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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Jun 212016

Flashback to December 11, 2013 at 4:59pm.DSCN1534

Two chimneys: one for the oil furnace, one for the wood-burning insert in the fireplace.

A light dusting of snow melts soonest where the 2X6 rafters are all that lies between the warm air of the kids’ bedrooms upstairs and the roof. They show like ribs on a feverish, bedridden child.


At the back of the house the cat door leaks heat into the neighbourhood. Among the clearly defined rafters are splotches of dark where the snow has melted around the plumbing and  roof vents as well as above the joint between the original house and the shed addition.

Between the rafters in these photos–under those rectangular blocks of snow–is fiberglass batt insulation. Its insulation value is probably about R14.

As we get ready to fill the roof rafters of the newly renovated house with insulation, it’s important to look back and see what we’re aiming for. R28 spray foam insulation plus an addition of approximately R14 batts. DSC03911

That makes R42–an R28 improvement over the old house.

This winter, and in every winter from now on, when it snows on Hammond Forever House, all you will see on the roof is snow. I like to think it will take the sun and a warm day to melt it off.

Jun 172016

We all make mistakes.

June 4, 2016 James putting up rim joists under the ridge beam

June 4, 2016 James putting up rim joists under the ridge beam

Lately I have been framing in interior walls, digging trenches and helping to install a BC Hydro service box on the boulevard, putting up sheathing membrane and all kinds of stuff that I’ve never done before. Leanne has been running electrical wires and installing lights & outlets under the tutelage of her father who is a retired electrician. Their work is supervised and supplemented by our electrician, Golden Ears Electric.

In among all this there have been mistakes (although Leanne points out that the electrical work is going smoothly) and we’re learning a lot.

We expect the professionals we hire to make fewer mistakes than we would, but we also recognize that they are not perfect and even they are going to make mistakes. The question is what do they do when they make a mistake?

Do they cover it up? Do they own it? Do they charge the client for it? Do they charge the client for correcting it?

Someone put their foot through the ceiling. Oh well, that ceiling will be rebuilt anyway. I hope they were okay!

Someone put their foot through the ceiling. Oh well, accidents happen and that ceiling will be rebuilt anyway.

In response to my post about what keeps people from complaining when they are unhappy with a contractor, there have been a few comments on Facebook from reasonable people who want to know what kind of complaints we’re talking about. Totally legit question. Canadians  don’t want to write off a company just because someone else complained about them.

People complain about contractors smoking on their job site, leaving a mess, playing loud music, using bad language. Is it things like this I’m complaining about?


In fact, when our contractor left the job on January 26th, 2016, I assumed that the work that had been done was basically okay. Heck, how was I supposed to know? I’m not a home builder. It was annoying when the owner of the company asked me, “With all due respect James, how many houses have you built?” but I had to admit, he had a point.

Ironically, it was one of the contractor’s employees who gave me the advice which led me to uncovering the most serious issues.

Here's the house under its plastic in January.

Here’s the house under its makeshift plastic tent in January.

He told me that, if he were me, he would ask our engineer to do a field review and then follow him around with a pen and paper taking notes. Find out what needs to be done and then do it. Simple.

There was a delay in putting this plan into action while we frantically installed a roof as quick as we could because the temporary plastic sheeting suspended over the house was leaking and being ripped off in the stormy weather (I describe the former here and the latter here) but on February 16th, Carlos of Chiu Hippmann Engineering, visited.

Here begins a series of posts which will each describe an issue and how we solved it. The first was the most serious.

February 9, 2016

Taken February 9, 2016

Flush from the success of finding a good roofer and feeling like maybe we could do this–maybe we could be our own contractors if we just listen to the experts and do what they tell us to do–I greeted Carlos and we looked around. The house seemed okay to me and maybe we could take it from here.

Carlos the engineer is a pretty calm, soft-spoken guy. So when he stepped onto the top floor of our newly roofed house and said, “Hm, there are a few issues here” my stomach dropped and I felt that homeowner vertigo.

No no no. I don’t want to go backwards. I don’t want to fix “issues”. I want to move forwards!

Continue reading »

Jun 122016

Back in December, we made a couple of new political contacts.

John Horgan, James, Leanne,

John Horgan, James, Leanne, and George Heyman in The Little Yellow House

They were John Horgan, MLA for Juan de Fuca, Leader of the Provincial NDP and Leader of the Opposition in Victoria as well as George Heyman, the MLA for Vancouver-Fairview and the Opposition Spokesperson for the Environment, Green Economy and Technology.

