“This will change,” says ‘green’ builder Ben Polley to his clients, Ernst and Susanne Braendli, “but, at the moment, this is the most energy-efficient house in Guelph. … Isn’t that nuts?”
Mr. Polley must’ve inhaled a little too much of the environmentally friendly laughing gas used to spray in the closed-cell foam that insulates the walls and ceiling of this empty-nester couple’s tidy, one-storey home. Built in the 1880s, the little bungalow presents itself to the street as if almost nothing has changed: a wide, hip roof, a Craftsman-style porch added sometime in the 1920s, fishscale shingles on porch walls and pockmarked, snaggletoothed yellow brick surrounding windows and door.
This is the most energy-efficient house in a city of more than 130,000 people, 100 kilometres west of Toronto? How can it be?
A lot of advance planning; careful material selection; one of Toronto’s top earth-friendly firms, Solares Architecture at the drawing board; and Mr. Polley’s Evolve Builders Group in charge of swinging the hammers. Oh, and homeowners who understand that much of what’s sustainable hides behind the walls.
“We always referred to them as the nicest clients we never had,” laughs Solares’s Christine Lolley of the Braendlis, who came to Canada from Switzerland in the mid-seventies. The couple, you see, had met Solares’s founding partners, Ms. Lolley and her business/life partner Tom Knezic, a decade ago at the Green Living Show, but weren’t quite ready to sell their Brampton home to finance the green leap. “Three years ago, they came back and said, ‘Hey, remember us?’ and we were like, ‘Of course we remember you!’ ” Ms. Lolley continues. “And so, we talked very briefly about building new in the country.”
But, soon, these dyed-in-the-wool environmentalists realized a country house would require a car, and their retirement plan centred on walking to a high street, bicycling everywhere else and using a car-share service on rare occasions. Connections to major transit hubs were important also. So, Mr. Braendli began searching for homes that fit those criteria, but also ones that hadn’t been renovated, since he didn’t fancy tearing out new(ish) millwork. A tall order, but soon Guelph showed up on the radar; it helped, too, that Ms. Lolley had grown up there and was familiar with its housing stock.
After rejecting one home as too much trouble, Mr. Braendli found another on the internet that was a 15-minute walk to Guelph City Hall.
“I grew up in a very old house, and I just love old houses, so when I saw this, that was perfect,” the retired biotechnologist remembers. So he called the agent, only to be warned that bidding closed in two days. After a visit by Ms. Lolley, who “stomped on the floor” and pronounced the little home sound, the Braendlis “raced and made it last-minute” with their offer.
Fast forward to Solares presenting their first set of plans, which, fantastically, included demolishing two small, rear additions – a poorly-built mudroom and an outdated bathroom – to restore the home to its original T-shape (Mr. Braendli, who’s about to turn 70, handled this demolition work). At this point, Evolve was called in to give cost estimates on what would become a very deep energy retrofit.
While both firms had been aware of each other for years, this was the first opportunity to work together that had presented itself, so Mr. Polley wanted to ensure his crew treated Solares’s working drawings as gospel: “I used an example in one of the kitchen elevations … they had shown an outlet in the backsplash centred within the grout lines, and I said: ‘This is how literal that I wish for you to interpret the plans, and if there’s any deviation we need to talk about that with Christine.” (It worked: Evolve continues to work with Solares.)
Attention to detail didn’t stop there. When the basement was excavated and it was revealed that walls had been built using the “brick-and-pier” method – common in Southwestern Ontario, it consists of single-width brick walls punctuated by a “little buttress” every four feet – a great amount of time was spent figuring out how best to insulate and add an air barrier. Just as spray foam seemed like the only option, all breathed a sigh of relief when a new-to-Canada product that uses nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, as the blowing agent was found, since it’s less harmful to the atmosphere. To keep costs down, spray foam was used in the roof also. R-values of 35 have been achieved in the walls, while the ceiling comes in at R60, and the basement floor is R20.
The home, which only uses electricity for heating water and air, costs a paltry $5 to $6 a day to operate. It should also be noted that the Braendlis handed their team $400,000 to work with, all-in, after purchasing the home for $340,000 two years ago.
But enough with numbers. Step inside the home’s triple-glazed front door and it’s the heightened ceilings, creamy-white walls, white Ikea-hacked cabinetry, cozy living room and long, inviting kitchen (it occupies the bottom part of the home’s ‘T’) with solid wood countertops stained to match the pickled grey floor, that strike the eye. It’s so big and bright in here, the home’s green features almost seem to recede into the background to become icing on the cake.
A cake, it should be noted, that looks much like it did more than a hundred years ago: “One of things I pride myself most about that project is how similar it looks from before to after,” Ms. Lolley finishes.
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