By Wilf Geier —
We recently finished building a house. Before we started, it seemed like the ideas and options were endless. In order of importance, we felt that a solid, well-built house was the most important. Following that we wanted it to be comfortable, highly efficient, unique, and well finished. The original designs were pretty lofty, but then reality set in and the budget dictated what we actually need in a house (what, no indoor pool and skate park?!?).
We ended up spending over a year on design, looking at many different layouts that fit our needs, trying to ensure that we weren’t building more than was absolutely necessary. All while we were keeping it simple for our first (and possibly only) build. We ended up with a simply designed home with an open concept main floor, three bedrooms upstairs, and a basement in law suite.
The next goal was high efficiency. When you start shopping for energy efficiency, the options are endless. This is awesome because it means people are taking notice and starting to care about green options. However, it can become quite daunting and there always seems to be some misinformation (just to make it fun). After much head scratching, it was made somewhat simpler when my brother told me to just look at the numbers. Being a marine engineer, I tend to like numbers. There are many green options out there, and we get bombarded by beautifully designed homes in magazines, but often they are complex to build and unaffordable.
After crunching the numbers, it was pretty obvious that the most important green choice that would produce the best results was a well-insulated, tight house. To achieve this, we used several materials. We used rigid Styrofoam insulation under the basement slab and in the basement walls. In the house we went with double stud walls filled with mostly recycled fibreglass, and in the roof we used 100 per cent recycled cellulose insulation.
A tight house can become uncomfortable, but the old “a house needs to breathe” technique needs to be put to rest. Our house breathes through a heat recovery ventilator (HRV). This device is a simple heat exchanger that replaces stale inside air with fresh outside air, but without a big temperature drop. It also helps with humidity, and keeps the house comfortable, all while using as much power as a light bulb.
For heat, we decided on an air to air heat pump with air handler. This involves ducting, but I liked the idea of air circulation. We also installed a wood-burning RSF Opel 3 fireplace on the main floor. It is installed in a central location and the heat distribution is excellent. Not only does it keep the house warm, but we love sitting in front of the fire in the (loooong) winter evenings in Terrace, BC.
The design is our own, and though it is not extremely unique, it is simple and practical. This made the building of it much more manageable and kept our costs low. I sometimes see house designs with 16 or more corners in the foundation and shudder at all the added cost and build time (each un-needed corner means extra cuts on every piece, inside and out). Complicated usually equates to labour intensive and stress (both of which I’m allergic to).
If you are thinking of building a house, I think it is important to go through a planning process. I believe that these steps are very important in modern home building.
- Don’t build more than you need: Not only does it cost more for material and labour, but every cubic foot needs to be heated, and the bigger the surface area the more heat loss and energy used for the lifetime of the house.
- Keep it simple: Surprisingly, a small house can be more labour intensive than a big house if it is a complex design. Each corner adds cost, and each roof pitch causes stress (it would for me, anyway). Also a complex home is harder to seal and often creates more material waste.
- Insulate, Insulate, Insulate: If you have completed the first two steps, insulating is not really that expensive and difficult. Especially when you see that by insulating you can buy a smaller heat pump or a smaller wood stove, it takes less energy to heat, and it stays cooler in the summer. Insulation is the gift that keeps on giving, day after day, year after year.
- Comfort: Make sure that the house is comfortable. There are many methods of doing this—look at the numbers to get what is best for you. If you don’t like getting firewood, then putting in a stove would be a waste of money. I could have put in geothermal rather than a heat pump and fireplace, but I really wanted the fireplace and, coupled with the heat pump, my cost is less per year than geothermal would have been. Though firewood can cost money, I usually get mine for free (though it sometimes incurs a trip to the chiropractor). HRV is a fairly cheap system to install and can make the difference between a stuffy house and one that feels fresh.
- Use all of your space: One way to reduce your footprint is to build a basement. A basement used to be a cold dark, musty space that you stored things in. That no longer needs to be the case. I wanted a four-bedroom house so that we could have a spare bedroom. By insulating the slab and building with Quad Lock, the rigid Sytrofoam, we achieved a very comfortable suite (as well as some much needed storage space).
- Materials: Try to use locally manufactured, recycled, and available materials. Often they are cheaper, more readily available, and involve less trucking. Wood, recycled fibreglass, and cellulose insulation make up a good part of this house, and are all locally available and renewable.
In the end, we were able to prove that anyone can build green, without revolutionizing the tried and tested methods of current building practices, and with very little added labour or cost. Our house is very comfortable, suits our needs, and costs very little to maintain. As I stated above, there are many methods of green home design, and certain material prices are changing constantly. I believe that our choices were the best for us, and we are very lucky that we were able to achieve all of the items on our list and do it within the budget that we had.
For those about to build, enjoy the process. Take breaks when you need them and don’t stress the small stuff. Also, don’t worry when you feel like you are losing your mind; you might be, but it’ll come back after the finishing work is completed. For those who are renovating, it’s a similar process; use the numbers to see if you are getting the most out of your dollar. This will save you heartache (or at least bank-ache) in the long run.
Wilf Geier works as a marine engineer and in search and rescue for the Canadian Coast Guard. He’s been living in and loving the northwest for many years.