Kitchen Renovation is Complete — Finally!!

April 8th, 2014 by Cathy Rust 3 comments »
Kitchen renovation

View of kitchen, cabinetry, lighting, maple hardwood flooring

Well, five months after my deadline, my kitchen is finished. I’ve promised my friend Nancy Peterson, CEO of, that I will write a post for her called “Why I will never be my own general contractor again”. Let’s just say it was an eye opening experience. This post, however, is not about the mistakes I made (and there were plenty!), it’s about whether or not I achieved my green kitchen goals.

I would say that I accomplished some green goals but failed miserably in others, in particular with indoor air quality. For many of you, this will be the one area where you will probably not want to compromise. I, on the other hand, seem to be willing to sacrifice mine and my family’s health for the sake of aesthetics, and in some cases, durability.

To recap, a green renovation uses a minimal amount of resources and materials that are repurposed or renewable, have low-embodied energy, can be recycled or repurposed at end of life, are as local as possible and don’t cost the earth, literally. It aims at creating a space with high indoor air quality, that is functional, easy to use and low-maintenance and very durable.

Design: I worked with the designer to maximize space in the 10×16′ room. Most weeknights we eat around the island, which is one reason I didn’t want the sink relocated there. The kitchen is compact, with all the pots, pans and bowls I use on a regular basis easily accessible. We maximized the use of the island, using it for storage of cookbooks and table gear (placemats and napkins) on the outside, and microwave and beverage fridge on the inside (facing the stove). It is the most functional kitchen I’ve ever worked in. We also put a TV in it, the first time we’ve had one in the kitchen, and it helps get through dishwashing duty a little easier.

"Outside" view of kitchen island

“Outside” view of kitchen island

Materials: I sourced as many materials locally as I could. Here is a list of what I used. I’ve marked myself on a scale out of ten for each area how successful I felt I was at achieving “green” goals:

  • Flooring: Sourcing local wood for the floor was embarrassingly simple. I called five or six flooring stores to ask if they carried Quebec maple hardwood flooring and they all paused, surprised I would ask such a dumb question. “But of course we do. What plank width and grade would you like?” was the usual answer. I used maple because that’s what was there before and I liked it. Maple and birch are a little less expensive than oak, which is the most popular floor wood right now, and there is a misconception that they are difficult to stain because their grains are so tight, but the fellow who finished our floors said both maple and birch are a great hardwood for floors and stain just fine. (Note: as mentioned in an earlier kitchen post, we tried to save the original floor, but it was too far gone by the time we ripped everything up.). Score: 6/10
  • Cabinetry, LED lighting, Cambria Quartz counter top

    Cabinetry, LED lighting, Cambria Quartz counter top

  • Cabinetry: We used low VOC, partial FSC plywood made in Eastern Quebec for the boxes and local Quebec maple for the cabinet doors. Regarding indoor air quality, all the low-VOC plywood was negated by the highly stinky and toxic lacquer I ended up using for the final finish. Our experiments with Allback linseed oil paint were unsuccessful: dry time per coat was a minimum of 24 hours, and the cabinet maker told me it took him six coats to achieve an opaque layer. Further, we couldn’t achieve the colours I wanted for the cabinets. Colours are a variation of Sarah Richardson for Para Paints. Perimeter cabinets: SR43 Shoreline (P2718-04) Island: SR73 Herringbone (P5244-52D). Score: 7/10
  • Counter tops: Cambria quartz, Edinburough design, 1.25″ thick. This is one of the best decisions we made. I was debating between all the different quartz manufacturers out there, two are less expensive but produced overseas, and three were higher end and produced in North America. I went with Cambria because they mine their quartz in Ontario, Quebec and the US, and manufacture in the US and the quartz is apparently very high quality (at least that’s what all the salespeople and installers told me). All I know is that I’m really happy with the end result. It’s low maintenance, never needs sealing and you use soap and water to clean it. Score: 7/10
  • Sink and Faucet: Novanni, made in Coldstream, Ontario. Identical to the one I had in my last house in Toronto, so I knew it was right for me. Faucet, not so much. I ordered a Rubi Basilico because I liked the look. When I was speaking with the vendor I commented on how inexpensive it was and would it hold up. He told me it was one of their most popular lines and they’d never had any problems with it. Well I don’t like it. The cartridge sticks when you turn it on so you either get nothing or a full force stream, and the handle is constantly coming loose and needs tightening. The flow is aerated, so it saves water, but I think I will order a Tapmaster foot control switch which will solve all my problems. Score: 7/10
  • Novanni Sink, Rubi Faucet

    Novanni Sink, Rubi Faucet

  • Lighting: If you spend as much time in the kitchen as I do, you want to avoid eye strain, and there’s nothing like cheap lighting or not enough of it to contribute to it. Fortunately, despite my agonizing over lighting, I couldn’t be happier with my choice of the LED 4″ potlights (2700K colour temperature) from Halo. The amount of light they give off is plenty, so much so that I never have to put them at full power (they are fully dimmable). Further, the distributor tried to convince me that “2700K is just as good as 3000K” but for me, it isn’t. I wanted to replicate the colour temperature of  50W halogen potlights, which is 2700K. Note: “colour temperature” refers to how cool or warm lighting is. There is a good explanation of the variations of colour temperature on the Home Depot website. Score: 9/10
  • Energy Efficiency: The kitchen has ten LED potlights of 10 Watts each, which I usually only have on at about 80% strength. That means I’m only drawing 80 Watts of power for all the lights. The undermount lights and pendant lights are also LED (except for the bird lamp over the sink which uses three 20W bulbs, but it’s rarely on). I marvel at how little electricity the lights draw. Ten halogens at 50W each would have drawn 500 Watts and needed to be replaced every few months. However, before I congratulate myself on the low wattage of the lights, we also installed a TV and bar fridge, and kept the 15 year old Amana fridge and Bosch dishwasher. Our TV and beverage fridge are frivolous “nice to haves”. A strict green kitchen would forgo both of them. If I had a Power Cost Monitor I could see how much electricity the fridge and dishwasher are drawing, suffice it to say, new ones would definitely be more efficient! Score: 5/10
  • View of "inside" side of island. Beverage fridge and microwave.

