A year ago we made the decision that it was time for us to move to our “family home.” The one we would that would be chosen for lifestyle, not resale. We’d outgrown our lovely 1000sq ft half duplex in the urban core, and with our big kid about to start kindergarten and a third little one on the way, we decided to look for a quiet street, walking distance from a great school, with a garage
and a yard and space to grow. We also maintained a desire to stay relatively close to the city core, walking distance from some amenities with reasonable transit options. This left us choosing from a selection of 1970’s ranchers – houses that were either in desperate need of an overhaul or houses that had been renovated, but often not to our eco standards.
So we bought the location of our dreams, and set about making the house meet our needs. Truth be told, it’s still a work in progress. However, as the raccoons have ceased their nightly visits, carried over from months of easy access via various holes in the wall, I feel confident referring to at least the first stage of renovation in the past tense.
Here I share the ups and downs, successes and failures, of renovating our house and keeping it both green and thrifty.
Our guiding principle throughout the renovation was Waste Not. To cement this in our minds, we didn’t rent one of those giant dumpsters you see at every reno. Occasional dump runs with the pickup were required, but for the most part, the old house was re-purposed, donated, composted, recycled – anything but dumped.
In the same vain, wherever possible, our renos were completed, and then the house was decorated, with “new to us” finds. The best of these are the lovely hardwood floors, repurposed from an old school gymnasium floor and purchased at an auction.
REUSE REUSE REUSE: The beautiful floors that nearly killed us
In most instances, I don’t think that our green renovation was notably more taxing than your average reno – the floors are the exception. The floors are from a reclaimed school gymnasium and were purchased at an auction. They are 26 years old. This means that they are a quality that is rarely available in new hardwood these days, that they cost a fraction of new hardwood flooring and that they are beautifully green. It also means that they had 26 layers of varnish that needed to be removed before we could sand and refinish them. What should have taken a couple of days, took a couple of weeks. Worth it – I think so, but we do still commonly refer to them as the @&%^(# floors!
WOOD: Sustainable Choices
The house was a traditional 1970’s house, with small rooms, lots of drywall, linoleum floors and the original windows. We opened it up by removing three walls and turned the main living space into a post and beam design. Wood was a critical part of the design for both aesthetic and practical reasons, and is categorically, a green choice. However, there is a spectrum of sustainability with regards to woods and the search for the greenest wood is somewhat ambiguous.
Different species rate differently with regards to the tree’s growth rates and to the durability of the wood, and conversely, the longevity of your investment. Furthermore, trees can be harvested at different stages of maturity. To complicate matters further, companies have varying standards with regards to forest management and to manufacturing processes. Finally, wood can be harvested from close to home or from the other side of the world. As if that isn’t enough, if purchasing from a retailer, then their practices have to be taken into consideration as well as the mill’s. There are a number of certifications like the FSC, that provide short hand assurances to consumers of the lumber’s sustainability. None the less, the best policy is to do your research, ask questions and then pick the wood that best suits your needs while living up to your green standards. We purchased Douglas Fir from a small local mill whose practices we liked.
Douglas Fir is a softwood, that rates highly in terms of durability, growth rate and affordability. The wood is untreated, so has no toxic chemicals and virtually no environmental processing cost. It was milled an hour from our home and we picked it up ourselves, so there was no cost (monetary or environmental) associated with shipping and storage, as would be the case if we’d purchased from a retailer.
KITCHEN: Designing for Healthy Life
The kitchen is designed for real cooking, healthy living, and wholesome eating. Centering on the principle that time spent preparing food is both green and thrifty, we wanted a space that comfortably accommodated multiple cooks in kitchen, and a few kids underfoot!
We spent countless hours pouring over kitchen designs, then took our ideas to Jan Rutgers of V6B design. Jan worked with us to create a space that incorporated our needs and her expertise. Like many design companies, V6B had an option that allowed us to purchase the design, but to execute it ourselves. The benefits are two fold: (a) our kitchen design is amazing; (b) we didn’t mess up, much. By spending a very reasonable upfront cost, we were able to maximize our designer’s knowledge, minimize novice mistakes and keep the actual renovation costs down.
