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!

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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!

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.

we have walls!

This week we had a taste of October with big dumps of rain here and there. Fortunately there have been some warm periods to let things dry off and warm up too.

Despite the challenging weather, there was a crew at our site every day this week. They’ve been working full days on some big houses out of town and then putting in extra hours up here until it gets dark (which is so much earlier now). They’ve also been working on Saturdays!

Here’s where things were at on Monday:
Aug 26 - we have walls!

And by the weekend most of the exterior was sheathed and the interior shear wall was built. This house shouldn’t be falling down any time soon with all the nailing our structural engineer is requiring!

Sept 2 - staircase shearwall

I know how much it sucks to have people looking over your shoulder so I’ve been trying to limit my visits to the site when the guys are working, unless it’s to bring baking or go over details. We had stellar weather on Saturday so for the first time we worked in parallel. They did their framing thing while we went through the wood that had arrived for the floor joists.

A good number of the joists will be visible from the main floor so our job was to select the best ones for that and sand off the markings. Sure there was some nice wood, but in the lengths we needed the majority of it was yucky with huge checks or cracks, really rough milling or fuzzy blue-grey mold. Not the kind of stuff we want to put in our house at all!

Kevin’s out there now sanding the wood we can tolerate. We each have a really busy work week ahead but somehow we’re going to have to go about selecting better wood so that work on the second floor can really get started.

On a completely different note, the stellar weather and work schedules also meant that we could camp out in the house on Saturday. I think it brings our count up to 5 nights of sleeping on the site but the first time that we’ve slept in our bedroom. I was so delighted that our set up was so simple because the crew left such a clean site. I didn’t even need to sweep!

Sept 1 - camping out in our bedroom

I can’t wait until that’s where I get to sleep every night. The sun in the morning is so nice!

floors and heating

Look at our beautiful floor! That’s the colour of wet, uncured, Omaha Tan my friends and what will soon be our main floor.

Aug 19 - getting a floor!

It turns out that we didn’t have to wait long to get this poured after all. I nearly forgot to mention what happened before that though – the plumbing for hydronic (aka in-floor) heating.

Aug 19 - getting a floor

We’ve been having quite the dilemma when it comes to deciding what sort of heating to use. From the very beginning we really liked the idea of hydronic heating as it’s much quieter than a forced air furnace (and we sleep right beside a noisy one in our current home) and more importantly, is the cleaner heating option when it comes to indoor air quality. All was well and good until we started to hear about air-tight hydronically heated homes that were too hot and we got the price tag for our dream air to water heat pump system.

The whole topic of heating is complex and I found it really hard to find good information on why other builders went with the options they did as we went through this process. We still haven’t made a firm decision on how things are going to work but we realized it was still better to put the pipes in before having the concrete poured so we could have the option.

Aug 13 - something wrong with this picture

When it comes to warming the hydronic system we’ve narrowed it down to using either an electric boiler or an air to water heat pump. That type of heat pump, while not quite as costly as a ground source heating system, is still really pricey, especially for a small house. The standard choice for many with a hydronic seems to be to use a gas-fired on-demand system but it isn’t something I can muster up a willingness for. For starters I have concerns with in-home emissions. Add to that my experience of THREE gas leaks in my 5 1/2 years of owning homes with natural gas and my distaste with how gas extraction and distribution is managed in our country… natural gas in our new home just doesn’t make sense.

While we’re on the topic of heating I should mention that we’ve also looked at electric baseboards and that’s probably what we’ll have for back up heat upstairs since we’re anticipating that heat will travel up there quite easily on its own. Should we not choose to use the hydronic plumbing the other main alternative we’re investigating is a ductless air to air mini-split heat pump system. When we finally make a decision we’ll have reason to celebrate the end of a many month long struggle about what to do!

watching and waiting

After weeks and weeks of brilliant weather the clouds that were playing tricks have decided to stay.

We were all set for a concrete pour a few days ago but then with rain in the forecast it was delayed, and may be delayed for a while yet. We wouldn’t want rain to mess with the finish of what is to be our floor after all!

One nice part about this delay though is that we have more time to get the beams ready, and we definitely need that right now.

Earlier this week I struggled with really slow progress on the beams as old injuries and a busy schedule limited my time on site. Then, the palm sander and belt sander which were sufficient on the smaller beams, seemed completely ineffective on the really big beams that will be featured in our living space. The bigger beams “feature” milling marks that go fairly deep and I spent multiple evenings and didn’t even finish half of one face of the really big living room beams.

Despite the lack of progress it’s been really nice to have this part of the house for us to work on. Yes, it’s a money saving strategy, but it also helps ensure that our finished house actually feels like “our” house. We owned two homes before starting on this one and the experiences and memories from each place are so different.

The first was smaller and so nicely sized but needed cosmetic work right away – loads of paint and some new faucets. After all the work it really felt like home. In contrast, our second place looked great from the start but looked and felt more like a show home than our first place. The colours and high ceilings were trendy and unless we had a big crowd it felt quite cold, empty and cavernous.

Fond house memories almost always relate to the first place and already we have conversations about the design process for our new house, working a memorable section of a beam, or the teeny tiny blue tarp flecks that escaped our notice as we varathaned posts at dusk one night.

In an effort to keep things going and make this part of the project as enjoyable as possible I finally convinced Kevin and myself that we needed a planer. The beams are too big for the fancy ones that you slide lumber through, so Kevin got us a nice little one and by the time I got home last night he had planed and sanded 3 whole beams! Yeah, progress!

Now if the rain would actually stop we could go out and finish up:)