Indoor plant life

I’ve never had a green thumb. Especially when it comes to keeping indoor plants alive. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to keep one alive for more than a year. Until now. 

I don’t attribute this shift in plant lifespan to my gardening skills whatsoever, it’s all house. Plants love this house, which is awesome/imperative, because we always envisioned it bursting with greenery. There is so much natural light, both direct and indirect, that no matter where we put our plants, they seem to be happy.

On one of our many tours, we had a horticulturist walk through. She didn’t care much for the house, but did for the plants. Every word she spoke was a commentary on how poor our plant positioning was with regards to sunlight, this one shouldn’t be here, that one shouldn’t be there, etc. I want to say I took her constructive plant criticism into account and did something about it, but I didn’t. And yet they are still thriving :)

Case in point  
Almost one year ago, I bought a fiddle-leaf fig. A beautiful, but notoriously difficult plant to care for. I bought a ‘bush’ plant, but what I wanted was a ‘tree’. Taking a chance, I separated the bush, which had three stalks, into three separate pots. (Actually my wonderful sister Lindsay helped me with this arduous task). And they’ve each grown over 2’ since, in different locations and orientations throughout the house. They’ve continually produced new leaves throughout the winter, even though they’re supposedly in their dormancy period.  

Transplant #1

Transplant #1

Transplant #2

Transplant #2

Transplant #3

Transplant #3

An emerging leaf set -- hello!

An emerging leaf set -- hello!

Another case in point
From the outset of the design, we liked the idea of having a green wall within our courtyard/void. It made sense that this green wall would live on our stair screenwall (the wall that supports our stairs and is made from industrial steel floor grating). But I’m not a fan of most indoor green walls I see. They require a lot of maintenance and can create a lot of mess. No thanks. For a long time, I wondered what to do. I scoured the internet and plant shops looking for appropriate wall containers, but didn’t see any I liked, at the right price. Then one day, on a routine Ikea run, the lightbulb went off in the kitchen markethall. Hanging utensil holders. At $3.99 a pop, I bought a few to test out at home. They easily hooked onto our screen wall, and had a metal grate in the bottom that left some breathing room for roots. It was a winning solution. We now have a multitude of plants and pots scattered across our screen wall. Some cheekily poking through the other side. And we’re only getting started. Best part: I’m only watering once a week. And I can easily water them from the stair side, with no need to get up on stools. 

Bonus feature of our screenwall: it's magnetic. It has also become wall for magnets, to display the hordes of art and photos we have of the fam.

Bonus feature of our screenwall: it's magnetic. It has also become wall for magnets, to display the hordes of art and photos we have of the fam.

Greetings! From plants as you cross the bridge.

Greetings! From plants as you cross the bridge.

Stair side view, with leaves poking through.

Stair side view, with leaves poking through.

I am enjoying learning to care for these plants, in the lowest maintenance way possible, even if the house is doing most of the work. The indoor plants make it come alive, and help it to feel more vibrant, especially on days we’re cooped up inside over winter ice storms and such. They also make our Passive House fresh air, even fresher. *Knock wood*, but there were no sickies in our house this winter save for a few short-lived runny noses. 

Bring it!

We've had two days of this ^ mixed bag of fun moving west to east. This looks tame in comparison to last nights radar.

We've had two days of this ^ mixed bag of fun moving west to east. This looks tame in comparison to last nights radar.

  • Ottawa is getting hit by a hard spring ice storm, the worst we’ve ever had (this time of year). We’re in the middle of a multi-day onslaught of ice, snow, rain, a mix of everything, and fierce wind. It’s nutso. Trees are coming down, giant ice pellets are sliding off buildings and trees and onto sidewalks. People are afraid to go outside, and the city has ground to a halt. I am able to take great comfort in our house during times like these. It’s quiet. It’s warm. It’s a peaceful refuge in contrast to the great shitty outdoors. And if the power goes down, we'd be a-ok for the first week without heat. Thank you house.

Looking forward to spring, however, and getting to play outside.

Outside the house

Inside the house

One year in: what I love about living in our Passive House (part 1) 💙💙💙

The blurry effect the house has had on our children.  

The blurry effect the house has had on our children.  

In spirit of our Canadian thanksgiving, I wanted to follow up my previous post with some house love.