Continue reading »

Jun 102016
What's wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture?


Everyone wanted to look at our septic tank

I told you that we broke up with our previous contractor. That post (this one) was my most popular post ever. (Even more popular than this one about how we found the old septic tank in the yard.)

I suppose we’re all drawn to bad news which is why, to mix my metaphors, the media can make us feel like the world is going to heck in a hand basket if we don’t take the bad news with a grain of salt.

I didn’t even go into detail in my post. I just said we are in a contract dispute.

Do I want to give you the details? Absolutely. The whole point of this blog is to tell the story completely so that you get a clear idea of what it’s like to retrofit an older home in the real world. The good as well as the bad. The myths and the truths. How the system works and where the system breaks down.

I think you can guess why I hesitated to share more about our dispute.

That’s right, we don’t want to get sued!

Trying to catch the leaks.

Trying to catch the leaks.

In Canada you can sue anyone for anything, can’t you? Even if you have no case? We don’t want to pay a lawyer to defend us in court because we have very little financial resources left and we want to finish renovating our house.

We don’t even want to pay a lawyer to find out if we could sue the contractor.

Luckily, however, we have performed in a lot of plays with community theatre companies. When you do that you meet people from all walks of life who are scratching that artistic itch. Theatre creates a special bond between people and so, when we asked an old theatre buddy for a legal opinion, he obliged.

Thank you singing dancing acting lawyer friend!

As a result, when we started to question the contract and the invoices, we had a general idea of our legal footing. (If you are in a similar position to ours, I recommend you get that legal opinion, even if you have to pay for it!)

The laws of Canada exist to protect us. However, it seems that the fear of somebody suing us stops us from seeking justice. Or maybe it’s just the fear of legal fees.

In the renovation industry especially, this seems to be a real problem. Most people renovate a home once, but never again. If they are unhappy with their contractor, they most likely will pay them off or put up with them until the project is finished because they are already exhausted and don’t have energy and/or money to fight.

I remember when my parents renovated our house. I was maybe 6 years old. My Dad describes the final few weeks as just wanting to get them off the property. Something about how they didn’t want to do things the way he wanted them done.

So we renovate once and only once.

Then, for the rest of our lives, we tell everyone the horror story and how we will never do it again. This is a huge, unspoken reason why people are much more likely to bulldoze a perfectly good house than renovate it. In a warming planet where every wasteful action contributes to climate change, we have to address this problem. We have to make renovating a positive experience.

Well, Leanne and I don’t like to live in fear and I have learned that words like “slander” and “defamation” don’t apply if I simply tell you what happened and what the experience was like for us.

I’m not going to attack anyone personally. Disappointed?

I do feel a civic duty to warn others about this company, but there are other avenues to do that so I don’t have to clutter up the blog with complaints.

First of all, it’s important to know the rules. By email, our contractor told us JustPayMemesome things about our legal position which are simply not true. I think if we didn’t know any better it could have made us panic and do what he asked on Pinterest: “just pay the damn invoice already.” This is how paying a lawyer for a legal opinion can be a real bargain.

So, do these ideas sound correct to you?

  1. A contractor can put a “stop work order” on a project, which makes it illegal for any work to proceed until they are paid.
  2. No matter who does the work listed on our contract–you, you father-in-law or another contractor after the first one has left, the Contractor must be paid for it.
  3. It is our responsibility to know the cost of any extras that were added that were not part of the original estimate.
  4. The Contractor’s management fee is applied to the whole project, including work which was not listed in the contract.

Just in case anyone has ever told you any of these things, let’s take these one by one:

1. Only the municipality can impose a stop work order.

2. What? You have to pay twice?

3. How are you supposed to know how much something is going to cost if your contractor doesn’t tell you? That’s why in your contract you want something requiring signed change orders so you can agree to an added cost before the work is done.

4. So if I go to a spa to get my hair done and then I go to a different spa to do my nails,  I have to pay the first spa 15% of the bill from the second spa? Nope.

On March 24th, 2016, in a letter to the contractor’s lawyer, I wrote, “We ask for copies of all invoices for materials and wage records (pay slips) for labour which [the contractor] has listed on their invoices. This information was requested in January and has not been provided. Since the hourly rates charged for [the contractor]’s employees are at issue, we further ask for a list of all employees who have worked on our project, their titles and their professional credentials.”

The contractor promised to provide this information on April 1st, 2016. To date, he has not done so.