The greenest part of our kitchen is its practical comfort. It’s a delight to cook in. Which means we cook in it more. Although it’s one open space, there are distinct work areas, which allow for beans to simmer in the slow cooker, fresh baking to cool, bread to rise, herbs to dry, kids to do homework or crafts, a baby to play in the exersaucer and a bill to be paid at the desk, all while dinner is being prepped. Which is not to minimize the more notably sustainable choices throughout, which include: a large recycling area, a dedicated compost space, energy star appliances, quartz countertops and Crystal’s GreenCore cabinets.
To get the kitchen that we wanted and maintain the level of sustainability we demanded, on the budget we had, we had to pay in time and creativity instead of cash. The keys to thrifty green design, we learned, are flexibility and sourcing. To illustrate, let’s look at countertops. After a bit of research, we settled on composite quartz – attracted by it’s price point, durability and modern aesthetic. With the understanding that installers have supplier agreements with certain manufacturers, we selected a favorite sample from each of the top three manufacturers, then requested quotes from local companies, providing these choices. The discrepancy between the most and least expensive quote was $8000. Discounted items also provided substantial savings. In selecting appliances, we wanted high efficiency and superb quality. We chose Vikings professional line, then scoured the appliance stores’ weekly floor models, scratch and dents, and warehouse sales to piece together a matching set of last year’s model at incredible savings. The sales representative at Trail Appliances was very accommodating. Similar sourcing went into the tiles, the sink and even the faucet – which is a craigslist find, repurposed from another kitchen.
ENVELOPE SEALING, INSULATION & A KICKIN’ FURNACE: Making and keeping heat
One of the best ways to improve the overall efficiency of a house and reduce long term costs, not to mention capitalize on those swell government eco incentives, is to take measures to efficiently heat and then tightly seal the house. This we did:
· The old insulation was replaced with new insulation that is both better for the air and has a much higher R rating. (The old insulation was added to the garage – really and enclosed carport – which was previously un-insulated).
· The furnace needed replacing and was upgraded to an Energy Star qualified furnace with a 94% AFUE, which offers considerable rebate from the eco retrofit programs. Again, comparison shopping was key to an affordable upgrade, with an incredible joint offer from Costco and Coleman Heating winning our purchase.
· To make the most of our new furnace, programmable thermostats have been installed and set to minimize heating when we need it least.
· At the advice of our eco-auditor, we also took measures to seal leaks by insulating problem spots like electrical plug ins, the access point to the attic and the unused wood fireplace in the basement.
· Finally, beautiful new windows graced our home and weather stripping was added everywhere!
TAX CREDITS: Eco Incentives
In our home province of British Columbia, both provincial and national tax credits are available for renovations that improve the efficiency of homes. We had an eco-assessment prior to starting the renovations and recently had our follow up. All that’s left is for our trusty eco-advisor to rate our eco-improvements with an eye towards us earning some tax credits from the federal government (http://www.ecoaction.gc.ca). Unfortunately, our renovations began during the short gap in the provincial tax incentive program (www.livesmart.bc.ca), so we do not qualify (home owners who had their initial eco-assessment after April 1, 2010 do qualify). With the federal budget announcing recently that the ecoaction grant will be renewed, and the provincial program well underway, now is an even better time for BC home owners considering upgrades to take advantage of government assistance with the greening of your home.
A year later we live on a quiet street near a great school, walking distance from my new favorite coffee shop, grocer and library – and in a house we love. Our green conscience is clean and the bank isn’t broken! By taking on nearly all of the work ourselves, comparison shopping, making the most of reused items from sources like craigslist and auctions and utilizing professional input where it would maximize our long term enjoyment and overall savings, we have been able to complete our green renovation mostly on time and mostly on budget. Up next – the bathrooms…