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?

 

 

 

Dec 142015
 
IMG_1509

The excavator digs a trench to connect our new perimeter drain to the storm sewer

Yesterday, 195 countries signed an agreement to tackle the costs of climate change. I’m looking forward to seeing what our new Canadian government, in conversation with the Provinces and everybody, comes up with.

I hope it has something to do with helping people like us to do things like we’re doing with our house. As it stands, few people looking at their household budget would conclude that doing what we’re doing makes any sense. That’s because we’re looking farther into the future than most people, but also because we’re looking beyond our own budget to the costs of climate change.

That’s probably the part that stops most people. We’re spending more money on our house so that maybe some island nations won’t disappear under water. What? You may have a couple of questions about that.

  • Question 1: There is no way that the greenhouse gases our house produces, even with its old oil furnace, would be enough to make much of a difference to global warming no matter what we do so what’s the point?

Answer: That’s why I’m not interested in minor reductions–I want that 70% or greater reduction that our first Energy Audit in 2008 said was possible. That’s also why I’m sharing this story–because one house can inspire other houses and going to all this trouble just for one house doesn’t seem worth it.

  • Question 2: Families like ours have enough trouble keeping food on the table without going into debt to combat climate change, so why don’t we let the governments take the lead?

Answer: If our governments had been taking the lead, families like ours wouldn’t have to be sticking our necks out. Everyone seems to be waiting for the price of gas to go up or government incentives to arrive or some other change to happen which will make reducing energy use and switching to renewable energies cost effective for the general public.

Meanwhile, the planet warms, the ice melts and the weather gets crazier.

IMG_1510

We can’t wait anymore. Sometimes you have to wag the dog and sometimes that means biting off more than you can chew. Any more dog metaphors I can use?

Here’s a video of what it looked like, through the window of the Little Yellow House next door where we are living, when the concrete arrived right in the middle of that cold snap two weeks ago. I had to go to work, but Leanne had a day off and filmed a bit as the work progressed.

I will always remember the statistic that Lorraine Gauthier of Now House shared with us. In 2011 the home renovation market in Canada was worth $33.8 billion. That’s a lot of people renovating. How much of that was spent on energy efficiency upgrades? Just 7%. Here in the warm Lower Mainland of British Columbia, I expect it was even less and I expect that percentage hasn’t really changed.

People are renovating their homes, but the value they expect to get from their renos is counted in comfort (they will enjoy their new kitchen) or resale value (they expect to sell their home in a few years and their new kitchen will fetch a higher price).

What about the comfort of clean air circulated through a Heat Recovery Ventilator which maintains a nice, even temperature?

What about the comfort of knowing that your new insulation and heat pump mean that your carbon footprint is so much lower?

What about the value of a reduced energy bill that will save you thousands of dollars in the long term as you embrace your house as a forever home and put down roots in your community?

Do I sound like I’m blaming homeowners? I’m not. The barriers to doing what Leanne and I are doing are real. Cost is just one, but let’s look at it first.

On Saturday Leanne asked herself how much we have spent so far on preserving, renovating and retrofitting the two houses which sit on this now protected Heritage Site. My wife is amazing. This is what she came up with.

