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 This standard must be out of date, you say?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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Observations, expectations, and regrets

As I’ve written about building our house over the past 18 months or so, I’ve commented several times that the decisions we were making in energy performance and efficiency of the house were all theoretical. Certainly, we based our decisions and assumptions on solid foundations of research, well-established protocols, software design and modelling, and the recommendations of others who have built high performance buildings or through websites and blogs of others. But STILL. I couldn’t be sure how the house would actually function. How efficient would it be? Would we overheat? How much solar power would be generate? What are our power bills going to be? How comfortable will we be? Oh and of course, do we have any regrets? These were all questions on move-in day that we had yet to answer.

Here are some observations from the first three months of living in the house.

We have had an unseasonably mild winter this year including several days of above freezing temperatures in January and February, which generally are our coldest months of the years. In fact, the past 5 days have been between +1°C (34°F) and +6°C (43°F). Normally the ice from the river is not breaking up until mid- to late March, but just yesterday it’s already opened up (#globalwarming).

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View from the Great Room

But even so, we have had a few of our more typical extremely cold days too (we couldn’t get off this easy of course). In December we had a couple days of -40°C (-40°F) or colder. One of these days was a bright and sunny Saturday, the news here reported that it was the highest day of power usage across the province for the year. Our dogs were lying in the sun panting and the temperature on the thermostat read 24°C (76°F) – without the boiler running – purely from passive solar heating. I had to laugh. We even had to crack a window for awhile so we didn’t overheat.

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Even though that day was great to see how well things performed under extreme conditions (very cold day + lots of sun = no active heating required. Awesome) I was a bit worried that we might overheat on milder winter days with lots of sun. But, for whatever reason, this really hasn’t been the case. Within a few days of that extreme cold snap, we were back above freezing temperatures with lots of sunlight. I think a couple days it did creep up to +26°C (+78°F) on the thermostat due to passive heating, but with our well-planned operable window placements, we could simply open a window or two and cool things down if needed. It seems bizarre to me that I’d need to open a window in the middle of winter, but it really does not bother me to do it. But it also makes me very happy (and relieved) that we really thought out well how to get good cross-breeze ventilation throughout the house (although we thought this would be for summer passive cooling not the winter too!). If we didn’t have this I might be cursing myself due to overheating issues.

All this being said, of course, on cold and cloudy days, the boiler and in-floor heat runs. We have it set to keep the indoor temperature at 20°C (70°F). We played around a bit with what setting to keep it at – going as high as 72°F (comfortable all the time, but easier to overheat with passive heating, also running the wood stove would make it too warm) and as low as 68°F (too cold in the morning, even with a sweater on, and needed to be running the wood stove morning and evening). We both wear a sweater in the house in the morning – cheaper to put a sweater on then to pay for more power. If it is really cold out then I light a fire in the wood burning stove, which is a nice luxury to have. When we tried setting a lower temperature in the house, I was needing to light a fire every morning, which was a hassle and not something I was overly motivated to do every day.

I’ve started tracking our solar generation through our 6.2 KW ground mount PV system with the plan to monitor this for the year. This time of year makes for the least amount of solar generation due to the short days, more cloud cover, lower height of the sun in the sky, and SNOW. I’d not really considered it before but snow and ice covering the PV panels is crazy frustrating. I guess I assumed the snow would just fall of it. Not so. The first couple of times this happened I shouted out in horror – we had a bright sunny day, but due to a snowfall in the nighttime our panels were 100% covered! I grabbed a ladder climbing up to clean the panels with a broom – an arduous task with the wind blowing and -20°C (-4°F) temperatures. There must be a solution to this I thought, but after reading several websites, it seems like the only solution is a long broom handle or to wait for the sun to melt it off. This was so aggravating – seeing our energy generation oppurtunities being squandered. Aside from a 16′ long broom handle, I’ve not yet found a good solution to this problem (and perhaps there is no solution).

I’ve also started tracking our energy use, but this has been more difficult as we have an outdoor chicken coop with a heat lamp and a water heater that is on 24/7. These suck energy like crazy. I’m sure these three chickens are costing us a fortune right now (they better start laying golden eggs) – in fact, I think heating their little 24sq.ft coop is more expensive then heating our 1240sq.ft. house. So for this year we will see what the total energy use. But for next year, we have a second transformer located next at our shop (and not connected to the PV panels), so I will try to run the chicken coop power from there, which will give us a more accurate reading of the house’s energy use for 2017. (I also need to build a passive house chicken coop now).

I guess the last thing that everyone seems to ask – which is interesting as it is one of the first things they ask after, “So you’re all settled into the house?” … “Any regrets?” or “Anything you would change?” To be perfectly honest, my answer is, “No. Nothing.”

