Feb 212017
 

When I finally have time to clear Leanne’s computer enough to download all the photos and videos I’ve been taking for the last six months, half of the posts are going to be gratitude posts.

There are so many individuals, companies and tradespeople who have been so generous with their time, labour and expertise that it is overwhelming, but I want to do them justice and give each of them a gorgeous, sloppy thank you post full of photos and video of their awesomeness.

While we wait for that day to arrive, here is a short time-lapse video that I took on my iPhone.

That is the brand new Master Bathroom and I am stapling down radiant heating pipes to the subfloor. The space on the right side with no pipe is where the bathroom vanity and sinks are now. We don’t need heat there. At the bottom of the screen is the border where the floor starts to slope down toward the shower drain.

The next step was to cover the pipes with sand mixed with cement and then tile it.

The result is a heavenly warm floor underfoot in the bathroom. The thermostat calls for heat, and hot water circulates through the pipes. The concrete and tile serves as a thermal mass, spreading the heat out evenly and retaining it for hours.

These days, if you can’t find the cat, she is probably lolling on this floor like a rug.

On the topic of gratitude, there is a lot to pack into this 17-second video.

Thank you to Richard of Meadow Ridge Plumbing and Gas who let me borrow his modified nail-gun, supplied the radiant pipe and staples and taught me what to do. He and his company have done all our plumbing and heating, but also helped us save money by showing us how to do some of the most tedious tasks ourselves.

Thank you also to Ron, our neighbour and tile expert. He convinced me to put the pipes into the floor, (“I can’t see why you wouldn’t”) and we are so glad we did. He also helped us with the next steps, including installing the beautiful tile floor.

There will be more sloppy blog kisses for Ron and Richard in the future.

Thank you to everyone else who has pitched in, too! You are not forgotten. Do not worry. You will get your kisses.

Feb 102017
 

About this time last year, Leanne and I were stressed out and I was trying to

Keep Calm

&

Blog Positively

After three weeks of trying to get our contractor to give us a reasonable answer as to why our invoice was higher than their quote with the project nowhere near finished, they had up and left.

I wrote a rambling post which saying that we were going through a rough patch, but stopped short of pointing fingers.

Buried at the end of the post was this video with little context. Let me give you a little context now.

For three weeks in rainy January our contractor pressured us to pay their invoice while their crew continued to work. They had us over a barrel. The house had no roof so if they stopped working, what would we do? Over three meetings with their management (but not the owner) we paid them a further $35,000 in the hopes that we could work something out.

This photo might be upside down on mobile devices–sorry!

On January 26th, they packed up and left.

On that day, we took the first part of the video in which you can see how badly the make-shift plastic cover was working. Leaks were coming through the plywood “roof” and making their way into the heritage interior.

Our contractor warned us that hiring another roofer was a breach of our contract, which, it turns out, was BS. Was it a scam pure and simple? Did the contractor deliberately send the invoice through the roof right when we didn’t have one?

Whatever the case, we’re stubborn and don’t like feeling bullied so we set about finding a good roofer (which you can read about here).

That’s when the wind storm happened.

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Living next door in the Little Yellow House, we were sometimes woken by the sound of the great plastic sheets blowing in the wind. Our nightmare was that the cover would be blown clean off one night.

And it almost did. Two nights after being left in the lurch, on January 28th, while the kids slept blissfully on, Leanne and I woke up to wind, rain and plastic blowing free.

We ran over to Hammond Forever House and wrestled to get protection back on the house for over an hour. I was clambering all over the slick plywood surface in the dark while wind blew plastic in my face. Leanne worked below to fasten the ends that I handed down to her. We would secure one corner and move to another and then discover that the first one had come undone again.

Listen to my voice in the video. Listen to how difficult it is for me not to curse our contractor’s name. How reserved I was. How deep was my anger. We must take comfort that it was only wind and rain and not the 25 cm of snow and freezing rain that we are getting now, one year later!

Is this normal for the home renovation industry? You can share your experience in the comments if you like. I would love to know.

Feb 082017
 

I wish I could show you a photo of the house today. It is buried in snow. Unfortunately, Leanne’s computer is still too full and I can’t download the photos from the camera yet.

This photo from New Year’s 2017 will have to suffice.

January 1st, 2017 at 12:43 am.

We thought this was a lot of snow. (Ha!) Besides less snow, the other thing that is different in this photo is all the lights are on.

Over the past weekend, due to heavy snow breaking branches, we have had 6 separate power outages.

They are not the most relaxing events, but the kids love a good black-out. We light candles and revel in the adventure. “I love Earth-hour!” says my daughter.