It is an eye-opening reminder of how good we’ve got it when I think back to some of our previous living environs. Over the past 10 years together, we’ve lived in 7 different homes (not including the 18 months we spent globetrotting), including some with electric baseboard heaters, and some with the highest-efficiency gas furnaces; some with AC, and some without;  some with mold in the walls, and some with bugs in the walls. In Ottawa, there’s no doubt that winter puts the performance of a house to the test. The air is dry, and it’s cold...freezing cold. We’ve employed all sorts of active strategies to thwart winter discomfort. To name a few:

  • Hot water bottles and flannel sheets in bed
  • Blankets, sweaters and slippers
  • Humidifiers to keep us breathing easy
  • Weather stripping and window plastic to improve the r-value of our windows (looking outside be-damned!)
  • Programmable thermostats to help manage time-of-use consumption costs

I still recall a time when Mark and I were living in an old Victorian home, which was renovated in the 80s, with electric baseboard heating (when electricity was cheap in Ontario). We were still recent’ish graduates, living paycheque to paycheque, with student loans up to our necks. We were terrified at the site of our hydro bill. We were looking at ~$700/month to heat our 2 bedroom apartment in the heart of winter. Of course we didn’t realize what we in for prior to signing the lease... The house was always cold — we stockpiled slippers and sweaters for all who came to visit. We purchased a cord of firewood for our fireplace to help counter our electricity demands. On the coldest nights, we moved our mattress out in front of the fire to sleep and keep warm. It was fun, and romantic, but a lot of work and a major pain in the ass. In hindsight, the fire was probably making our heating costs go up vs. down, knowing what we know now about building performance. We tapped out after one winter.

What was it like then living in our passive house, one winter and one summer in? Mark has a couple more technical posts on the heating patterns observed in our home, I’m just speaking anecdotally, from what my experience living in the house was. The best compliment I could give it is: I didn’t notice. The house didn’t affront me, the way the previous ones did. I wasn’t bothered by cold bedsheets, bathtubs or drafts coming through the walls and windows. I could sit in our book-nook and read to the kids an inch away from a large window. My daughters eczema improved, there were no nosebleeds, and less colds and runny noses – an attest to the air quality, I'm sure. When it came to the thermostat: we set it and forget it. The performance of the house faded to the background.

Also of note: our behaviour didn’t have to change, other than to open the curtains during the day; thus enabling us to simply live, and be, in the house. We took long showers and baths, frequently ran the washer and dryer, kept our espresso machine turned on, as well as the computer + backup drives, and kept our thermostat at an even 22°C throughout winter – we like being warm :) Our annual consumption (energy required to heat and power our house) was 47.5 GJ. This is less than half the energy of a typical new house in Ontario (107 GJ), without even trying. (That’s a new house, if we looked at average energy consumptions, the number would be much higher).

We feel as though our lives have been dramatically upgraded. We are living a more luxurious lifestyle in our new home, using a fraction of the energy to do so. People shouldn't have to give up or sacrifice in order to live in a passive house. At least that’s not the philosophy we’ve ascribed to. In order for it to become more mainstream, that’s hopefully how more people will come to see it too. The success of the Tesla isn’t because it’s the eco-friendly option (although those government incentives don’t hurt…). It’s because it performs waaaaaaay better than other cars, even other performance cars. It’s also beautifully designed, which is of equal importance IMHO. As I’m sure I’ve written before, if something performs well, but doesn’t look good or feel good, you won’t love it. And if you don’t love it, you won’t keep it or take care of it.

All this to say: I love my house. One year in, and all the aspects of the house that make it passive house, are actually what makes it 100% livable.

I’ll be sharing more 🏠❤️ and lessons learned.

1 month with the Sense Energy Monitor

Our Sense Energy Monitor installed beside our panel

We've had our new Sense Energy Monitor installed for nearly a month now, so I thought I'd share some first impressions.   

First, a bit about the monitor we chose. Sense is a new product that has only been on the market for a few months, and isn't currently available in Canada (we ordered ours to Ogdensburg and drove down to pick it up). The purpose of the product is to monitor and track our electricity usage — and since our home is all-electric, it in fact tracks our total energy usage. The monitor installs with two clamps on the electrical mains leading in to the panel. While the install was quick and straightforward, I had the assistance of my electrician since the mains are always live (and if you're thinking of getting one, I'd recommend you do the same!).  This type of electricity meter installed on the mains is fairly common, but what Sense claims to be able to do is to recognize different signatures and break out the electricity usage for each individual appliance in the house. 