2010 Maintenance & Upgrades $6,000.99
2011 Heritage Revitalization Costs:
7-14 Annabel Vaughan $350.00 Architectural Services – initial payment ($6625 total)
9-15 Underhill Geomatics Ltd. $3,415.27 Topographical & Legal Survey
10-9 Annabel Vaughan $868.00 Architectural Services for Sept
2011 Maintenance & Upgrades $904.32
2012 Heritage Revitalization Costs:
9-11 Home Depot $24.61 sheets & pads for sander
1-30 Annabel Vaughan $1,120.00 Architectural Services
4-26 Annabel Vaughan $1,279.04 Architectural Services
4-26 Annabel Vaughan $1,260.00 Architectural Services
11-21 Birmingham + Wood $4,144.00 Statement of Significance & Conservation Plan
2012 Maintenance & Upgrades $2,344.26
2013 Heritage Revitalization Costs:
1-9 SpeedPro Signs $336.00 HRA Proposal Sign & Installation
1-9 SpeedPro Signs $44.80 HRA Public Hearing Sticker
1-31 Annabel Vaughan $802.75 Architectural Services – Final Invoice
2-26 Chiu Hippmann Engineering $1,127.73 Structural Engineering
2-27 Red Door Energy Advisors $980.00 Hot 2000 Energy Model
2013 Maintenance & Upgrades $1,442.00
2014 Heritage Revitalization Costs:
2-17 Underhill Geomatics Ltd. $1,575.00  Field work & plan preparation
11-29 Underhill Geomatics Ltd. $679.35 Update plans
11-13 Campbell Burton McMullan Lawyers $907.88 Right of Way Legal documents
2014 Maintenance & Upgrades $326.98
2015 Heritage Revitalization & Construction Costs:
24-Mar Ridgewater Homes $10,000.00 General Contracting
01-Jan Underhill Geometrics $679.35 Surveying
13-Feb City of Maple Ridge $1815.00 New Storm Sewer Connection
27-Mar City of Maple Ridge $50.00 Heritage Alteration Permit
27-Mar City of Maple Ridge $68.00 Land Title Office Registration Fee
26-Jun Ridgewater Homes $20,000.00 General Contracting
26-Aug Ridgewater Homes $20,000.00 General Contracting
24-Sep City of Maple Ridge $1,642.75 Building Permit
30-Jun Chiu Hippman Engineering $142.80 Structural Engineering, structural analysis & design review (Building code change, drawings issued, letters of assurance, 12 blueprints issued for “Revised Building Permit” 6/2
23-Oct Ridgewater Homes $30,000.00 General Contracting
08-Dec Ridgewater Homes $30,000.00 General Contracting
11-Dec MeadowRidge $1,979.25 Plumbing – Permits/Start up
12-Dec Underhill Geometrics $1,680.00 Surveying
27-Sep Staples $2.19 Copies of plans for sketching services, etc.
05-Aug Landfill tipping fee $22.00 Garbage dump
16-Aug RONA $6.71 Bags for storing/moving vermiculite
05-Aug Landfill tipping fee $72.00 Gypsum recycling
05-Aug Husky Gas Station $50.00 Gas for garbage/gypsum dump run
14-Aug HNT Mart $241.05 New grinder for reno work
24-Nov Husky Gas Station $20.00 Gas for garbage dump run

Are you ready for the total? Here it is

Total $148,404.08

Would you spend as much? Maybe, maybe not.

As renovations and retrofits of older homes become more common, costs should come down.

If you merely want to dramatically increase energy efficiency without making additions or other changes, you may not need an architect.

If you’re not interested in protecting your property with a Heritage Revitalization Agreement, you won’t need a Statement of Significance etc.

If your property already conforms to most of the engineering requirements of your municipality, you won’t have to pay for new sewer lines or bury electrical services, etc.

Digging a little deeper, there was another series of costs because there are two houses on this non-conforming double lot. The Little Yellow House, which we normally rent out but which we are now living in, had its own expenses as part of the Heritage Revitalization Agreement including a new sanitary sewer line and electrical service.

Even with us doing a lot of the work, the Little Yellow House upgrades cost $78,056.37 between 2010 and 2015.

Between the two houses, we have spent $226,460.45 on, as Leanne put it, “Maintenance, Upgrades, Heritage and Construction between 2010 and 2015”.

Putting aside the Little Yellow House, Leanne further broke down the Forever House costs by itemizing just the big ticket items like this:

Total paid to Contractor $110,000.00
Total paid to City of MR $3,575.75
Total paid to Underhill (surveyors) $8,028.97
Total paid to Architect $5,679.79
Statement of Significance $4,144.00
Total paid to Engineer $1,270.53
Lawyer Fees $907.88
Total $133,606.92

And that’s not the end of the story. Those are costs to date. Before the work is done we will still have another $60,000 to pay to Ridgewater Homes, our contractor. Then there is the plumbing estimate of $18,000 and the heat pump and HVAC system for which we don’t even have an estimate yet.

Unfortunately, the limits of our financing are fast approaching. After proudly paying down the mortgage on the first townhouse we bought (and still own) in Burnaby to a mere $45K, we are borrowing against that property up to about $160K.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that we’re headed for lean times, and some have pointed out that we didn’t have to be so ambitious with our plans.

I defend our decisions with the title of this blog. Would we be happy here forever had we simply fixed the bathroom without enlarging it or adding a bathroom for the kids upstairs or deepening the basement or shooting for carbon neutral? All of these things will guarantee a long, comfortable and low-carbon life in Hammond Forever House and I think it’s worth stretching for.

