May 18, 2012

Are you a “House” Hunter or a “HAAS” Hunter?

Our city and the surrounding suburbs are dotted with rooftops providing shelter to its occupants from the harsh Canadian climates. The bone numbing cold in the winter and the sweltering heat & humidity in the summer, the wind and the rain are all kept at bay from our glorious homes. The problem however, is that some do a better job of it than others, and some much more efficiently than most.

Every day we design and build additions and renovations to older homes to improve them in some fashion, to create a solution to a perceived problem. For the most part, those fall to space challenges in smaller city homes, and to vane desires to keep us in step with the “Joneses”. Far too often, the key components that drive the real deep values of a home are not properly addressed to make way for that show stopping granite counter top. I am referring to the systems of a home, the ones that keep us safe from the elements and comfortable inside, no matter what Mother Nature is doing on the outside. As professional renovators, we look at a house with a different eye than the consumer. We look at the “House As A System” or HAAS for short.

Left: original ‘house’ – opposite right: renovated HAAS (House renovated with the ‘house as a system’ approach) Visible in the photo are the large overhangs which shield high summer sun and allow for passive solar gain in the winter when the sun is at a lower angle in the sky, reducing the need to use fossil fuel heating. The home is now listed for sale at $1.824m. An energy audit before and after renovations ensures the renovation initiatives were done properly.

You see, everything from air management, to moisture management to ventilation and insulation works to keep us comfortable and healthy in our homes. Without the proper training and implementation of changes to these systems in a renovation project, you are not truly improving the home. It’s like putting new rims on your car, but not changing the oil or brakes. You’re setting yourself up for future disaster!

Left: the original veneer kitchen was replaced with formaldehyde free painted cabinets and quartz stone counters selected for their low VOC off gassing properties. That and they still look fantastic.

On a recent development project we built in Bedford park (33 Kelso Avenue) near Avenue Rd and Lawrence in Toronto, we took a more holistic approach to ensure we treated moisture and air management through waterproofing and air/vapour barrier, created air sealing and insulation upgrades to existing non-insulated masonry walls with high density spray foam (to avoid potential mould issues with cellulose based insulation) and also increased efficiencies dramatically with a high efficiency boiler to heat floors and domestic hot water, allowing for a reduced dependency on the forced air heating system and the elimination of a wasteful traditional hot water tank. Complete air sealing with foam and caulking and tape in areas of air and vapour barriers, as well as at new energy star window and door installations changed were a sizeable replacement to the old leaky units which were just pressure fit into crumbling brick openings. Now that we had a tight home, we addressed air quality with material selections such as formaldehyde free cabinetry and low VOC paints (volatile organic compounds) paints (to reduce off gassing). The ventilation systems in the home were also improved to ensure we generate proper exchange of air inside the living space for the health of the environment to the occupants.

The old inefficient wood burning fireplace (left) was replaced with a sealed gas unit (right) reducing the chance of back drafting in the more tightly renovated home, creating a toxic environment to the occupants.

Because of the upgrades that we made in this project a house, which has received a sizeable addition in floor space will now actually cost the new owners less to live in it than the former smaller less efficient home. It will also be more comfortable as there will be less of the exterior forces of nature able to affect the humidity levels and temperatures inside the space.

When the existing home was gutted back to the brick (left), we were able to bring the non-insulated original home up to current insulation values with high density spray foam (right) . This ensures the addition and original home functioned the same, avoiding energy loss and uncomfortable conditions from one area of the house to the other so common in older homes.

All of these considerations are important when shopping for a new place to call our home. In a hot real estate market like this, location may not prove to be everything – you need to start looking at how the house works as a system. This will impact how your family lives in the home and will impact everything from your monthly energy bills, to the comfort you feel in the space and the health of you and your family.

Remember – you are looking for a HAAS, not a House!