tightening the purse strings

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We’re nearing the home stretch, hurray! That also means we’re winding down on what has been a very expensive year of design and construction. I’m sure it will be worth it in the end, but it’s quite different from our original vision 5 years ago of living mortgage free. Had we picked somewhere else to live, we know we could have done it but we chose this place and are here to stay. Still, I have to admit a little envy when I read about folks who are building their own little homes on wheels. I’ve seen two new ones in our part of town recently too!

I remember it wasn’t all too long ago when we talked about having everything done before moving into the new house. I can assure you now, that’s not how it’s going to be, and that I have a new appreciation for why so many other households live in a never-ending state of construction. It seems that this is simply the way it works unless you have exceedingly deep pockets or a combination of great insight and excellent preparedness before hand.

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You’ll notice that we didn’t cheap out when it came to the big things like the heating, our metal roof or our wooden windows. We knew we’d have to cut corners and put in some sweat equity along the way but where have we opted to take a bit more time and save a bit more money? There are a number of ways:
- I’m tiling the bathroom using the cheap subway tile since our first choice was going to cost nearly $1000 in materials and another $1000 in labour.
- We’re only finishing one shower area for now (saving another $1000-$2000 in the short term)
- We’re so grateful that my dad was both willing and able to make us a lovely vanity for one bathroom and we’re using plywood for it’s counter (at least temporarily) since we have a piece the right size kicking around. I don’t even want to guess how much we’d have to spend to get what we have in a store since most of what you can get in stores is full of off-gassing nasties.
- We’ll be putting up the baseboards (after we move in) and applying varathane to it and the window trims.
- Our site supervisor is filling the cracks in the concrete with StarPatch and I’m sealing the concrete floors. (We could have saved money by sticking with the cure and seal the concrete guys left us back in June but it gave me a headache so instead I used Broda Prothane. The other quotes we got for cleaning things up included really fancy crack fill treatments and an epoxy sealer that I didn’t want and cost a few thousand dollars more.)
- It’s not ideal, but at least for the short term we’re going to have wooden counter tops. We were reluctantly going to go with plywood but then we had a surprise find last weekend which means we’re more likely to have wooden ones from IKEA. It’s hard to know how much of a savings this really means since it’s likely only temporary and it never had a dollar figure in the budget. Oops!
- We’re finishing the wooden floors upstairs. Kevin made good headway with the sanding this past weekend but there’s still more to be done before we get to applying our own oil finish.

Apr 7 - light fixtures and floor sanding

- Instead of finishing with a fully landscaped house we’re removing any real expectations until the summer comes and we’ll likely buy the bigger things when they’re cheaper and easier to transplant in the fall. I’m so itching to get my veggie plots built but my old collection pots is going to be standing in for a while. With all the other work to be done, there’s just no time. Plus, materials that will last cost a bundle too.
- We’re not usually big fans of the big blue box but when it comes to light fixtures, they have the best deal going. We used their cable lights and repurposed their most economical ceiling fixture as a sconce so that we could save more thank $1-2K and spend that money on LED bulbs (which in part came from that store too).

Apr 7 - lights

- Not only are regular doors expensive, but none of closet openings are of a standard height which means they’ll definitely cost more than $300 each. We’ve decided to go with curtains for the foreseeable future and may even leave the laundry area uncovered.
Apr 7 - laundry

- Speaking of laundry, I probably already mentioned that we saved ourselves another grand by going with a more standard size and a model that isn’t the newest on the market. We did look at buying used but couldn’t easily find what we wanted at a price that seemed worth the risk, without a big hassle when it came to delivery.

Needless to say, we’ve been spending more time at the house and less time taking photos or writing about it. Soon we’ll be done!
Apr 6 - a warmly lit little house

putting things in perspective

I’ll admit it. There are times when it feels like it’s taking way too long to build this house, or that the process of building is too stressful. It really makes me wonder how some people go through the process of building more than one house.

Then there are days that put it all in perspective.