That’s where we stand now, scraping together the remainder of our resources to finish Hammond Forever House, waiting for more information with which to resolve this dispute and waiting to learn whether or not we are being sued.

If any of this sounds familiar, I encourage you to get some professional advice. It doesn’t have to be a lawyer, it could be one of the following organizations:

The Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association http://www.gvhba.org/

The Better Business Bureau http://www.bbb.org/mbc/

If you think your situation fits the definition of fraud, you can consider reporting it to The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre at http://www.antifraudcentre-centreantifraude.ca/index-eng.htm

or even the RCMP

If you are unhappy with your contractor, you can post a review on the following sites. I get the impression clients who are unhappy tend not to bother doing this–maybe it’s because they are just exhausted with the whole business and don’t want to deal with it anymore. Maybe if more people wrote reviews that were not simply puff-pieces, these sites would be more useful.

Home Advisor: http://www.homeadvisor.com/

Houzz: http://www.houzz.com/

TrustedPros: https://trustedpros.ca/


May 222016

After compacting the crushed rock in the basement, it was time to do something I’ve been waiting years to do: put styrofoam under the basement floor.

Does that sound crazy to you? Well, it’s one of those things that soon everyone will be doing, especially in colder climates. Let me put your mind at rest on a few points:

A stack of 3" Terrafoam sheets sit on the Terrafoam floor. Note the perimeter of foam around the walls and post bases. We made long cuts with a hand saw. Easy.

A stack of 3″ Terrafoam sheets sit on the Terrafoam floor. Note the perimeter of foam around the walls and post bases. We made long cuts with a hand saw. Easy.

1. Too bouncy? Worried the concrete floor will sink or shift if it’s resting on foam? The rigid foam we used, which is called Terrafoam and is made by Beaver Plastics, has a greater compaction rate than the soil that is under it. It is solid. That’s not just me saying that, that’s our engineer. Even standard, white, EPS which is that white stuff that we see in packaging all the time, is used in big engineering projects like embankments under highways. In fact, I learned too late that we could have put foam under the footings of the house for maximum effect with no structural issues. Oh well, next time!

We used a table saw to cut the edge pieces to separate the concrete slab from the wall.

We used a table saw to cut the edge pieces to separate the concrete slab from the wall.

2. What if water gets under the house and floats the floor up? That was a story someone told us. Well, if you put blocks like they put under highways–great 2 meter by 8 meter ones–under your house, maybe this could be a problem. However, even as much as 12 inches of styrofoam under your house should be fine.

3. Why bother? Some people say the energy savings aren’t going to pay for the extra time and money to put foam under your house. In this housing market when every homeowner is thinking about selling, I understand this perspective. But when you think 40 years down the road and you remember what we’ve learned about the greenhouse effect, it is totally worth it. An efficient house uses less of everything that is warming the planet.

This whole idea came from Monte Paulsen, our energy advisor from Reddoor Energy Design. In February, 2013 he gave us his notes on the HOT2000 energy model he had created.* I’ve had that long to get used to the idea. He wrote:

So, if you’re going to build a conventional foundation, what’s the most cost effective way to insulate it?

Consider adding a “U” of foam insulation that runs down the wall, under the slab, and back up the opposite wall. This arrangement separates the slab from the wall, so the slab can work as thermal mass inside the envelope.

The upgrade model assumes six inches of EPS foam (white Styrofoam) under the slab (R-24) and two inches of XTPS (pink or blue foam) along the perimeter of the concrete (R-12). Inside the XTPS, the model assumes a 2×4 @ 24” wall with R-14 batt (eg, Roxul) insulation and GDW.

DSC03089Can you picture that? You have to remember that your footings and foundation walls were poured first and your basement floor is going to be a separate chunk of concrete poured on a different day. First walls, then floor.

Concrete transmits heat quite well, so if you pour your basement floor without separating it from the walls, any of the heat that is in the room can go into the floor and escape through the walls and footings into the ground.

If the floor is suspended on a bed of styrofoam and doesn’t touch the walls, any heat that is in it can’t escape so easily.

Monte’s model assumed six inches of EPS rigid foam under the slab (floor). Discussing it later, we upped that to 12 inches. Now you know why I was disappointed that we could only fit 3 inches because that was as deep as the storm sewer would allow.

