LEED Platinum and another open house

Hello there dear readers. It’s been a little quiet over here as we spent quite a few months tidying up loose ends for our LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) submission. We finally submitted it in September and earlier this month we heard back – our home is Certified LEED Platinum. To celebrate we decided to join the tour of eco homes in our town. If you care to stop by we’ll have our doors open from 1-4 pm next Sunday November 1st.

Home Hop, here we come

There’s been a frenzy of activity over here as we tidy things up and get ready to open our doors as part of the first ever Green Home Tour in our town.

Back when we were only dreaming about building our own place some day, we took part in some pretty cool tours in Alberta and BC. Some featured a single home, others featured lane way homes, and the most memorable included homes where each one was built with a different construction method, be it chip, slip and plaster; timber frame with straw bale; or faswall blocks. We learned so much from some great people and we’re excited to now be a position to pass the torch.

In getting ready for this tour, we’ve gotten to know some other fine folks in town who have built their own eco homes too. If you’re curious to see what has transpired we invite you to join us on Sunday October 26, 2014 between noon and 4 pm.

LEED points vs behaviour modification

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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!

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.

Painting and cleaning

We’ve wanted to build for so long but I have to say, we’re both growing weary of balancing work, building and very little play. It will be a happy day when we can relax in our house, go out for a ski and do our laundry at home. Please tell me we’re almost done!

Yesterday Kevin and his sister spent the day in the house applying vapour barrier primer to the upstairs walls while I did the regular weekend chores (laundromat, ugh) and tried to figure out our paint choices. It’s not often that I wish we lived in a bigger city, but when it comes to paint selection I really wish we had better choices in our own town.

It’s funny, because I never imagined we’d use “regular” paints in this house. A year ago we were talking about using clay and prior to that I’d done some lazuring with home made casein paints. Strange things happen when you get tired and see your pennies running away from you though, and now we are ready to use paint, a good and clean paint.

In our other homes I used Eco-Spec paints (from the Benjamin Moore commercial line) and it was fantastic. It had very little smell, rolled on evenly and within a few days my canary nose couldn’t detect the new paint. True, really bold colours needed a few layers, but we won’t be doing that with this house as we have beautiful wood to show off instead.

I don’t know how other folks do it, but when I get to the breaking point in trying to choose paint colours I dump a huge bunch of paint chips on the floor and wait to see which ones call out to me. It always worked before… until yesterday.

I realized there were just too many options so I went to see what we might be able to get from Greenworks. The wonderful folks there have been helping us with some of the smaller details with our home like counter top selection, floor wax and what oil (hemp) to use on our wooden cutting boards. They carry clays, plasters, milk paint and two well-reviewed non-toxic paints.

Mythic carries a wide range of whites, but I really liked the approach to colour by YOLO Colorhouse of Portland. A short time later Kevin stopped in and picked up some samples and so we now know just what will grace our ceilings and walls. That work is still a few weeks away though so today we shifted gears and did really fun stuff: bath vanity assembly and sorting through the construction debris.

cabinetry assembly

K sorting waste

It was fun times I tell you! One thing is for sure though, this new house stays nice and toasty when it’s cold out:)

Spring has sprung…

… or so it seems. We’ve had balmy weather the past few weeks. The snow is gone and in it’s place, my garlic plants are sprouting.

All sorts of things are sprouting up with the house too: new crew members, more flashing, the first section of rain screening, and new exterior corner trims.

Jan 26 - flashing and corner trims at front

Jan 26 - rain screening

On the main floor, the exposed wood has been sanded and looks so good. Upstairs, the floors are getting covered with ram board to protect them from the upcoming construction activity. Once the mechanical system is in it’ll be time for insulation, the ceiling vapour barrier, and our first test of the air tightness.

Jan 25 - upstairs bedroom 360 view

We’re looking forward to lots of activity in the upcoming days and weeks!

Jan 26 - flashing and corner trips - back

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!

Laundry
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.

Refrigerator
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.

Stove
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.)

Dishwasher
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.

Freezer
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.