We really love the house. We love the design. We love the style. We love it’s performance. We love the comfort.

We spent a lot of time planning, designing, and researching the house. We did not compromise and we followed the adage to: “Do it right the first time.”

I have no regrets.

Airtightness: Blower Door Testing

Excellent levels of airtightness are equally, if not more, important to the level of insulation you decide to put into your house. These really are (insulation and airtightness) the two pillars of an passive house and pretty well any other Eco-house building.

For our house, we’d gone with high levels of insulation in the range of 3x the typical amount for standard construction: R32 under-slab and basement walls, R56 walls, and R80 attic. However in deciding our insulation levels and our targeting goals for airtightness, we did try to strike a balance between cost-benefit and recognize the point of diminishing returns.

I have written about our insulation choices previously here and here, so I will not go into that as much, but in terms of airtightness there are some basics that are worth discussing. The fact is: air leaking into and out of a building is not efficient no matter how much insulation you have in the walls. Although insulation decisions, thermal bridging reduction, and solar gain can be designed into the house, airtightness can really only be ensured while actually constructing the building. Airtightness is tested with a blower door test and is rated based on “air changes per hour a 50 pascals of pressure.” Typical construction in Canada reaches about 3 ACH. The Canadian R2000, our high-efficient energy standard, is 1.5 ACH. While the Passive House standard is a whopping 0.6 ACH.

Although I was hoping we could target the extremely difficult goal of 0.6 ACH as per Passive House standard, the question was – how far ($$$) are you willing to go to reach this? As with insulation levels, there is a point of diminishing returns. Will 0.8 ACH versus 0.6 ACH be anymore noticeable in terms of user comfort? And over the lifespan of the building would you ever balance out these costs?

We decided to set an ambitious, but realistic goal, of 0.8 ACH.

The reason for this was four-fold:

  • 1. Our house is not big. It is a rectangular bungalow at 1240 sq.ft. The blower door test is an test of absolute air leakage from the building – not a relative test. By that I mean, that a large house can more easily meet a lower ACH level then a smaller house due to the greater volume of the house overall.
  • 2. We were not prepared to spend the greater amount of money on air sealing tapes, interior sheathing, and the labour to do this. A standard house is sealed with a 6 mil vapour barrier (cost is $50 per 8’x500′ roll) and Tuck Tape ($6 per roll). A Passive House is often sheathed with 5/8″ OSB ($25 per 4’x8′ sheet) on the interior to serve as it’s vapour barrier or high-end Intello Plus vapour barrier ($320 per 64″x164′ roll) with the seams sealed with Tescon Profil/Vana tape ($45 per roll). It does not take much in the way of math skills to see that the latter option can get extremely expensive. But if you really want to ensure you hit that Passive House 0.6 ACH target, that’s probably what you need to do (the Tescon Profil tape is often used on the outside walls as well to seal the air barrier and windows/doors).
  • 3. We were not pursuing Passive House certification, so really there was no point in ensuring we hit 0.6 ACH. If you’re spending the money to have a Passive House consultant work with you at the initial design stage and you’re spending the money on the high-end Passive House certified windows, the special tapes and the extra insulation, you better make sure you hit 0.6 ACH or all of that expense will be for nothing. For us, if we made 0.6 ACH, great, if we didn’t, oh well.
  • 4. We were installing a wood burning stove and chimney. Although the stove itself is very high quality from Morso in Denmark, I figured this extra hole in the wall would likely negatively impact our airtightness. But we were not budging on not having a wood stove. We also had another extra hole in the wall for the water cistern in the basement, but again this could not be avoided.

All that being said, we did make every effort to design the house to be as airtight as we could. The dense-packed cellulose in the walls itself provides a high degree of air sealing on it’s own. We limited the penetrations into and out of the house by selecting a condensing dryer from Bosch and having an electric boiler (the only penetrations are the chimney stack, the water cistern pipe, and the HRV). We used a standard 6 mil poly for the vapour barrier with acoustic sealant at every seam. Each seam was also taped with standard Tuck Tape to ensure another layer of added protection. Around the windows and exterior doors we purchased and used the Teson Profil air sealing tapes to attach the vapour barrier to the frames. Although this tape is very pricy, it made sense to me to use it here as the greatest area of air leakage is often at the window frames and doors.

Now it was time to test the house.

The testing is done through a Blower Door test. “A blower door is a powerful fan that mounts into the frame of an exterior door. The fan pulls air out of the house, lowering the air pressure inside. The higher outside air pressure then flows in through all unsealed cracks and openings.” The test is repeated in the same way by drawing air into the house. “The auditors may use a smoke pencil to detect air leaks. These tests determine the air infiltration rate of a building. Blower doors consist of a frame and flexible panel that fit in a doorway, a variable-speed fan, a pressure gauge to measure the pressure differences inside and outside the home, and an airflow manometer and hoses for measuring airflow.”

