Oct 012016

Ever since the spray foam was…installed? Is that the word? Sprayed? Anyway, ever since then, we have been working flat out roughing in electrical, building interior walls, building the basement stairs, putting a skin on the outside of the house and on and on.

imageIn the mornings I am back at ISSofBC teaching English to new immigrants and in the afternoons I pick up the kids and work on the house. I’m so busy I haven’t had time to share some significant events with you: the spray foam installation, the stairs, presenting at our MP’s townhall on Climate Change, to name just a few.

We’re finally nailing down the details of how we will heat our house–with water, as it turns out–and I remembered from my experience putting hydronic please pipes in the basement slab, that the City will probably want a heat-loss calculation done. That will show how much heat will be lost from each room of the house to ensure that the system we put in will meet that need.image

A Heath-loss calculation is not something I can do, so I asked Richard from Meadowridge Plumbing to get one done.

I think that these calculations are usually done assuming standard insulation values and I didn’t want that. We’re going far beyond the minimum in some places and if we use standard values it might mean installing a heating system far bigger than we need. For example, minimum wall insulation in Maple Ridge is only R20 and there will be R50 in some of our walls.

I thought it would help if I marked how much insulation will be in the walls and ceiling on a plan. Here’s what I came up with.

On the top floor, the spray foam gave a minimum of R28 to all the ceiling space. Wherever I can I will add more batt insulation below that. The number will vary based on the size of cavity–those attic spaces are triangular.


On the main floor the R-values vary in the roof spaces again and you can see that the front two rooms of the house will remain at R14 because we cannot add insulation in those walls due to heritage considerations.


Check out my previous videos to get an idea of what’s going on in the basement. It’s a little confusing from the drawing…


PS I always imagined this blog could be a play-by-play of our project as it proceeded but it looks like I will have to tell much of the story in detail later in retrospect. The story is complex and sometimes requires careful wording which takes time. Every moment I am not working on the house keeps my family out of our home for longer, so please accept my apologies if I paint an incomplete picture.

All will be revealed, I promise.


Aug 192016

On the same day I took the video of the basement insulation, I took this shorter one.

We’ve had two days of Element Spray Foam parking their trailer in the back yard and running their hoses into the house to coat the ceilings with upside-down snow drifts.

Can’t wait to share some of that video.

In the meantime, I wanted to show you what the back deck, sunroom, kitchen, bathroom and pantry looked like before the foam changed everything.


Aug 172016

The kids are at summer camp this week so I’m tiring myself out working on the house.

Soon these walls will be 6 inches thicker

Soon these walls will be 6 inches thicker

Tomorrow Element Spray Foam is coming to insulate the house! It has been a lot of work to get ready for this day and I haven’t had time to write.

That’s why I thought I would shoot a video for you.

In it I show you around the basement and explain where the spray foam will go and how we’re insulating the walls down there.

I also demonstrate how tired I am!

Please remember that I am not an expert so if you are interested in doing something like this, make sure you get professional advice before you proceed!

Aug 102016

On the landing of the stairs heading to and from the kids bedrooms on the top floor is a vent. It looks like this.

The landing

The landing

Air vent on the landing

Air vent on the landing

It used to be connected the forced air furnace and it would blow warm air up the staircase. I suppose because there was no cold air return and the air already up there had no easy way to get down, the heat never seemed to reach the bedrooms.

We have pondered what to do with it. Could it be a laundry chute, a ventilation duct, or a cat passage?

Well, it turns out that because we are making the basement walls so thick, it can’t really be used to access the basement.

Looking up from the basement you can see the cupboard.

Looking up from the basement you can see the cupboard.

What about the cupboard under the stairs? Could it be a storage hatch?

No, the cupboard under the landing must be destroyed to make way for greater headroom as people use the staircase below.

It’s a little sad to destroy a hand-made piece of history, but the BC Building code gives us no choice.

The duct is boxed in through the cupboard to reach the basement ceiling. You can see where the spray foam insulation bust through from the outer wall. That’s why they used half-pound insulation instead of 2-pound insulation (which is what is going into our roof this week!); the denser foam would have busted these old walls apart.

The duct traveling through the cupboard

The duct traveling through the cupboard

There was no way to remove the duct intact, so I broke it out.

With the duct gone it looks like this.

With the duct gone it looks like this.

From the basement looking up at the ceiling, it looks like this:
Now we have a square hole in the landing that leads nowhere. What should we do with it?

We haven’t decided yet, but knowing me, it will probably have something to do with insulation!

Aug 062016

I haven’t made a time-lapse movie in a while.

I made this one on Thursday afternoon working in the basement. It’s important because I can finally show you what is going into those walls.

