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:

Apr 222016

Maple Ridge Celebrates Earth Day this Saturday and it looks like it’s going to be super fun as always.ED2016-Save-the-Date-Poster-791x1024

The theme this year is Energy and today I’m trying to let the positive energy flow.

You see, today our engineer visited (again) and signed off on all the structural work we have done on the house. This is a big deal for any construction project because it means you can get to work on the plumbing, the electrical wiring, the insulation and…everything else.

For Leanne and I, it means we are no longer going backwards (fixing structural deficiencies left by our former contractor) but instead moving forward.

Yay for us. Fantastic. Rah.

Nope. I can’t quite muster a celebration right now. By Saturday’s Earth Day Celebration I’m sure I’ll feel better. Absolutely. (Just don’t remind me that we expected to be able to offer tours of our new ENERGY efficient house by now. Sigh.)

Speaking of Earth Day, in honour of the theme of Energy, I have decided to answer what many people ask me:

“How are you going to heat the house?”

I’m sure my past vague answers have been a little frustrating to some.

The thing is that the question is a little backwards. It assumes that the most important consideration when you want to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions is what fuel you use and how you deliver the heat.

Meanwhile I have been tackling the more fundamental question of how we can reduce the amount of heat needed by the house in the first place. Once we know how little heat (and cooling) we need, we can find the perfect delivery system and the perfectly sized system. Remember, this is the family that spent a full year not using their furnace out of pure environmental stubbornness!

Okay, okay. I’ll talk. Here’s what we know.

  1. No fossil fuels.

As I discussed before, natural gas is a tempting option. It is cheap at the moment (cheap enough to be competitive with the cost of the electricity to run a geothermal heat pump) and it is much more efficient and clean-burning than, for example, fuel oil (which is what we had before) or wood (which is how we survived that winter without a furnace). Continue reading »

Apr 162016

So I went in to chat with our new Member of Parliament last month. March 3rd.

I won’t lie, it was because it was Federal budget time and I wanted to put retrofitting homes for energy efficiency in the back of his head. It’s one of those things, like funding the arts, that people say we can’t afford but which are actually a great return for the investment.

As you may know, we elected a new government last year. Justin Trudeau is our Prime Minister now and, surprise of surprises, our local Liberal candidate, Dan Ruimy, is part of Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal majority government in the House of Commons.

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I say it was a surprise because Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows (and formerly including Mission) has been a polarized Reform/Conservative vs. the NDP riding for a loooooong time. In 2015 I supported the very strong NDP candidate, Bob D’Eith, because I felt that if we sat back and pondered who to support, Stephen Harper would win.

Dan told me he doesn’t want to waste time. He wants to make a difference.

I made an appointment to see Dan in his brand new office before its official opening.  I told him about the Maple Ridge Net Zero Home Energy Retrofit Project now waiting on the shelf for someone to dust it off and set it going.

I told him about the Nelson BC Ecosave Energy Retrofits program.

I told him about Solar Colwood which released its final report last year.

And I told him about the Design Charrette we held in 2013 to move the Retrofit Project to the next step: a project manager and project design.CharretteGroup

Unfortunately, I have been too busy with our own retrofit and renovation of Hammond Forever House, which I hope will be the test case for the larger project, to have a clear proposal ready for Dan (and Justin, for that matter).

Among other things, we chatted about Dan’s apartment which he said is so badly insulated that there is no point wasting the energy to leave the heat on when he is not home. What a common problem! Tenants and homeowners alike suffer with high energy bills while the climate changes. Our best information estimates that Climate Change will cost Canada $5 billion per year by 2020 and there is very little being done to address the problem of inefficient existing buildings in a meaningful way.

The new Liberal Government, Dan said, is looking for innovative and unique programs they can support. Heritage, Energy, Climate Change, reducing home-heating costs for families–all these things are easy to support. Neither of us had a clear idea for the next steps in the Maple Ridge Retrofit program but Dan suggested we keep talking about it. Then he pointed to the large conference table in the next room and told me what it was for.