Essentially it simulates wind blowing against the house in all directions at the same time. The test takes about an hour to administer with the tester taking multiple readings at different fan speeds both while depressurizing and repressurizing the building.

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While the test was running we also used an infrared meter to look at any hot/cold spots.

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A couple days later he sent us the results: 0.8 ACH at 50 pascals.

Right bang on our goal. Not bad. The guy who tested it said it was the tightest building he’d ever tested before.

I was happy enough with it, but a couple days later I happened to be standing beside the chimney on a windy day and I could ever so slightly hear a whistle through the pipe. I looked closely at the seams and saw they were not fully sealed. Damn!

We’d also had some crappy construction locks on the doors and I put my hand against them. I could feel wind there too! Double damn!

After sealing these leaks and a few other tiny ones we found, we did another retest a couple weeks ago. This time, the results were 0.72 ACH at 50 pascals. Not too shabby.

After talking to the tester, though, he thought that given the higher than expected discrepancy between the depressurized and repressurized values that maybe the vents of the HRV had opened slightly causing a skew to occur. He’d like to do one more retest in a couple weeks, thinking this would take it down to 0.65 ACH or lower. At this point, he’s doing it at no charge as he’s simply interested to see what the truest level of airtightness is.

For me, I’m happy to know that we reached almost Passive House airtightness values while still being as economical as possible.

*** Please see the UPDATED BLOWER DOOR TEST POST for the redo test final results! ***

Turning a house into a home

House: (noun) def. 1. a building for human habitation.

Home: (noun) def. 1. the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household. The family or social unit occupying a home. A place where something flourishes, is most typically found, or from which it originates.

We’d spent nearly all of the past year, a stress-filled 2015, planning, designing and constructing the house. I certainly have never had so much stress and anxiety in my life (in fact, if you combined all of the stress in my previous 32 years of life, I think this past year alone would have surpassed momentously). But now, over the past four weeks we have actually gotten to live in this place – and experience what exactly we’d been working toward. But during the initial couple of weeks of December, I continued to call it the house. As in, “we are at the house now,” instead of “we are home now.”

I realized that the house had been associated so much with work and stress and was not “a place where something flourishes” for me – yet. I suspected that this would gradually change once we moved our furniture in and started hanging things on the walls. But really, this still didn’t change my terminology. Forcing myself to call it “home” just seemed weird to me. Even though we were living in the house, it wasn’t home yet.

I suspected this would gradually change – at least I hoped it would. I’d heard that building a house is like child birth (being a dude, I doubt I will have the experience to draw on direct correlation here) but from what I’ve been told, a woman goes through some of the worst pain imaginable in labour and delivery but at the end has a baby that she loves dearly. And suddenly, by some evolutionary trick of the mind, she essentially forgets or does not care how painful the process was. Often she will go through this same pain again more than once, knowing full well that the pain to get there was so terrible – but the reward so great.

For me, in the initial three weeks of being in the house, although it is beautiful and exactly what we had been hoping for, I still wasn’t at the forgetting the pain part yet.

But as it was in the last week, just before our Christmas break, I said to my friend, “We will be at home tonight.” And just like that, without any intention or forethought about it, I stopped referring to it as the house and started to call it home.

On New Year’s Eve, my wife and I decided to reminisce and read back through the blog posts I’d made here in the past year (yes I know – we are crazy crazy party animals). And wouldn’t you know, it was amazing how many things we’d forgotten already! We kept saying “I can’t believe that happened!” or “Oh man, I forgot about that – that sucked!” or “how did we get through that?” Truthfully we did not read through all of the posts… I think we made it to September 2015, at which point my wife said she couldn’t handle reading anymore as it was giving her anxiety!

A friend of ours, who has also built a custom house, recently said to us, “I’m so glad you are at the living in and loving it stage.” Indeed we are.

I can now look around the house and instead of thinking of my to-do list, I just think, “this is my home.”

 

Alchemy of a Concrete countertop

As if we didn’t have enough concrete and thermal mass in the house already, we decided to install a white concrete countertop in the kitchen. We’d priced out quartz as an option as well – a machine-made product that has the benefits of durability, scratch-resistance, stain-resistance, heat-resistance, and being made from some recycled products. But the reality is, because of all of these benefits, it also is very expensive, shockingly so, in fact. We needed 14’x24″ for the long counter. I don’t know what I expected the price to be, but it certainly wasn’t the $8000 price tag they quoted. Ouch.

As an alternative, our kitchen cabinet maker, Ryan Unger with Rhine Artisans, suggested a concrete counter. He was building our butcher block counter for the island in rift sawn white oak and he’d also done a few concrete counters himself before as well. Perfect!

