Adventures in Eco-Home Renovation

Buying a home is easy (sort of...). Greening it is a little more daunting. Take a look at what we did!

So, in May of this year we moved our home and office to lovely, green, Peterborough, Ontario. Being as we are, we couldn’t just move – no – like so many before us, we had to move and renovate! Always sounds like such a fun idea…at the time. And, to tell you the truth, it is a good idea if your home could be more energy efficient, attractive and eco-friendly. It can be affordable too, for that matter…but it is ALWAYS a lot of work…and there are most often unforeseen surprises. Just wait until you read about ours! Our new home will turn 100 years old this year. It’s a great double-brick character home with hardwood floors and high ceilings. We love it – save for the “family room”, that is. This room was affectionately dubbed “the stinky room” by our two year old; an astute observation. An add-on to the original building, not only did this room have about the nastiest, smelly old stained carpeting that I’ve seen since under-grad, it was a virtually un-insulated energy-sucker of a space to boot. The muddied beige (or is that some shade of violet?) paint was not doing it any favours either.

The mission: Stinky Room, Be Gone!

The quest:

1) Eco-friendly insulation for a more comfortable and energy-efficient space. 2) Sustainable and eco-friendly hardwood floors – bye-bye 1980s carpet! 3) Fresh new no-VOC paint on walls and trim.

The players:

The “family in distress”

– played by us, the Butler Stedman family: Sam, Alexis, Ransom and Grandma LeeLee.

The Heroine

- Anastasia Vaskova of ContractHER, Level 2 carpenter in Red Seal certification, LEED Green Associate, with 20+ years of home renovations, and Habitat for Humanity Crew Leader.

Her Sidekick

– The witty and clever Virginia Erwin, eager crew member, keen and eager to learn Supporting Players – Crew members: JJ Brill, Jack Brill, and Sam’s cousin Chris

Our Heroes:

Nadurra Wood Corporation – The Eco-Wood Source Roxul – The Better Insulation Natura Beauti-Tone paint by Home Hardware – No VOCs, Gorgeous Colour “The Woodsman”, Master floor layer, Alex Melchert of Meistercraft Wood Flooring

Chapter One: There’s a Hatch?!

We contacted our pal, LEED certified contractor Anastasia Vaskova of ContractHER, and our eco-adventure in Home-Reno-Land was off! After a preliminary site visit (i.e. a first look at our “stinky room”) and a meeting to discuss our plight and desires, Anastasia took a poke around to see what exactly she’d be dealing with. This brings us to our first test-of-will and feat-of-fortitude (every good drama has a few of these!): The Secret Trap-Door. As Anastasia and Sam pulled up the cringe-worthy old carpet to see what lay beneath, lo and behold, what should appear but a trap-door! Uh-oh… (I feel our reno schedule expanding already!). A quick peek reveals that the exposed crawl space beneath our chilly family-room-to-be is completely un-insulated! We can also see that there’ll be some stuff to haul out before we can get in to explore further. But first, the nitty-gritty details of our reno plan, as related through Anastasia’s log:

ContractHER’S Log: Assessment & Plan of Attack

I always suggest getting a Heat Load calculation done to know if a home’s heating runs/pipes are sufficient and working properly. Cost for this is about $1000 and should be done whenever you get a new furnace. There were 2 runs of HVAC into the family room and 1 going to the adjoining bathroom – past owners may have beefed-up the runs and size of pipes because the room was so cold.

Since we did not get a Heat Load calculation done, and since there was access to the HVAC pipes right off the furnace going to this room, I suggested that we may want to install a damper to reduce the amount of heat/cold going to this space upon completion of our reno. Choosing to insulate the floor cavities was a must because you could just feel the cold on your feet when you walked on the carpet.

Once I found the trap door (!) we realized we could insulate from underneath, via the crawl space. We’ll also add extra insulation to the attic, but won’t be opening up the walls, which already contain some insulation. I advised using R32 Roxul ComfortBatt insulation which is a rock wool (made of recycled rock and slag), not fibreglass. It is inert and does not promote mould growth. It is dense, comes from a zero waste facility in Milton, Ontario, and is one of my favourite products because it works.

Fibreglass insulation is like candyfloss: when you first buy it, it’s big and fluffy but, as time passes, it gets smaller and smaller. Fibreglass insulation shrinks and sags in the wall and floor cavities whereas Roxul is like dense Christmas cake – it ain’t going anywhere and it does not lose its R-value over time (R-value drift)!

Next, we’ll install new eco-friendly wood flooring from Nadurra. Bamboo is a renewable resource and is an extremely hard wood, providing superior longevity; it’s two times harder than oak! Nadurra is a company that has been committed to truly sustainable flooring products since the late 1990’s. They have 3rd party certification and are a transparent company making an honest commitment to the environment. And they’re Canadian too!