A few donations for the Hammond Christmas Hamper 2014

Just a few donations to the Hammond Christmas Hamper in December 2014

Last year our Hammond Neighbours stepped up to help a couple of Hammond families who were struggling have a little less stress and a little more cheer over Christmas. Do I think Leanne and I need a Home Reno Hamper to get us through this challenge? No, we’ll always come out okay, but I will accept any incentives, grants or publicity from any government, organization or neighbour which would like to see more people reduce their home’s carbon footprint because, unless you’re a millionaire (who can afford a higher energy bill anyway), retrofitting, revitalizing and renovating are just way too difficult.

And with house prices the way they are right now, no wonder it seems like the favourite thing to do with older homes in Vancouver is bulldoze them!

I’m very excited that Justin Trudeau has committed us to deep cuts in our carbon emissions; housing is a big source of greenhouse gases. What I want for Christmas, even if it’s too late for us, is a brand new national strategy to help homeowners turn their houses into low energy forever homes!

Dream big!

Sep 152015
 

If you click on the right-hand menu called “architectural drawings” you’ll find a number of posts I have written since February 2014 that include snippets of the plans that Annabel the architect drew for us. These provide an incomplete picture, however, and I think it is time for me to collect all the drawings in one post.

Annabel moved to Ontario so now that we are finally moving ahead with the vision she helped create, she was unable to help us make the adjustments necessary for our final building permit. For that, Ridgewater Homes took over.

These drawings were used to obtain our Heritage Alteration Permit, which allows us to make changes to our house which is under a Heritage Revitalization Agreement. The Building Permit drawings differ slightly (the building code changed in December 2014) but not much.

Here is the house as it was in June of this year 2015:

image

Looking east

image

Looking north

image

Looking west

The view from the Little Yellow House (looking south)

The view from the Little Yellow House (looking south)

To give you an idea of the layout of our newly consolidated double lot (a property that is twice the regular size), here is a bird’s eye view. The little yellow house is at the top.

image

Now, here is the plan.

No change to the front.

No change to the front.

imageThe rear addition is extended out and a new dormer is added to the back. It’s windows face the sunrise. The dormer is inset so that the main shape of the original house is still prominent. There is a generous back porch.

image

Heritage is carefully considered.

imageThere are new windows in the extended addition which give natural light to the bathroom and master closet.

image

imageThe new dormer on the third floor gives the kids a bathroom near their bedrooms and functioning closets, as well as a playroom/guest bedroom.

 

imageThe main floor fixes the whole reason we got into this mess in the first place (the bathroom) and adds a walk-in closet, a large bathroom with shower and tub a la japonais as well as a porch which will be our living room in the warmer months.

The existing house has little useable space in the basement (ceilings are very low).

The existing house has little useable space in the basement (ceilings were very low). The bathroom has carpenter ants and rot, foundation issues and bad ventilation as well as being ugly.

imageThe new basement will have the minimum 2.1meter ceilings in the basement (7′), an insulated floor slab with hydronic heating pipes running through it and sealed and super-insulated walls.

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All this sometimes seems pretty extravagant for a humble little house owned by an ESL Instructor and a Recycling Society employee who met in a theatre class at UBC 19 years ago, but it will be worth it in the end. Making ourselves happy in our homes is one of the best things we can do for our community and the world.
Through the miracle of Annabel's technology, these are two models of what the house will look like

Through the miracle of Annabel’s technology, these are two models of what the house will look like


Can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait can’t wait!

 

Sep 132015
 

Warning: if you are not interested in the nitty-gritty details of how we made a final decision on which contractor to hire, skip this post!

[Update: March, 2016. We are now in a contract dispute with Ridgewater Homes. Custom Precision Homes, the other company we considered, cannot be contacted and has information posted here and here do not sound good. Apparently, all the work we did to vet our contractor, as described below, did not achieve the results we had hoped. For more details, click here.]

DSC01792Okay, here we go.

I told you we are working with Ridgewater Homes, right? I also promised to tell you how we arrived at that decision.

I told you about the first contractor we talked to way back in 2011.

I told you about The Missing Contractor who gave us our first comprehensive quote and then stopped answering calls and e-mails.

In January, 2015, going into the final stages of our Heritage Revitalization Agreement with the City of Maple Ridge, I stoked the fire of my contractor search once more. A few recommendations had come to us from friends and neighbours, but it was always “a guy” and I figured our project was going to need more than “a guy” no matter how awesome he was.