Beneath the fun of it lies my worry that the decisions we have made on the house leave us vulnerable to power outages. Specifically, back-up power.

I have this insecurity that there is a silent mass of onlookers waiting for us to fail. “Let’s see how this ‘Forever House’ handles a power outage” they say in my head. “Bet they wish they had a gas generator!”

Well, I must admit it was a bit shaky, but we did okay and I remind myself that we’re not done yet.

Surprising to many, my master plan calls for no fossil fuels and no wood-burning. I want to keep the brick fireplace but insert an electric fire that looks good and gives a little heat. When the power went out, however, it was very comforting to be able to light a fire. It reminded us of the winter of 2014 when we challenged ourselves to live without buying more fuel oil and so we relied on wood and a little electric heat.

Leanne wants to keep the fire, but we don’t have to decide now, because we have a lot of other things to do before we come to that.

The fact is, we moved in before the house was done. I am not finished insulating and sealing the basement and top floor. The root cellar door is not sealed and insulated as well as we plan to. I’d also like to re-apply the weather-stripping to the windows, seal up the stained-glass transom lights in the front rooms, and improve the front door.

All this insulation and sealing is key, because we are counting on it to keep our heating bills down.

At the moment, our heat is supplied by the same water heater that used to heat our tap water before the renovation. Hot water is pumped through pipes stapled to the underside of the main floor and it warms the floor above.

Heating water with electricity is 100% efficient, but it is expensive, so I have been steadily trying to finish insulating wherever I haven’t reached yet.

The first time the power went out for more than an hour, I was anxious that putting our eggs in the electricity basket had been unwise. However, we noticed that the house did not cool very quickly. The insulation we had done so far was having an effect. It was the front rooms with their thinner walls and heritage windows that cooled the fastest and that’s where the fireplace was.

I also noticed that the bathroom floor, where the water heating pipes are embedded in concrete just below the tile, stayed warm for two hours or so. I realized that one great advantage to heating with underfloor hydronic pipes is that once the water is warm, it continues giving off heat for some time.

Once the house is finished, we will be able to last a long time without feeling the chill, but maybe you still think we need a back-up source of heat for longer emergencies. They tell you to be prepared for 72 hours without assistance.

My answer to that is my father-in-law Dave’s idea which he has helped us implement: the Toyota Prius as back-up generator. Read more about how we’re doing that here. When the wiring to the garage is complete, we can use the Prius or any other hybrid or electric car to power important stuff in the house like the fridge.

A more obvious solution is a large storage battery like Tesla’s Wall. Charge it in the daytime with solar panels and charge your car from the battery at night. If there is not enough to completely charge the car, BC Hydro will tip it up.

Incidentally, this is the same principal we hope to implement with the solar hot water panels someone handed down to us: heat a large tank of water in the heat of the day and use it (or simply let it warm the basement) in the evening.

It seems I have to get used to the idea that the house will be completed bit by bit. There will probably not be a ribbon-cutting ceremony. That fantasy of moving back in with all systems working perfectly is just that, a fantasy.

Meanwhile, it looks like it will be sunny tomorrow so the kids will go back to school. Then, later in the day, another winter storm is expected. At least now we know we can handle it.

Oops, we’re a little low on dry firewood…

Anybody got some?

 

 

 

Feb 032017
 

I’m changing up the blog a little.

I wanted to give a play by play of the project, but it hasn’t been possible. Most recently, the goal of getting into the house by Christmas made me abandon writing altogether.

The next deadline is renting out the Little Yellow House again. That means moving everything out of it and making room for all of it in the big house. That, in turn, means finishing the upstairs rooms and basement.

On top of all that are the simple but essential needs to rest, re-learn how to live in the (unfinished) house, and re-connect with my family after so many months of renovation stress.

My posts need to be shorter and snappier. My habit of writing lengthy and detailed essays must end. You don’t have time to read them and I don’t have time to write them.

So once I get the photos somewhere that I can use them, check in regularly and I’ll paint you a complete picture, one piece at a time.

Thanks for visiting Hammond Forever House

Feb 012017
 

Leanne, our two kids and I snuggle together in the living room of Hammond Forever House. The wood-burning insert is blowing heat over us as we cherish our togetherness in our incomplete home.

Outside and to the south, America continues on its troubled path.

Protests and confusion at airports, state, city and foreign national governments condemning his #Muslimban, and Donald Trump says, “it’s working out very nicely.”

It’s a technique straight out of 1984.

As surreal and frightening as Trump’s double-speak is, I can’t say it is unfamiliar. There are definite comparisons to be made with our former contractor.

I mean, I spent a lot of time itemizing problems with our project and questions about the invoice and earnestly presenting them. Then came the professional opinions of other trades, city inspectors and, most importantly, our structural engineer.