He’d never made a white concrete counter before but he was game to try it. It probably helped that he and I have been good friends for a number of years and he’s been willing to try a few “different” woodworking jobs for us on this project..

Although I’d had in my head that I wanted a crisp white counter for whatever, I was excited for the “handmade” benefits of the concrete counter. True, concrete can stain and scratch, but being hand-made, we’d get something completely unique and special.

On a balmy October Saturday the guys came out to build the concrete form and pour the counter. It took them nearly 6 hours alone to make the form, which they would pour in three sections, due to the size, weight, and need to form around the under-mount farmhouse sink. It had to be perfectly level, square and flush. They used white MDF for the form to make it as smooth as possible. For structural support, they used wire mesh, which they smartly spray painted white in the event that it would “shadow” through when poured.

For the concrete itself, they were able to source white portland cement, white aggregate and white sand for the mixture.

We covered the counter with a tarp and placed two heaters in there for the next 3 weeks. The temperature was dropping and these would need to be sitting in our shop for the next three weeks.

It was mid-November and above freezing still, which is bizarre for our area. It was terribly fortunate as had it been below freezing we would have had to haul the counters to the basement of the house for them to polish there. That would have sucked.

As it was they were able to polish the counters outside – only slightly as too much polishing would bring out the aggregate. We still wanted these to be as white as possible.

Once the sun went down though, it was freezing and what we had was what we were going to have. The three of us then needed to carry these in through the front door.

It was SHOCKING how insanely heavy each piece was. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to carry something so heavy before. We nearly died, but miraculously we were able to get them up the steps to the door and placed on the cabinets without any serious injury or damage.

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The counters were not a crisp white, which I had originally wanted, but instead are a creamy white, which actually looked amazing against the creamy white oak cabinets. Plus the organic, handmade, imperfections of the counter really added a nice feel to the whole space. Very wabi-sabi.

After another couple weeks, we sealed them with an acrylic sealer (we tried a food safe, water-based sealer but this did nothing, as we found when a single drop of red wine left our first stain – Grrr [vinegar and elbow grease made it less noticeable]). We then added a topcoat of beeswax to finish it.

But before we would seal this, I’d need to finish my tiling work on the backsplash.

Moving Day

On a surprising beautiful late November Saturday we moved into the new house. We had said that once the kitchen and master bathroom were complete we’d move in… well, neither the kitchen nor the bathroom were finished.

We’d been waiting for the countertop to be installed in the master bath for the past few weeks. I’d been told that the countertop would take about 2-3 weeks to arrive when I’d ordered it – a white basic edge Corian counter for the double-sink. Simple, right? Well, it was now week 7 and the counter was still not here. I could not finish the tiling and the sinks and faucets could not be installed until that was done. The plumber did not want to make the trip out to our place until he could hook that stuff up which meant we had no sinks and no showers operational.

I’d received a phone call a couple of days before from the counter installer saying that he could bring the counter out on Thursday – two days before we’d planned to move in. Great – just in time. I organized for the plumber to come the next day, Friday, to finish his work. Therefore our Saturday move-in should be perfect. Maybe things would just fall neatly into place.

How naive I am. Still.

Thursday came and went and no counter was installed. The plumber said he would still come out because he knew we’d planned to move in the next day – at least he could hook up the other sinks and showers (nice of him). However on Friday, I received a text message saying he was sick. Sorry. He would try to be there Monday.

We had everything planned to move the next day! Do we move anyway?

I then received a call from the counter guy saying he would come out the same day, the Saturday, to install the counter. Monday then the plumber could come (hopefully). We could rough it for a couple days. We had the bathtubs hooked up at least – so we could wash our hands there for a day or two. Who needs to shower everyday?

Screw it. Let’s move.

The night before the move I waxed the concrete floors with my neighbour (best neighbours in the world) and they turned out great. It was one of the few jobs with the house that actually went better than I expected it would.

The next morning we began the move. I don’t think many people enjoy moving, but I really really hate it. I hate packing only slightly more than I hate moving. Fortunately this was not going to be our most major move (that was last year). We were moving from a tiny cabin we’d been renting only 2 miles away from the house. We had our parents and a couple friends come help us for the day. Things went smoothly and aside from the near-death of our prized 30-year old split-leaf Philodendron (it is coming back slowly) – nothing was damaged in the move. I don’t know about you, but this tends to be a rarity.