In this first video you can see me struggle to get the top-plate in above the 2X4 stud wall I built and then start insulating behind it.

I framed the interior wall on May 10th.

I framed the interior wall on May 10th.

That was the first wall I’d ever built. Our Rescue Contractor (He Who Fixed The Structural Issues Left Us By Another Contractor) taught me to build the wall flat on the floor, then lift it into place and attach it to another 2X4 attached to the ceiling (called the top-plate). I did that three months ago and then got distracted by more urgent tasks.

In the meantime, the electrical team (Leanne, her Dad and Golden Ears Electric) went ahead and roughed-in the wiring. That made it more difficult to get the top-plate up there.

Notice the stripes of sealing foam I had already added around the edges of the exterior sheathing. That was a tip from Walter.

Here is a play-by-play:

-James slides top-plate into position and balances it on a board so he can screw it up unassisted (he is screwing stuff up unassisted a lot lately)

-James notices that a wire is on the wrong side so he pulls out the top-plate and tries again.

-James notices that another wire is on the wrong side so he pulls out the top-plate and tries again.

-James puts two screws through the top-plate into every ceiling joist, careful to avoid the wires running through the joists.

-James uses a flashlight to confirm that yes, he put a screw right through one of the wires running through a joist.

-James curses, marks the damaged wire, and considers how to apologize to Leanne who is going to have to replace that wire.

-James uses a hammer to bash the top and bottom of the stud wall into place under the top-plate because he didn’t leave that 1/4 inch space that contractors always say you should leave.

-James grabs some Roxul batts from the huge pile that was taken out of the attic and has been cluttering up the basement for months and starts fitting it into the spaces in the exterior 2X6 stud wall.

-the battery dies.

We’re finding it very helpful to have short-term goals to work toward. A big one lately is the spray foam. That’s the kind where the people in space-suits show up with a van and hoses. We’re planning to fill the rafters under the roof with about 5 inches of 2-pound spray-foam insulation and there are a number of things we have to do before that can happen.

In the basement, the spray foam is going only into the rim joists–sometimes called box joists–which are the spaces at the top of the basement walls between the ceiling joists. It’s very difficult to seal and insulate those spaces, so spray foam is a good idea in there.

The walls, however, are easy to insulate so you can save money on that expensive (and not so environmentally-friendly) spray foam.

Shout-out to Monte Paulsen again because I am finally following through with his advice for an inexpensive super-insulated wall.

The building code requires new construction to have 2X6 stud walls instead of 2X4s. That means a thicker wall that can be insulated better. Roxul batts that fit 2X6 walls have an insulation value of 22 (R22).

However, the building code is only a minimum standard. Once you have your 2X6 wall and the structural engineer has signed-off, you can make your walls thicker. It’s easy!

More than simply adding insulation, you can interrupt the heat transferred through the wood studs in your wall. This is called thermal bridging and I am obsessed with eliminating it.

With Monte’s idea of adding a 2-inch thick sheet of styrofoam between and then building another wall inside it, the heat can’t use the studs as a bridge. On the inside of the interior wall, a sheet of plastic keeps the moisture in the warm interior air from getting into your walls. Over that goes your gypsum drywall.

Since the Rescue Contractor and engineer have already made sure the house is structurally sound, I’m free to fumble around learning how to build walls without worry. (I like to think the Rescue Contractor is very busy and has faith in me and those are the reasons he didn’t return my texts when I wrote to ask if I can publish his company’s name.)

And space? Yes, we will lose about 6 inches of space around the exterior walls, but after a week we won’t notice anymore.

In the second time-lapse, taken after I plugged my phone in, the sun goes down as I gleefully insulate.

There are two parts to this wall: the concrete and above the concrete (AKA the pony wall).

The concrete has almost no insulation value (and, if you remember, I didn’t consult with Monte in time to know we could put Terrafoam rigid insulation under the footings–a nagging regret.) On the outside, under the ground level, is 2 inches of EPS styrofoam with an R-value of 8. Above the ground the concrete is bare until the shingles start.

The basement wall below the ground will be insulated like this:

2″ Exterior styrofoam (insulation value R8)
Concrete (R0)
2″ Interior styrofoam (R8)
Roxul batt in 2X4 stud wall (R14)
Total: R30

In the wall space above the concrete foundation–the pony wall–there are three types of insulation. There are Roxul batts in the 2X6 stud wall, Roxul boards and styrofoam. Roxul board is the product I told you about which fits perfectly in this unexpected inch-and-a-half space between the 2X6s and the styrofoam. The white EPS styrofoam is much, much cheaper than the higher density blue or pink rigid foam insulation you have seen around. It has a lower R-value, but is less carbon-intensive to produce. Finally, the interior stud wall will be insulated with more Roxul batts.