In fact, we had pizza delivered while working on the house last month and the delivery guy said, “hey I’m licensed if you’re looking for some help on your house give me a call.” He didn’t have a card with him so he wrote his number on a piece of paper. Seriously. It’s the wild west out there.

With the horror stories that you hear, I knew references were going to be vital. With only the one quote from the Missing Contractor in hand, I decided to try that website that helps you find “Home Improvement Pros” called HomeAdvisor.com again. I like the concept, but had only gotten two results last time. This kind of service is only as good as the number of businesses they are connected with.

By the way, HomeAdvisor’s article on easy energy efficiency upgrades isn’t bad. Click here to read it.

This time I had three hits and set up meetings right away. (I seem to remember four meetings, but I believe I have blanked one out of my memory.) Having planned this project for four years, we had some things we were looking for in a contractor.

imageA few things made our project unusual. We had complete architectural drawings ready (we thought) to be submitted for a Building Permit. We had structural drawings from an engineer. We had already received approval from city council on these plans. Finally, we had already researched, based on an energy model, specific energy and water saving measures we hoped to add. You might argue that these things should make a contractor’s job easier–no architect or engineer needed and the clients are less likely to change their minds in the middle of the project.

However, other things made it more complicated. For one thing, far from decided on what heating system we wanted (gas furnace, air source heat pump or geothermal heat pump) we were not even decided on how that heat would be delivered–ie: whether we would use forced air ducting or hot water baseboards or something else. For another, we knew from our first estimate that we couldn’t afford to have all the work done by a contractor, we would have to find some way to share the work.

I wasn’t sure if we could find a contractor willing to work under these conditions.

We had determined that the limit to our borrowing power was $150 000 (the first estimate we had was over $300K). The goal was to divide the work into what we could do ourselves and what we would need professionals for.

One contractor suggested we hire him and have him bill us “by the hour”. The idea made my head swim with images of a half-done house and a bill we couldn’t afford. My notes on that meeting were as follows:
-seemed better suited to working under a company
-brought up corruption and cheating on jobs
-suggested we bill him by the hour
-asked if we want to do “cash or invoices and taxes”
He clearly hinted that paying him cash by the hour was the much better option and I couldn’t politely say goodbye to him fast enough. (Note to contractors looking for work: if the first words out of your mouth are how you saved a homeowner from other unscrupulous and corrupt contractors, it does not reassure me that you are honest.)

RANT: I’m still alarmed at how inconsistent the renovation industry is. We want the best work at the best price, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of regulation or quality assurance. We have the Better Business Bureau and Consumer Protection BC as well as independent services like HomeAdvisor, but one has the sense these don’t count for much. Contractors seem to rely on word of mouth to build a reputation. That makes it much more difficult for homeowners to find someone they feel comfortable with. Mike Holmes’ advice for finding quality contractors is all well and good, but what do you do if nobody is following Mike Holmes playbook?

Hiring a contractor to renovate your home is like handing a stranger your baby. No wonder people often feel more comfortable mowing down an older home and building a new one–at least they can walk around a show home and feel confident they know what the final result will be.

I suppose another part of the problem is the vertigo that we homeowners feel when someone, be it a contractor, a city official, a tradesperson or a friend, suggests that we’re going to need an engineer, an architect, a surveyor or–gasp–a permit. It immediately sounds so much more expensive and the temptation to hire “a guy” to “get’erdone” is real and understandable. Leanne and I have proceeded with the assumption that good planning and “doing it right” will pay off in the future with a better, more comfortable, cheaper-to-heat home to live in.

We’re willing to put in the time, energy and money to save a) the resources that went into building this house, b) its heritage value, and c) reduce its impact on the planet, but we are the exception. Some call us “early adopters” of emerging trends. As our governments back away from supporting home renovations and home energy retrofits, it will be harder and harder for people to do what we are doing. When will they get on the right side of history?

End of rant.

All this is why I was very happy to find two contractors I could not write off so easily, Ridgewater Homes and Custom Precision Homes. Continue reading »

Jul 042015
 

[UPDATE MARCH 2016: since this post was written, Leanne and I have entered into a contract dispute with Ridgewater Homes. For more details, click here.]

I only want to name people if I can say something nice about them.

I have a few nice things to say about Kingswood Builders Group but we’ll never know how good a company they really are because I can’t get them on the phone.

Let me clarify that they are not the contractor that we hired this year (but they could have been). We hired Ridgewater Homes after some careful research this year and I’ll tell you about that next week.

