LEED points vs behaviour modification


Last spring I wrote about our decision to work with Wakefield (our builder) on making our house a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) qualified build.

I like to think that our approach to the LEED rating system is different from most. We’re really aiming to stick to our values rather than competing for bragging rights, but sometimes it’s a slippery slope.

Understandably, the LEED rating system can’t give credit for modifying behaviours, since those are user-dependent and not usually unique to a home or property. This is where we find our ideals and the rating system the most challenging.

We’re pretty committed to behavioural changes that reduce our footprint. For example, we have modest commutes for work, let yellow mellow, don’t shower daily and hand water our garden. Sure there’s room for improvement but neither of us are big consumers either, choosing to repair our clothes and make things from scratch when possible. We also like to repurpose things and buy second hand when it makes sense.

Since we’re building a new house the incremental cost of an energy efficient appliance or fixture is often inconsequential. We chose to go with new:
– water efficient shower heads (you wouldn’t believe how many months it’s taken to get a 1.5 gpm shower head, but it works!)
– water efficient toilets (3 Lpf, discussed here)
– water efficient faucets
– water and energy efficient clothes washer
– energy star fridge (options for our size that met this criteria without a lot of extra cost were limited)

In some cases though, it didn’t make sense for us to try and chase points. For example, we found a dishwasher that will do the job for $25 and it’s not energy star rated. Given that we prefer to hand wash most of our cook ware though, it seemed better to save the money and give this old dish washer a new life.

Currently there’s no credit in the Canadian system for having a vegetable garden and for most of the landscaping areas to gather points you need to have an irrigation system. I’m not really keen on irrigating period, probably because there have been times when I’ve had to haul my own water. Rather than cover our property in grass and other plants that don’t belong here, we’ve gone with a mix of native species and drought-tolerant plants. We’ve also made heavy use of mulches, with some of that yet to be done.

As far as our footprint and piece of mind go, growing our own food is still really important so we’ve built the beds in the front and extended the original garden patch in the back. That will still need watering so we’re working on installing a rain water harvesting system to help with that. Last weekend we finally put the tank into position and by next week we should be able to hook it up. The plan is to use a gravity feed system to irrigate the vegetable gardens in the front and back yard. It’ll be low-tech for sure, but then it won’t require additional energy inputs either.

Sept 13 - the rain water harvesting system set-up

Building a new home and navigating LEED has been quite the learning experience. It’s taken us a while to wrap up the details but we’re hoping to get there soon!


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!

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

beating the budget

We finally did it. We compromised so we could bring a line item in under budget. Our project manager has done this where he can, but when it came to appliances the ball was firmly in our court and we did it!

Admittedly we didn’t take such a long view when we opted for the less expensive appliances, but then again, these choices weren’t as important to us as the windows and the mechanical system, which are a little harder to replace down the line. Besides, it doesn’t seem like anyone is building appliances to last like they did when our grandparents were making these decisions!

Before we’d even hired our architect we’d made some decisions on appliances. We were thinking of small, streamlined appliances in line with small dwellings we’ve been in but given the demographics where we live we didn’t want to stray too far from the norm around here. We opted to design our space for:
– a tall, narrow, counter depth fridge so we could see everything and avoid rotten surprises
– a narrow dishwasher since we hardly used our full-sized ones before and narrow ones are far less pricey than drawer ones.
– stacking front load laundry set to save space, and
– a standard 30″ wide glass-top electric stove with convection so that we can still cook a turkey and do more dehydrating.

We have very limited choices for buying appliances in town and while we did look at stores in the city, we quickly learned that it would be easier to get what we could locally. I really don’t mind having the decision making made easier, especially since our options weren’t more expensive!

At the laneway house tour in 2012 we noticed that laundry spaces were either really tight, such that the only option was 24″ wide units or folks had full-sized pairs. We decided to have our house accommodate a full-sized pair since we didn’t have such a space crunch and know other folks that have come to regret having tiny laundry facilities.

Then, which units to buy. Oh my, the choices seemed endless. For the first few months I restricted the laundry choices to the 24″ variety (since the two of us hardly make a mountain of clothing). To my disappointment I couldn’t find a single reputable pair that we could even get. Even the Bosch, Asko and Miele units had a mix of good and really, really bad reviews. Given how quickly the options change I decided to put off further research until it was actually time to buy.

When we went out shopping at the end of the holidays we were drawn into looking at the big units again because some are half the price of what we’d been looking at. There were some from a year or two ago that are a bit smaller than the newest models but as far as our needs go they already offered more than enough. We really only wanted something that cleans well, has a hand wash cycle and gets the energy star label. Really, that’s it!

We were very pleased to be pointed in the direction of the 4-4.6 cu ft LG washers and have ordered one, along with a bigger dryer to go with it. To my surprise the online reviews were fantastic! It doesn’t hurt that we’re paying less than half of what we had been prepared to spend on a smaller stacking pair. Plus, we still get the LEED point for the energy star washer.

This is a tough one and I’m still not totally set on our decision given the lack of reviews, but we opted to go with what best fit our desires and if we have to mix it up down the road, the unit we went with gives us the most flexibility.

There are a number of 23.5″ wide units available and the selection keeps growing. When we first bought the lot there was the budget friendly, energy hog LG unit. It had good reviews, was available everywhere we looked and was thousands of dollars less than the alternatives.

