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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
I gotta say, I don’t know why I’d hesitated, because once your go black… well, you know the rest.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
We knew we wanted a black house. In fact, when designing the house, it was one of the only things that really remained consistent and we didn’t change our minds about (ok, truthfully, we strayed a little bit – testing the waters, but as they say, once you go black, you probably won’t go back… or something like that). Our previous house had been painted black by the previous owners (we are since soul mates) and we loved it dearly. But really we did not not want to simply paint our new house black. Paint is great for covering up years of other layers of toxic paint, as in our old house, but not as an initial coat. So, what to do?
In the process of researching, planning and designing the house, we collected hundreds of inspiration pictures. The majority of my “architecture” folder on Pinterest is of black houses, and each one I’d look at and try to figure out what they used: paint, stain, or something else.
One of the first “something else” option we were initially really drawn to the traditional Japanese siding treatment called “Shou-sugi-ban”. Taken from a Treehugger article on this process:
This is a traditional Japanese method of preserving cedar, where it is burned enough to create a layer of char on the outside. The char serves a number of functions: it seals and preserves the wood, it makes it significantly more fire-resistant, and termites and bugs hate it.
It is said that this type of treatment can allow the wood to survive for 80-100 years without maintenance and much longer if treated with oil every 15 years.
Here is an impressive video of the traditional process in Japan:
Ok, so just imagine doing that 200 times over to clad your moderately sized house. Now that is labour intensive! Most people nowadays, from what I’ve read, use a blow torch to char each board, then dunk it in water, scrub the charred bits off, and then oil it. Even with a blow torch this a crazy amount of work, but in the end you get something really impressive and completely unique.
I really thought we were going to do this for our place, however, there were a few reasons we abandoned this idea. Firstly was the obvious: OMG, that would be so much work!! Second, cedar is crazy expensive right now, running in the range of $7-9 per sq.ft. But the final reason, was that we had heard that someone had decided to do a house in shou sugi ban in the City. Curious to see it in real life, we drove over to take a look at it. And well, to be honest, we really hated it. Perhaps it was just the people who did it did a bad job, but it looked really… gross. It basically looked like a house that had had a fire recent go through it (which I suppose is true). I think I would like to test it out on a shed or coffee table or something before I invest thousands of dollars into the siding of my house and ended up hating myself over it.
So, we turned to the natural and perhaps, most obvious option, stain. Stain is all well and good, but you really need to stain your wood every 5 years (or less) to preserve the wood and keep it looking good. And really, you still should use cedar to have optimal rot protection with plain old stain. That is until my wife came across a little black Swedish house.
Granted, this house is actually sided in plywood, which I would never do, but what intrigued me was the rich black colour, that the grain of the wood still came through (not painted), and that they had used a siding that was not cedar.
As I read more into this, they used “black tar” for the siding. Through some detective work, we eventually found this same house linked to a Swedish product called “Auson black pine tar.”
I had never heard or seen this product before but I was very intrigued. Also, it was Swedish, and seeing as our house had a lot of Scandinavian inspiration, this only seemed fitting.
We found that the product was available in Canada through a website called Solvent Free Paint. Score. We emailed the company to learn a bit more about it:
“Genuine PineTar is one of the more effective wood preservers we’ve seen, and it is all-natural, which is amazing. In Scandinavia, they have been using PineTar for around 1500 years as a preservative on everything from stave wood churches to wooden splint roofs to Viking ships, and it is still the predominant choice for continuing to preserve these old wooden structures to this day. Amazing. In fact, the heritage arm of the government of Québec has been making studies on this here with respect to preserving wooden roofs, and their current recommendation is to use pinetar.
PineTar is made from burning the pine resin out of the stumps of pine trees. The sticky resin is then collected and cleaned to various degrees, and pigment is even added for colour. In this state, PineTar has the consistency of molasses and can be used for preserving wood, even below grade. Above grade, we recommend mixing the pinetar 50/50 with Allback Purified Raw Linseed Oil and applying warm so that the pinetar and oil mixture really penetrates the wood. This mixture offers the best of both preservation and nourishment for the wood; it also takes down the stickiness of the surface so that it is more pleasant to touch or walk on.”
Even better, this product is ideal for use in Scandinavia, where pine and spruce are much more readily available and cedar is not. It preserves the wood and needs to be recoated only once every 15 years.
Bingo, we’d found our product. We ordered a few litres of this stuff. We had debated about using cedar for our soffits as well, but once we saw this, we realized we could use pine with a natural clear pine tar for much less than half the cost of cedar still.
We started out with the soffits, which would be easiest to install first. Yes, it is true that most people use aluminum or vinyl vented soffits, which are fool proof but are so fucking boring. Instead, we purchased 1×6 tongue and groove clear white pine. Now one thing you need to know about staining (or painting) wood for siding or soffits, is that you mustn’t let any part of the wood be left untreated (otherwise the lifespan of the wood will drop by 50-75%, so preparation is key)! That is, you must stain all six sides of the wood. For the tongue and groove pine, this meant that yes, we had to stain the tongue AND the groove, which is a crazy, tedious and annoying task.