    View of “inside” side of island. Beverage fridge and microwave.

  • Indoor air quality: As mentioned in the section on cabinetry, I used a toxic lacquer for the kitchen cabinets. They will likely be off-gassing for years. The floor stain was a water-based ultra-low VOC stain from BONA, covered by a smelly and off-gassing but hard wearing polyurethane protective coat. Finally, we kept the high quality 15 year old Thermador gas stove because it is in excellent shape, but, let’s face it, if you’ve read Clara’s post on indoor air quality in the kitchen, I probably should have replaced the stove with an induction stove. We did install one of the best venting hoods on the market, a Vent-a-Hood, and it vents to the outside, but it’s not perfect. On the other hand, a professional hood would have been overkill as replacement air can be a problem if the vent is too powerful for the spaceScore: 2/10
  • Stove, vent, cabinetry

    Stove, vent, cabinetry

  • Carpentry materials: There were minimal adhesives and caulk used, but they were standard, drywall was by CertainTeed but I looked up recycled content and in Montreal it’s only 5% (in Toronto it’s 95%. The reason for the big difference is whether or not the manufacturing facility has access to recycled material). Framing wood was not FSC. All off-cuts and scraps I took to the eco-center for recycling. Score: 0/10

Total score: 43/80 or 56%. 

Cost breakdown: Below I’ve listed in percentages of our costs. We did nothing elaborate or out of the ordinary, we reused our appliances because they were in good shape. Labour costs were more than I had anticipated, but every time you open up a wall you have to be prepared for some unanticipated expenses. The LED lights were also more expensive than halogen, but with lower running costs and never (supposedly) having to replace the bulbs, I’m content with the upfront costs. Naturally cabinets and counter tops were expensive, but I had anticipated that. The amount of detail and work that goes into cabinetmaking is incredible and as my civil-engineer brother in-law pointed out, “the island touches the ground in nine places, that’s not an easy thing to accomplish, especially in an older home with an uneven floor.”

Labour (48% of total cost):

  • Design
  • Demolition
  • Rough carpentry
  • plumbing
  • electrical
  • masonry
  • floor finishing
  • tile installation

Materials (52% of total cost):

  • Flooring
  • Cabinetry (includes installation)
  • Counter tops (includes installation)
  • Sink and Faucet
  • Lighting
  • Drywall, carpentry wood, supplies
  • Paint, caulk, etc.
  • Appliances and Furniture

Lessons learned:

First and foremost, unless you can do 80% of the job yourself, hire a general contractor. Believe me, it’s worth it. Secondly, when sourcing materials, be proactive, and if your contractor doesn’t use greener materials, offer to source them and buy them yourself. While some contractors won’t like this idea, others will be more than willing to have you running around to all the different stores, fighting traffic and picking up the material yourself. Third, if you don’t already have a preferred contractor, source one that regularly uses green materials and has green habits such as minimizing waste.

Revisiting Plastic Bag Charges

March 27th, 2014 by Cathy Rust No comments »

In May, 2010 I wrote a post about the then spate of waste management efforts that had been implemented by the City of Toronto. One of those programs was a 5¢ charge for single use plastic bags by retail organizations in the city. Anyone who has the unfortunate circumstance to live in Toronto under the current mayor, Rob Ford, will know that that city by-law was repealed by that forward thinking leader. In 2010 I had wondered if the ban on plastic bags was working, and after doing some research, contacting the city, reading grocery chains’ annual reports I discovered that indeed, a simple 5¢ charge had effectively reduced single plastic bag use by a whopping 70%. I would say that that is an effective policy! I guess Mayor Ford didn’t agree.

In another forward thinking move, the car dealers of New York state are trying to put pressure on the state government to revoke Tesla Motors’ sales license. Tesla sells direct to consumers and avoids a 6-9% mark-up fee included in car dealers’ prices. While it doesn’t make the cars affordable for most of us (in Ontario they start at $68,000), it does put them in the same league as other luxury cars. North Carolina, Texas and New Jersey are just three states who’ve succumbed to car dealer pressure and forbidden Tesla from selling direct to consumer. I don’t really know how forbidding the sale of  a clean running electric car protects consumers’ rights, but I’m sure someone can explain it to me.

The city of New York is now contemplating charging 10¢ for any single use bag, paper or plastic. In another giant step backwards for the environment, the American Progressive Bag Alliance has issued the following statement regarding this proposed by-law:

Denying that this legislation is a tax is disingenuous to the hardworking residents of New York City. This proposed ordinance will drive up the cost of already expensive groceries for New Yorkers while failing to achieve any environmental goals.

Given that there is evidence to the contrary (see aforementioned research done on Toronto’s past efforts), they may want to revisit that statement. They also might want to take a look at the website where they’ve estimated that over one million single plastic use bags are used every minute. Now that’s a good use of resources! (not.)

The single use plastic bag industry is one that should happily die a quick death, and it is only through policies such as charging for plastic bags that will help change our consumer habits. They are easy policies to implement while promoting a cleaner environment for future generations.