I can only guess Kingswood were sick and tired of giving me quotes and didn’t believe our project would ever actually happen. Fair enough, we did get two quotes and three meetings out of them over the course of three years without going ahead. They were the only company to do that for us and we appreciated it. It’s just too bad they went off the radar when we finally got our ducks in a row this year.

Anyway, here is their quote from January 2014, insulated concrete form (“quadlock walls”), insulation, interior finishing and all:

KINGSWOOD BUILDERS GROUP LTD

2655 KINGSWAY AVE PORT COQUITLAM BC V3E1P8
TEL. 604 941-4849 FAX. 604 941-0241

ESTIMATE
NAME JAMES ROWLEY

THE UNDERSIGNED PROPOSES TO FURNISH ALL MATERIALS AND PERFORM ALL LABOR NECESSARY TO COMPLETE ALL THE DESCRIBED WORK
REQUIREMENTS
THE SCOPE OF WORK IS AS FOLLOWS.
TO LIFT THE EXISTING HOUSE AND REMOVE ALL THE EXISTING FOUNDATION
TO DIG DOWN APPROX 1’9” PLUS FOOTING AND SAND AND DISPOSE
TO SUPPLY AND INSTALL QUADLOCK WALLS OVER FOOTING AS PER PLAN
TO FRAME ADDITION AND NEW ROOF LINE AS PER PLAN
ALL SIDING AND TRIM AS PER PLAN
ALL HOUSE SERVICES FROM CITY HOOK UPS TO HOUSE
R/I PLUMBING & ELECTRIC
INSULATION & DRYWALL PLUS PAINT
ALLOWANCE ON VANITIES $3000.00
ALLOWANCE ON BUILT-IN DRAWS ETC $2500.00
ALLOWANCE ON LIGHTING $2500.00
ALLOWANCE ON CERAMIC TILE $1600.00
ALLOWANCE ON PLUMBING FIXTURES $4200.00
ALLOWANCE ON FLOORING $800.00
THIS HOUSE HAS BEEN PRICED WITH OUT THE SPECIAL ITEMS THAT THE OWNER WOULD LIKE TO HAVE IE: HEAT RECOVER ITEMS ETC,AT THIS TIME

TOTAL PRICE $314,789.00 PLUS GST

ALL PRODUCT TO BE CONFIRMED BETWEEN BUILDER AND HOME OWNER IN WRITING
HOPING THIS IS THE INFORMATION THAT YOU REQUIRE AND PLEASE DO NOT HESITATE TO CALL.
YOURS TRULY
PETER
________________________________________________________________ ALL OF THE ABOVE WORK TO BE COMPLETED IN A GOOD AND WORKMANLIKE MANNER

ANY CHANGES IN THE WORK AND THE PRICE SHALL BE MADE IN WRITING.

THIS PROPOSAL IS MADE ON THE CURRENT MATERIAL AND LABOUR COSTS
A DELAY IN ACCEPTANCE OF MORE THAN DAYS WILL REQUIRE A
REVIEW OF THE PROPOSAL AND RE-DATING BEFORE THE AGREEMENT
BECOMES BINDING.

As I mentioned before, setting a goal of obtaining 5 or 6 quotes is all very well, but finding 5 or 6 contractors who are interested enough in meeting us, let alone submitting a quote on the project, is another matter entirely.

I can understand that contractors are hesitant to provide quotes. It’s not that they are unscrupulous or trying to cheat you. Putting together an estimate that is at all accurate takes time. How many times have they worked for a week on an estimate for a customer only to never hear back from them? I imagine after a few experiences like that you might start getting a lot more vague with your numbers.
Continue reading »

Feb 172015
 

Friday was a big day.

I submitted three copies of our Heritage Revitalization Agreement to the City of Maple Ridge with Leanne’s and my signature on them. Adrian Kopystinski, heritage planner, met me on his lunch break and then had to run. His sweetheart was taking him out for Valentine’s.

Adrian, Leanne and I have all been working hard on this for a long time.

Adrian, Leanne and I have all been working hard on this for a long time.

This puts us on track for our HRA, re-zoning and tax exemption bylaw to be read for the third and final time by City Council on February 24th, 2015.

Assuming all is well, from that date forward we will be designated.

Boom.

A bunch of things will happen, including:

We will renegotiate our home insurance. Many underwriters simply do not cover heritage properties. It’s going to cost more, of course.