Later in the day, the counter guy in fact showed up. He brought in the counter and… lo and behold – it totally was wrong! They’d somehow and for some reason changed the edge profile of the counter from a straight edge to a 2″ overhung edge! How does this happen? Honestly. The counter guy initially tried to convince us it was not a big deal. He wanted to install it as is. Except that we couldn’t open the top drawer or the cabinets. Plus it looked ridiculous. He suggested he build up the counter to make it not block the pulls, but that meant it would be absurdly close to our wall-mounted faucets. Besides, that – it wasn’t what we ordered! Gosh, some of these people. He then indicated that if we were to not install it then it would be 6 weeks more to get the right one in! Wait wait wait. Can’t you just trim off that ugly edge, my wife asked. We just wanted the straight finish anyway. “I guess I could do that,” he replied. (It would be two weeks more before the counter would finally be installed.)

Maybe we didn’t have any operational sinks or showers. Who cares that we didn’t have the master bathroom complete? What difference does it make that the kitchen was not finished either. We were in the house now.

And man oh man, it felt so good.

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First morning – view from bed
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Sunrise
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Sunset

And on and on we go…

The past few weeks have been filled with a number of started but unfinished jobs. These include, but are not limited to: extensive tile work in the bathrooms and kitchen, kitchen cabinetry installation, bathroom vanity, wood nook, window sills, waxing the concrete floors, hanging doors and many more smaller finishing jobs. Truthfully, almost none of these are done yet, so although things are looking closer to being complete (a lot are 75%-90% there), they are nonetheless unfinished. I intend to write a post with photos for each of the main rooms once they are done-done. Still, here’s an update on some of our current progress.

Tile work:

I REALLY like tile – probably a bit too much. Specifically it’s white subway tile. In our old house , I did a fair bit of tiling in two bathrooms and the kitchen using white subway tile. Working through this I’d gained some experience and confidence in tile setting, which really is quite simple, though the preparation work is certainly the most challenging and time consuming. I recall working on the old house, tiling the shower and spending two 15-hour days on it (I am a bit of a glutton for punishment then, and apparently I still am).

With this house, I wanted to do a lot of tile. The master bathroom I wanted to tile the shower surround and have a tiled wainscoting around the clawfoot tub and sinks. I also wanted to create a “wet room” or Japanese-style bathroom for the basement. And lastly I wanted a tiled kitchen backsplash. To pay someone to do all of that work would have been an absolute fortune.

To date, I think I’ve spent 15 full (8+ hour) days prepping, tile setting and grouting.

 

Kitchen installation:

As I’d previously written about our choice of woods in the house, we had chosen to use American White Oak for the kitchen. An attractive and functional kitchen was important to us. We had after all moved to an acreage for food. We want to know where our food comes from. We want to grow, cultivate, harvest and cook our own food. So it only made sense that the kitchen was the main focal point, or as Christopher Alexander writes: the natural heart of the home.

 

Master bathroom vanity:

We are still waiting for the countertop to be installed on this amazing custom vanity that our woodworker, Ryan Unger at Rhine Artisans, built. The counter was to be installed 5 weeks ago… and we are still waiting. Grrr.

 

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Wood nook:

We had wanted an accessible location for wood storage for the stove that would be out of the way and be able contain the mess. I did not want to be constantly going out to the shed in the dead of winter to collect wood for a morning fire. This little nook 20”x2’x6’ was the solution (yes that is more tile).

 

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Waxing the Concrete Floors:

For some reason, I’d been dreading this part and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was because the concrete floors had been such a nightmare before. But in reality waxing the floors has been one of the easiest jobs we’ve done. We used a durable (read: unnatural, unfortunately) concrete liquid floor wax as the “sacrificial” protectant on the floor (yes we considered beeswax but I could not find a liquid version that would apply easily and be as durable). We did not want a highly glossed and slippery floor, but typically after waxing you’re recommended to buff the floors to a shine. I rented the buffer with the full intention to use it, but after applying a couple of coats of the floor wax using a microfiber wet mop (applying north-south then east-west to even out any lines), we looked at the floor and said, “wow… that’s… perfect.” It was shiny and smooth, but not glossy and slick. There were no wax lines and the floors looked just how I’d hoped they would after buffing. I ended up returning the floor buffer unused. I may have to apply a couple more coats of wax to the floor sooner than later, but it was so easy to do that I’m not concerned about that.

Window Sills:

We’d chosen rift sawn Douglas fir for the main floor doors, door casing, and window sills which we treated with wood lye and white oil from WOCA wood products (same way we treated our white pine ceiling). I love the finish these products gave highlighting the natural soft white and light pink hues of the wood. I wish I could say the window sills went in easily, but we have learned that the drywall is neither square nor flush making our wood worker’s job a real hair-pulling affair during installation.

Hanging Doors:

This is not a job that I’ve been doing. There is a real art and necessary skill to this job that I simply don’t possess and really don’t care to learn at this point. However one could get quite proficient at this with the number of doors we have. I was shocked (I guess I never really thought about it before) when the doors were delivered on three pallets! 24 doors. For a smaller house that seemed excessive. Now that most ­­of them are hung though it seems more reasonable.

