Friday, April 22, 2011

Six cool things we are not doing

Happy Earth Day!  I figured today would be a good chance to share some amazing home features which won't be included in our project. While we are proud of the renovation that we are undertaking, project limitations (cost, time, the house) have taken some very cool eco house features out of our scope.  Here is the list of six of those cool things that I wish were included in our project, maybe they will inspire you:

Geothermal Energy
Geothermal (or Ground Source) heat pumps take advantage of the fact that after a certain depth the ground around our homes is a very consistent temperature.  It is deep enough that it is insulated from  the seasonal variations and ends up being a nice consistent  temperature.  So rather than go to the effort of creating heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, you just exchange heat with the soil.  Ends up being a very efficient way to heat and cool a home.

Why we aren't doing it:  Cost.  To retrofit an existing home is in the tens of thousands of dollars. Geothermal will reduce your heating costs and end up paying for itself but ironically those savings are greatly reduced if you have a "green" home.  The smaller and more energy efficient your home (i.e. the lower your heating bill) the longer it takes to save your money back.  While a geothermal heat pump is out, we are planning on including an air-to-air thermal pump in our renovation.

Induction Stove
I have been trying to find an excuse to buy an induction stove for years.  Traditional electric stoves heat a electric element which then heats the pot (or the glass cooktop and then the pot).  Induction heating uses electromagnetic induction to heat the pot directly.  The result is faster and more efficient heating.  It also means you have electric heating that is a responsive as gas and a stove top that isn't hot and can't be left on (it doesn't work unless there is a pot there).

Why we aren't doing it:   We have a good efficient stove that we can't justify replacing right now.  Induction appliances are also pretty pricey.

Rainwater Capture
We will be buying rain barrels this spring.  Collecting water in rain barrels for your garden and lawn have a host of benefits, but in the end it collects a very small fraction of the water.  As an example, 25mm of rainfall results in 3750 L of water coming off our roof ( for the imperial readers 1" = 1000 gallons).  Our rain barrels might collect 10% of that.

In the meantime the rest of the rain goes into the stormwater collection system, while at the same time we pump, filter, disinfect and fluoridate water from the river to our house and we just flush it down a toilet.  Seems inefficient.  Large scale rainwater capture or harvesting usually involves a large storage tank which provides water for the home and in some cases it can be completely self sustaining (i.e. no city water).  I have also seen set ups where it is just a rain barrel in the attic that feeds the bathroom toilets.

Why we aren't doing it:  The retrofit cost is high for a large scale unit and our home being a bungalow with a crazy roof line makes a small scale project awkward.

Greywater Recycling
Instead of collecting rainwater, why not collect and re-use your own waste water.  Now to clarify, grey water includes everything that goes down the drain except toilet water.

Like rainwater, you can go big or small.  Big projects include tanks and filtration systems but this could be as simple as the toilet/sink combo to the right. When you flush this Caroma designed toilet the tank refills via the above sink allowing you to wash your hands.  That waste water is then stored for the next flush.  I had seen a lot of these in the cramped bathrooms of Japan.  Not only are they efficient they are also very compact.

Why we aren't doing it:  Going big on this was too large a project and we couldn't figure out small projects that work for our home layout (and I already fell in love with a different toilet that I will blog about later.)

Green Wall
A very cool development in green building is the increase in green or living walls.  These are walls completely covered in vegetation that can be outside or inside your home.  The attached picture was borrowed from a Canadian company called Green over Grey.

The benefits of a green wall?  Aesthetics, built in air filtration, can control heat loss/gain, creates a relaxing natural environment.

Why we aren't doing it: Space.  This is a feature to really design a home or building around, trickier with a retrofit unless you have a space that would naturally work well.  Unfortunately we don't.

Green Roof
Similar to a green wall but obviously on top of your house.  Green roofs have the same benefits of green walls but can also be used for things such as roof top gardening.

Why we aren't doing it:  Pretty tricky to retrofit, especially on an sloped roof.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Prerequisite that Scares Me

In the LEED for Homes rating system there are 18 prerequisites;  results or processes that must be met to achieve any rating.  Most of these are results based: you can't have invasive plants in your garden (SS 2.1), you need to have an energy star bathroom fan (EQ 5.1), etc.  Even in the worst case scenario where you totally missed the pre-requisite you can correct it after the fact.  Don't have a low flow toilet (WE 3.1)? Easy enough to replace it.

However,  there are a handful that are procedural.  This includes "Sustainable Sites 1.1: Erosion Controls During Construction". It requires that a detailed erosion control strategy is put in place prior to disturbing any soil.

Most of us (living in North America anyways) have probably seen a new housing development going in. First step always seems to be to bulldoze everything living to the ground. Apart from the loss of vegetation this also means that all the plant life that was holding the soil in place is gone.  Rainfall can then wash away the topsoil (the rich organic layer that is best for plant growth).  This is bad for the local vegetation as the topsoil that took years if not decades to develop is lost leaving harsher conditions behind, But those tons of soil are going somewhere too;  probably into a local stream, pond or even the municipal storm water management system.  None of those places appreciate a huge sudden influx of dirt.