Mar 24

I’ve had a whole string of those days as I’ve been working over at the house alongside our regular crew and the mechanical folks. The whole house if now sided and we have an HRV, central vacuum, hot water tank and part of our heating system. We also have a freshly installed washer and dryer. Yippee! (Now we just need that heating system hooked up so we can use more than the drier!)

Mar 28 - we finally have some of our utilities!

I haven’t been so great at gathering pictures, but I’ve been getting to know the guys on our site through my first ever tiling project. It’s amazing what kinds of things can bring people together!

Somewhere in the process of this build I got the idea that I wanted to do the tiling in at least one bathroom because I might never again get the chance. So far, the things Kevin and I have contributed to the house (painting, sanding, staining, etc.) have lacked permanence. I realized that tiling a shower or tub surround wouldn’t be like that, and besides, I knew others who had done their own tiling before. Why couldn’t I?

Before long I made an online request for old tools and in the process met a professional tiler in town who offered up some great advice and the tools. I also picked up some tips on-line and as I worked. It seems that half of the folks in our house this week were working on a tiling project at home and yesterday we were all at the point where we just wished it would end. Oh, how misery can love company! It sure made me feel better about my really, really slow start though.

Day 1: 2 rows of tile on the long wall.
Day 2: 4 rows of tile on the long wall.
Day 3: 6 1/2 rows of tile on the long wall plus the creation of a cubby for our shower toiletries (we don’t use shampoo)

Tiling day 3

Day 4: I picked up some tricks on how to better lay the glass tiles I’d struggled with the day before. I also put up a few extra pieces on the big wall before waterproofing the little bit of drywall, adding a trim piece and getting in 6 rows of tile on the back wall.

Tiling day 4 - note that there's now tile on the bottom right!

So yes, some things take time, and they’re not always perfect. Looking at my progress today though I’m quite happy that I decided to give this a try. For years to come I’ll be able to look at the tile I placed and know that yes, I did it! (Thank goodness it gets a bit easier every time I get together the will power to do a little more!)

I also know, that in building this house and making my mark with part of this finishing, I’m living the dream I’ve had for quite a while. Sure, things are taking a bit longer than I’d like, but then again, half the fun is in the anticipation!

the road to building green

Seven years ago, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) sponsored a net-zero building project across the country. We were fortunate to live in proximity to a few really interesting projects: two in Red Deer and the Riverdale house in Edmonton.

With my interest in infill developments close to “town”, I was particularly interested in the Riverdale duplex project, and fortunately the proponents were happy to share the process with us and others as they went through the design and build process. It was great to learn about the challenges in trying to achieve net zero energy and how some pieces of the puzzle were just too pricey to carry over into mainstream housing. Another interesting part was how each of the three developers had completely different ideas for how to achieve their goals. Some things worked as modelled and other things didn’t.

We didn’t find solutions that would help us much with the place we owned at the time but we socked away those notes about triple pane windows, aspect, forgoing gas utilities and and thicker walls for when they would eventually be of some use for us. Oh, and at around the same time I started learning about water efficient fixtures and Maximum Performance (MaP) Testing of toilets.

It was another few years and then friends of ours started talking about their LEED reno. I followed with interest, especially when they wrote about toilets. Two years earlier, I had attended a conference where this toilet was being tested out in the homes of some of our country’s leading municipal water conservation gurus. The talk was good. I can honestly say I’ve never heard such excitable talk about water efficient toilets, but David sure came close with this post!

Over the years we also watched and learned from our neighbours who completed a BC Built Green renovation, and took in a few different offerings of the eco home tour on our favourite gulf island.

We looked at a wide range of construction methods too: from cob, straw bale, shipping container and Faswall (wood fibre concrete blocks) to more conventional stick built walls.

In the end, we realized it would take us a very long time to cut through the red tape if we wanted to do something very different and live in town. We also had lots of questions about how reliable some of the alternative construction methods would be in this wet and windy corner of the world.

Indoor air quality was a major concern for us and as we read books such as “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” and “Homes that Heal”, we started to get a better picture of what needed to be done in the construction of our new home. (More recently I’ve been turning to the blog “My Chemical-Free House” and Greenworks Building Supply as well.)