My father had been hoarding 10 solid bronze Schlage doorknobs that he’d had since the 1970s. He’d intended to someday install them in his own house, but recently decided to give them to us. They are beautiful doorknobs – they really don’t build them like this anymore. I do love the contrast of the bronze on the white doors.

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Well we had long said that once we had one functional bathroom, a functional kitchen and waxed the floors that we could move in… And so, this past weekend we did just that…

Refinishing an old clawfoot tub

There are a few things that we’d really liked in our 102-year old Craftsman character house that we’d sold prior to building our eco-house. One of the things we knew we would miss was our old cast iron clawfoot tub. It had been refinished some years prior, but was not “original” to the house, even though it was still pretty old. We could tell because it didn’t have the original “claw” feet (some fancy-pants tub designer must have thought the brocade and ball looked better?), but it was still beautiful and comforting to have. I’m generally not a “bath-guy” but I do love a clawfoot tub. If for nothing other than it’s iconic design (most other tubs I could do without – with the exception of the Japanese-style deep soaker tubs, which are amazing and would go in our basement bathroom). So when designing the bathrooms we really wanted to try and find an original cast-iron clawfoot tub (with clawed feet) for the master bathroom.

After some searching on Kijiji, my wife eventually found one in a small town about 2.5 hours away. Most the clawfoot tubs that you’ll find are usually being pulled out of old houses being renovated. Even though some people don’t want them in their house anymore they still want a pretty penny for them – usually in the range of $400-500. This one was only $150 and we were able to talk them down to $75 for it! Ha!

I do wish I had a before photo of it, but at the time I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture of it – it was just so gross. You’ll just have to use your imagination. Picture: Rust around the drains and running down the enamel under the taps; it had been painted a nasty bluish-green colour on the one side (apparently the side you’d see?); and it must have later in life been built into a surround (when people thought clawfoot tubs were ugly – WTF) because there was CAKED on caulking around the sides and edges.

It was going to be a serious project to refinish this tub. We followed the steps from This Old House blog.

First, we had to scrape all of the disgusting caked caulking off of the perimeter and sides of the tub with a razor blade. We weren’t too worried about scratching it because it would all be stripped and recoated later.

Second, we used a hydrofluoric acid product from Home Depot, it’s in the paint section, to etch the enamelled surface. Make sure to wear protective gear and a respirator with this. This is toxic stuff. We didn’t worry about stripping the outside of the tub because we planned to simply paint over it anyway.

Third,  we used our Dremel tool with a grinding bit to grind off the rust spots of the tub. The dremel worked very well in getting in and around the faucet and drain holes.

Fourth, my wife used an auto body filler compound to fill in the areas that had been rusted and ground down. This stuff works like a charm. She then lightly sanded the compound with a high grit sandpaper to smooth out the filler and the cast iron.

Fifth, was to paint the outside. We wanted this to be a bad-ass black clawfoot tub. We used Rustoleum spray paint in a semi-gloss black. I was impressed at how well this well on. We ended up using three cans of spray paint – pretty well one can per coat.

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The sixth step was the one I dreaded the most. Spraying the epoxy enamel paint on the inside of the tub. This is the part you really don’t want to F-up. If you do, you basically have to start back at Step 1 and repeat. We purchased spray gun (high-velocity, low-pressure) for this job as really there is no other way to do it. The spray guns are less than $100 and you will use it again if you have it. Once again Home Depot carries Rustoleum Tub and Tile epoxy paint that is ideal for refinishing the enamel coat. One pack is not quite enough to do the tub so we purchased two packs and used only a small amount from the second (we would end up using the rest of the paint for two cast-iron sinks that wifey refinished in the same way later). Each pack comes with two cans that are both super toxic poison that you mix together. Pour a small amount into the spray gun, hold it steady and on the mid-range spray (not too light as then it will be speckley and not to heavy as it will run), pray to your God, and proceed with even coats of the paint. I started at the bottom of the tub working my way side to side along the long end. For the sides of the tub I used an up and down motion that seemed to give good control. And finished by doing the top and lip, but be careful not to ‘mist’ too much into the tub as it will make it speckled. We let this dry for a day and then applied a second coat in the same fashion (the This Old House blog recommends three coats). The sides and top of the tub came out with a very nice smooth finish. The bottom was a bit speckled to the hand though looking at it you could not tell anything was different (I think I probably misted this too much when doing the top/sides).

All in all this was a time consuming process, but taking it from looking like a piece crap trash to a beautifully refinished, gleaming and BADASS  tub was extremely satisfying. Seeing it installed in the bathroom, waiting for its first soak is such a good feeling.