Best Water Efficiency Practices for Homeowners

March 25th, 2014 by Cathy Rust No comments »

March 22nd marked World Water Day, a day used to highlight how important fresh water is to the planet and how much of the world’s population struggles to get reliable clean freshwater every day. Canadians are the second largest users of water in the world with an astounding 343 litres per day per capita. Only the Americans use more than we do, coming in at 382 litres per capita. Our large use of water is mostly due to a lack of awareness as well as underpricing for its use by municipalities.

If you live in or near the Greater Toronto Area you will know that the conservation efforts by municipalities have resulted in a 10% decrease in water use by citizens and businesses. While this is a good thing, the municipalities are complaining that their water treatment facilities are going broke due to a lack of revenue from water use. Hmm, clearly there’s a problem – but it’s not conservation. A water scarcity threat map of Canada shows that southwestern Ontario and the prairies are the two places in Canada where water scarcity threats exist.

In the event that there is a water shortage in your area this summer and beyond, or if your rates go up, or you just want to be a better citizen, here are some tips from cheapest and easiest, to the most expensive and invasive to achieve. The most effective way to conserve water in your home is to change out your toilet if you have the old 12 gallon one to a 0.8 gallon/3 L toilet.  You’ll be using 1/12  the water to flush that you used to. That’s a lot of water!

Gray water on the cheap: Gray water is reusing water that has already been used for one purpose so it’s not completely sanitary, but is good enough to use for a secondary, non-food oriented purpose, such as flushing toilets. Recently, I became aware of an awesome woman named Béa Johnson, a French woman married to an American, living in northern California. She has written a book on the subject of living without creating any waste. They are a family of four and they produce under one kilogram of garbage annually.

Now that Bea’s waste situation is under control, she’s tackling other areas of her family’s lives like water. There is a recent post on her blog about what she’s doing to conserve water with some great handy tips that don’t cost, well, anything. From collecting shower water to flush toilets (just pour the water from a bucket into the bowl and the toilet will flush), to collecting kitchen water that’s used for rinsing dishes or when you’re waiting for it to warm up, let it run into a portable container to use for outdoor plants and garberators, and flushing toilets.

Note that gray water can’t stand more than a few hours on its own without starting to develop bacteria, so if you haven’t used it all by the end of the day then flush it down the toilet at night.  It could save you some precious gallons here and there and every drop counts.

For more information on living the Zero Waste lifestyle, visit Béa’s blog or get her book.

Proficiency Model N7716

 Toilets: toilets are the largest consumers of water in the house, so if you need to change them out make sure to look for a low-flush toilet. There are great 3L toilets made by Proficiency. They’re relatively inexpensive and flush well. As I always say, if you’re worried about the low-flow toilets not performing up to par, check out the Wastewater guide MaP (maximum performance) ratings published jointly by the California Urban Water Conservation Council and the Canadian Waste Water Association. They will help you select a toilet that can flush as much as 1 kg of solids without a problem. Another great toilet is the the Sydney 0.8 by Caroma. It is virtually clogless and if you have teenage boys, you will understand why this is so important! See my earlier post “Beyond the Six Litre Toilet.

Oxygenics Tri Spa

Oxygenics Tri Spa

 Showerheads and faucets: Teenagers spend an inordinate amount of time in the shower. There are tricks to use that will help get them out. For instance, I have a friend who lives in a quirky old house where the hot water shut off valve  is accessible through a panel in the neighboring bedroom. So, if the kids have been in there too long wasting valuable hot water and adding dollar signs to both her gas and water bill, she turns off the hot water. It gets the kids out pretty quickly. Granted, not all of us have quirky houses where shut off valves are  accessible outside the bathroom, so there are other ways of conserving water from adding shower timers — not all that effective for teens but good for motivated adults, and of course water-sense certified shower heads. Delta, Oxygenics and Bricor showerheads are three brands that come to mind, but there are plenty out there and they’re vastly improved from the days when the shampoo wouldn’t rinse out of your hair giving you “flat head” syndrome à la Kramer from Seinfeld.

The next time you are looking for a faucet find one that’s WaterSense certified. For the kitchen a dual-flow faucet is best: faucets can alternate between low-flow (the default setting) and full flow for filling pots and sinks without taking forever, such as the Delta Multiflow faucet.

Washing Machines: Most of us think of front-end loaders as the only water efficient washers on the market. A few people shy away from them because they don’t relish getting down on their knees to do the laundry, and if not properly balanced, they can make a lot of noise while spinning. Washers also consume a good amount of water, so make sure you do a full-load and not just that single pair of jeans, and if you’re in the market for a new washer look for an Energy Star certified brand. Here is a good website to help you find a new washer: and a great article from Apartment Therapy: The Best Energy Efficient Washers.

Rainwater HOG

  Rainwater HOG

Graywater systems: If you’re building a new house, adding an addition or gutting an older home, it is the perfect time to incorporate some water and energy efficiency measures. Gray water systems collect shower water, treat it and store it for use in the home’s toilets and can help you reduce your household water consumption by up to 40%. They are best incorporated into an addition/gut job or new home construction.

Rain water cisterns: There are many different kinds of cisterns available to catch rain water from simple rain barrels that hook up to your home’s downspout, to underground or between wall cisterns that store plenty of water. In times of water bans, you can still maintain your garden. The Aquascape RainXchange is an underground cistern, , the Rainwater HOG, or a rain barrel. Rain barrels are often available as a subsidized or free option through municipal programs. Check your municipalities website or to see if there is a program near you.

Note: not all municipalities across North America allow rain barrels/cisterns for private water collection; check with your municipality to make sure you can use one.

Always check your area’s average annual rainfall to calculate the size of the container you might need.