Looking at insulation value above ground we get this:
Roxul batt insulation in the 2X6 wall (R22)
Roxul board (R6)
Standard EPS white styrofoam (R8)
More Roxul batts (R14)

That makes for a total insulation value of R50 when the wall is finished. The shingles outside might even add a little more.

Incidentally, you can buy all these insulation types at your local building supply

Inside Plastifab's local facility. Photo taken without permission (I hope they don't mind!)

Inside Plastifab’s local facility.

store, but I went straight to Plastifab for the EPS styrofoam. I bought a lot of that stuff!

Ask the Rescue Contractor how much I have been looking forward to insulating those walls. Every time he added another 2X6 to a wall to make it stronger, I would whine about thermal bridging.

That’s why I pushed through dinner and, at 9pm, Leanne showed up with some sushi leftover from her dinner meeting.

I don’t know if you can tell in the video, but she forgave me for damaging her wire.

Afterthought: watching me cut up that styrofoam into little pieces to fit it between the studs, I think you can see how much more sense it would make to insulate the pony wall and add the styrofoam in big sheets before building the interior wall. The building inspector is going to let us do that with the rest of the walls instead of insisting all the electrical work is done before inspection. Thank heavens for flexible officials!

Aug 012016

When I met Leanne at UBC in 1996, I didn’t know I would end up marrying her and having two amazing kids with her.

And I could never have dreamed that she would be so good at wiring a house!

Leanne shows you her sketch of what's going on in them there switch boxes.

Before: Leanne shows you her Dad’s sketch of what connections need to be made in them there switch boxes.

Yes, it’s true you can do your own wiring but make sure you have someone on your team who knows the current electrical code. You’re not moving in until the City approves your work.

Leanne’s Dad is a retired electrician and he is great for help and advice, but it is Jim from Golden Ears Electric who is our electrician on record. He does the complicated stuff and walks Leanne and Dave through what they have to do for the 2015 BC Building code. He pulled the electrical permit and if we mess up, it’s his license that is on the line.

We really appreciate companies like Jim’s who are willing to trust us to do a lot of the work. In return, we do our best to make him them look good when the City inspectors come around.

There is no way we could afford to pay Jim to do all this stuff.

After: The satisfied smile of a job well done.

After: Ready for electrical rough-in inspection. The satisfied smile of a job well done.

Jul 192016

Sometimes Shakespeare really nails it.

Lately I have been hearing Leanne say some lines that really echo human-caused Climate Change.

She is playing Titania, The Faerie Queen, in the Bard on the Bandstand production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Midsummer Nights Dream Poster

I am playing Oberon, the Faerie King.

The King and Queen are not getting along and it’s causing all kinds of problems.

Titania describes it like this:

Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems‘ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

Oberon responds with:

Do you amend it then; it lies in you:
Why should Titania cross her Oberon?

Which is a pretty typical response to the global threat of Climate Change, isn’t it? If we’re not denying it’s happening, we’re expecting someone else to do something about it.


The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton


Jul 152016

To my own amazement, I am now the owner of a 1996 Ford Ranger pick-up truck.

DSC04160I thought my next car would be electric!

It seems that new auto sales are stronger than ever even in the face of the fact that the second largest contributor to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the internal combustion engine used for transportation. The first is the energy sector.

We ask consumers to reduce their carbon footprint, but it is difficult for most of us, squeezed as we are, to resist the short-term temptation of a low-priced car or truck with a financing package featuring extremely low monthly payments we can absorb into our monthly expenses and forget about.

The fact that the sellers of these vehicles are making their money from financing interest and the inevitable maintenance that goes with gasoline vehicles, is still not causing a much of a dent in our consumer mindset. The sticker-shock of higher-priced electric vehicles has a strong effect even though their minimal fuel costs and minimal maintenance costs result in a much cheaper vehicle over the years.

Combine the cost-effectiveness of electrics with what you can do to integrate your electric car into the electrical system of your home, and the arguments for eliminating fossil-fuel powered vehicles from your life become even stronger.

However, the fact remains it is a mental shift that most of us just don’t have time for. My wife and I talk about not having the “brain space” to focus on making changes to our routines, even if it benefits us. We know we “should” do something, but we’re having enough trouble just getting through the days.

All this to say that saving the world is a long-term project and feeling guilty about day-to-day choices we make is not particularly helpful. You’re reading this blog right now and thinking about this stuff, and that might be enough environmental work for today. Good job!

So how did I end up with a truck?

The best way possible.

