need a relatively easy to maintain house), drafty (Passive House!), and too big.

For a house designer we hired our good friend and architectural designer, Crystal Bueckert at BLDG Studio Inc. There was really no decision here, she was our one and only choice. Her houses are the coolest ones in town by a long shot. Plus she already knew a lot about energy efficient design and was trained in Passive House.

As a starter, we sat down with her and measured out all of the furniture in house that we were going to take with us. This way the house is designed in part based on our current interior design.

She also suggested that we put together a portfolio of all of the photos we liked and label what we liked about them. Well, frick, I had 500 photos pinned on Pinterest already and I like all of them!

Over the next couple weeks we started going through them and began to really consider if we thought they were just cool/interesting or if we would actually want to live in them (this is a VERY important distinction to make). We gradually narrowed it down to about 60 photos. After we scrolled through them looking at each of the photos, we realized that, hey, we got a pretty awesome looking house here!

There were trends that kept coming up in the houses we were drawn to: a simple vernacular house, white/black and wood exteriors, large wood-framed windows, light minimal woodwork, white walls, white subway tile, vaulted ceilings, concrete floors, and wood burning stoves.

Although we wanted a modern home, we do not want it to be ‘ultra’ modern or bring visions of science fiction or James Bond. We were particularly intrigued with Vernacular Architectural – designing houses that reflect local traditions and local needs. In SK, on the prairies, that is agriculture and farming. Essentially we’ve realized that we want a modern farmhouse.

-K