the inside

We know, we know. Some folks have been asking for interior photos for a long time. We had to spiffy up our house for some other things over the past two days so we decided it was time to take some photos and share them. Here they are at long last!

entry

upstairs

living

dining

upstairs

kitchen

bedroom

We LOVE living in our home!

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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.

Fast and Furious

Wow, I thought there were a lot of changes with our house when I reflected last week, but I see that the pace has continued and perhaps even accelerated this week.

There were a few more little details with the plumbing, electrical and upstairs closets and then it was time for the drywall upstairs. It’s already has been taped and mudded too. I’m still amazed at how much that changes the feel of the space and it was great to poke around and see the way the light falls without disturbing anyone this weekend.

Feb 9 - so loving this room!

During the week more of the siding went up, as did the chimney cap.

Feb 9 - more progress on the siding. LOVE it!

Then Kevin and his sister celebrated Family Day weekend by spending a few days together prepping the downstairs and spray painting all of the visible wood. Our main floor ceiling now looks extra warm, plus some of the windows and doors got an additional layer of clear coat too. They were done before lunch today and ready for more so then they used what stain was left to paint all of the soffit too! (I just stayed out of their hair and made sure they were well fed.)

Feb 9 - Kev and his sister did some amazing work on the house this weekend!

There’s another family project that’s in the works now too.

Feb 2 - planning!

Our new place feels so big but there were some tight spots in the design for the main floor. One little miscommunication at the very beginning meant that the vanity we designed to have the fit in the main bathroom wouldn’t work. We were searching for a solution when my dad took to making his own cabinetry. We’ve now commandeered him into building a custom cabinet to fit the smaller space and the sink that we’ve ordered. (Thank goodness for the photo inspiration in More Not so Big Solutions.)

Feb 9 - soffit wood

The week ahead is a short one but I’m hoping it will be a productive one too!

Giddy giddy

We’re just giddy with excitement over here as we watch the transformation of our new house take place. After more than a month of slow, slow, slow, it’s so nice to see things changing so quickly again. Every day there’s something new. First we had more electrical and plumbing to accommodate the mechanical. That last part is coming along now too.

Yesterday when I went to take a look upstairs I found that the insulating crew had filled in a great many studs. What I hadn’t expected was how much of an impact that made: the neighbourhood noises were noticeably dulled, and our voices hardly carried at all. It also felt a lot more like a home somehow.

Jan 29 - insulation!

Outside, the new guys have been working away on the flashing, hose bibs and siding. We saw a bit of siding go up yesterday and liked it but nothing quite prepared either of us for how much we would like the look of a wall of red against the wooden trim around the windows. Photos don’t do it justice – it looks amazing!

Jan 28 - fancy little trims

Choosing our colours was a long and drawn out process. I can hardly believe the time and energy that went into it. I think it needs a post all of it’s own!

Jan 29 - exterior siding

Upon reflection, I think we handled the slow period quite well. Thankfully, we have friends who have been through the building process before and they all shared how stressful the delays and budget pieces can be. They helped us form realistic expectations and warned us that it would be a lot easier if we could add a bit more time to our expectations. There was a really important note about not sharing that last detail with the builder. I kept mum on it for eight months but was pleasantly surprised when things really got moving after a little conversation about it.

Architectural decisions

With the details of the roof coming into form now, the architectural details are now becoming obvious to folks passing by. I realize I haven’t really written about why we chose an architect and it’s not something I want to miss, so here goes!

Sept 29 - east dormer!

I grew up in “the house that Fred built”, a single storey rancher on a quarter acre near, but not quite in sight of, the ocean. It’s the only home I knew for most of my life and I quite like it. It’s far from perfect but it’s certainly much more homey than any modern spec home.

upstairs dormer view windows

By the time I was a teenager the three bedroom house started to feel a bit crowded for 3 girls, their parents and a handful of the neighbourhood kids. My parents tossed about the idea of moving to a bigger house or adding on to the existing house, but instead we just managed the squeeze for the last few years that we were all at home. That’s not to say we didn’t long for some sort of “away” space, but the thing is, we were able to make do and the squeeze didn’t last that long anyway. It’s also nice that my folks have been able to remain in and enjoy our childhood home as empty nesters.

The house hasn’t gotten any bigger but there have been some great changes over the years. While I was still at home sky lights were added in the living room and kitchen and they enhanced the quality of the space immensely. Later on my folks removed the mish mash of flooring types in much of the main living spaces and brought in radiant heat under one type of tile.

My mom’s desire to improve the house introduced me to the concept of away spaces, the sequence of spaces and the importance of natural light and “right-sized” rooms. My favourite book quickly became Sarah Susanka’s “The Not So Big House“.

Over the years I added to my home design library and spent a lot of my spare time sifting through old Sunset cottage catalogues and websites for cottage kits. Eventually I started taking plans I liked from Ross Chapin Architects and Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and started tweaking them in the hopes that one day I’d be able to build. I was really inspired by the beauty and functionality of smaller homes like those mentioned above and this one from “Good House, Cheap House“.