The clock will start ticking. We have one year to commence our renovation and five years to finish.

We will become exempt from the municipal portion of our property taxes for five years. In my last post about The Now House Project, I originally wrote a figure of $4000 for our 2014 Municipal taxes. That was our total property tax. The Municipal portion is half that or $2068.81. At that rate, a five-year exemption would save us $10344.05.

This last item sounds pretty sweet, but as I went into when I first wrote about appearing before city council, the savings in taxes is not free money. It helps, but does not balance the costs to obtaining the Heritage Agreement.

Among the costs have been an architect, lawyer, structural engineer, plumber, excavator, electric company and city engineering crew. Not all of these would be incurred by a simpler HRA, and some of them are the result of wanting to do it right–short-term cost for long-term payoff.

imageThe freshest unavoidable cost is the $16248 I paid on Friday after Adrian left for his lunch date (but I’m not bitter.)

That’s right: $16K

Engineering requires us to connect to the storm sewer so that excess water, especially in extreme weather events (and we can expect more of those), has a place to go. If you look at our plans you will see that we are deepening the basement into a more useable space. We will certainly be updating the perimiter drain that collects water around the base of the foundation. There is nothing for it; we have to agree to a storm sewer.

imageThe money I paid on Friday is a security against the work. It is a condition in the HRA so we had to pay it before we could go forward with our final date with council. We are waiting for a more precise estimate for the work which may be higher yet.

It is incredible to Leanne and I that it costs $16K to dig a trench in a road and lay a pipe. We had a theory that some of that money must go to general engineering work. However, I have been assured that is simply how much the work costs. It includes things like traffic management, re-paving, an inspection chamber, etc.

What it doesn’t include is anything on our property. The perimiter drain around the house and pipe to the property line  where our $16K connection is waiting for us is a future cost we can look forward to.

So you can understand when I say that Friday was one of mixed emotions. It was momentous to sign a final document but it was painful to watch $16 248 disappear to pay for something we didn’t ask for. I would love to see a simplified process whereby single-family heritage homes can protect their homes without going through the same process a developer does when subdividing a large heritage lot. Anyone?

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Nov 122014
 

James at Earthday

As you know, I’m running for School Trustee in BC School District 42. The election is coming up on Saturday and always the question is, “what is the best use of what little time I have left.” You can help by voting your advice. What should I do right now?

Visiting Social Chick Vicki McLeod

Visiting Social Chick Vicki McLeod

  1. engage in conversation on Facebook groups?
  2. knock on doors and hand out flyers?
  3. hand out flyers at supermarkets or train stations?
  4. attend meet-and-greet events?
  5. spend time with my kids but make sure I get cute photos to post online?
  6. update my trustee website and facebook page?

You may notice that writing a blog post for Hammond Forever House is not on the list, but I’m doing it anyway. That’s how I roll.

This post has been a long time coming. Now that it is here, it is going to be a little rushed. Why? See the list above.

First, the news. Last week at the School Board meeting, staff recommended to the board the hiring of an energy manager on a one-year trial basis. The board voted yes. This follows a conversation thread on Facebook on what Trustee candidates propose to do about the $100 000 per year the School District pays in Carbon Tax because our buildings are inefficient. Well, here is your answer!

You have no idea how pleased I would be to be a school trustee when the process of assessing school buildings for energy-efficiency and making upgrades is happening. Here is why.

By October 17th, 2012, where we left off our story, I was starting to kick up a fuss about how long our Heritage Revitalization Agreement was taking to get into shape to present to City Council. While I was twiddling my thumbs, I investigated what features we could add to the house to make it more sustainable.

I got a quote on a geothermal heat pump, including drilling which came to about $20000. It sounds like a lot, but it would end our dependence on fossil fuels, reduce our bills forever and, with the Livesmart BC grant, which knocked off about $6000 (and considering we are planning to live here long enough to enjoy the energy savings) it would have been worth it. Unfortunately we discovered that we were not eligible for that grant because we had already received one for insulation and sealing in 2008. Suddenly it was not affordable and now the BC Government, bless their hearts, has eliminated Livesmart BC altogether. [The Federal EcoEnergy Grant is long gone and the Conservatives refuse to consider bringing it back, even though it works, creates jobs, diversifies the economy, etc. etc. Don’t get me started.]

I was looking at retaining rainwater to flush our toilets with, making the roof solar-ready, super-insulating the new walls and ceilings, and putting water pipes into the basement slab to deliver warmth and cool to the house.

