High performance home renovation in Calgary


#ecorenoyyc is a mini-blog following my personal design/build renovation of a 1950's factory built home to a fully updated, LEED certified home for my family.  Personal connection, demand for performance and a tight budget have me in the trenches helping this come together. 

The primary goal for this project was a small, efficient home in the intercity for my family and I, that was closer to our choice schools and downtown and that my folks could use as a retirement home down the road.  My father and I renovated this house once before, adding a second story in early 2000.  

The limited scope of that precursor renovation left an aging mechanical system and weak insulation in much of the house.  As a LEED for Homes Provider, I knew the benefits of comfort and performance that come with a LEED project so pursuing LEED was key. 

The original home was placed on the site about 1950 by a local builder who built it in a nearby warehouse.  Many years later years later by an odd twist of "small town Canada", the builder would become neighbour and good friend to my grandparents on Vancouver Island.   I can remember visiting and enjoying the amazing collection of their grandchildren's toys while visiting growing up. 

Shipped in three sections onto a typical 8" foundation this 865 SF two bedroom would have been very typical for this area and likely sold as a reasonably priced suburban home.  The home would have featured a gravity furnace, and "high tech" reflective insulation in the cavities.  We now know that this reflective insulation does little to keep the heat in now and likely provided R1 insulation value. 

The home was likely renovated in the late 60's finishing the basement and adding a laundry room.  The west side of the basement was likely kept as a workshop, assuming from the patina to the exposed wood joists and odd sized lids screwed to the studs where jars of odds and ends would have been stored. 

Based on other layers of flooring and some updated electrical the home was updated again around the early 80's.  The basement was converted to a secondary suite and the furnace would have been replaced.  The home was part of one of Canada's first energy efficiency programs which provided rebates for upgraded attic insulation based on the sticker on the old furnace. 

Renovations are one of the most complicated types of residential building, short of major multifamily projects in my opinion.  Complexities of hidden conditions like buried wasps nests, design changes, old handyman weekend jobs and original outdated techniques will throw a box full of wrenches in any renovation plan.  Throw into that mix a lofty performance and environmental goals, a tight budget, and critically tight timeline and you've got a wild summer.  
I've nicknamed this project the tight house.  Everything is tight, trades have had to work hard to fit everything into the small spaces and make everything work.  The high efficiency boiler fit with only inches to spare, the indirect hot water tank literally squeezed in with only 1/2" to spare.  Tight headspace clearances and limited duct work runs required some fancy ducting of the HVAC installers for the new HRV ventilation system.   Even the windows had to be sized carefully around existing stone.

The plumbing system on this home was very complicated, with radiators, a fan coil and DHW tank all driven by a 95% IBC condensing boiler.  This homes heart is clearly the IBC boiler; the entire mechanical system hinges on this unit and this was not a place to cut corners. We needed the durability and dependability that comes with a very good boiler, very well installed.    Dan Walker from New Era Heating and Plumbing was the guy to do it, passionate about his own IBC and system and a meticulous plumber. You could tell he didn't' mess around and took serious pride in doing it right.  If you are going to spend such serious money on the boiler you don't skimp on the plumbing to run it. Heavy gauge copper and rock solid pumps keep the water moving. It's such a nice install Dan and I joked that we should polish and coat the plumbing lines to keep them shinny (which we might just do).  I don't want to even put doors on the mechanical room, I want anyone that comes by to be able to see it.

To regain a sense of space in the new basement area, windows were key. For these we turned to Innotech as we had seen the windows in action on several LEED projects through our work, and knew they would perform well.  High performance was critical, but light and egress were top of mind.  Tilt/turn windows became an early choice; the full swing in window provides easy egress clearance for the basement windows and tilt in options provided safe, secure ventilation.  After much wringing of hands, triple glazed, clear glass was chosen with an argon fill.  The triple glazed provided the best R-value without compromising the visible light transmission, critical when the window sizes are limited and daylight is key. 

The biggest change to the basement was a large french door with 32" sidelight, creating a new entry and bringing in a huge amount of light from the wide east-facing walkout side.  This changed the entire feeling of the space, making it feel more open, larger and anything but a basement.  Well worth the cutting, hammering and breaking up of a solid ton of concrete.  Innotech creates such a smooth operating unit that this heavy triple glazed door glides open easily and locks very securely with a multipoint mechanism. 

LEED is a big piece, constantly bubbling under the surface and underlying everything we do. Even if we can't meet the credit its always about how close we can get.  LEED on a renovation is not an easy piece.  Renovations have to be extensive and must bring the entire home, new and existing up to the stringent LEED standards.  The reality of this means our LEED home can't be submitted until phase 2 of the renovation in a couple of years when the full house can be resided and exteriorly insulated to R25 or better, with new windows to replace all the existing.  

If LEED were a person you could tell that they would really dig our location (Location and Linkages 10 of 10 credits), and would like the energy performance (10 to 12 credits).  LEED acts almost like that nosy neighbour, poking their head over the fence to offer suggestions, best practice and a eye for mistakes.  It would be great if that nosy neighbour LEED, would come over and help, but I'll have to rely on great friends and real neighbours.  Our framer and plumber both live walking distance away.  Most of our suppliers are just a short bike ride away if needed. 
The rest of our preliminary points are scattered through the checklist and have us targeting for Certified, but we could stretch for Silver… maybe we should put a rainwater tank under the deck next summer. 


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