Drought resistant landscaping (xeriscaping): To use less water outside, use local and drought resistant plants and drip irrigation for watering. Water at night to prevent evaporation. Most lawns use Kentucky Blue grass which will become dormant in times of drought. In most cases will turn green once the rains return. If possible, it’s best to try to shrink your lawn to minimal size to ease water and mowing demands.

 Waterless Carwash: There are several waterless carwash products on the market that allow you to wash your car without water. Canadian Tire sells Goclean waterless carwash, but there are plenty of others.






Cooking as an Indoor Air Pollution Hazard

March 18th, 2014 by Clara Puskas No comments »

Oh, Dear Kitchen!
Could this be true? Instead of associating you with the smell of freshly brewed coffee or a baked sweet pie…here I am with the burnt smell of the word, pollution.

Well, let’s clear the air!

What is air pollution? The picture first to mind? Something outside–smog, busy roads with bumper to bumper traffic, or factories releasing black sooty smoke?
A new study has found that kitchen appliances, especially the oven and stove emit noxious fumes at a rate up to 3x higher than a busy city street.
Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley Lab have identified which indoor air pollutants cause the greatest health consequences.  Poor indoor air quality is as significant as those from all traffic accidents or infectious diseases in the US. The study  reveals that, major source of indoor pollutants in the home is…. cooking.

Yes, cooking. There is no typo here.

The research discovered two pollutants that previously had not been recognized as a cause for concern.
Two new indoor air pollutants have been identified in addition to the three previously known indoor air pollutants—secondhand smoke, radon and formaldehyde.  These are acrolein and PM2.5, or particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter.

  •  Acrolein is produced  when cooking meats and oils, and we should also mention that it is a genotoxic tissue irritant, that was used as a nerve agent in
    World War I!
  • PM2.5 has a variety of sources, including cooking, reactions caused by some cleaning products, any kind of combustion, for example such as burning candles or incense.
    The study addressed only chemical pollutants and did not integrate biological pollutants, such as allergens and molds. Another limitation was that it looked only at exposure through inhalation and not other means of contamination, such as ingestion or skin contact.


However, this research is especially important in light of recent efforts to make buildings airtight to save on energy costs. Airtight homes trap contaminants and worsen the risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals, so new homes should always include a system that introduces fresh air into the home, for instance, by installing a heat or energy recovery ventilator. Scientists at the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are studying how indoor air quality affects human health and how to remove harmful pollutants from the simple task of everyday cooking.

  • Current kitchen ventilation standards and metrics of performance focus on measuring energy use of appliances but not their impact on human health.

Given the information from this new study, it is clear that improved kitchen ventilation is needed.
The Berkeley Lab’s goal is to establish a “science based ventilation standards”. This probably will bring a range of changes such as altering building codes to guarantee effective tools and appliances to improve ventilation in kitchens.

The kitchen is no longer a room where we only cook and eat food. The kitchen is the place where we get together in the morning and after work, the kids often do their homework, and where we proudly entertain. Today’s kitchens more often have no dividing walls and doors to adjacent spaces, open concept is a preferred family home layout.

The unintended side effect of cooking with natural gas: Cooking with gas releases particulate matter, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds. Studies also suggest that natural gas may increase the chances of asthma and respiratory illnesses (David Wimbley, 2000).
In a recent study, Chair of the Dallas based Environmental Health Center, Dr. William Rea concluded that after studying  47,000 patients, the most important sources of indoor pollution responsible for generating (environmental) illness were gas stoves, hot water heaters, and furnaces. Furthermore, gas combustion also provides a transportation mechanism for dust, molds, mites, viruses and bacteria, since water vapour is generated (David Wimbley, 2000).

Natural gas is in its original state contains radon and benzene, chemicals that can contribute to cancer. To add more spice to the already hot dish, a new study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives has found that natural gas stoves expose us daily – just by cooking supper every night- to unhealthy levels of noxious combustion by-products. Gas stoves and ovens pollute our kitchen’s air with nasties like aldehydes, carbon monoxide and other gases linked to nerve damage and respiratory irritation. While combustion by-products can generally be removed through appliance vents, -again- Energy Star program certifies these appliances for their energy efficiency, but there is not a single standard that dictates how well they have to work or how effective they are at removing pollutants from indoor air.


Are Induction cooktops better for Indoor Air Quality than Gas?

Induction cooktops are safe and reliable alternative to natural gas.
When considering the environmental impacts of gas and induction cooking in our home, the key aspect we need to understand is the fuel source.
With gas stovetops, this is typically natural gas (CH4,methane) for both, commercial and residential kitchens. Induction stovetops use electricity to create an electromagnetic field, and as such have no primary fuel source and do not use combustion as a source of heat. The heat is transferred from the element to the pot or pan on the cooktop, there is no open flame to worry about, therefore makes cooking safer and more energy efficient. Another benefit of induction cooking is that due to the efficiency of how induction cooktops transfer heat, they also heat food faster. This directly reduces cooking time, and therefore energy consumption. The precise temperature control and  instaneous heat of induction stoves are similar to that of gas stoves. However, induction stoves heat more evenly as the cookware transfer the heat directly to the food. .

Providing ample ventilation when we are cooking and correctly using appliances are important control tools we must use. Exhaust fans should always vent to the outdoors over cooking stoves and ranges, and we should pay attention to keep the burners properly adjusted. If our homes are poorly ventilated the odors from cooking will linger and increase the chance of infection.
Basic steps for prevention of air pollution in the kitchen are:

  • turning on the fan and opening windows while cooking (weather permitting),
  • Removing garbage as often as possible to avoid odors that also attract rodents and insects and prevent food-borne bacteria,
  •  Controlling moisture to prevent mold growth,
  • Using natural cleaners.


For more information on sustainable interior design, visit Clara’s website,

This post originally appeared on the XL Kitchens blog.