I suggested the 3 Dimensional Naturale Composite™ Collection that is FSC-Certified and NearZero™. NearZero™ adhesives contain far less formaldehyde than the world’s allowable limits of the strictest Indoor Air Quality standards. Finally, I recommend Natura Beauti-Tone no-VOC paint from Home Hardware. It’s affordable, comes in tons of colours, and is safe for your family.

If there is dust and grime on the walls then I would suggest using eco-friendly SafePrep, also from Home Hardware, to clean the walls before painting. It is a one step process, with no odour and no phosphate, and is safe to touch. The other prep product, called TSP, is a two-step process containing phosphates (which harm our streams, lakes, waterways) and requires you to wear gloves when you use it.

Chapter Two: 68 Tubs of Grain in the Floor, 68 Tubs of Grain...

Uuuhhhh…. Yeah…. So, several days later Sam, his father Jack, brother JJ and cousin Chris roll up their sleeves and head down into the crawl space to clean it out. They did not, I assure you, expect to find what they did (and let this be a lesson to any among you who believe that your own reno will run without a hitch): 68 restaurant sized tubs full of grain! Oats, rye, even some mung beans – all dated June 16, 1980. After some discussion (i.e. me saying “no way in hell!”), we decide that we needn’t keep our new provisions, and lug them into the driveway where they’ll sit for several weeks. Some people find rare antiques or creepy dolls…we find supplies for the apocalypse…you never know.

Chapter Three: Getting Down and Dirty, or, the real work begins

Anastasia and her assistant Virginia arrive on Thursday night so that they can get an early start on Friday morning.

ContractHER’s Log - Reno Day One: Insulation

We begin by sealing off the entire reno space from the rest of the house to prevent any nasty dust from spreading. Before we can get to work insulating we have to install a vapour barrier (always on the warm side) to keep moisture from entering or escaping the room. We’ve opted not to lift the plywood and subfloor in order to install from above, since we can work in the crawl space, installing up and over and across each cavity and joist – hope we have an onsite massage therapist for this job! Next, we’ll install Roxul’s ComfortBatt R32 in each and every joist cavity. We’ll then finish insulating with the installation of Roxul’s ComfortBoard IS across the underside of the joists. This will stop thermal bridging through the joists themselves. There were also air gaps around the floor registers through which I could see sunlight shining into the crawl space from the patio door above – these need to get filled with spray foam. Overall, the floor was like a sieve for heat and cold to pass through – not good for a Canadian winter!

The Roxul "Better Insulation" Glossary of Terms:

R-Value

The standard measure of how well a material resists the transfer of heat and cold. The higher the R-Value, the more effective the insulating material.

Thermal Bridging

The process by which a poorly insulated material allows heat or cold to pass between or through channels of better insulated material. For example, wall studs and floor joists have an R-Value of about 1.2 per inch. Roxul’s ComfortBatt, on the other hand, has an R-Value of about 4 per inch. Thus, where the ComfortBatt resists the Canadian winter, the studs or joists may be allowing it to pass right on in!

ComfortBatt

Roxul’s answer to fibreglass insulation, made of stone wool! Comes in semi-rigid batts. Various R-Values available for different usages.

ComfortBoard IS

A thermal insulated sheathing board generally used in conjunction with ComfortBatt to diminish the effects of thermal bridging through wall studs and floor joists.

Chapter Four: A sea of %&(!, or, “why plumbers deserve every penny they earn”

In which our heroine encounters yet another test of will! Only part way through the first day of work and, well, I’ll let Anastasia’s log to the talking…

ContractHER’s Log - Reno Day One, PART TWO

We discovered mini Lake Simcoe in the crawlspace! An inadequate plumber, or quite possibly a homeowner who thought he/she was a plumber, installed the toilet flange incorrectly and the toilet was not sealing properly and yep, you guessed it…it was leaking into the crawl space. Over time, this would have been a volatile cocktail and a really bad aroma! I tried a couple options to level the flange, but had to move on and suggested they call a plumber on Monday. It is illegal for a contractor (or ContractHER) to do plumbing work unless they have their plumber’s licence! Back to it. We remove all nails in floor joist cavities and start getting ready to install 6 mm vapour barrier (aka ‘the poly’). Always leave at least 2-3 feet of overhang so it will drape down the exterior walls and create an overlap for prevention of cold air transfer. This was a two chick job (Virginia and I) since the poly was 8 feet wide – and it was a bit claustrophobic down there even for one person given that we were lying on our backs with only 1 foot of clearance above our noses!