All of these things have a significant up-front cost, but long-term savings and, of course, drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The reno itself was going to break our bank and I hated the idea of accepting the truth that we couldn’t afford to do the right thing.

Lisa Zosiak, Heritage Planner, had passed us on to another planner, but a few times she passed on some information on sustainable building. On October 17th she sent a quick e-mail that changed my life:

Hi Leanne and James,

Thought this session may be of interest to you.

Lisa Zosiak, Planner, District of Maple Ridge

Free Public Lecture

Lorraine in Maple Ridge
Lorraine in Maple Ridge

The Now House — Retrofitting for Zero Energy

October 24, 7 pm

SFU Harbour Centre, 515 West Hastings Street, Vancouver

Admission is free, but reservations are required. Reserve

A lot of focus has been placed on how to build homes that are increasingly more energy efficient and sustainable. But what about the existing stock of older homes across the country? In 50 years, two-thirds of our housing stock will still be here and housing is responsible for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Join Lorraine Gauthier as she explores the approach behind the Now House® — the retrofit of a 60-year-old post-war house in an established neighbourhood in Toronto and its transformation into a net zero energy home. Just like a typical city house, the Now House® is connected to, and uses energy from, the local utility. However, unlike typical homes, the Now House® produces energy to send to the utility company. On an annual basis, the home produces as much energy as it consumes, resulting in a net zero energy bill.

Based on this success, the The Now House™ project team teamed up with Windsor Essex Community Housing Corporation to bring sustainable thinking and design to five similar wartime houses in Windsor. Come and discover how the Now House® offers a vision and a practical, affordable approach that can be applied to homes across the country.

Featuring panelists Michael Geller, architect, planner, and developer; and Dr. Guido Wimmers, director, Canadian Passive House Institute.

Sponsored by CMHC, Light House Sustainable Building Centre, and SFU Continuing Studies (City Program).

Now House Intro

Continue reading »

Oct 292014
 
In January, 2013, Iago the cat had never seen a dog.

In January, 2013, Iago the cat had never seen a dog.

Do you believe people who say Maple Ridge City Hall is not open and transparent? Have you ever called up and asked someone a question? Try it!

Our Heritage Revitalization Agreement went before Council for the first time on January 7, 2013. As is common practice, the planner who was working with us presented our application at a Committee of the Whole. We had a chance to add some words to the presentation and I did so.

Through the miracle of modern technology, you can watch the presentation here. Skip ahead to minute 38:00. Our part of the meeting lasts about 12 minutes.

What is a Committee of the Whole? Mostly a chance for a less formal Q&A and debate among Council about items that will come before the regular council meeting the next day for a vote. Here is what the Maple Ridge website says:

Committee of the Whole
Committee of the Whole is the initial venue for review and debate of issues. No voting takes place on bylaws or resolutions. A decision is made to send an item to Council for debate and vote or to send an item back to staff for more information or clarification. As a rule, Committee of the Whole meets on the first and third Monday of each month starting at 1:00 pm in Council Chambers at Municipal Hall. A Community Forum is held following adjournment of Committee of the Whole. The public has an opportunity during this Forum to speak to Council on any subject, with the exception of Public Hearing bylaws that have not reached a conclusion.

In our case, I wanted to make Council aware of the time and expense we had already invested into our house reno and preservation. I wanted to ask how many people in our situation would have thrown up their hands and walked away.

In retrospect I can see the problem. We citizens want low-cost government and we want to attract investment, industry and development to Maple Ridge, but we don’t want to pay the people who we need to process all the applications that this growth gives rise to. We would prefer that the people we already have simply work harder.

Beavers last year

Beavers last year

Tonight I visited Council Chambers again. I was dressed in my Beaver Scout Leader uniform. My son was in his Beaver uniform and my daughter was in her Cub Scout uniform. We were there to celebrate Waste Reduction Week. Ridge Meadows Recycling Society had created a Recycling badge with local Scouts and Guides and they were presenting them.

You can see the video of the Recycling Society’s presentation with contributions from Scouts and Guides at this link. Skip to the 13:00 minute mark. It is remarkable that Ridge Meadows Recycling was able to partner with both Guides and Scouts on this. Such cooperation is unusual and exemplifies the community-spirit of Maple Ridge.