I left our meeting thinking it may be time to renew my conversation about the community project with our excellent City Staff to see if they have some new ideas on the subject. After all, I’m not the only one around here with ideas. (I haven’t had time to make that call, yet.)

It seems that since that first meeting with Dan, he spoke to a few other people because last week Leanne and I both found ourselves in that next room sitting around that big table with a bunch of other like-minded people. Leanne was there representing Ridge Meadows Recycling and I was there representing, well, this blog I suppose. Others from local environmental organizations were there, too.

DSC03460Dan’s idea was to start some sort of ongoing advisory panel on the environment.

There was a kind of stunned optimism in the room as a result of being invited. Many in the room remarked how much of a change the approach was to the previous government. If you remember, I had some professional criticism for our previous MP.

I also remember appealing to our former Prime Minister to attend a climate meeting while he was in New York in 2014. No luck.

It struck me afterwards that many Canadians may prefer the government to make decisions on their behalf without them having to lift a finger. I can understand that and it would be fine if our MPs were infallible gods and/or if everyone agreed with them. Other people, like myself, believe that building consensus is key and that means citizen engagement.

DSC03459Dan admits that he doesn’t know everything and is willing to collaborate and learn how he can help.

I think I can safely say that everyone in that room will be there next month with bells on. We have a lot of catching up to do!

Apr 082016

James and the rented compactor

Okay, you’ve seen the concrete get poured on top of those pretty red water heating pipes in this post. Now let’s step back a few steps to what went under the concrete.

After the roof was put on, the basement floor was the first significant task that Leanne and I took on ourselves after things fell apart with our contractor, so it was a big deal for us.


Annabel’s 2012 drawing

In a nutshell, the plan has always been to dig deep enough to give us some reasonable ceiling height in the basement. We also wanted to add a lot of insulation under the house which meant digging even further. Continue reading »

Mar 292016

March 2015

It has been a year since we signed our contract with Ridgewater Homes on March 27th 2015. It has not been an entirely good year.

I described how we arrived at our decision to hire this company here.

Unfortunately, I have to tell you that Leanne and I are in a contract dispute with Ridgewater. As you can imagine, I can no longer recommend them as a company to you.

Reading past posts you may get the impression everything is fine. However, with every post I have struggled to present the truth without criticizing the people and companies we are working with. Unfortunately, this may have created an inaccurate picture of our journey so far. It has been challenging and we are currently going through a difficult time.

I don’t want to give the impression what we’re doing is impossible, but it’s certainly not easy, either! Going forward, I will strive to share more of the challenges as well as the excitement.

The purpose of this blog is to share the story of our renovation and start a conversation about saving homes and improving them instead of destroying them and building new ones. What are the pros and cons of retrofitting? What are the challenges? How can we affordably reduce the carbon footprint of our homes?

How can we make it easier for people like us, who are already squeezed, to do right by our homes and our planet?

I’m sharing a story. I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life.

I’m not an expert. I’m not trying to give you expert advice.

Since this is a continuing story, I’m not going to delete previous posts in light of this change in relationship with our contractor. However, except where it is unavoidable, I will not mention their name on the blog from this day forward.

Thanks for all your  support. Stay tuned for more of the adventures of Hammond Forever House!


March 2016

PS: I can’t leave you without a preliminary piece of advice about finding a good contractor. It sounds obvious, but remember that if a company has excellent promotional material, it may mean that they need to advertise because they cannot get enough business from reputation alone. Contractors that receive a lot of business through positive word of mouth may not have to advertise.

If I could start over in my contractor search, I would ask people in the business who they recommend. That’s my advice to you. Ask other trades (like your plumber), your local building store (like Haney Builders in Maple Ridge), or the Building Dept. of your municipality. Municipal staff will almost certainly be unable to recommend a company, but they will often be able to point you to companies who do not have problems passing building inspections. Does that help? I hope so.

Mar 242016

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A lot of work went into getting the basement ready to have the concrete floor poured, but before I post about all that, I wanted to give a shout out to the company who did a great job on the actual pour: Rock Solid Creations who are based out of Mission, BC.

