There are numerous details to work out when designing a new home: Square footage, number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms. One level or two? Open or traditional floorplan? To finish the basement, or not?
And that’s just the interior, not the public face of your house, which comes with a swath of other details we don’t need to go into.
There are only a few areas of homebuilding, things like hot water heaters and furnaces, where homeowners have the privilege of selecting by price and hardly more.
Unless you’re going green, in which case, the devil is in the details of those very choices.
Vik Maraj and Sheryl Pearson’s quest to build a home that was as comfortable as it was conscientious had them paddling through “grey water” and other textbook terms, like “geothermal,” “passive solar,” “micro-generation regulations” and “permaculture.”
“As soon as I got a feel for what permaculture is about – which to simplify, is edible landscaping, or a self-contained ecosystem that takes care of itself – I knew that this was the landscaping that would align with the same values of our home,” says Pearson.
The couple didn’t start out along this garden path of environmental sustainability when they chose to build a home in the McKernan area, just south of the University of Alberta. Before moving into their custom home in August of 2010, they were in a Kenilworth three-bedroom bungalow, which they were outgrowing with two sons, five-year-old Evan and three-year-old Arun, and Maraj’s parents becoming dependent.
But for this new multi-generational home, the independent consultants – he in corporate team-building, she in law – realized an opportunity to inspire others by taking the plunge themselves.
“Once we made that decision, our home became a project,” says Pearson, 39. “It wasn’t just about building a house anymore. In order to maintain the integrity of our project, every choice we made required the same high level of scrutiny about what materials we were going to use.”
“Everything got judged from the viewpoint of sustainability,” adds Maraj, 43, a former member of the City of Edmonton’s renewable energy task force, “from the roof to the insulation to the paint.”
“We really felt an urgency to show others what the options are,” says Pearson. “It’s the same reason we chose to drive a Prius and live in an area where we can get anywhere by walking, biking or taking the LRT.”
Essentially, they wanted to lock themselves into this new lifestyle. But the couple also wanted something modern, that would standout to a passerby. And they wanted it built by
an architect adept at designing for infill development.
Maraj and Pearson wanted to work with the design firm, The House Company, because of its reputation for promoting sustainable, styilsh housing, while the builder, Lenaco Homes, was hired because it was open to experimentation and flexibility with the owners.
Their modern, angular and multi-coloured home is divided, townhouse style. On the south side of the building, the young family have 2,200 square feet over two levels, which forms an L-shaped pattern over the grandparents’ single-level, 950-sq.-ft home.
They have two balconies, one on either side of the house, which cut into the interior square footage. The upside? The balconies reduce heating requirements and provide an optimal place to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
The home’s 36-centimetre walls – one-third thicker than average – are filled with cellular foam called Icynene, which act as air barriers and give the house an R-value of 50, meaning it’s insulated really, really well.
Three heat return ventilators circulate fresh air during the winter, while retaining heat, preventing the air from becoming stale and essentially purifying it for the family.
R-value also figured into decisions Maraj and Pearson made about their roof and windows because, as they’re learning, it can translate into energy-cost savings.
For their floors, Maraj and Pearson decided to forego tiles and wood in favour of five-cm concrete, serving as a thermal mass to retain heat in the winter.
The result is an industrial-looking floor that’s easy to clean – especially important when you have young ones.
Maraj and Pearson have a high-efficiency Yanmar generator from Japan in their garage, which produces both the electricity and heat. Maraj says Yanmar makes the most efficient generators of their kind in the world.
It produces heat that’s captured, and run through underground pipes in the backyard, and then into two hot-water tanks in the basement to heat the water. And then the glycol returns to the generator to be reheated. The lines also run through the concrete floors serving as the home’s only active source of heat.
” [Yanmar] is light years ahead and ridiculously sophisticated,” he says. “They monitor our energy consumption data in Japan on the Internet.”
For the third consecutive year, Maraj and Pearson plan to use that data to show off the efficiency of their house versus the average house to people on the Eco Solar Home Tour in June.
The $37,000 generator was pricey, though based on the current cost of electricity, the return on investment, Maraj says, is around 11 years – and this is a home in which they plan to raise their children.
They originally planned to run the generator off of vegetable oil, but feared there wouldn’t be a reliable and consistent source of used oil in town (and shipping it would have negated any ecological savings). Instead, they used natural gas but hope to install solar paneling and become a net-zero home when the cost of solar energy becomes less prohibitive. The home is already wired for solar roof access.
“Renewable energy is what’s necessary for this planet not to go down the toilet,” says Maraj. “Until everything is up and running, alternative energy is what’s going to save our planet.”
In addition to plumbing for city water, Maraj and Pearson decided to plumb for rainwater and grey water (wastewater from the dishwasher, bathtub, shower and sinks), though it’s currently illegal in Edmonton.
“Right now, you can’t even use rainwater to flush your toilets – you can only use it for irrigation,” says Pearson, pointing out there are New Zealand jurisdictions that make it mandatory for new homes to be able to filter and use rainwater and grey water.
A 1,000-gallon cistern in their basement collects 98 per cent of all the rain and melted snow, which they can use for irrigation only. But soon, they hope, it will feed back through a filtration system in the backyard that connects to a pond.
“The objective is to demonstrate the drinkability of grey water by having fish live in our pond,” says Maraj. “I’d like to invite Alberta Environment over and say, ‘Like our pond? It’s grey water.'”
Maraj and Pearson also promote green living outside their home. Pearson is developing an online game that challenges participants to take one “green” step every day. And in the spring of 2011, Maraj delivered a talk at TEDx Edmonton about sustainable living along with a talk in July for the City’s The Way We Green campaign.
“We are part of pushing the envelope on this issue. Eventually the bylaws will change,” says Pearson.
“We do see ourselves as role models, primarily for our kids. We are teaching them that you can create your life in a way to have a minimal impact on the Earth.” And, they hope, their home has shown others that you don’t have to sacrifice style for sustainability.