Building a greener home – part 1

Back in 2008 both my husband and I came away from watching Garbage Warrior feeling excited, even somehow galvanized. We came away from it wondering if we could knock down our 70-year old home in a leafy west Ottawa neighbourhood and replace it with an earthship, a la Michael Reynolds. We knew that rammed tires wouldn’t go over well with the neighbours as an aesthetic (nor did we really want to knock down a perfectly good house that just needs to be made more energy efficient), and we watched with interest the emergence of more traditional house-forms that used earthship technologies. Over time, as we let things sink in, we came to realize what we really wanted to do.

Building a “green” house was definitely part of the picture (I say that parenthetically as there as so many ways to approach home building in a more environmentally friendly way), but more than that, we wanted to move out of an urban environment, find somewhere that we could live on a small scale and have access to locally grown food (including growing more of it ourselves) and amenities. We wanted a more rural setting, but not to place ourselves so far out of the fray that we would be compelled to drive everywhere. We wanted the opposite, in fact – to enjoy a more rural setting while still being able to walk and cycle most of the places that we would need and want to get to on a regular basis.

Mission impossible (we wondered)?

It took us another 18 months after first seeing that film about renegade architect Michael Reynolds to get serious about looking for our new home. We had a clear checklist in mind, and yet didn’t know if what we were looking for was entirely possible. We also assumed that we’d be buying a patch of land with an older home on it that we’d need to fix up/maintain for a period until we could manage to build our own “earthship” (parantheses this time as by now we knew that the rammed tire technology was not practical or desirable for where we live, in the frozen north).

As with much in our lives, we spent quite a long time mulling things over in a vague way before we actually got inspired to the point of really getting focused on the issue. (Our children were already talking regularly to other people in their lives about the fact that we were going to “move to the country” some day, but I think they had their doubts that it would ever happen.)  It was a chance conversation with a prospective client for our business who was building her own home that really lit a fire under us. This generous person shared the ups and downs of her own story (very different from ours, but still very instructive) with us, and gave us a very sage piece of advice about location. Make sure you are outside of the City of Ottawa, she intoned, or you will be bogged down with permits, bureaucracy and delays. (For any readers not familiar with Ottawa, the city covers a ridiculously large amount of geography for a citizenry of barely one million souls, and it is indeed possible to live “in the countryside” within city limits.)

Even though we had considered going as far as Peterborough, Ontario (three hours west of our current home in Ottawa), we really had no idea of where we were going to find our future community, and that warning really helped us to think clearly about the “where”. And within two weeks or so of that meeting, we had found the land that we wanted to buy. We were conducting regular searches online and chanced upon a listing for an acreage that looked from its Google Maps link as though it was at least 1.5 hours west of Ottawa, but whose description provided us with a hint that eventually led to the truth: it was located on the town boundary of a small town 45 minutes west of Ottawa. When we uncovered the truth of its position, we couldn’t quite believe our luck until we went to see it ourselves. It was indeed a large patch of land that had formerly been a berry farm and was within easy walking and cycling distance of the town centre.

Suffice it to say, after a brief period looking further into the land and our financing, we made the purchase. It was initially daunting to find ourselves owners of this parcel of now wild, formerly farmed land, particularly as it was the only parcel of land that we viewed in person before deciding to buy it. This is quite typical for us: we bought our very first home together having viewed only three  properties, and we purchased our current home having first seen only one other property. Our first rented flat in the UK was chosen by my husband without my seeing it (as I was in Canada at the time) and we decided to buy our current home without my husband ever stepping foot in it (he being back in the UK dealing with the sale of our first house). I know this type of behaviour can be shocking for folks who are used to conducting extensive research and making detailed comparisons before making such a big purchase. It has usually worked out for us…

The one thing missing from our new land was a house, or indeed any building of any kind, apart from a small shed-like hut that we call the berry shack. So, building a new home moved up the list quite urgently. Perhaps surprisingly for us, we interviewed two architects and one builder. We selected the builder and decided to forego an architect. The extra fees for an architect (10% of the entire cost of the build) and the process (which we felt would add too much time to the entire undertaking, as well as increase the likelihood that we would overengineer the homebuilding thing and tip over into “dream home” territory, which we did not want to do) were the main deterrents.

Our choice of builder, a local in our new community, turned out to be beyond brilliant. He answered all of our questions, helped us navigate the early stages of the whole design process and patiently sat by as we tinkered with our own plan for the house (based on plans that we found online and wished to modify). Several weeks into the process he showed up with some plans of his own for houses he had built, and ever so diplomatically suggested that they might offer a solution to the problems we had been encountering. Breathing a sigh of relief, we selected a plan and engaged in a process of modifying it to suit our needs with the help of our builder and an architectural technologist (basically someone with technical drawing skills who understands home building and codes). So for about $1,500 – instead of $40k plus – we had our plans.

Okay, but plans for what? Let me back up and say that while we had long since given up our idea of an earthship (be it fabricated of recycled tires or concrete), in the end, our own research and our conversations with our builder helped us to realize that we would be building something very like an earthship in its fundamentals. ICF (insulated concrete forms) homebuilding is all about building a house with a super energy efficient envelope out of concrete. ICF homes do very well on passive solar gain and are amazing at staying cool in the summer and warm in the winter, which is exactly what we need here in eastern Ontario.

Here is where I will end part one of this tale, but not without a parting shot. ICF is an amazing way to build a home, and yet homeowners don’t know what the hell it is and mainstream builders sure as heck aren’t using it. They wouldn’t, would they, if homeowners aren’t asking for it. So, without further ado, here’s a glimpse at ICF construction. In part two I’ll write more about other  green decisions and choices for our new home.

New ICF house taking shape in eastern Ontario
As I've stated in a previous post, building an ICF home is a lot like building with Lego. Green foam blocks held together by plastic forms that slot together (metal rebar and concrete come later). This is a shot of the lower level of our bungalow with a walkout basement.
Pouring concrete for a house made of insulated concrete forms
This picture was taken the day of the second pour of concrete for the upper or main level of our new bungalow. (This is a good day to choose to stay out of your builder's hair.)
Looking into the lower level of a new ICF house
Looking into the double doorway of the lower level of the house. The front of the house, which is north facing, looks like a typical bungalow. The rear, which is south facing, is two stories of large windows and doors.
Basement interior of a new ICF house
A view of the basement from the inside. The single door at the rear is for a cold storage room.
South facing view of new ICF house with screened in porch
A view of the south facing rear of the house, where its two stories become visible. The wooden structure is a screened in porch.
Front view of new ICF bungalow
And the view from the front...we couldn't afford to build a free standing barn, so we opted for a bungalow with an attached "two car" garage. Quite funny for a family that prefers to have no car. A long term plan is to find an old barn that we can dismantle and rebuild on our land.

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