We had about 800 sq.ft. of soffits to stain, all sides, twice. It took us about 14 hours, but it looked pretty nice by the time we were done. The pine tar was actually easier than we expected it would be to use. Once mixed 50/50 with the linseed oil it was really just like a slightly thickened stain. It brushed on easy and evenly. However, we had to keep it warm. On the hot 30 degree Celsius days it was easy, but on the cooler day we had to heat it up on the stove in the shop. Also each coat took about 4-7 days to dry and still had a bit of residue on it that hopefully will dry someday. Surprisingly, it was not at all sticky (I had fears of moths and dust sticking to the house).
Now as for venting of the soffits, there is a calculation of square footage of ventilation versus square footage of attic space which is approximately 1 sq.ft of venting to every 100 sq.ft of attic. We figured out that that meant about 3/4″x30″ gap lengthwise along every fourth board, would be about right. We used a router to cut the gap and covered it with a bug screen. Here’s a photo:
I was so impressed with how well these turned out. Much better than I’d expected to be honest.
Next up was the siding, which I was most excited about. We ordered the clear white pine siding as a “shiplap reveal” in 1×8.
That pile took a ridiculous amount of time for us to work through. I had expected it to go relatively quickly seeing as we did not have to stain a stupid groove, but 30 hours later we were finally done. Exhausted, but man did it look badass.
Over the next two weeks the contractors, chipped away at installing the siding. This too took much longer than they had expected too, particularly from having to stain the ends of each cut. But seeing that siding go onto the walls, I knew we had made the right decision.
We finally had the house looking pretty sexy and ready to sell. Really it looked better than ever (isn’t that always the way, you finally get the house ‘done’ and then sell it, oh well). I had always wanted to photograph the house and submit it to Apartment Therapy. AT had been our go-to website for design inspiration for our old house and we’d referenced a number of house tours and features for our next place as well. Now that we had the house done and I had to take photos anyways in order to list it, I thought, what the heck I’ll submit it. I certainly wouldn’t have another chance. I really didn’t expect them to get back to us. But two days later they wrote back saying that our house had been selected from the “hundreds of submissions” they receive to be featured as a house call.
This is the post I wrote for them with the photos they used…
Name: Kent & Darcie Location: Caswell Hill neighborhood, Saskatoon, Canada
Our house is a very unique home in one of the most exciting and rejuvenated neighborhoods in our city. Built in 1912 by a successful farmer for his wife and eight children, the house retains the character of a Craftsman-style home while also enjoying all of the modern day comforts due to extensive renovations performed over the past seven years. Sitting on the incline of a hill and elevated from the road with a large retaining wall, the house enjoys expansive views of the city.
The house had been extremely run down when it was purchased in the mid-2000s. It had been the rental property of a notorious slum landlord for the previous 15-20 years and was known as the house to avoid on the block. A write-up in the newspaper described dozens of truckloads of garbage being hauled away, hypodermic needles strewn about and blood splattered walls. This certainly was a renovation not for the weak of heart or stomach. The first major renovation was in the mid-1990s, though it soon fell into dilapidation. Seven years ago when it was purchased from a rental company, significant work was needed again.
The renovations and restoration has been significant from top to bottom and inside and out. Intricate detail was paid to even the most minute parts of the home. The results speak for themselves.
The house is 1900 square feet over three stories with a full height basement adding 600 square feet. The style of home is known as a Craftsman Character home, which is common in the neighborhood, though no other houses enjoy the immense height of the house (approximately 45 feet tall) and the large windows and bedrooms are very unusual for this era.
The house design and style was inspired by the traditional homes of the Netherlands, of which a black house is not an uncommon sight, although in Canada this is somewhat strange. The interior design was influenced by Scandinavian aesthetics. We love natural materials and items with a story. We never collected antiques until we bought this house, but it forced it upon us. The items we’ve collected complement the house so well and speak to its past. But we are also modernists at heart. We love the design of Ray and Charles Eames and have collected a number of their items. Our favorite being the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman. Our other favorite piece in the house is the Ligne Roset Togo sectional sofa. The contrast of the original character of the house and the modern furniture makes the home so much more interesting and fun to live in.
This past year we removed our parking space in the backyard and designed and built a chicken coop/shed. We have been raising three backyard chickens since the spring. It’s something we’d always wanted to try and having fresh eggs every morning is beyond amazing.
I’m proud of the entire house. To have it taken from the brink of being condemned and to restore the beauty of the home by ourselves and the previous owner before us is such a great feeling of satisfaction.
Here is the link to the entire article on Apartment Therapy:
I had to chuckle initially at the title seeing as here we were about to sell the place. But really the house was our dream house. It’s just our dream had now changed and we were ready to move on.
Still it’s pretty cool to see our house and our design get such positive comments, be featured on one of my favourite design websites, to see it “pinned” on Pinterest and being shared around is pretty darn rewarding, I must say.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Now that we had the layout near completion we needed to figure out the big questions of wall systems and mechanical heating/cooling.