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Custom eavestroughs, fascia and rain chains: A new adventure in house building

Because of the atypical pine soffits we installed, we needed to do something a bit different for the fascia as well. For people who don’t know what the difference of fascia and soffits are (as I did not):

I really hadn’t given it much thought at all to the eavestrough and fascia until I started to consider how we would divert water away from the house. The natural thought, of course, would be to have downspouts that lead water away from the foundation.

In our case though, we had two corner windows and the thought of staring at some ugly downspout from my window view was not appealing. We asked our designer, Crystal Bueckert of BLDG Studio, what she recommended. A custom house needs custom eaves, she told us. As for avoiding an ugly-ass downspout in our view, she recommended a rain chain. A rain chain, of course!

We searched out a lot of rain chain options, from the very simple chain links to the more artistic copper cup varieties. I liked the look of the simple chain links, but I wondered if it would look too boring with just a hunk of chain hanging down (although I have seen some that look very cool). We were really drawn to the pretty copper Japanese rain chain cups and decided to order two from Amazon.com of all places.

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So gross.

As for the fascia and eaves trough, it was really amazing to me that absolutely no one in the City offered anything other than the standard gross eavestrough profile.

We wanted something a bit nicer than this.

We asked our designer to come out and draw up a plan for the eaves and fascia for us with the plan to send it off to a metal fabricator to manufacture it. I called up a place in town and after waiting a number of weeks we finally received the sample piece.

Not gross!
Not gross!

I was really happy with how it came out.

Now, I could go on a tangent here to talk about how frustrating it was waiting for the quotes (I was told “I’ll have it to you tomorrow” for 7 days in a row). Or that when they told us it was all done and come pick it up, that it was only partway done and we had to come back not once but twice to pick up the rest. Or when we thought we finally had all the material that we were in fact, 8″ short on either side. Or that when we got a contractor out to install the fascia and eaves, he looked at it and said, “I’m not installing this.” I’ll spare you my pain (this time) and I won’t go into all of that.

But that did meant that we had to figure out how to install this ourselves.

The first thing we had to do was install the fascia (AKA the stuff at the edge of the roof that also covers the edge of the soffits). I have to admit, this was one of the few jobs that we’ve done with the house that we finished and said, “wow, that was easier than I expected.”

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It was pretty sketchy though on a 24′ extension ladder (standing on the top rung) holding my drill in one hand and supporting last piece of fascia with my other hand at the very top. But boy oh boy, that little bit of trim sure made a nice job giving a finished clean edge to everything.

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That went so well that we decided to tackle the snow stops next. Now this was a less pleasant job and my forearms have only recently started to recover. The snow stops are meant to stop the snow (as if you couldn’t have guessed) from sitting in the eaves and potentially tearing them off the side of the house. It’s also a bit of a safety measure so that heavy snow/ice doesn’t come crashing off the roof onto someone’s head.

These things are very heavy duty though with two layers of heavy gauge steel that have to be drilled through to install on to the roof. I think I broke 8 or 9 metal drill bits for this job.

We worked late into the night, forgetting to actually eat lunch and supper until about 9pm.

The next morning we awoke to tackle the eavestroughs.  This was a bit trickier simply because we needed make sure things would run where they’re supposed to run (i.e. downhill). We used a level in each section of the gutters to make sure the angle was relatively consistent. We also decided on the south east corner (where our corner window facing the river is) that we would not put any drainage there and have it all run to Japanese rain chain at the other end (which would be just off the side of the yet-to-be-installed deck). This meant that there would be a drop from one side to the other, but once installed, it really is not terribly noticeable.

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On the north side of the house we placed the custom downspout in one corner and the Japanese rain chain in the other, next to the main entrance. The downspout will lead to a large rain barrel that we will use of watering the chickens and plants around the house.

The last thing I did, at about 9pm, in the dark where the effect wasn’t quite as great, was installs the rain chains. But the next morning we got to take it in – in all its’ glory.

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REAL Scandinavian white-washing and installing the pine ceiling

Wood gives beautiful warmth to any space. In our house we had wanted to use mostly natural or hand-finished products (avoiding plastics and other synthetic materials) with wood being a central focus. Our old house, although full of grand and beautiful woodwork, had been very dark with mostly mahogany, ebony or cherry stained wood. We wanted our new house to be altogether lighter – more windows, light woods, white walls. We had spent a considerable amount of time researching which woods we liked best (and were also available locally). In the end we chose three main woods for our house: Douglas fir, white pine, and white oak.

In designing the house, one feature we continued to come back to was a wood ceiling. As we were having concrete floors, wood on the ceiling, we felt, would warm the space nicely (drywalled ceilings and walls with a concrete floor seemed far too cold). And honestly, who doesn’t love a great wood ceiling?