After the meeting, I was waiting for my son who had decided to have a leisurely visit to the washroom. I was standing in the lobby under a ceiling speaker and listening to the proceedings in Council Chambers. A woman was speaking. She was comparing how many planners, plan checkers, etc there are in Maple Ridge, Langley and Coquitlam city halls. She compared how many applications the planners in Maple Ridge process simultaneously compared with these other comparable municipalities.

The opinion I expressed in my last post was confirmed for me; Maple Ridge planners are overworked.  Check out the video of the meeting linked above for more details.

If innovative processes like the Heritage Revitalization Agreement and the newly minted business incentive plan are going to work, we need enough staff to handle them. Otherwise they become an empty promise.

In the ongoing municipal election campaign we hear candidates complain that permits and applications take too long, but that the answer is greater efficiency, not more staff. In the context of the above information, I would need more details on what efficiencies these candidates believe are possible. Otherwise, I assume they have no idea what they are talking about.

But back to Hammond Forever House. Here is the text of what I said to council on January 7, 2013. The next evening, Council voted to grant our application first and second reading.

Thank you for considering our application for a Heritage Revitalization Agreement. Leanne and I are proud to be one of the first applicants and we hope that many more people will find the HRA helpful in preserving heritage homes like ours.

I’d like to offer a homeowner’s perspective on the HRA process.

We moved to Hammond in 2007 and, like many people of our generation, we would never have been able to afford to buy a house without the help of our families.

The little yellow house with its new porch and paint.

The little yellow house with its new porch and paint.

We immediately began improvements to make the house comfortable and safe for a toddler and a new baby and with an eye to preserving heritage elements. The subsequent work on the little yellow house alone cost us $50 000 and took five months.The last major item on the to-do list was the bathroom of the main house. This room has foundation issues, mold issues, carpenter ant issues, low ceiling issues and, Leanne wants me to mention, the floor under the toilet squishes when you sit down.

We were tired so we turned to a contractor who quoted us $20 000. “Wow,” we thought, “that’s a lot.” We asked if we required permits. The answer was, as I’m sure council can guess, “well, technically yes.”

A preliminary phone call to the district taught us that there was no standard path for us to obtain a permit. In fact, it looked like there was no legal way to do the relatively small project that still needs to be done. However, when we spoke to the Heritage department, everything became possible.

It was clear, however, that instead of gradual improvements over time which would mean a Heritage Alteration Permit each time, we should put all our future plans for the property into the HRA application. That is what you have in your hands.

The points we’d like to make are first that the HRA is an essential option for homeowners like us. In Hammond, there are at least four cases where a two-story garage has been tacked on to the side of a one-story cottage. The HRA could have allowed for more reasonable renovations.

Secondly, the Tax Exemption as an incentive, is a good idea.

Another HRA case but this one moved the house and increased density

Another HRA case but this one moved the house and increased density

We’ve heard that the previous HRA applicants have all had, as part of their plans, an increase in density. I believe that means they plan to sell a portion or in some other way profit from the development, while preserving at least one heritage building.When we look around Hammond at the single-family lots with their small, decaying heritage houses, we wonder how those owners could be persuaded to preserve them.

People ask us why we don’t subdivide and sell the little yellow house, but that house pre-dates the main house and the siting of the buildings tells a story.

To put the HRA into perspective in our case, I’d like to compare the costs and the benefits.

On the benefit side, the five-year tax exemption would amount to $7335.70 if we use the 2012 assessment. [based on 2012 tax rate]

On the cost side to date:

-the architect, engineer and surveyor so far cost $8460.31

-the Statement of Significance and Conservation plan cost $4144

-separating the services to the two houses cost $19 177.67 including $12 000 to the district for a new sewer connection and the last quote we have for the required storm sewer is an additional $12 000. We don’t know how much the sidewalks are going to be.

Anyway, so far we have personally spent $32 781.98.

Note that we would not have incurred any of these costs had we simply renovated the bathroom for 20 or 30 000 dollars back in June 2011 when we began the HRA process, and here we are a year and a half later still sitting on a squishy toilet.

I guess the question we have for council is how many homeowners in our position will do the same. It’s probably a question for another day, and Leanne and I would like to be part of the fine-tuning process, especially as it relates to Hammond.

Perhaps there is a case for special consideration for property owners who are benefiting the community and not making a million doing it. Perhaps there is also a case for a further 5 years tax exemption in some cases.

In conclusion, I’d like to say that Leanne and I believe in the concept of the Heritage Revitalization Agreement. We hope council will look favourably on our application. Thank you very much for your consideration.