I think our contractor’s response can be summarized, aside from “just pay the damn invoice already”, in this paragraph from one of his emails:

[My company] is a well respected contractor and because you didn’t like [the Site Supervisor who was fired for incompetence] and blamed me doesn’t change how we build. You have a very well built house.

This from the owner of the company who was hardly ever on site.

In other news, Trump just confirmed that he will never release his tax returns. That sounds familiar, too.

On June 9th, 2016, I sent another email:

We haven’t heard from you in a while regarding our request for copies of all invoices for materials and wage records (pay slips) for labour which [your company] has listed on their invoices as well as a list of all employees who have worked on our project, their titles and their professional credentials. You promised to provide these on April 1st, 2016.
As part of that list, I would really like your clarification on the $11,141.62 that you have invoiced under “[Company Name]”. We learned last week that you are this company and we would like to know what service [Company Name] provided on our project.

It’s not like I expected a real answer, but this was the response:

You can contact GVHBA, Bbb all these places to try to pull down our reputation and if you can live with your lies and sleep at night great.

Yes, my facts are lies and asking for information is not even worth a response.

Finally, just as you would expect to be sued by Trump if you stood up to him, so we are being sued.

We are being sued for “breach of contract” because, apparently, the contractor did a fantastic job, the contract is clear as a bell, the invoices are 100% legit and all our questions and concerns are unreasonable.

Are you starting to see one of the biggest barriers facing people who want to preserve and retrofit their homes instead of bull-dozing them?

That’s right, the barrier I’m talking about is an unregulated and unaccountable home renovation industry. The many good companies are too busy, and the bad ones are, well, bad. More on that another time.

PS: I’m trying to ease back into blogging after our big push to get back into the house for Christmas dinner, but my most recent photos are trapped on the camera until I free up space on the one computer in the house that really works: Leanne’s laptop.

Fear not, I have much to show you so stay tuned!

Jan 272017
 

There’s also a very different feeling when you know you’re near the end of your credit to when you reach the end of your credit.

It’s a constricting feeling. When you cook at home instead of ordering in you feel less proud about your penny-pinching and more bitter that you don’t have a choice.

We budgeted our renovation based on what we thought was a fixed quote from our first contractor. That didn’t turn out so well.

On the positive side, there’s nothing like running out of money to make you look under the furniture for lost change. Our financial squeeze reminded us that our credit card rewards program lets you use points toward paying down debt. We took a look and it turned out we could use our points to pay $1090 towards our credit card!

Woo-hoo! (As you know, carrying a balance on your credit card at 19.5% interest is no fun at all.)

We’ve still got a balance and we’ve had to make arrangements to pay for plumbing and electrical work by installments, but it’s little boosts like Credit Card Rewards that can help you see the light at the end of the tunnel.

 

Jan 222017
 

Yesterday we stayed home and worked on the house.

The kids had a couple of friends over who had slept over in the living room because the bedrooms upstairs are not finished yet.

In the morning, I worked on adding more insulation to the sloped ceilings in my son’s room and Leanne made a big batch of soup for everyone–lunch for all the kids, lunch for Leanne’s parents and cousin who were coming over to help on the house, and meals for the future.

Later, Leanne’s dad worked with me to finish making an insulated door for the new root cellar in the basement, her mom worked on cleaning up the mess we had been ignoring in the kitchen, Leanne and her cousin worked on clearing out the little yellow house and the kids…continued being kids.

Vancouver yesterday. Photo credit: The Georgia Straight

Meanwhile, millions of people all over the world gathered, rallied and marched in international women’s marches. More photos like this one can be found on The Georgia Straight’s website.

We like to think what we’re doing with our house–exploring and sharing what it’s like for regular folk to preserve and retrofit a beautiful old house–is doing some good in the world but today Leanne and I both woke up regretting we hadn’t taken a day off and gone into Vancouver to join all those people on the right side of history.

There is so many actions we can take to make the world a better place, sometimes it’s just hard to choose.

Nov 182016
 

Dear Readers,img_2674

Hammond Forever House set out not to show people how to retrofit a house (We’ve never done it before!). No. The goal here is to go through it and find out why nobody except rich people are doing this.

Along the way, I wanted to share what we were learning as we learned it. Unfortunately, although I learned a lot and I have a lot to say, blogging daily, weekly or even monthly has proved impossible while we’re in the middle of it.

But don’t worry, I’m taking a tonne of photos and video and once we’re back in the house, I’m going to start from the beginning and give you all the details and share all the hard-won lessons.

Nov 122016
 

Does Donald Trump’s victory mean the end of Climate Action in the United States?

