Homes and Gardens

GREEN DESIGN: A green builder guts his own home as a passion project, yielding spectacular results

By Tony Palermo; Photography by Christian Lalonde – Photolux Studio

A self-confessed “green geek,” Scott Demark has an extreme passion for green building — specifically Passive House. He’s also a partner with BuildGreen Solutions, where one of his specialties is dramatically reducing carbon footprints. In late 2010, Demark decided to put his ideals to the test, announcing that he and his family planned to purchase an energy- and water-guzzling 1920s house on Third Avenue in the Glebe. The goal: to turn it into a 2,000-square-foot model of sustainability. To do so, Demark set out to incorporate two of the most ambitious sustainability strategies in the world — Passive House and the One Planet Communities program. After several construction delays and a disastrous fire toward the end of the project, Demark and his family finally moved in at the end of last year.

The open-concept living and dining room features a south-facing folding glass wall that opens up to a terrace overlooking the street. The folding wall allows for a seamless transition between the indoor and outdoor living spaces — when weather permits. Among the many green features in the kitchen: custom concrete counters with embedded recycled glass, remilled pine over the island, and energy-efficient appliances. Photography by Christian Lalonde - Photolux Studio.

What was the goal of the One Planet Reno Project?
I wanted to take our lifestyle and make it as low-carbon as possible. That meant we had to reduce our energy consumption by making the house super-insulated and by producing electricity and heat from the sun. But it also meant that in the process, we wouldn’t use materials and supplies that weren’t sustainable. So we tried to use items that had a lower carbon footprint in the construction of the house and a lot of reused materials — basically stuff that was salvaged and reused.

You said you “tried to use items that had a lower carbon footprint.” What’s an example where this wasn’t possible? 
In the walls in the old part of the house, we had to use spray-foam insulation because it was the only way we could get the performance we need. But we didn’t use spray-foam anywhere we could use a lower-carbon alternative.

The original house was a two-storey structure, while the new house has a third level, with deck and solar panels perched on top. Photography by Christian Lalonde - Photolux Studio.

What lower-carbon insulation alternatives did you use when possible?
Most of the house is Roxul insulation (a premium-quality insulation that combines natural basalt rock and recycled material) and other forms that can be recycled or reclaimed. We used a tonne of used XPS (extruded polystyrene foam insulation) taken from a big, old commercial roof that was being renovated. By purchasing some of that old XPS insulation and using it in the house, we diverted it from the dump.

Why did you purchase an old house in the Glebe for such an ambitious project?
Location is extremely important when you’re looking at your overall carbon footprint. You can have the greenest house in the world, but if you drive an hour to work every day, it doesn’t really compute, right? So we wanted to be close to all of the amenities, close to the bus routes, close enough that my wife, Jenny, and I could both bike most of the time, have the kids’ school nearby, and all of that kind of stuff. Location was really key in our decision.

There isn’t a lot of space between the houses in this neighbourhood. Did that cause challenges during the renovation?
Infill development or renovation on a tight city lot like we have is inherently more expensive and more challenging. We have shared driveways on both sides. On one side is a driveway that is shared with one neighbour where we own half of the lot. On the other side is a laneway that three houses share as a driveway. On that driveway, we have zero lot line. At no time during construction could we close off either driveway entirely. So instead of scaffolding to do work, we had to use mobile lifts.

The Demark family poses beside the solar panels on their rooftop deck. The deck features gardens and provides the family with an extended outdoor living space — a particularly welcome feature in an urban neighbourhood. Photography by Christian Lalonde - Photolux Studio.

How did using lifts affect the process?
Well, you have to rent those, of course, so there’s a financial hit. By virtue of the way we designed the house, we had a lot of exterior work to do. We essentially have a big blanket of insulation around the outside of the house, and all of that had to be done in pieces. So imagine doing all that work from a lift. It was extremely challenging — challenging for the workers, challenging for the neighbours, and definitely challenging from a cost perspective.

