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.

2nd floor takes shape

Joists and hangers and LVLs galore

Joists and hangers and LVLs galore

The joists and beams for the second floor are in! Today we start installing subfloor and railings. It's really exciting to see the views taking shape as we get higher!

This is the open space over the dining room, and the start of our tall south window

This is the open space over the dining room, and the start of our tall south window

Getting closer and closer to the canopy of our silver maple! 

Getting closer and closer to the canopy of our silver maple! 

Soil bearing capacity test

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I was expecting something more high-tech — maybe a glass box that would be filled with soil and mechanically compressed and measured for PSI. Nope. The engineer went into the hole with a hammer, scraped it in a few places, touched some dirt and said ‘yep, good to go!’. We have a report stating our dirt is comprised of glacial till, silty gravel with clay, cobbles at a bearing capacity of 100 kPa. I guess he just knows. Who knew?

Construction weeks 2 & 3

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The digging started last Wednesday and by Friday, the entire hole was dug. It’s a great hole. Not too big and not too small. Juuuuust right. It was clean digging the whole way through. One larger root from the maple tree was damaged, but overall we were pleasantly surprised by how few roots we actually hit.  Some of the dirt our excavators from Doulos Construction removed is still sitting on site, ready to back-fill the foundation, when the time comes…

This week, on Monday, our surveyor is coming back to pin the corners of our foundation within the hole. On Tuesday, a geotechnical engineer is coming to do a soil bearing capacity test on our soil (to be sure it can withstand the pressure of a house). And we will be laying out our ground source heat loop, which is essentially 400m of polyethylene pipe that will be used to help warm/cool the air in our house (more on this later).

Looks like our week might be a bit slower than anticipated as we are still waiting for our road cut permit from the city. This permit process is separate from our building permit. Our excavator applied for the road cut permit on our behalf, but was only able to do so after we had been given our building permit. This is the permission we need to cut the road and connect to city services. We are dealing with a newly appointed city official, which unfortunately for us means slower-than-usual response times. Argh. We were hoping to have our plumber (Nathan from Ackland Plumbing) make his sub-slab connection and start filling the hole with granular and gravel. We shall see as the days progress.

But, let’s not forget: we have a hole in the ground! Mind you, it has filled with water over the weekend…Mark assures me it will drain.

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Instagram for daily project progress

I've decided to use Instagram to help document the build. I'll try to post a pic every day (or so). And have decided to mark day zero as the day we received our permit. The project build timeline commences henceforth. Follow here and follow there. 

The construction mortgage demystified (part 1 of 2)

I have been bugging Mark to write this post for a long time now. Fortunately/unfortunately he's too busy trying to get our house built. Thought I’d give it a shot. Not a bad idea for me to do anyhow, seeing as how it will probably bring clarity and ensure that I actually understand it too! I should be able to explain it or I have no business getting one.

As a disclaimer: every mortgage is unique, and I am in no way an expert. This is simply how it is working for us. Also, don't be discouraged if you don't understand it first time 'round. We met with our bank earlier this week and our banker had to ask another banker how it worked, and then we all figured it out together using a good ol' fashioned paper and pen.

So here goes.

Step 1: estimate project cost (A + B = C)

Rewind to a year and a half ago. When the land went up for sale. Before we put our offer on the land, we spoke to a construction mortgage specialist at Desjardins. Working with hypotheticals, guessing a best and worst case scenario for the sale of our home at the time, he was able to help us figure out how much money we might have to work with (C). At the same time, Mark and I were formulating ideas as to what kind of house we wanted to build on the lot (i.e. how big) and used a basic cost per square foot to help us do the math on the build (A). (I think we used around $250-300/sq.ft). In the simplest terms, the cost of the land (B) + the cost to build (A) would equal our project total (C) and therefore how much our construction mortgage application would be for.

The numbers were a uncomfortably high. But compared to the prices of older fixer-uppers and newer infills in the neighbourhood, there was no question: we had to do it. (We also wanted to…) When Mark and I decide we’re going to do something, we do it. There’s no half way for us. The land across the street was the only place in the city we wanted to be. There apparently was a competing bid on the land, so we made sure ours was adequately high and wrote a sympathetic letter to the neighbours selling the lot, hoping to warm up the offer.

It was accepted (yay) with a three week condition, which was based on the next step of the process: getting the bank to approve us for the construction mortgage. 

Step 2: get approved

In order for the bank to dish out the funds, we had to show them we could actually build a house on the land that would be appraised at a high enough value to warrant dishing them out. This meant that in three weeks time, we had to design a house, estimate the cost to build said house and get it appraised…Or else we’d lose the land. 

I might just add here that we were at a bit of an advantage because of Mark-itect. I wouldn’t normally suggest (and neither would he) that you design a house over the course of a weekend. But like I said “when we decide we’re doing something…”

Working around the clock, Mark and I designed a house. It was a good house. One that a has since evolved, but the basic program remains (and should theoretically be appraised at the same value). Mark was able to cost the build for us.* The bank appraised it at exactly what we were hoping they would.

  • This is where you want to enlist the services of a professional, be it an architect, builder or developer. Because the bank will not be satisfied with you ball-parking your build cost as a layman. Neighbours of ours up the street are GC’ing their own infill house, similar to ours, but neither are industry professionals. Which means the bank required 3 quotes from every single trade (from framers to painters), prior to approving their mortgage. A heck of a lot of work. I suppose if you didn’t have the three week condition, as we did, this task would be less daunting. Nonetheless.

 

Step 3: get approved...again

Because our “downpayment” would be less than 20%, our mortgage needed to be CMHC approved. Our Desjardins construction mortgage specialist, Etienne, forwarded on all the relevant information to CMHC.

Finally, we got the green light from both and the land was officially ours. Validation complete. It was a stressful three weeks, to say the least. 

Now that we’re finally approved, moving on to part two of this series, how it all works.