Everyone said that 3″ was plenty. The temperature doesn’t vary much that deep in the earth, they said. You’re only required to put foam around the edges of the slab, they said. You don’t have to do that, you know, they said. The most helpful of these comments was from the Maple Ridge Building Dept:

Not to sure where the trade off is but 12″ of insulation under the slab strikes me as being excessive for no real gain. Below frost the ground maintains a consistent temperature which I believe is around 5 degrees so thermal conductivity through the slab‎ is minimal. Unless you are doing radiant in floor heat the better places to increase R value are the walls and ceiling plus looking at ways to eliminate thermal bridging.

Well, as you know, we did end up doing radiant in-floor heat, but that is another post.

Meanwhile, Monte was working on sexy new Passive Houses where that much under-slab insulation is routine. It really is a case of short-term thinking. If you are not going to profit off it in the next five years, conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t do it. Conventional wisdom has its limits.

Upon further discussion with Monte, I settled on 9″ of white EPS or 6″ of Terrafoam, which is a newer EPS product and insulates better. Since his 2013 report, Monte has pointed out that XPS, the blue or pink rigid foam you see around a lot, has a very high carbon-footprint in its manufacture, and he has stopped recommending it from an environmental standpoint.  For this reason I decided not to use it in the walls.

I settled on 3″ of Terrafoam because every extra inch meant raising the house by that much more. This was one of the compromises we made between heritage, economic and environmental considerations. I still feel like I didn’t get the accurate information from our contractor that I needed to make this decision. I mean I have a sneaking suspicion we could have put more foam under the slab somehow.

Among our graffiti is Dave's birthday wishes to his wife, Leanne's Mom, who grew up in this house.

Among our graffiti is Dave’s birthday wishes to his wife, Leanne’s Mom, who grew up in this house.

With 3 inches of Terrafoam and its insulation value of R-5 per inch, we ended up with R-15 under the slab. The BC Building Code says you must have a minimum of R-13 under a heated slab, so we were okay.

With no contractor working with us, I set about laying our 3 inches of Terrafoam, keeping in mind we wanted a 4 inch deep basement slab. We always intended to do this type of work ourselves, but it was a little nerve-wracking not having professional advice as we proceeded toward our first independent building inspection.

Our contractor had left a chalk line on the walls showing where the top of the basement slab should be. I decided to trust this line was accurate which saved me renting a laser level and figuring out how to use it.

It was frustrating to discover that often the space between the chalk line and the top of the footing was closer to 6 inches instead of the 7 we needed for foam + concrete. Can I blame our contractor for that? I don’t know. I do know it took more time to lay the Terrafoam because I trimmed some of the edges to fit the uneven and too-high footings. (You can see me doing this in the time-lapse videos.) Would it matter if the concrete were a little thinner around the edges of the slab? Probably not.

The sanitary sewer sump was a challenge. You can't use the canned spray foam to fill in gaps because it dissolves EPS foam like Terrafoam.

The sanitary sewer sump was a challenge. You can’t use the canned spray foam to fill in gaps because it dissolves EPS foams like Terrafoam.

Tips for laying Terrafoam:

It cuts super easy. You can cut it with a table saw if you need thinner pieces, but use a hand saw (or a circular saw, I suppose) if you’re cutting a big piece.

Wear a dust mask because, you know, there’s dust, but don’t worry because it’s not toxic or itchy.

Cut the pieces a little big so they snug together nicely with no gaps.

Don’t compromise! Separate everything from that slab! Put foam around any plumbing or structural stuff that pokes up through the floor.

Umm, that’s it! Any questions?

Ready for the next step: plastic vapour barrier!

Ready for the next step: plastic vapour barrier!

*I shared Monte’s complete report in this post if you’re interested in the whole thing. It’s near the bottom of the post.

May 112016

DSC03436I’m getting ready to wall in the basement and I’ve discovered a 1.5 inch space that will take a little more insulation. I’m always looking for another way to get more insulation in those walls, so I have been looking around for a product to fit in there.

I’m already putting in 2″ of EPS white styrofoam and some Roxul rock-wool batts. The great thing about Roxul is that it won’t burn, it has good insulation value and it’s easy to work with–not nearly as itchy as fiberglass. It’s also pretty cheap.

That’s why I was happy to find a new product at Home Depot that will fit that 1.5″ space. It’s called Roxul Comfort Board and it’s a more rigid than the batts so I can fit it snug into the space I’ve got to fill.

Here’s a nice detailed blog post about it: https://www.buildinggreen.com/news-article/mineral-wool-boardstock-insulation-gaining-ground-homebuilding-world