Trailblazing the path to sustainability, one green reno at a time
The clouds are thick outside Heather Tremain’s Strathcona townhouse, but that hardly matters; the solar panels on her roof generate all the hot water she needs, even when the sun refuses to shine.
“The panels work better from March to October, although they don’t depend on direct sunlight to function,” says Tremain, CEO and co-founder of reSource Rethinking Building, a Vancouver-based green building consulting and development company. “That said, it has driven my monthly gas bill below $30, even though I run a stove and fireplace.”
Using the sun’s energy to heat household water is surprisingly simple: in Tremain’s home, water is pumped through a loop in two solar panels mounted on her roof (measuring 2.4 by 1.2 metres each), where collected heat from the sun warms the water, which is then returned to a storage tank in the garage.
Solar hot water systems are just one of the green innovations that Tremain says will become ubiquitous in Vancouver over the next 10 years. That means there will be more choices available when it comes time to renovate your bathroom, kitchen, or entire home in a way that is durable, cost effective and sustainable at the same time.
“The great thing is, more and more of my customers are asking about sustainability, whereas 10 years ago, they would ask about efficiency and the cost of heat,” says home contractor Ralph Belisle, who has incorporated “green” principles over his 20 years as owner of home renovation company TQ Construction Ltd. “A lot of people today view renovations as an ethical activity, in that you are preserving and improving existing housing stock, which is really the ultimate recycling.”
Bathrooms: it's all about water
An increasing commitment toward sustainability is one thing, but taking action when it comes to renovating your home is another. Whether you hire a pro or do it yourself, where do you start if you want to make changes to your house, condo or townhouse, but want to minimize your ecological footprint along the way?
Belisle says that setting priorities is a vital first step. He says his customers are interested in green renovations for many different reasons, and each one usually has a different definition of “green.”
“Maybe someone has allergies in the family and they want to use building materials that will not degrade indoor air quality; or they might be concerned about contributing to pollution, which would imply the use of high-efficiency appliances and a very well insulated home. It all depends on what their goals are.”
But setting such goals can be tough for consumers, particularly do-it-yourself homeowners who want to reduce the ecological footprint of their renos but know little about what is available or even possible.
In such cases, Tremain suggests the services of Victoria-based non-profit society City Green, which offers home sustainability audits. A representative of the organization will examine your windows, doors, insulation, heating and ventilation systems, and based on their findings, provide individualized renovation suggestions. They can also guide you toward available government loans and other incentives to help lighten the costs.
Belisle has two pieces of sage advice when considering budget: an up-front investment is necessary to realize long-term savings, and there’s usually a correlation between durability and energy efficiency when it comes to buying nearly anything for your home.
A combination of esthetic beauty and environmental sustainability was paramount for Shelley Penner when she and her partner “recycled” their run-down 1930s character home in the Burrardview neighbourhood of East Vancouver in 2003. Penner had the advantage of going in with a lot of knowledge; as the owner of Penner & Associates Interior Design in Vancouver, she has spent the last decade working with clients to incorporate green features into home renovations.
Penner’s intent from the outset was to recycle the existing building shell, install new insulation, and reuse and repurpose whatever materials she could – including the existing oak flooring, bricks from a dismantled fireplace, and old-growth fir beams and boards encountered throughout the renovation. She also focused on using materials that are “rapidly renewable” – products that are typically harvested within a 10-year or shorter cycle, such as wool carpets, linoleum, and bamboo.
The choice to “recycle” the character home versus rebuilding from scratch was both ethical and pragmatic.
“It was important to me that I practice what I preach to my clients about sustainability,” says Penner. “But that said, to tear down and rebuild would not have been economically viable for us. And this way, we retained the character of the house and neighbourhood too.”
A master plan was created, as well as a space plan, which sought to optimize bringing the outside inside – creating a bright home filled with natural light to minimize the use of indoor lighting. Water efficiency was another priority, and one that Penner says is relatively easy for any home renovator to achieve.
Dual-flush toilets were installed, which provide the option of a three- or six-litre flush. When you consider that some old toilets currently waste 20 or more litres of clean, potable water every flush, this is a remarkable saving. (Recognizing this obvious conservation measure, the City of Vancouver currently requires all new construction and renovations to include toilets with a maximum capacity of six litres per flush.)
Quality of the toilet design is just as important as the volume of water in the tank, says Penner, so going cheap can backfire (hopefully not literally). Any Vancouver-area big-box building supply store will typically feature stock toilet models ranging from under $200 to over $700. Belisle notes that price is not always a sure indicator of quality and durability, and that consumers should look for dual flush models under name brands with established reputations for design and efficiency excellence.