After a search of the NRCAN database I learned that we could find an energy star model somewhere in the middle price-wise so we continued our design with the Moffat MBC12GAZ in mind.

Wouldn’t you know, that now, 9 months later there are even more options! Electrolux looks to make one that’s the same as the Moffat but because Sears carries it locally and they’re a bit better with their warranties than the competition, we opted to go with that model from them. I’m still a bit nervous about it’s reliability but at least if it doessn’t work out, we’ll still have space for the slightly smaller LG or the deeper models that are now more available. And we’ll be in the position to capture another LEED point with the choice we’ve made.

As mentioned, our requirements for the stove were pretty modest.
I remember when we bought our Sherwood Park house, and I researched the appliances that the previous owners had selected. I was shocked that someone would spend as much money on a dishwasher as a stove, given how much more frequently we used the stove. It seemed like someone had taken a lot more time to select the dishwasher (which fit our dishes amazingly well) than the stove.

Imagine my surprise when the stove became the item we spent the least effort deciding! There are no LEED points to try and get so it really came down to our preference for knobs over buttons for the elements and what was on sale after boxing day. I was happy with the Kenmore stove in Sherwood Park so we started there, refining our choices so that the elements matched our pot diameters. (That was one really big advantage with shopping on-line since most stoves have big elements that are so oversized that I imagine few cooks ever get to take advantage of the higher wattage.)

I shared our amazing deal in the spring. We’re losing out on half of a LEED point but for $25 I think we’re still ahead overall.

Two weeks ago we were sure we would be exceeding the budget so would have to make do with the little freezer from our first house. (It’s by no means a bad freezer, it’s just so hard to keep a chest freezer organized and freezing is about the simplest way to keep summer fruits and veggies on hand for the winter.)

Thanks to the savings from changing to full-sized laundry and getting everything on sale, we now have room to spare so will be getting a nice energy star upright. We have picked a model but I’m still waffling on how important a temperature alarm is.

Taking shape

Nov 21 - roofing

Our house has been a hive of activity in recent weeks. I’ve fallen behind on documenting the process, but since my last update there’s been:

– the installation of our black standing seam roof,

Nov 21 - Black metal roof

– the construction of the front porch (deck and roof),

Nov 24

– the construction of the back deck,

Dec 8 - back of house with exterior window trim

– interior framing in both bathrooms and the attic walls,

– the installation of exterior window trims (shown in photo above),

– electrical and data wiring throughout the house, and
Dec 8 - an organized mess of wires and cables

– the start of plumbing.
Dec 8 - electrical and plumbing

With the framing work done we’ve said goodbye to the first contractors we really got to know. The forming and framing crew came from the next neighbourhood over and spent a lot of evenings and weekends getting things done on our snug house.

Among other things, they helped us figure out the porch skylights at the 11th hour. Looking back, it’s no wonder the past few weeks have been stressful – there have been decisions every week and we’ve spent lots of time in stores and on-line, trying to figure things out. Some things, like what type of light fixtures to place where or how to have the switches laid out took a surprising amount of time. Then there are some issues that cropped up with regards to where the rough in pipes were laid in the bathroom which meant figuring out a whole new sink arrangement for the main bath. The combination of our experiences from other houses and the pages of Sarah Susanka’s “Not so Big Solutions” and “More Not so Big Solutions” have been invaluable in helping us sort things out.

We also spent some time with our cabinet guy working towards a design we’re really happy with. We’ve also figured out most of the appliances. (Thank goodness I did most of my research on that and plumbing fixtures much earlier in the year so that I didn’t have to start from scratch.) At long last we’ve chosen our heating system but are now facing some big delays to get the actual work done.

At one point we thought we might be moving in by the end of January but it’s quite clear now that we have a ways to go.

One very nice surprise today was seeing just how far the sun’s rays penetrate. Clearly the porch skylights are just the right size and in just the right place. I’ve so been craving a place with more natural light and it looks like we’ll really be getting it!
Dec 8 -  the sun's light reaches so far in the weeks before solstice!

Discussing Dishwashers

Ah, the joys of machines that do the work for us.

I must admit that unloading a dishwasher is one of those tasks I loathe and after 3 years of living without one,  I’m so accustomed to hand washing that I don’t miss the dishwasher.  Actually, I’m pretty sure I still prefer washing things by hand to the task of unloading a fully loaded full-sized dishwasher. That is part of why we designed our kitchen with only an 18″ wide dishwasher. (There was also the issue of space.)

Back in the days when we had a full sized washer it took a week for us to fill it because we continued to choose daily hand washing for so many things (lunch containers,  pots, cutting boards etc.).  Plus, cupboard space is at a premium in a not-too-big kitchen.

We had given some thought to forgoing a dishwasher for the first year as friends of ours did when they built there place. Then, the dishwasher we’d picked out went on a super sale for Mother’s Day so I bought it on Friday.   And wouldn’t you know, two days later we chanced upon the Re-Build Centre in Whistler and there were multiple 18″ wide dishwashers for $25, fresh out of a hotel remodel.  I never, ever would have expected this to be something we could find second hand.

It’s white and it’s not so energy efficient but it’s pretty hard to go wrong for $25.  I can’t wait to test it out in a year or so!  Now I just need to go back and “return” the fancy shmancy dishwasher that’s still sitting in a warehouse somewhere.