The one major downside of pine, although it looks pink and white when it is freshly cut and milled, is that it yellows terribly with exposure to sunlight and over time. Indeed, all light woods will yellow to some degree, but pine is one of the worst for this (even white pine vs. yellow pine). Sure some people like that look, but not me. I prefer the fresh “untreated” look of the wood – but how does one preserve this appearance?

Being a bit of a Pinterest junkie while planning the house, we had found a lot of inspiration from Scandinavian cottages and cabins (leave it to them to have the coolest stuff). Many of which had beautiful light woods running through the house – woods that were white, pink or creamy browns – but not yellow. How do these Scandinavians do it?! Tell me your secrets!

But try as I might, I just couldn’t seem to find any information about it.

I briefly read a bit about the North American (read: ugly) way of “white-washing” wood. Which involves basically watering down white paint and then painting it on. It really looks as good as you might expect, which is really not good at all.

Mjolk Douglas Fir floors
Mjolk Douglas Fir floors
However one house that we have come back to time and time again for inspiration is the Mjolk House in Toronto (they had inspired our choice for Cloud White walls as well). I had taken special note of their insanely beautiful 10″ Douglas fir plank floors that were light and clean and not yellow in the least (Douglas fir is another wood that turns very yellow with time). I assumed these Mjolk people must have received special access to the Scandinavian secrets given that their design store sells Scandinavian and Japanese decor.

One day, though, as I was looking through articles about this house, I came across a tutorial they had written for Remodelista on called “101: Easy Whitewashed Scandi Floors” (admittedly the terrible title was less than appealing and I almost skipped past it).

“First, we applied a coat of Woca Wood Lye to bleach the boards”

Eureka! That was the secret I’d been waiting for!!

Where to find this magical product and how to get my hands on it was the next question.

After much searching, I eventually came across Woca Direct, who supplied Woca Wood products from Denmark to us lowly North Americans. And there it was: Woca Wood Lye (Picture: the heavens opening and the angel singing)…

WOCA Wood Lye is a mild, non-corrosive form of bleach, which may be used whenever a whitewashed or driftwood appearance is desired… Wood lye bleaches the wood and prevents the yellowing process of the wood.

I immediately ordered a tonne of this stuff, as well as the natural soap in white (which is used to clean the wood after treatment to reinforce it or as the Mjolk folks did, as your actual finish), the wood cleaner, and the master oil in white, which is what we intended to use as our finish coat.

I made up a test piece of white pine using the Lye, Lye with White Oil, and No treatment and left it out in the sun for a couple weeks to see how the colour changed.

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I was as impressed as I had hoped I’d be with the change that the Lye made. Within moments of applying it the wood lightened, highlighting the pinks, whites, and browns of the wood. After leaving it for two weeks, you could already see the untreated pine (to the far right to the photo) turning yellow. The Lye and Lye with oil (on the left and middle) did not fade or yellow at all. I found that the White Oil really didn’t change the colour of the wood further, but simply helped to smooth out the grain and give a nice hand to the wood.

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During the summer, while the house was still at the framing stage, we and our amazingly awesome neighbour spent the weekend treating the tongue and groove pine (by the way, we ended up choosing 1×6″ tongue and groove over the narrower 1×4″. Less lines with the wide planks looked more modern and attractive then the narrower stuff, in my opinion).

As was recommended, we first cleaned each board, as they were pretty dirty from the drive out on our gravel road, with the Wood Cleaner.

After drying for a couple days, we began the Wood Lye application (photo) with a simple nylon brush. It is pretty watery stuff so it goes on fairly easily, but you have to make sure you cover the boards fully as any areas that you miss would yellow in time. The wood lye dries quickly within an hour so we were able to get a good system going with two of us applying the Lye and my wife oiling the boards after a minimum hour of drying.

The oiling process was quite lovely. We simply used a cotton rag and hand rubbed each board. The finish it gave was beautiful. The process was lengthy though from start to finish, probably in the range of 30 hours for the 900 sq. ft. of pine.

It would still be a couple months before we would eventually be able to install this stuff (this is the beauty of having a big shop to store all of this stuff in – highly recommended). But after the nightmare of the concrete floor finishing, we were excited to finally be able to have some pleasure in seeing the ceiling installed.

Both myself and my good friend (who will be doing our cabinetry, stairs, window sills and doors, and runs Rhine Artisans) highly underestimated the time it would take to install the ceiling though… we naively thought, a day, maybe. Well it would be four full days total to complete the work, largely due to the precise cutting required around the light boxes (our fixtures had less than 1/8″ of clearance around the 4″ round boxes) and the hand planing required at the ends of the walls and hallways (apparently drywall isn’t straight, who knew).

But, in my humblest of opinions, this looks damn sexy…

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