Some of my interest in housing definitely comes from my dad’s side. When I was little he made me a wooden loft bed that was the envy of all my friends and both his sister and his mother designed the homes I visited in my childhood (although I didn’t know it at the time). In the last decade I’ve filled pages and pages with drafts for homes on vacant lots or for tiny houses that could be moved anywhere and they all feature plenty of beautiful wood.

house book sketch 3

house book sketch 4

When we finally got our lot a year ago I started madly drafting up ways designs for our future home. It would take a whole day to get the details but I just couldn’t seem to get the light or the flow I knew I wanted in the space. We both recognized something was missing so we started asking around for help.

Main floor - green plan V3

So often we’d hear recommendations for local house designers but they weren’t speaking our language. To us they just designed big spaces with truss roofs, huge fish bowl windows and some nice wood finishing. We’d already lived in a house that felt big and cavernous and knew we liked the quality of the space that could be created in the corners under a hand-framed roof. In fact, a few of our friends had already built homes with those features.

By studying housing forms on every road trip and taking in lectures on pocket neighbourhood design, we’d also come to appreciate the importance of landscaping and creating layers between the street and the living space.

Ross Chapin pocket neighbourhood WA

house book sketch 5

We also knew enough to know that we wanted a smaller home with a worthy entry, some sort of away space, stairs that went around a corner and weren’t too steep, and main floor living. Our list of requirements was far from short and to complicate things further, our building site was rather unique.

Our lot is an unusually small one for our town and on either side are much bigger lots with old ranchers. As you know by now, there are also some pretty nice views and we wanted to capitalize on those as well.

I think the years of looking at architecturally designed homes in books taught me the sorts of benefits that can be found in working with an architect so I started looking and it didn’t take much to convince Kevin that that was the way to go either.

We contacted many, met with a few and then we found our guy. Funnily enough, I had just read about his little suite a few months earlier and had wondered if someone from Bowen Island would ever work on a project over here. It didn’t take long to go from finding the answer was yes, to learning that our project was just the kind of project he could get excited about. James at JWT Architecture has been so down to earth and easy to work with and we love seeing how his conceptualization of our desires is turning out.

House - front view

gaining a second floor

It’s been so exciting to see so much progress this week. From the outside you can now see what the shape of the house is going to look like.

Sept 20

Here’s the view from the back (gotta love the flag on the end of our ridge beam!)

Sept 20

With most of the second floor flooring installed we can better understand how the main floor spaces will feel. Understanding our desire for wood (and our budget), our architect suggested using hardwood for the floors upstairs that was of sufficient quality for us to leave it visible as the ceiling below. We really liked seeing it in other places and now we finally get to see what it’s going to be like in our home. This is how it will be in the living room:

Sept 18

We wanted the kitchen/dining area to be a bit more cozy and luckily enough the plumbing requires that the ceiling be lower in this area. We won’t really know how it will look for a while yet since we’re covering up the pipes with drywall but I can tell you that I do like the lower beam that runs across the kitchen sink area. Unfortunately it’s tough to describe in photos.

Upstairs, the ceiling and rooms are starting to be defined as well. Here’s a view through to the front of the house from the back bedroom:

Sept 20

It’s a little hard to see what the view will be like through the east dormer because the floor of our future hallway hasn’t yet been installed and the catwalk was in the way. All the same, they have been framed and look to be quite high up… surprisingly high up.

Sept 20 - stair dormers

It’s funny that for all the measuring we did before committing to our plans, we never placed the windows on the walls of our current space. Some of those windows are surprisingly high! When we saw the back kitchen window framed we were shocked at how big it was because it was so much bigger than either of us had expected. Before that I think Kevin had thought he’d lost the battle for a big window but clearly that’s not the case. Similarly the windows in the upstairs bedrooms are really tall too. I think it will help to keep those spaces from feeling small though.

On the totally opposite side of the scale we can also now see what a bear it is going to be for the poor plumber that has to tend to our hydronic floor system. That is one tight corner under the stairs!

Sept 19

dusted!

This was a busy week for us where very little happened on site other than the wood being delivered. What beautiful wood it is!

Aug 11 sanding posts and beams

Today we finally had the chance to go out and start making it look pretty. In the small pile that we started on today we’ve got a beam that goes over the inside of the entry way, exterior corner posts and two skinny little posts that define the transition between our entry and living room. Later in the day we started on the deck posts.

When our sanding equipment wasn’t blaring we chatted about the difference between structural and architectural lumber. It turns out that with the exception of my first posts (the ones between the entry and living room), all the wood represented varying degrees of the two elements. Those “little” posts (relatively speaking) are purely architectural and something we requested. Others like the post for the SE corner of the house are clearly structural as windows abut them on two sides, but there’s also an architectural element that connects them with the overall language of our house. Then there are beams that support our covered deck. They are huge! While they perform a structural task their sizing is without question architectural.

Aug 11 sanding posts and beams

We were just about to pack up and take a break for lunch when the grey clouds that had been building all morning gave way to precipitation. Fortunately we’d prepared a space indoors and only a few drops landed on our wood before we had it safely stowed away.

Aug 11 dusted!

The rain didn’t last so after taking care of the usual weekend errands we went out again to finish what we’d started and take a crack at sealing the wood that will be visible on the inside.

We’re using a water-based “Professional” (lower VOC’s than the regular grade) varathane for that but the debate on what to use on the exterior wood continues. That reminds me that I should take a picture of the growing selection of stain samples that are littering our side yard!