Before we’d even found our lot we met with a few builders and some were big advocates for BC Built Green. We read through the information on that rating system but it didn’t jive with our priorities. Untested “green” materials seemed to be more important than liveability so we weren’t interested.

Then our architect put us in touch with the folks from Wakefield and they asked if we’d looked at LEED. Up to that point we hadn’t, but a quick review of the check list the following weekend quickly showed us that our priorities could put us in the running for gold or platinum.

It’s hard to say how much more it’s costing to go through the LEED process but it has certainly come with a steep learning curve for all of us. Being an educator, I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. Besides, I think both parties will be getting something they want out of it – recognition for building at a higher level and assurances that the most important things in this build are done right.

Some of the things that will set our house apart from other new houses in the area include:
- durability: our home was designed and is being constructed to last our lifetime and beyond. (For us this means no asphalt roof, generous overhangs to protect the building envelope, a layout that should serve us in old age, and more. We hadn’t planned on it, but the structural engineering is surprisingly robust now too.)
- energy efficiency: we designed this to be our lifetime house plus so our evaluation of energy consumption is naturally quite different. Thick walls, a more efficient heating system and what we hope will be a good air barrier mean more costs up front but we shouldn’t be spending as much on month-to-month heating either,
- indoor air quality: my nose, the information in our resources, the VOC guidelines in the Materials and Resources section of the LEED Canada for Homes Rating System, and common sense mean that many common off-gassing products aren’t in our house to begin with. For example, we aren’t using IKEA kitchen cabinetry, spray foam, or vinyl windows.
- moisture management: rain screening is required for all new home construction here but we’ve taken some measures to go beyond this. There was so much reading and conversing to do to figure out where to put the vapour barrier, the difference between a vapour barrier and air barrier and on and on. We also have a more robust moisture barrier in the shower and tub surround, and opted to go without a basement, in part because of our concerns with moisture and air quality.
- water efficiency: borrowing from what I learned in my earlier career, we’ve opted for ultra-water efficient fixtures in the bathrooms and outside. We’ve got the best toilet (I hope!) and are using rain water capture to help water the garden beds. (Sure we could have done more, but the cost and headache weren’t worth it for us.)

Working through the LEED program has been interesting but perhaps the most stressful bit is that you can go to all these efforts and one small slip means it’s all for naught. Even before we realized that, we set the intention to aim for points only in the areas where it made sense to us. That’s easy to say, but in practice, it’s much more difficult to do.

a warm and welcoming glow

Mar 18 - lights and siding

I’m so glad we’ve been taking photos and documenting the house building process over here. I remember following along as Brendon and Akua and then Arlene and Jeff built their little homes. It was so fun to join them on the ride. Now I’m getting a similar thrill when I look back and see how much has changed in recent weeks and months. In the act of going forward, sometimes it seems like things are moving so slowly but really, it’s all progress.

Mar 18 - appliances!

This week has been an exciting one as my dad brought the bathroom cabinet he made, the front siding was finished, and the electrical fixtures were hooked up. We also took delivery of some appliances and made some headway on the great shower tile debate.

Mar 18 - lights

Each of these changes dramatically effect the experience of being in or near the house. In fact, neighbours keep saying how inviting it all looks now. Yes, we know, we really want to move in already!

not too small…

Over the past few days we’ve been working along side Kevin’s sister to paint the interiors of our house. In the process, I often found myself thinking about the size of our house: it’s really not that small after all. We’ve known that for a while, but after spending hours coating the tall ceilings and taking care at the wood to drywall edges, the extent of our house is much more obvious. (Even with 4-5 coats on every wall it was much quicker for me to paint my similarly sized townhouse.)

Mar 16 - painting and taping

We started with a stinky vapour barrier primer (hello respirator, my old friend) and then moved on to fancy ultra-low VOC paint. We had wanted to use all YOLO Colorhouse paint but the store was so low on stock we could only use it for the ceiling. The store made colour matches to Mythic paints for the rest. It’s interesting to me that while all the ultra low/no- VOC paints I’ve used have similar smells, each one is still unique. The YOLO paint had a sweetness to it while the Mythic paint seemed to smell more plastic-like and seemed to get me sneezing. That and I was making silly little mistakes and getting grumpy, so clearly it’s not the best paint for me to work with.