Skylights’ Function in The Active House

March 12th, 2014 by Cathy Rust No comments »
Velux skylight operable with blinds

Velux skylight with blinds and operable glazing

Some green builders and energy auditors would argue that skylights have no place in a “green” home. After all, skylights puncture the building envelope allowing heat to escape in the winter and enter in the summer. Improper installation of skylights can add problems such as condensation build-up inside and ice damming outside.

However, in a house built to Active House standards, energy is an incorporated into the design but is not the driving component.  An Active House balances energy efficiency and human comfort by allowing natural daylight, fresh air and summer cross breezes into a building, while excluding excessive heat, cold, and glare from direct sunlight. This goal naturally means the home will have an abundance of windows and skylights — a direct contradiction of building philosophies such as Passive House which requires extremely tight building envelopes.

There have been many studies done on the positive effects of natural daylight on people’s health, and for those of us who live in northern climates and have suffered, even a little, from seasonal affective disorder, they will recognize the value of natural light, especially in the winter months. So while building envelopes are compromised with the addition of skylights, other green building goals are more than satisfied.

VELUX, a company established in Europe over 70 years ago, is well-known for its high-quality skylights. It has been involved with the Active House philosophy since its inception. I spoke with Nels Moxness and Russell Ibbotson of VELUX about the roles of skylights and their pros and cons in any building.

There are four major issues/concerns people have with skylights: air tightness, insulation value, solar heat gain and glare.

Air tightness: It’s no secret that many people who have lived in a house with skylights have experienced leaking at some point. While it can be due to faulty installation, often it is because the original skylights were installed using tar as the sealer around the flashing. Nels told me that after a few years of exposure to weather elements such as heat, cold, sunlight, water, snow, etc., the tar shrinks and cracks allowing water to infiltrate and find its way into the house. VELUX has always used a an engineered flashing which does not require sealants to maintain water tightness.  Their current product has the addition of  a rubber based membrane, which provides a shield from ice and water that often outlasts the roof’s shingles and prevents leaking. Further, to ensure proper installation of its skylights, VELUX certified installers  are required to attend a comprehensive installation training as well as have a job site inspected upon completion.

Insulation: With respect to insulation values, VELUX skylights are double-paned, flat glass, LoE³  that are filled with argon gas. This provides for a better insulation value than uninsulated skylights. The U-value for the installed skylights in the Active House in Thorold, Ontario is rated at 0.4 in Energy Star zones A, B and C (most of Canada’s population lives within these climate zones, Zone D, the coldest, covers the Arctic).  Note that there are 14 skylights in the Thorold house and the house achieved 1.6 air changes per hour. To give you an idea of how that compares to building code, the upgraded Ontario Building Code, 2012, and the newest Novoclimat (Quebec) building code require a minimum of 2.5 air changes per hour for a detached home.

Solar Heat Gain and Glare: Often, even in winter, if the sun is beating down on a house, without the protection trees or other buildings, the area under the skylight within the house will become so hot or bright that you avoid it completely. This effect is particularly brutal in the summer and will have the added consequence of forcing your air conditioner to work overtime. In fact, solar heat gain and direct glare from poorly placed skylights can negate any natural daylight advantage there is to installing them in the first place. Nels mentioned that with respect to solar heat gain, in the latest VELUX skylights, there is three times less solar heat gain than there was even ten years ago.  Further, VELUX is developing an exterior awning system to prevent solar heat gain and help block glare even more. As it is, you can add an interior blind system, operated by remote control, this is particularly relevant in a bedroom if you don’t like waking up with the summer sun (in Montreal in June, dawn starts around 4:30am and sunrise is at 5am). In fact the addition of a light-blocking blind to a skylight can increase energy performance by as much as 45%.

As the technology of skylights continuously improves, skylights’ importance  in a home’s design and functioning becomes increasingly valuable and homes built to Active House standards take full advantage of the newest skylights’ multi-functional qualities.

The multi-functional skylight:  The Thorold house is designed with 14 skylights which are used to bring daylight into areas that might not receive it otherwise such as bathrooms and stairwells. With increased daylight, demand for electric lighting is significantly decreased versus a standard house.

The ability of VELUX skylights to open to let in fresh air and let interior hot air escape allows architects who promote natural over mechanical ventilation to make use of stairwells as heat stacks.  When the cooler night air advances, ground floor windows can be opened along with skylights. As the hot air escapes through the skylights, the cooler night air gets sucked into the house to replace it. Cooling down a house is much more rapid, easing pressure on air conditioning and the electrical load.  Further, VELUX has just incorporated a solar panel into its skylight to operate it, so there is no need to add to the electrical load.

Rain Sensor: Because the skylights are operable, they include a rain sensor so if you aren’t home and it rains, they will close automatically.

Effectively placed and properly installed skylights can be a positive addition to any building, providing natural daylight in hard to reach spaces, lowering electrical lighting loads and improving occupants’ overall well being.

To find a Velux dealer near you visit the Velux website.


Build A Bench With your Child With Help from Mag Ruffman and Lowe’s!