Similarly dramatic water savings can be realized by installing the latest low-flow showerheads, which can achieve a flow rate of 5.7 litres a minute, compared to traditional fixtures that typically spew 9.5 litres a minute or more.
“It sounds really simple, but there are showerheads in the marketplace that allow you to save one-third of shower water usage in total, and those savings translate directly into water heating as well,” says Tremain.
Another important area to consider when renovating is hot water. Traditional hot water tanks in particular are notorious energy gluttons, because they continuously maintain the temperature of a large quantity of water.
Tankless water heaters provide an alternative, where gas or an electric element is activated by the flow of water every time you open a hot water valve. While these systems save a lot of space, are very cost-effective and can last up to 20 years, they are only practical in households of up to three people. Even then they may require a slight lifestyle adjustment as they aren’t suited to simultaneous use of showers, dishwashers and clothes washers. (This is not an option for a household full of shower-crazy teenagers.)
Tankless heaters are widely available in B.C. today and range in price from about $550 to $1,400 before taxes, compared to about $600 for a 50-gallon natural gas water tank. The kicker is, the tankless system can save 50 per cent of the energy cost.
For larger households, replacing an old hot water tank with an ultra-efficient and well-insulated tank heater is still a good option, and in some cases it will even outperform a tankless water heater in efficiency.
Kitchens: Gas-Free Cabinets
The kitchen is another living space where energy efficiency, durability of materials, and even health can be affected by your renovation choices. To Heather Tremain, who as a developer is used to designing hundreds of green kitchens at a time, two things come to mind: kitchen cabinets and appliances.
“The biggest impact you will have on your kitchen energy usage will involve appliances,” she says.
When it comes to replacing the appliances in your kitchen, there is help to determine which models are most energy efficient. The federal government oversees the EnerGuide labelling
program, which lets consumers compare the efficiency of appliances in relation to others sold in the Canadian market. The international Energy Star program simply attests to the fact that an appliance meets high standards of efficiency.
Kitchen cabinetry and cupboards may require more research, given that the cheapest, mass-produced particle boards not only lack durability, but rely on the use of chemicals that will emit gases into your home environment long after installation.
“They’re basically made by mixing a soup of wood fibres in sawdust and glue, then running it through a press, setting it to a certain degree of hardness, then skinning it with a plastic film,” says Ralph Belisle. “Formaldehyde glues and the plastics in the lacquer finish off-gas for up to a year after installation.”
The alternatives include plywood, which is more durable and has less off-gassing, and a substance called Armor Core, which uses a hardwood base instead of glue and sawdust. When it comes time to source greener alternatives to regular particleboard, a challenge emerges for aspiring home renovators: to get the sustainable cabinetry you want, you’ll probably have to turn your back on all the sparkling samples in the big showrooms and seek alternatives from a more limited selection at smaller local suppliers.
“When you go into a kitchen cabinetry store, the number of options is going to be limited,” says Tremain. “You can go with a solid wood door without a formaldehyde base substrate to it, but there is not as much choice.”
It’s what Belisle refers to as buying materials “off the production line,” which for the time being at least, green renovators have to be prepared for. Finding alternatives will mean seeking smaller players who aren’t supplying the mass market yet.
“You have to go to a smaller cabinet shop, and there might be a $100 difference in the price of panels,” he says. “So in a $20,000 kitchen, you spend an extra couple of hundred to use one type of new material, so that sustainable decision in terms of air quality, discouraging the use of chemicals and harmful materials, is not really costing you much at all. It’s just careful shopping.”
That’s not to say all the green options are outside easy access: in her kitchen reno, Penner ultimately went with cabinets made from specially designed low-emission particleboard, bought at Ikea.
In spite of feeling like trailblazers, consumers who buy into green technologies get the added satisfaction of knowing their choices are spurring real change, which Tremain says is coming fast.
“Most things are done in mass production, and once that changes for developers – like using formaldehyde-free cabinets, it will start to change what is available for regular consumers, and what shows up in the kitchen showroom.”
And that will eventually include things like solar hot water systems, tankless water heaters, and even ways to tap geothermal energy from the ground to heat our water and living spaces.
“When we started our business eight years ago, we were in the wilderness in terms of the receptivity of people to green,” says Tremain. “Today we work with every one of the major developers in town. I think these things will be regular practice in the next 10 years.”