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.
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.
At 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:
Insulate your house
Insulate your house some more
Insulate your house to the point where people look at what you’re doing and say, “holy crap that’s a lot of insulation”
seal your house (doors, windows, chimneys, vents…)
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.
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.
In 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.
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.
On the landing of the stairs heading to and from the kids bedrooms on the top floor is a vent. It looks like this.
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.
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
There was no way to remove the duct intact, so I broke it out.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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!
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!
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: Ready for electrical rough-in inspection. The satisfied smile of a job well done.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!