Friends we met via our kids moved to Alberta last week and needed to find a home for their truck. They had asked around, but none of the offers to purchase it had come through, so they handed it off to me.DSC04161

It’s a 1996 Ford Ranger. It has a four-cylinder engine so it doesn’t guzzle gas as much as a larger truck and it runs just fine. Three months of insurance cost me $413 and when I put $20 of gas into it, the gas gauge needle actually moved significantly, which is a good sign. (In our Prius, $20 is at least half a tank.)

On the down side, the car had been broken into before our friends bought it for $750 so the doors don’t lock anymore. This will mean we keep nothing in the cab and use a club. We’re used to that. We used to own a VW Rabbit Convertible with a cloth roof and we did the same thing with that car to stop people from slashing open the roof.

The nice thing is that I’m going to be able to pick up construction supplies much more easily now. I have been relying on contractors, family members and neighbours to deliver stuff or lend me trucks until now. That takes a level of planning which is a little taxing.

Environmentally speaking, keeping an older vehicle on the road is a good thing. Throwing away a vehicle and buying a new one is like knocking down a house to build a new one–an incredible waste.

Here’s hoping that in three months I can find a buyer who will fix this little beauty up and keep it running for a long time to come!

Jul 092016

DSC03942If you free your mind to explore the possibilities for your home, you can come up with some pretty cool ideas. Start with the facts and then free-associate.

Fact 1. The garage of Hammond Forever House is located at the edge of the property, separate from the house. It depends on an electrical line from the house for power.

Fact 2. We disconnected the overhead electrical line to the garage when we lifted the house. We need to replace it.

Fact 3. We own a 2001 Toyota Prius (1st generation gas-electric hybrid car) and plan for our future cars to be 100% electric.

Fact 4. The garage roof slopes toward the south, making it the best roof on the property for installing Photo-Voltaic Solar Panels (the kind that produce electricity).

Fact 5. Dave the Father-in-Law knows a thing or two about electricity and electric cars.

What conclusion do these facts lead to?

Using the car in the garage as a back-up generator of course!

Dave and I at Earth Day Maple Ridge with our display

Dave and I at Earth Day Maple Ridge with our display

If you’re like me, you didn’t come to that conclusion on your own. I needed Dave to think of it because he is a retired electrician and member of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association. He knows that as soon as you banish fossil fuels and go 100% electric in your home and transportation, there are a lot of options for making stuff work together.

Having dug up the yard already, it wasn’t a big deal for us to dig another little trench from the house to the garage to bury some electrical conduit. It will be nice to have electricity in the garage without having the overhead wire in the way.

For some reason, Leanne and I were not around that day so Dave and our electrician, Jim from Golden Ears Electric helped the excavator get the trench right. It’s a bit painful paying an electrician to dig a ditch at the rate he charges. Dave, on the other hand, has agreed to put his fee on a lay-away plan. It’s a little vague. Someday, perhaps, like the Godfather, he will ask a favour.

With the trench dug, it was not too much trouble (or money) to run an extra conduit or two so that not only can the garage be powered by the house, but the house can also be powered by the garage! Continue reading »

Jul 042016

Things I found while working in the attic today:



It’s a dirty, dusty place to work, but it’s rewarding when you find…a hammer? No, not the hammer. I’m using the hammer to build stuff. What is that next to the hammer, though?

It’s made of wood and I think it’s some kind of target. Leanne’s Mom, Julie, has an older brother, Uncle Jim, who also grew up in this house. We’re pretty sure all the pellets embedded in the garage door are from his pellet gun. This target looks none the worse for wear so either it was not that kind of target, or Uncle Jim was a terrible shot.

Even more interesting than the hammer or the target is that little piece of paper. Check it out:

Anyone know the restaurant?

Anyone know the restaurant?

That’s right. An old-school fortune from a fortune cookie circa…? And a very wise one, at that. I’m certainly learning a lot, but I’m not feeling particularly young.

So what am I doing in the attic? Making the walls, floor and ceiling thicker to accommodate more insulation of course! Here is the before and after.




Thicker roof rafters, thicker floor...

Thicker roof rafters, thicker floor…

This is the attic space above the front porch, so the more insulation I can add, the better. The roof rafters for this gabled dormer that sticks out majestically over the porch are only 2X4s. I’m adding another set of 2X4s so that we can fill up that 7 inches of space with 5″ of spray-foam insulation and 2″ of something else.

The house on July 4th with its gabled front dormer and diamond window into the attic.

The house on July 4th with its gabled front dormer and diamond window into the attic.

Speaking of insulation, on the floor of the attic is a treat for us energy efficiency geeks: the original bags that the rock wool insulation came in have been used as an underlay.

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