February 20th, 2014 by Cathy Rust No comments »


ToolGirl Mag Ruffman

ToolGirl Mag Ruffman

If you’re looking for things to do this March Break and are planning a “Staycation”, here’s one idea that doesn’t cost much and is a great way to spend an afternoon with your kids: ToolGirl Mag Ruffman has produced a series of videos for Lowe’s to help adults teach kids (or adults learn) about building things. The videos and are straightforward and show that the projects are easy to do. This is one instance where you can actually say “even a five year old can do it” and mean it! Mag has developed two types of projects: those that are for younger kids and more complex projects for the “tween” group. My daughter and I chose to make the step stool which will come in handy in our new kitchen. Once we had the supplies, we were able to build it in the amount of time the instructions suggested it will take and were pleased with the results. Most of the tools you might already have on hand, but it’s also a good excuse to go out and replace older tools (I bought a new miter saw), and maybe spring for a few new ones (I bought a rafter square). Our project materials were simple and included a measuring tape, screwdriver, wood glue, wood saw, rafter square and paint. The supplies consisted of a wooden plank, trim to match the same width, table legs and hardware to attach the legs. Mag provides all the dimensions of materials and tools needed for each project with each video, the instructions are also included and are clear and easy to follow. Step stool supplies Legs and leg hardware and top. We cut the pine plank into a 12×14″ rectangle, measured and added trim and sanded the edges to make sure there weren’t any small pieces of wood left hanging. Then, we screwed in the leg hardware and attached the legs. Finally, using Allback linseed oil paint, we gave the bench a coat of paint. We had to wait another 24 hours to add the second coat of paint. My daughter and I had a lot of fun and are happy with the final results. Thanks to Mag and Lowe’s for providing the videos and instructions for all the projects. To find all the information you need to make the bench and many other projects, visit the Lowe’s video website.   Legs attached   Allback Linseed Oil Paint

Completed step stool. Hooray!

Completed step stool. Hooray!

The Importance of an Energy Audit, Using Infrared Imaging

January 30th, 2014 by Contributor No comments »
Thermal energy loss

Thermal energy loss

An energy audit could be the only thing between you, a safe home, and a full wallet.

Canadian buildings, according to the Canada Green Building Council, consume up to 38 per cent of all secondary energy use, which is energy obtained from primary energy sources. Residing in your home, you consume energy in many ways: cooking dinner on the stovetop; running water for your bath; refrigerating your leftovers; and, of course, heating your home.

You might turn the lights out before bed and take care not to waste water. Though this effort certainly helps conserve energy, consider the possibility of problems in your home that are nearly impossible to detect yourself; difficult to control; and ones that are ultimately preventing you from achieving an energy-efficient home.

Finding out if your home is energy-efficient

Consuming energy is inevitable and, in fact, necessary. However, we can be smarter about the ways in which we do so and we can make our homes more energy-efficient, which in turn will ensure they are safe and sound, warm and dry, and even help patch up that hole in your wallet.

First, you need to find out how your home is using energy. Taking a look around on the inside or outside of your property, you might spot the source of a leak or draft. In many cases though, the issue is more subtle and out of sight. The only completely reliable way to find out how your home is using (or losing) energy is by having a certified and experienced inspector visit and carry out a thorough energy audit.

Infrared imaging for your energy audit

An energy audit using infrared imaging is both an accurate and completely safe way to detect whereabouts you’re losing energy. However, an infrared inspection can be complex and is most reliable when a thermal imaging expert conducts the energy audit—surveying your home’s whole envelope and indoor environment—and properly interprets the results. This way, you’ll save time and, ultimately, money.

Carrying out an energy audit via infrared imaging allows the inspector to detect several major problems, including the following:

-          All moisture buildup

-          Leaking or burst pipes

-          All areas of water intrusion from outdoors in

-          All areas where there is indoor air escaping your home

How an infrared inspector detects your home’s energy conservation

A certified infrared inspector, using a high-resolution infrared camera, is able to detect any problem that may be preventing your home from maximising energy. The camera picks up the energy flow inside the house, reading where and how it’s being used. The inspector weighs the energy input against the output and is then able to tell the energy conservation of the home.

Depending on his or her results, the inspector will inform you of the ways you can improve energy efficiency, through repairs, renovations, upgrades or other lifestyle modifications. A sustainable energy environment, or green building, can be achieved, regardless of whether you’re in the building process or you’ve been living in your home for decades.

Choosing an energy-efficient home

An energy audit may not be in your budget. However, if your home has heat escaping or isn’t making the most of its energy, you should begin to assess the pros and cons at hand. A situation like this is not only costly itself, but it can be dangerous.

Often, the problems detected during the inspection are ones that must be fixed immediately. For instance, moisture buildup jeopardizes the structural integrity of your home and can lead to black mold growth within 24 to 48 hours.

When you own a home, you’ve committed yourself—your time, money and attention—to maintaining it. Be certain its energy consumption is neither costing you a fortune nor risking your comfort and safety.


Article written by Ivan Ward, Inspector at  - Infrared  inspection services from Ottawa.

The Active House Philosophy – A New Building Standard From Europe

January 23rd, 2014 by Cathy Rust 3 comments »

You may already be familiar with the Passive House movement. Homes built to that standard are entirely concerned with energy consumption from heating, cooling and plug load. The standard requires that homes be so well insulated that there is no need for a conventional furnace, but rather a pellet stove, baseboard heating or a heat pump will do. Because the standard focuses entirely on heating, builders attempting passive house certification will also sometimes combine it with other environmental certifications, such as LEED, which is concerned with overall building and occupant health. Now, however, there is a new building philosophy called Active House that was developed by several representatives, among others, those from Denmark and Holland. It has three main tenets: Occupants’ indoor comfort be maximized, Energy Consumption minimized and Environmental Conservation be considered at each building phase from design through use through end-of-life.

Active House Web of Categories

Instead of evaluating homes on a “points” basis the way LEED does, Active Houses are evaluated in a web on a scale from 1 to 4. “1″ being the best and “4″ the lowest. The idea is to achieve as many of the specific category demands as possible to create a broad web – 1s and 2s, the outer rings of the web, being preferable to 3s and 4s, the inner rings.

Comfort: The first category considered is indoor comfort. This is a broad and somewhat open-ended term and covers daylight, indoor temperature and indoor air quality.