Mar 16 - painting the little nooks and crannies

Thankfully there was other work to be done too so yesterday afternoon I switched gears to cleaning the floor in preparation for our washer and dryer to be installed. Going to the laundromat or taking hand wash wools to the parents hasn’t been that bad, but after 45 and a half months, I’m really looking forward to being able to wash everything at home. (I’m surprised to find myself excited about the dishwasher too, but that may be because I did 7 loads of hand washing yesterday.)

Mar 16 - floor scrubbing

Now for that concrete. Right near the start of our build we opted for dyed concrete. We had it poured right at the beginning but in recent months it’s been assaulted with regular dirt and grime from outside plus drywall mud, plumbing glues and now paint. Mopping away the drywall mud wasn’t too hard but I still spent more than an hour on my hands and knees scrubbing and that little bathroom is just a tiny slice of our main floor. I can see I’m going to be putting some long days in before we officially move in.

All of this has me thinking – thank goodness our house isn’t any bigger! At nearly 1200 sf it’s going to be huge compared to the 500 sf we’ve been calling home for nearly 4 years. I think we’ll get used to it though. On Friday night when all our work was done we had a little fun “practising” how it will feel to relax in our new home:

Mar 14 - practising for the new house

March 9 update

This week we saw our main living space transformed with drywall. It’s mighty nice! Part way through the process Kevin found a place to make use of all of our roxul scraps and help provide more of a sound barrier between the washer/dryer closet and our bedroom.

Mar 4 - downstairs drywall

Mar 4 - downstairs drywall

Our electrician also wired up a few of the light fixtures so we could test various LEDs to see which bulbs we want to live with. (We already knew we wanted a colour temperature of 2700K but the light intensities for the GU5.3′s we’ve been able to get off the shelf aren’t very high. Today we tested 360 and 400 lumens and would like to try some with 500 lumens but they’re very pricey and much more difficult to find.)

LED photo

We still have some time before we move in and there is no end to the list of things to do. We had thought this would be the weekend for priming the downstairs and painting on both floors but it wasn’t quite ready. That was actually a relief since Kevin was under the weather and we had a few things to take care of in the city.

We opted to do that running around, visit with family, and take time for some hobbies. Kevin went out on the water and I went about crossing items from my list.

Ever since we moved to town I’ve been more focused on finishing long standing projects than starting new ones. I’m almost caught up but I still have one quilt (the first one I ever started) that’s been hanging around for over a decade and a stool that’s been in need of repair for 3 years.

When we started the design and build process I thought it would be nice to take care of these projects (or at least the quilt) before we move in and now I’m finally making headway on those goals.

Yesterday I found an old cherry branch (from the tree that used to stand where our bedroom now is) and made the replacement rung for my stool. It went much more quickly than I had expected and my body has had no complaints about the work! Today I vinegarized the heck out of the remaining joins so that I could undo them to fit the new rung in. Then I went about hand sawing individual wedges from a scrap of the tree. Talk about slow!

stool in progress

I’m so close to being done but I’ll have to put things on hold until I can make it to a hardware store before closing to pick up more glue!

spring is coming

… and with it, the birds are singing and our garlic is bursting through the ground. Mother nature is playing quite the tricks these days though as we’ve had a series of snowy Mondays, and it looks like there will be yet another one tomorrow!

Mar 2 - snow on the garlic

Today it was so snowy out we were able to put on our skis to go to the house. It was a very nice surprise indeed!

Mar 2 - siding is coming along

This week our builders finished up the siding and soffit on one side, and made good progress on another. There’s also been some blocking and other interior details in preparation for the drywall downstairs.

Mar 2 - siding and soffits

Kevin and I also loaded up on paint in anticipation of having more drywall to attack next weekend. It’s amazing how even with just primer, the house seems so much brighter even on a cloudy, snowy day.

Mar 2 - reflected light on a snowy day