So LEED requires that all projects, Gut/Rehab or new development, have an erosion control strategy in place.  This means protecting the existing top soil, and controlling the runoff and water entry points. It is a logical and valid prerequisite.  What scares me is that there is no chance for a correction.  You build a beautiful net-zero house that qualifies for LEED platinum but you (or your landscape professional) forget to put up a silt fence ... no certification.

Up to now our erosion control strategy has consisted of "Retain all existing vegetation and all unpaved areas designated as non-disturbance zones."  That worked fine until I needed to put in a larger basement bedroom window.  The corresponding excavation (we had no existing window wells) disturbed the topsoil and the ridiculously rocky ground under it.  My new erosion control strategy is to tarp the heck out of everything:

- Topsoil: stockpiled and protected from disturbance (with two tarps)
- Clay and rocks: tarped
- Window well: sides tarped
- Waste concrete: tarped

So I may have gotten a little carried away, but my topsoil is protected and there is no water run-off carrying earth off my property.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reduce, Reuse, Freecycle

Throughout our kitchen deconstruction and renovation, we were pretty proud of ourselves for staying focused on ensuring that as much of the "waste" material as possible was diverted from the landfill.  In my original post on the deconstruction, we discussed a 97% diversion rate.  Unfortunately, that was based on the assumption that everything we wanted to divert we could.  In some cases this is easier said than done.

We had done our homework and had a sense of what could be diverted, but held on to it.   Our thinking being that it was better to achieve a critical mass for some of these products before we began diversion.  i.e. how  you dispose of 1 lb of drywall and 1 tonne will be different.  It was also to keep me from having to run to the scrap yard every week. So we sorted it and stored everything in the basement.  Now that we are adding a basement bathroom we kinda need that space so we began the process of clearing some of it out.  [Sidenote: I would strongly advise finding a better storage spot than the basement, having to carry 1150 lbs of drywall downstairs and then back up was stupid].


As much as possible we are re-using material.  This is the greenest and most economical way of working.  No new materials to produce or purchase helps the planet and the pocketbook.  We are re-using the lumber from the interior wall we removed upstairs to build interior walls in the basement (which works really well because the slightly lower ceiling height means you can cleanly trim damaged stud ends).

We are also re-using most of the old insulation that is coming out of the walls, just not in walls.  Newer Roxul insulation provides better insulation per inch than our current 30 year old insulation but the old stuff still has life.  So it is going into the attic where space is not a concern.  We figure by adding the  insulation to the  attic we can boost the already strong insulation there by 50 - 60%.

Some of the material, while still re-usable, no longer had a place in our house. So the challenge was getting it in the hands of people who could use it.


If the material was in good enough condition we sold it using the online classifieds service Kijiji.  Free listings and decent size audience meant we were able to sell the hood fan, kitchen cabinets, countertops and sink fairly quickly.  The hood fan went into a main kitchen, the cabinets/countertops were broken into two sets and went to different cabins.

For materials that didn't have a significant monetary value we used freecycle.  This is an online forum where you are able to give away used (or new) goods.  The whole idea is that what is garbage to you probably has value to someone else.  So they connect the two people together rather than see the material in the landfill.

Our dining room cabinets (they were not prefabricated cabinets so not in excellent condition when they came out) and our basement fluorescent lights both found homes thanks in part to Freecycle.

I will point out you can also list things on Kijiji for free as well but we like the spirit of Freecycle and haven't had a need to post elsewhere.


Material that can't be re-used needs to be recycled. For the metals this is fairly straight forward .. I hope.  Our old piping, wiring, nails and other scrap metal don't take up a lot of room so we are still stockpiling. But local scrap dealers are plentiful and we should be able to make some money disposing of this.

Montreal has 6 eco-centres through out the city.  These centres collect various "waste" with the goal of properly diverting or disposing of it.  To date it is where I disposed of:

Full Load for Eco-centre
- Wood waste: broken / damaged boards and odd trimmings
- Brick Mortar (from the fireplace fiasco)
- Old Dishwasher
- Wooden Pallets
- Drywall

For all the above, I am comfortable knowing this material will be recycled or disposed of in the greenest way possible... except the drywall.  The city of Montreal doesn't recycle drywall to my knowledge but I was reassured by the eco-centre hotline and the on-site attendant that it would be.  When the drywall was dumped into a bin with aggregates I had renewed concern.

Which is too bad because gypsum (the main component of drywall) has great after life uses:
- it is a natural fertilizer
- can be reused in new drywall

Luckily there is a gypsum recycler in Quebec:  Recycle Gypse.  The service costs money but gives you peace of mind that your waste is being properly disposed of and they come to your house to pick it up which means I will never again have to stuff 1000lbs of drywall in the back of the minivan.