  • Thermal Environment: One occupant might be more interested in keeping a room warmer or cooler than another and that’s exactly what the creators of the Active House had in mind — individual desires of the occupants. To achieve this and to conserve energy, zoned heating and cooling are used for different floors and rooms. Further, through the use of low to no energy features including orientation of the building, heat stack design, operable windows and the maximizing cross breezes, the use of natural ventilation is optimized and mechanical ventilation (and therefore electricity consumption) is limited. Building envelopes are well-insulated, so the addition of a Heat Recovery Ventilator is usually necessary to allow fresh air to enter and moist, stale air to leave the building even on excessively cold or hot days when windows aren’t opened. HRVs also improve energy efficiency as they transfer the heat from the stale air leaving to the fresh air entering.
  • Daylight: Of critical importance to a person’s mental and physical well-being is the amount and quality of daylight a building is designed to receive. With the fairly recent discovery of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), most of us living in the Northern Hemisphere don’t receive enough natural daylight during the winter months, one of the consequences for some people being depression. Architects working to Active House philosophy are required to design homes with high quality daylight reaching as many lived-in rooms as possible (storage and utility rooms aren’t counted). The recommended daylight factor is 2% or higher, while the lowest score of evaluated rooms must be greater than 1% on average.
  • Indoor Air Quality: The Active House standard requires a constant supply of fresh air into the building, whether through operable windows or an HRV or a combination of the two. The HRV also can be used to control indoor humidity levels ensuring a dry environment to prevent mould growth.

Energy: Since the operation of buildings worldwide consumes about 40% of all fossil fuels, an Active House aims to be light on the use of carbon-based fuels and nuclear energy. For example, a house that uses 100% renewable energy scores a “1″, while a house using 25% or more renewable energy would score a “4″.

  • Energy Demand:  This is the amount of energy required by the house, including space heating and cooling, water heating, lighting, ventilation, technical installations, plug load and appliances.  In the design phase, architects will focus on designing a house that maximizes energy conservation and efficiency by taking advantage of passive solar gains for both lighting and heat, as well as designing tight building envelopes. Other features include the addition of renewable energy systems and demand-control ventilation, which also contribute to the energy savings. Use of dynamic building envelope with solar shadings and natural ventilations reduces the need for
    mechanical cooling and air conditioning during summer period. Finally, the type of construction is very important to successful implementation of this phase.
  • Energy Supply: The type and quality of energy supplied to the house is another important facet of the Active House philosophy. Homes that use 100% renewable energy produced on site or nearby receive a “1″. Homes that use 25% or more renewable energy receive a “4″. Note that not using any renewable energy isn’t even an option, regardless of how efficient you are.
  • Primary Energy Performance: This value is the calculation of (total energy consumption – renewable energy supply) x national primary energy factors. What they are looking for here,, in principle, is your CO2 output based on the national, or in our case, provincial, energy production mix. If your home uses 100% renewable energy, either from the grid or produced all on-site your score would be “1″.

Environment: This is the area that focuses on building materials, waste and life cycle. The Active House is concerned not only with the functioning of the building, but how it got there and what will happen to it when its useful life is over.

  • Environmental Load: Building a house is a disruptive process to the global environment. The Active House takes into account how damaging construction can be by considering a house’s  Global Warming Potential, Primary Energy consumption, ozone depletion, smog potential, water acidification potential and eutrophication of the soil. The environmental load is all encompassing, and considers the whole Life Cycle, including the production and transportation of the materials used to build the house, the maintenance and operation of the house, and disposal of the house at end of life.
  • Fresh water consumption: Minimizing consumption of freshwater by occupants’ also plays an important role in the Active House. A “1″ is achieved by reducing water consumption by 50% versus the national average, while a “4″ is graded for a house that conserves 10% or more. Devices and techniques used can be items such as a cistern to catch rain water or a gray water system, which captures used water from baths and showers and recirculates it to toilets. Low-flow fixtures can also be installed.
  • Sustainable Construction: As many renewable and recycled/recyclable products are used in the construction of the house as possible. A house containing a minimum of 5% recyclable content will receive a “4″ while a house that uses over 50% recycled content receives a 1. Regarding wood, the standard is more demanding. At least 50% of all wood used in construction of the house must be certified either by PEFC or FSC. 25-80% of new material needs to be EMS certified. If you’re not familiar with this requirement, EMS stands for Environmental Management System, usually referring to ISO 14001 standard which is a voluntary guideline outlining the criteria a company would have to go through to get ISO 14001 certification. A company with an EMS in place tends to have a greater responsibility with how its products are made, including taking steps towards responsible sourcing and improving its overall energy and water efficiency.

Qualitative parameters:  In addition to the evaluative web used to rate an Active House, there is a long list of other considerations that are used to make this house a lower impact, thoughtfully designed house, which architects, designers and other building professionals can use as a guide. Other issues such as noise and acoustics, accessibility, visual transmittance and glare management among the factors considered.

The philosophy behind the design process is thorough, thoughtful and addresses gaps in the Passive House built house and even the LEED for Homes designation. It does not go as far as Living Building Challenge, which requires that most, if not all energy and water used by the house be produced or captured by the house. Perhaps though, it is a more realistic approach for urban dwellers. The developers of the Active House philosophy consider it a work in progress, not dissimilar to LEED. They evaluate houses already built to the standard to see how it can be improved. Homes are evaluated before and during occupancy and compared so that professionals involved in Active House design-build can learn from the results.

Active House Principle The first Canadian built Active House has just been completed in Thorold, Ontario by Great Gulf Homes. It provides an excellent example of the philosophy being put into practice. Stay tuned as I will discuss the features of that house in the next post.