After install, the monitor takes several weeks or months before it learns everything in the house (for more information on how and why check out their website), but it will give you immediate feedback on total consumption. After nearly a month, it has learned our espresso machine, oven, and fridge and freezer lights. Even though this doesn't seem like much, it's been very interesting to look at the energy usage chart and figure out usage trends by deduction!

I'm hopeful the Sense Monitor will continue to add more devices soon, but in the meantime check out this chart showing from midnight to midnight last Friday. I've indicated some of the big spikes and what we figure they were. 

24 hours of monitoring from March 17th

Cold and sunny: temperature and kWh consumption

When designing a Passive House, we use the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) to model the energy performance of the project. The PHPP considers two different design days: clear/cold and overcast/mild. Ottawa winter days follow these patterns very consistently. Yesterday was a prime example of a clear/cold day. As I mentioned in the last post, our heater shut off for 11.5 hrs during the day, even though the temperature outside never got above -12˚C.

Here is the chart of yesterday's temperatures. There are 2 indoor temperatures being monitored: the Book Nook is on the east side of the house outside of the master bedroom, and the Loft is on the top floor of the house. You can see that the temperature in the loft starts to rise noticeably as the sun gets around to the West, and starts to come in through the large lift-and-slide door in the loft.

And here is the electricity consumption (downloaded hourly from Hydro Ottawa's website). You can see the drop at 9am and the ride at about 9pm — this is the 4kW heater turning off then back on. It's interesting to notice how, even as the heater shuts off at 9am, the temperature in the house climbs steadily from 7am through to about 4pm! 

Life in a Passive House: 2017-03-04


Our brief flirt with spring weather has ended (for now). This morning we woke up to -18 on the thermometer, and it's been below -14C all day (it's 2pm as I right this). 

Our "furnace" (the 4kW duct heater that heats our home) turned itself off at 9am, and has been off ever since. That's 5 hours at -14C or colder without any heat on! What's more, the temperature has been slowly climbing all day thanks to the sunny weather—it was 20C when the heater stopped, and its 22C now. 

I'll comment later to let you know what time tonight the heater comes back on. 

Building for the long term

I recently gave a talk to some of my UX (user experience) peers at Shopify, the company I work for. We are a bunch of designers, researchers, content writers, and developers, who work together to build a product and a brand. The following is the script for the talk I gave.


I want to talk to you about building for the long term, through a personal project of mine — my home.

The home I designed, with some help from my husband (who happens to be both an architect and a building scientist). We not only designed it, but also managed construction, negotiated with the city, navigated our way through construction mortgages, maintained neighbourly relations, swung hammers and hung drywall, as well as lobbied with government organizations and documented the entire journey.

But since this is a UX talk, and I don’t have all week, I will stick mostly to talking about the design process.

With that...

For each of us [point to crowd], a lifetime of experience dictates what we think we need in a home. We started out by coming up with a functional plan – the things we thought we needed in our home. Our list looked like a fairly typical realtor spec sheet for a single family home (three bedrooms, two and a half baths). Throughout the design process, we’d challenge our assumptions, but they helped lay the groundwork.

When you decide to rent, or to buy a house, you probably have a vision on how to make it your own. What colours you’ll paint the walls. The artwork you’ll hang on them. Or even what walls you may want to take down one day. You’re likely already building, or decorating, within a box.

But what if you had no box? Where do you begin? How do you define your box?

We started by defining our parti, which is architectural lingo, for a concept. It became quite introspective. Who am I? Who are we? This was actually dead easy for my husband and I to agree on. In a previous life, we had spent the better part of two years as wandering vagabonds, traveling the world together slowly, overland, with no destination in mind (and no airplanes). We were onboard with the idea that the journey is part-in-parcel with discovery. We wanted to imbue the house with that same ‘wandering spirit’.

Great, our visions aligned for the parti. But how do you capture ‘wandering’ in a fixed, static, object. The two are seemingly at odds.

Along our travels, we made notes on spaces, lighting, moods, and objects that we were drawn to. We loved the courtyard architecture of southern Spain and Morocco. The way the hallways and staircases wrapped around the pen courtyard, which became the heart of the house. We loved Moroccan lanterns and Moorish patterns. The connection to the outdoors and rooftop gardens. The sense of discovery and chaos wandering through a souq followed by the sense of safety and calm as you passed through the threshold, leaving the outside world behind.