Chapter Five: Repeat until Complete!

ContractHER’s Log - Reno Day Two: Save your pine subfloor!

This morning, after ripping up carpet padding, we see that the plywood subfloor is uneven due to old, and partially removed, linoleum glued onto it. It’d take more time trying to remove the linoleum than it would take to lay new ¼ inch rough plywood on top of it. This is what we opt to do, but it still adds more time to the project. In a perfect world, I would cut out the old pine sub floor and re-sheath the floor with 5/8 or 1 inch plywood, screw and glue it down to eliminate future floor squeaks, and then get the old pine subfloor planed and revive it with a new stain and varnish! This eco-friendly option is available to all owners of old homes and is better than installing the cheap alternative; laminate flooring with its extremely short floor life. Since we had a 4th crew member today (thank you, Jack Brill!), I decided to have two people working on laying new plywood for the sub-floor, and the other two in the crawl space.

ContractHER’s Log - Reno Day Three

We finished the majority of the poly and were close behind on the insulation but there was still a lot to do: install the ComfortBoardIS and make sure all our seams overlapped on the walls of the crawl space so there was not any air sneaking in any little holes or gaps. We also still had to insulate the attic of the family-room. I also noticed that the trim along the threshold of the patio door was rotted out and water was getting in and going under the bottom plate of the patio door, staining the plywood inside the family room. We don’t want the new floor to have water sitting under it, so I do a quick fix job. Unfortunately, time kept moving and we did not get it all done. This is the case with many renos; expect the unexpected! Once I drove back to Toronto I sent Sam an email with more information to support his upcoming adventure! Check out ContractHER’s top eco-reno picks HERE!

Chapter Six: You’re on your own, kid! DIY boot camp.

OK, so this is where our adventure differs from most folks’; where you’d hire a contractor to work until the job was done, we were collaborating with a friend on a project that was both a reno and the article that you’re reading now! When our three days with ContactHER were up – they were up! Anastasia had other jobs to do, and Sam was the newest soldier in DIY boot camp! Scary for all of us, but what a trooper he was!

Sam’s Log - Days... and days, and days...

(Imagine melodramatic music here for best effect…no – really – try it!) I spent a great many days “in the deep.” Mostly alone. It was a time of new homeowner soul-searching. First, I got a plumber, who fixed the toilet. No more poop soup. A sigh of relief was breathed. Next, I finished the last little bits of vapour barrier. Then, with the help of Jack Brill, we completed the installation of the ComfortBatt, and got a good chunk of the ComfortBoardIS up (diminishing our clearance from nose to joist by another inch and a half – yikes!). Then there were the walls – drywall had to patched before we could get to painting. Good thing I was a hack drywaller back in the day! With the help of Grandma LeeLee, we got everything cleaned (with SafePrep – see above) and patched, and coated in a beautiful shade of Steamed Milk, with an accent wall in Weimaraner (named after the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach – which, in hindsight, may well have foreshadowed our being referred to our fine German floor installer – see below). Finally, there was the HVAC ductwork, which had all been disassembled in order to make the crawlspace navigable (thankfully Anastasia had suggested we label and diagram it – not sure how I would have got it back together otherwise). In the process of reassembly, I discovered that one vent actually went right into the furnace room where it simply hung open, suspended from the ceiling with some wire – not connected to anything at all! (You just never know what you’re going to find when you really start paying attention to these things!) I still haven’t had a chance to top up the attic insulation with Roxul’s RockFill. But it’s on the list for the fall…thankfully, they have GREAT DIY videos on their website. All in all, it was a terrifying two weeks of work. On the bright side, I feel a great intimacy with my new home. Home Hardware’s Bev Bell shares Designers’ Tips for picking the right shade of paint here. (Because not having to do it AGAIN is VERY eco!)

Chapter Seven: The “Woodsman” Saves the Day!

One job that Sam and I agreed was not made for the DIY enthusiast was laying our beautiful new Nadurra bamboo floor … although we seriously considered it, and even purchased the low-VOC glue that Anastasia had recommended. Ultimately, we chickened out and hired a pro; a Master floor layer originally from Germany, whom we affectionately called “The Woodsman”. Sounds exciting and heroic doesn’t it?! Well, he deserves that. Alex Melchert, owner of eco-friendly Meistercraft, not only did a gorgeous job on our new floor, he laid it so that we could still open our trap-door (never know when we might decide to start hoarding grain, right?). Our son pretends to be Alex now, and pretends to glue flooring. He actually fired Sam from a “job” today… Want to know if your wood is really eco-friendly? Click here to get the down low straight from Nadurra.