Does it mean the end of the Paris Accord?

Does it really mean that half of the American people think that Climate Change is a hoax?

I don’t know about the first two, but I can’t believe people who voted for Trump don’t understand that Climate Change is a thing that we have to do something about.

Some of them, maybe…

I suspect they are mostly sick of having it pushed in their faces as if its their individual problem to solve.

Leanne and I can relate.

img_2865At this stage in our renovation and retrofit we’re just trying to finish enough of the house so that the building inspector will let us occupy it and we can get homeowner’s insurance again.

We’d like to spend Christmas in our house for a change instead of next door.

I haven’t been writing the blog because I simply don’t have energy at the end of the day. Weekdays I wake up early to make lunches for the kids, teach a class til noon, pick the kids up from school, and then work on the house til dinner time. Leanne works full-time and keeps up the electrical work with our electrician and her Dad. On weekends its all house all the time.

If this is what it takes for average folks to fight climate change, its no wonder we’re the exception, not the rule. My Eco-Warrior Badge is heavy.

Trump often railed against “the Mainstream Media”. Apparently, it struck a chord. Maybe when you are  struggling to eek out a living and the media reports that climate change is the single greatest threat we face, it’s a little hard to swallow.

The truth is that the media have been under-reporting climate change. There is no confusion among scientists, researchers, NASA, the UN and everyone else who has looked at it for ten minutes but nobody seems to have any solutions besides buy more eco-friendly stuff.

One problem is that most mainstream news is delivered in a context of commercialism. Every story is steeped in commercials for stuff we don’t need and the solution for climate change is presented in products. Buy a more expensive car to reduce emissions. Replace lightbulbs, shop local, buy organic. The market has consumed environmentalism as an opportunity to sell more stuff and that has made everybody cynical.

CBC radio had a story on today about some people who say that Canada should reconsider its commitment to introduce a carbon tax.

Wrong! A carbon tax is precisely the kind of tool we need!

The BC example has been good for the economy while reducing greenhouse gases. It provides incentives for communities to take climate action which takes the pressure off the individual consumer who is already wracked with guilt for buying a new…anything.

What will happen if the US stops taking action on climate change? Will Canada’s economy suffer?

Can I answer that question with a question? Can we stop thinking about the profits of large corporations as if their well-being is more important than anything else for a second?

The Natural Resources minister under Stephen Harper, Joe Oliver was on the radio programme I was listening to. He was so full of misinformation I was yelling at the radio.

One thing he said was that the best way to fight climate change is to push forward in science and technology so that cheaper and better ways to solve the problem come into the market.

Sound reasonable? It’s hogwash. What makes me angry is that he is in a position to know better. All the best information was at his fingertips, but he continues to soothe the shopping public with the message that we can keep doing what we’re doing until technology fixes everything.

One of the biggest lessons we have learned as we work to make our home as energy-efficient as possible is that technology is not the issue.

The technology and techniques have been around a long time and they are so simple that most people can understand easily:

  1. Insulate your house
  2. Insulate your house some more
  3. Insulate your house to the point where people look at what you’re doing and say, “holy crap that’s a lot of insulation”
  4. seal your house (doors, windows, chimneys, vents…)
  5. ventilate your house (you need fresh air now that you sealed it so well) with a Heat-Recovery Ventilator

Now that you have done all that you should not need very much heat in the winter nor cooling in the summer. Now you can decide how you want to provide that little bit of heating and cooling. (Hint: try not to use fossil fuels, including Natural Gas)

Here are a few fun options for heating your house without emitting GHGs: an air-source heat pump, a ground-source heat pump or a sun-pump.

SPOILER ALERT: Leanne and I have decided to deliver heat in the house with water pipes under the floors (and radiators on the top floor) and heat that water with electricity. We’re eschewing a heat pump for the time being but we may be able to partially heat the water with solar panels.

Yes, there are best-practices and some gadgets which help with all this, but the technology is available.

The problem is that not enough people are doing it.

Why are solar panels expensive?

Not enough people are buying them.

Why is it so hard to find a contractor who knows how to retrofit a house?

Not enough people are doing it.

Why does it take so long to retrofit a house?

Not enough people are doing it.

Does this cycle right back to blaming the public for not taking action? No. How can we expect the 99% of people who are not rich to spend a year and a lot of money retrofitting their house when the return on investment will be at least a decade away?

So, let’s not blame the media for ringing the climate bell without offering solutions. The solutions have to come from the people we elected to manage our future. Unfortunately, I don’t think Donald Trump has any solutions and I pray that Canada stays strong and doesn’t get sucked into the past.

Til next time,

James

 

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.

image

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.

image

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…

image

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.