But we don’t live in Morocco. We live in Ottawa.

We channeled this inspiration into something that fits our climate, our lives, our land, our modern aesthetic, and our budget. A design concept started to emerge, with what we named ‘the void’—our monument to wandering. The void became our interior courtyard and grounded the home, while the surrounding living and circulation spaces lifted it upwards, providing unique views and discoveries along the way.

Concept was crucial at the outset for grounding future decision making. It is THE THING that ensures the final product is cohesive. It’s not that you need to be able to guess the concept if you were to walk into my home, but you should just see that it works. The concept results in a cohesive and subliminal continuity that can be felt even before it’s understood.

Now let’s bring this back to ‘building for the long term’.

If you love something, like a favourite pair of jeans, you’ll hang on to them longer. What makes you love those jeans? The style. The fit. Probably. But if the quality doesn’t hold up, no matter how good they look, you’re just not going to keep them.

What you want is a pair of jeans that you love AND that are well built. They will last longer because of their quality, but they will also last longer because you take care of them. The front ass-thetic end and the back end need to hold up.

Having a deep understanding of the back end – how our house would perform and get built, was integral and complimentary to our design process. Again, we live in Ottawa. It’s an extreme environment. Energy prices are skyrocketing. And we are killing our planet. Building for the long term also means building sustainably and reducing our energy dependencies, so there’s some planet left for our kids and our kids’ kids. This is very important to us. Which is why we decided to build to the Passive House standard.

What does that mean? It’s quite simple really, which is why I’m so on board with it. It involves making your house super insulated and airtight. So that the heat you generate, stays inside the house. Then you add to this a super high efficiency ventilation system that provides fresh air but still retains the heat in the house. Essentially, that’s it - that’s Passive House!

My husband uses a really good winter coat analogy when describing Passive House principles. Think about winter here in Ottawa. Now think about wearing a spring coat outside, during winter. In order to stay warm in your K-way, you’ll have to work really hard and run your little heart out. Now think about wearing a Canada Goose parka instead. It makes more sense, doesn’t it? The K-way spring coat is a house built to code. Our house is the Canada Goose parka.

Our walls are rated at a nominal R-96. The newest building code is only R-24. They are 2’ thick. We will heat our home through solar gain and by simply living in it: showering, cooking, and being human. Because the heat will stay in the house. Any makeup heat will be produced by a heater with the equivalent output of a toaster oven.

One of the other ‘measures’ for Passive House is comfort. Have you ever thought about what makes a space feel comfortable? Well the Germans have. They actually have calculations for this.

One of the things they’ve taken into account are thermal gradients. There shouldn’t be any. Meaning the surface temperatures of everything in our house should be even. We will be able to sit an inch away from a window, naked, on a -30• day and say ‘f you’ to winter.

Another comfort measure is the velocity of air movement. You shouldn’t be able to detect it. No drafts.

As added bonuses to building this way, the air quality and sound quality are super quality. Because our house is so air-tight, the air we intentionally circulate passes through three controlled filtres, ensuring my family is breathing clean air at all times. No more air leaking in through rotting wood, allergens, dust or whatever else might be stuffed inside wall cavities. And because our walls are so thick and insulated, even in downtown Ottawa, next to busy roads, our house is as quiet as a mouse. When we close our windows, it feels like we’ve left the city behind.

Passive House. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it? It just makes so much sense to us. Understanding that this was the best possible way to build was key at the outset of our design and enabled us not to see it as an obstacle, but as an opportunity.

Passive House became our framework to design within. The architecture needed to operate within this framework, not against it, yet not afraid to push against the ‘rules’ of the standard.

When design concept and engineering came against each other, these were the opportunities for greatest creativity. For example, instead of thinking of our 2’ thick walls as lost square footage, we started thinking about window seats, and counter tops and ways to use them to our advantage. Some of our most creative details are the result of our 2’ thick walls.

The success of the house, and what makes it built for the long term, is this harmonious marriage.

The build has paralleled my start of my journey with Shopify. We broke ground on the house about a year ago, and have been living in the house for a few weeks now. Somehow we survived. And are beginning to feel the benefits of our hard work. There are still many things that need doing. We have no doors. We need landscaping. Lots to unpack. We have yet to hang things on walls and take the magazine photos. None of that really seems to matter at the moment though.