Scroll down for the video!

My father-in-law Dave, Leanne and I have done a little concrete pouring ourselves. Dave helped us tie the steel rebar together and pour the concrete for the garage of the Little Yellow House. Dave and his wife, Julie (Julie grew up in Hammond Forever House) built their own house on the other side of Maple Ridge and handled all the concrete themselves. However, our new basement is about 1350 square feet and Dave recommended getting some expert help.

Something's happening at our house

Something’s happening at our house

At first we were looking for someone who knew what they were doing and who could lead us. The more work we (and our friends and neighbours) can do ourselves, the more we save, right? That idea was quickly quashed because our construction insurance won’t let us accept volunteer labour (more on that soon).

Knowing that pouring concrete can go wrong easily, we started to realize that skimping on it may not be wise. We got a few names from our amazing neighbour Sue and found someone who could bring 4 concrete workers on a weekend and do it all for us. The cost would be 75 cents per square foot plus the cost of the concrete, the pumper truck and the rental of a power-trowel to get a really smooth finish. Unfortunately, this arrangement fell through the moment I remembered to ask if he had his own insurance.


Concrete truck brings the concrete, pumper truck puts it where you want it

Concrete truck brings the concrete, pumper truck puts it where you want it

Leanne and I were surprised by how many companies don’t have liability insurance, but apparently they are often employed by general contractors who provide insurance so they don’t need it. Sigh.


About halfway through, Leanne snuck this shot through the window

Tony and Rock Solid Creations was a little more expensive, but his company is fully insured and concrete is their main gig, so we weren’t restricted to a weekend. We agreed to pay for his team, the concrete and the pumper truck. The troweling would be done by hand. Tony would take care of everything.

They did a great job.

The truck arrived at 7:30am on Tuesday just as I was getting ready for work. However, I managed to get a little “before, during and after” video.

In it you’ll see the radiant piping attached to wire mesh on top of the plastic vapour barrier. Under that and all around the edges is 3″ of Terrafoam, a rigid foam insulation from Beaver Plastics, which gives us an R value of 15. That means the heat we put into the concrete floor by running warm water through those pipes will stay there a while.

I set up my iPhone in the corner with the iMotion app taking a photo every 10 seconds so you get a time-lapse of the pouring and initial troweling. (I should tell you that I edited the time-lapse a little to take out the gaps when they were waiting for more concrete or when the concrete was setting between trowelings. The work was done by about 2:30pm. If you want to see the full 1:51 time-lapse, you’ll find it on my youtube channel.)

Finally, you’ll see my family carving our initials into the still-soft concrete. Even though it will probably be covered over, we had to do it. We’re sentimental like that.

Feb 202016

One of the most stressful phases of the renovation and retrofit of Hammond Forever House is behind us.

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We have a roof thanks to Maple Ridge Roofing who did a great job.

The water that was dripping through the house from the leaky temporary covering has left mold visible on the basement ceiling in several places and damage to the original ceiling wallpaper in the living room and dining room. As the house dries out, we only hope more damage does not reveal itself.

The interior will not dry completely until the exterior is completely sealed, but at least Continue reading »

Feb 152016

Question: What do you do for your Valentine when she is sick in bed and you can’t spend any money because you are sinking all of your money into a renovation?

Answer: romantic graffiti!


The concrete basement walls are going to be covered with 2″ of EPS styrofoam then a 2X4 stud wall and then drywall. That’s just for insulation.

I realized that if we “decorated” them, nobody would see it unless they stripped all of that off. Is anyone going to do that? Probably not.

Probably not ever.

So I took the kids over and let Leanne sleep while we created this little video for her. If you remember how we wrote all over our old bathroom walls, you’ll see a pattern developing here.

Happy Valentine’s Day Leanne!

Soon after we met in 1996 Leanne moved with me to Japan where we taught English in a small town in Gifu Prefecture called Ibigawa. My students in the local High School Continue reading »