How about the City of Ottawa? Any issues there?
There were a few, but a big one was on the sustainability side. The City has never permitted a single-family dwelling to have toilets flushed with rainwater. And that feature was really important to us — we wanted to reduce our water footprint too. It doesn’t make any sense to wash our bikes, water the gardens, and flush toilets with potable water. [The house is equipped with a large cistern that stores rainwater for this use.] So, definitely, it was a big challenge with the City. It took a long time and had to go up to fairly high levels of management in infrastructure to get that approval. But we did ultimately get that approval.

The stunning open-concept linear kitchen is designed to be at the centre of the family’s main living area. The cozy family room, with its red couch, is just visible. Situated at the back of the house, the family room boasts a wood stove. Here, and throughout the house, the warm softwood details (the slatted walls, bookshelves, and light “fixture” over the island) were created with salvaged wood from the original house. The hardwood floors are remilled ash barn beams. Photography by Christian Lalonde - Photolux Studio.

What were some of the other specific green elements/features you knew you wanted?
Let’s talk a bit about the construction and renovation process. We wanted to use FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified wood and salvaged wood. We didn’t want to have this beautiful green home that destroyed the boreal forests that we love. We really couldn’t have the juxtaposition of beliefs, right? That was a key one to us.

We also wanted to salvage as much of the old house as we could. If you look at our house, it’s very modern-lined, but it has an old finish. We salvaged the old red brick of Ottawa. It sits on the old foundation in the exact same spot that it sat for the past 100 years. There’s permanence with it. It’s the right feel for the street, and it still suits the neighbourhood. We didn’t want to change that fundamentally.

We also saved all the softwood that you see inside. We saved the hemlock and pine interior boards, had them remilled and put back in, adding a lot of character and warmth to the interior. Those were key things to try to keep the footprint of the demo down.

In terms of general waste from construction, we tried to keep as much out of the landfill as we could. And we succeeded. We were over 90 percent in terms of diversion.

The couple’s two children share a spacious bedroom. Custom-built desk beds, designed by Demark and built with zero-VOC plywood, maximize floor space for two active boys. The room was designed with two separate doors so that as the children age, a dividing wall can be built to allow each his private space. Photography by Christian Lalonde - Photolux Studio.

How about a few must-have green systems of the house? 
Our goal was zero carbon. So we have a fairly unique system on the solar-thermal side. We take heat from the sun all year round by using a system of evacuated tubes. That heat gets taken down to a tank in the basement and stored. We can then take that heat out of the tank to preheat our domestic hot water and to heat the house. If there isn’t enough heat from the sun stored in the tank, then we have to boost that with electricity. We also have solar panels on the roof that produce electricity, so hopefully we can offset any shortfall. I’m keeping track of how much electricity we need versus how much we produce. It looks like we’re probably going to net purchase around 3,000 kWh per year from the grid. By comparison, a typical house in the Glebe uses somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 kWh a year. So we’re incredibly better. We’re not quite carbon neutral, but we’re pretty close.

And then there’s the water footprint. We would like to live within our water footprint. You can’t drink rainwater in Ottawa. There are certainly technologies available to clean the water so that you can, but it would’ve required an official plan amendment that was beyond our scope and reason. So we drink city water and we shower in city water, but we use a large cistern to flush toilets and irrigate the gardens. That was another important element to us.

Designed in Europe, the Wittus Twinfire-series wood stove is ultra-efficient. It also provides a compact and stylish focal point in the family room. Photography by Christian Lalonde - Photolux Studio.

Final thoughts? 
Despite some contractor problems and financial overages that we experienced, people shouldn’t be deterred from building greener. Energy won’t be cheap forever. Climate change is real and is here. Our house was a leading-edge project, but you can still do a little to achieve a lot. For example, if the walls are open, insulate them.

Visit Scott Demark’s One Planet Reno Blog at www.build-green.com/blog/one-planet-reno.

This article originally appeared in the September ‘green design’ edition of Ottawa Magazine. Order your online edition.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/moira.vandermere Moira Vandermere

    Great job on the reno and some great green ideas! Only downside is opting to burn wood. Air particulates emitted from wood smoke is highly hazardous to humans in terms of increased lung diseases, including increased lung cancer risks. The US EPA has many studies documenting the dangers of burning wood within a residential environment. Not the healthiest environment for the humans who live in the vicinity of this beautiful-looking home.