The real payoff is seeing our kids in the space. The house is like one giant, indoor jungle gym for them. The instant we moved in, they were at home. Moving through the spaces, up and down the stairs with ease, filling it with their creativity and energy. For them, to be able to grow up in a house like this, is where we’ll really see the benefits in building for the long-term.


Construction week 52: occupancy

The empty state prior to move-in

The empty state prior to move-in

On September 2nd, exactly one year after the city granted us our building permit, they granted us occupancy. It was a roller coaster leading up to it, which has left us completely shattered, yet elated to finally be living in our home. Two and a half years after the land purchase, our long journey is winding down. Sure there are still outstanding tasks, like trim and doors, but I’m feeling very little motivation to take action on them just yet. I think we need some room to breathe and reflect on the fact that we’re in, and that we actually did it. Was there every any doubt? (Yes...lots of it...).

This post won’t have too many pics because of how crazy the week was. And how cluttered the house is with moving boxes and Ikea Pax boxes hijacking the spaces. We’ll do a proper photoshoot once we’re fully moved in and set up. For now, if you’re curious, come to the open house this weekend. We’re busy assembling these Pax closets to shove the aforementioned moving boxes inside of, to give the illusion of settled. Even with the outstanding finishes, the house shines through. Details for the event can be found here:

So what happened in the final week? It’s still a bit of a blur, but I’ll attempt to recount.

The floors were oiled with a one-coat product called Rubio monocoat, in a clear finish. It went on well but meant no one could walk on the floors for 24 hours. So we didn’t! It really brings out the character and grain of our white ash. And matches our brown ash cabinets remarkably well. We were keeping our fingers crossed they would. 

Clean up
We hired a post-construction clean up crew to get rid of the construction dust and make our windows sparkly clean. Even though our house remains somewhat of a construction site. 

Ground source heat loop
We had it charged by a heating contractor from R&B Heating. Meaning he filled our loop with a glycol solution, the loop we lay prior to foundation. We’re still calibrating and trying to get our entire heating and cooling system sorted. Mark will elaborate on this for us eventually.

On Monday, an inspector came out and did a walk-through. He failed us on a few points, including temporary railings, hand rails, bathroom doors and exposed ICF foam. We spent the following few days addressing the deficiencies. Reinforcing our lower deck railings and blocking access to our rooftop. Extending handrails. Installing a temporary bathroom door. And installing drywall in our future basement suite.

On Thursday, a different inspector came for the revisit. The new inspector mostly looked at the list of outstanding items provided by the previous inspector. He was also going to conduct the plumbing final. This new inspector required our plumber, Nathan, to run a bowl test. According to Nathan, bowl tests are an Ottawa anomaly. The test required Nathan to start punching holes in our drywall. He couldn’t find what he was looking for and eventually had to climb up on our roof to conduct the test. The inspector didn’t stick around the 10 minutes it took Nathan to do this, so we had to get both of them back the following day, Friday.

Prior to the revisit-revisit by inspector number 2, there was a brief moment where Nathan was worried that someone punctured one of his pipes because they weren’t maintaining pressure. At this point, I tuned out because I didn’t want to know. I was busy directing the movers on where to put things, while dealing with pangs of fear that my family would be looking for a hotel room for the weekend. That’s right — we moved in on Friday morning, without our occupancy permit in hand. While I was moving, Mark and Nathan were hurriedly running around the house. I’m not really sure what happened in the end (Mark and Nathan figured out there was not enough water in one of the traps, and once corrected everything was good), but when the inspector returned that afternoon, and we finally got our permit. 

Move in
Suffice to say, we are moved in. And a million pounds lighter. The pain and torture of working back-to-back-to-back-to-back 16-hour days is slowly fading. (Yes, Mark and Graham worked these kinds of hours, staying until 3:30 am installing the final set of stairs.) Of me feeling like a house widow/single parent for the past two and a half years. The financial and emotional toll of building a house is incalculable, but so is the joy and sense of accomplishment that it brings us to finally be in it. As is the experience and growth Mark has gained as a professional. And most of all, the benefit to our children as they grow up in a healthy home, designed for them. You can’t put a price tag on that, and you might just say it was worth it. This house certainly was. 

It feels so good to be home. 

For once, I can say that I’m looking forward to winter. To see if this Passive House thing really works...