For more information on the Active House philosophy, visit the website:

The Active House Alliance is now in process of developing concept guidelines and classification for Active House projects, with an expected launch by the end of the year.

For two Active homes already built, see the following articles:

First Active House Nears Completion in the US


La Maison Aire et Lumiere (in French)

Mission 2030 Sets An Ambitious Goal: Striving for Zero Waste from Construction and Demolition by 2030

January 16th, 2014 by Cathy Rust 2 comments »

Photo By Ashley Felton (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In December while attending the ConstructCanada show, I went to a few seminars that I really enjoyed. At one in particular, I was so enthusiastic, I got a bit carried away and, er, interrupted the panel with my own stories, questions and conumdrums. The panel was about waste produced by the construction industry, and, if you’ve followed this blog at all, you know waste is one of my biggest pet peeves. In fact, it’s not really a pet peeve, it’s a down right BIG peeve, a major peeve, one I find so frustrating, I just want to fix it all, right now!

Anyway…one of the panelists was Renee Gratton. She is the President and co-founder of the Construction Resources Initiative Council, a group of non-partisan volunteers from the construction industry who have come together to address the growing waste problem in construction and demolition. Here’s something you may be surprised to hear: In Canada, while consumers have been doing an increasingly good job at reducing the amount of material they send to landfill, industrial, commercial and institutional operations have not fared so well. In fact, they have been progressively increasing the amount of material going to landfill. Since industry accounts for two-thirds of all waste, this is a pretty important area to address. On top of that, Canadians may generate the most garbage per capita in the world. Wow, there’s a statistic we should  want to reverse!

According to the CRI Council website, Stats Can noted that in 2008, of all the waste sent to landfill, 75% of it still had value — as in it could have been reused, recycled, repurposed or repaired. When you read a number like that, the goal of zero waste by 2030 doesn’t seem quite as unrealistic as you might have originally thought.

Achieving zero waste in the construction industry isn’t going to be an easy task. However, as Renee recounted at the seminar, a lot of waste reduction has to do with changing our mindset and perspectives. It’s about designing buildings better, increasing resource efficiency and using materials that can be reused or recycled at end of life.  The council’s short-term goal is to get three things going:

  1. Defining the goal – aiming for zero construction renovation and demolition waste to landfill by 2030,
  2. Overcoming inertia – engaging, educating and enabling people and their businesses as to why change is important, and
  3. Taking the first few steps. In this case, the council is calling to action all stakeholders to take the Mission 2030 Pledge and play their part in how building waste is viewed and dealt with, through a fundamental and strategic change management framework.

As the organization is newly established and completely volunteer-run, the website is continually being updated. It provides information on why reducing waste is critical to our planet’s future, along with support on how and where to begin. As the council becomes more established it will also begin to offer its members workshops and educational material on how to implement change. The latest support tool is an app called Waste Saver for your mobile phone (iphone or android), to help you locate companies in your neighbourhood who will   recover it, who is supporting this initiative as well as provide references and address frequently asked questions. While the app still being populated, the more people use it, the more valuable a tool it becomes for everyone.

If you are a contractor, building owner or manager, I encourage you to take a look at the website and start thinking about how you can reduce the amount of waste you send to landfill. It might be as simple as stopping by the ReStore on your way to the dump and dropping off usable construction materials, or using Craigslist or Kijiji to find someone who wants what you don’t. There are plenty of ways to prevent materials from ending up in landfill, but until you’re used to it, it takes some planning, effort and a little research. If you don’t have a resolution yet for 2014, why not make it waste reduction?

Renovating Your Home or Cottage in Quebec? You Might be Eligible for the EcoRenov Tax Credit

January 9th, 2014 by Cathy Rust No comments »

The EcoRenov tax credit was announced by the Quebec government in October, 2013 and it is available to homeowners to make specific renovations until November 1, 2014. A contract with a certified contractor or company must be in place between October 8, 2013 and November 1, 2014.

The way it works (from the website):

For 2013, you may be entitled to a tax credit equal to the lesser of the following for each eligible dwelling:

  • $10,000
  • 20% of the portion of your eligible expenses for 2013 that exceeds $2,500

For 2014, you may be entitled to a tax credit equal to the lesser of the following for each eligible dwelling:

  • 20% of the portion of your eligible expenses for 2014 that exceeds the lesser of
    • $2,500, or
    • $2,500 minus the eligible expenses for 2013; and
  • $10,000 minus any amount received in 2013 as a tax credit for eco-friendly renovation.


The tax credit itself doesn’t turn out to be a huge savings incentive when you consider what your renovation cash output will be, but  it might contribute to getting a higher quality HVAC system than you might have been able to afford without it, or more insulation than you thought you could afford — which is like the gift that keeps on giving as it will lower your overall monthly running costs.

There is a list of qualifying actions you can make, including:

  • Building envelope improvements (adding insulation, caulking, weatherstripping, door and window replacements, etc.),
  • Heating and cooling equipment upgrades (very specific requirements),
  • Upgrading your water heating system,
  • Adding a gray water or rain water catchment system, or restoration of a buffer system between a body of water and waste effluent system,
  • Adding solar photovoltaic or hot water panels, or a domestic wind turbine,
  • Cleaning up contaminated soil,
  • Adding a green roof.

Unlike the EcoEnergy Retrofit grant, it appears that an energy audit isn’t necessary to receive the tax credit, just have a qualified contractor fill out or sign the appropriate form. Energy audits are addressed under Quebec’s Renoclimat program, and still a good idea to perform one before you start any energy efficiency work as it will help you target your dollars where you’ll get the most value from your improvements.

For full details on the tax credit, visit Revenue Quebec’s EcoRenov tax credit page.




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