forest view
As I mentioned last month, we’re looking to buy some wilderness property here in Caledon, build a showcase energy- and space-efficient home on a small part of it, and leave the rest of the lot untouched. I’m signed up for a seminar on solar and wind energy next month, and a tour of a zero-net-energy cost home just North of here, and I’ve been doing lots of online research.

When I reported this, several readers asked why I didn’t instead (or also) retrofit our existing home. My wife agreed this would be worth looking into, so I called the Windfall Ecology Centre in nearby Newmarket, and today we had our energy audit. Here’s how it went:

Early this morning Danny arrived from Windfall with several loads of testing equipment and a laptop with some powerful software. The audit consisted of four parts: review of existing insulation, check for leakage areas, review of furnaces, and recommended improvements.

  • Danny estimated that our house, built in 1982, had R20 insulation in the ceiling, and the addition, built in 1994, had R32 insulation, which is still the standard today, though energy-efficient ‘R2000’ homes have insulation levels as high as R52. Because our house has no attics, Danny said it would be difficult and expensive to access and upgrade the insulation. He said that upgrading to R52 levels would reduce our energy consumption, but not anywhere near proportionately to the increase in R number.
  • He said our 22-year-old windows, triple-glazed and argon-filled, were excellent for their time, and just as good as the newer double-glazed low-e windows. He confirmed that replacing windows is rarely a good investment from an energy-saving perspective. He also educated me that a few large windows are much more efficient than a bunch of small ones, because most of the leakage occurs in the frames, not through the windows themselves.
  • Overall he said considering its age, our open-space concept design, cathedral ceilings and our many windows, the house was well insulated. It’s built into the side of a hill, and both side- and back-split, so it has a lot of open area. Last summer when we had a bat in the house, it took me an hour chasing it with the pool skimmer net to catch it, because it had so much room to fly (and boy, can those things manoever!).
  • After measuring the overall R-value of the house, and computing the surface area of windows and total volume of the house, he keyed in the current cost/kwh of power and estimated our annual heating bill. His guess was within 2%!
  • He then attached a high-powered blower into one of our exterior doors, turned off the furnaces, closed all the other exterior doors and windows, opened all the interior doors, and sucked a great deal of the air out of the house. Lowering the interior air pressure allows you to feel easily where the leakages are, since air rushes in at a surprisingly fast rate to fill the relative vacuum. It’s a fascinating experience, walking around your house and discovering with amazement where the ‘holes’ in your walls, windows and ceilings are. Problem areas in our house were ceiling pot lights (not air-sealed), a casement window that had lost its seal, several other ‘fixed’ windows (i.e. windows that don’t open) and glass doors that had poor seals around the frames, an exterior door that didn’t close snugly, some downright breezy electrical sockets in three rooms (there are new insulated sockets you can buy that have a spring mechanism that slides open only when you actually plug something in), huge gaps around the drywall in the electrical closet (a place you’d never think to look), and leaky fireplace vents.
  • Our heat is electric (there is no gas line out in the exurbs where we live), and he said the twin furnaces, old as they are, were efficient and didn’t need replacement. He reminded us to turn off the heat pumps in winter, and replace or clean the furnace filters monthly. He also reminded us to use energy-efficient bulbs (we’re replacing the incandescents as they burn out), and to keep an eye on humidity levels.
  • His top recommendation was to lobby the local gas utility to put lines in our neighbourhood, which he said would cut our energy costs by 35%. Whether that succeeded or not, he suggested a retrofit to our furnaces that would draw on geothermal energy, reducing consumption of electricity from both heating and air-conditioning by 25%. That’s what I wanted to hear. Research underway.
  • Since we spend most of our time in one room, he suggested installing an advanced combustion wood fireplace in the existing chimney in that room, and lowering the thermostats by five degrees, saving perhaps another 10% of heating costs. We’re going to do that, too. He stressed the importance of picking an expert installer for these devices, which can (gulp) explode if put in improperly.
  • Fixing the aforementioned leaks could also, he estimated, save us as much as $400/year — a no-brainer.
  • And finally, he cautioned against ‘sealing off’ little-used rooms in the house to save energy. It’s a false economy unless the seal is very good and the rooms are virtually never used, and there is a danger of mould in rooms kept unusually cold in winter, due to high humidity.

I was most impressed. He left me a ton of literature on how even a clumsy non-do-it-yourselfer like me could manage to plug the leaks. Much of it is from this excellent Government of Canada website. I’d highly recommend energy audits if you think there’s a chance your house could benefit from an energy diet. In Canada, the cost of audits is even government subsidized, and tax credits are available if your second audit shows significant savings. Anyone else had one of these, and are there good US resources and tax incentives for energy audits?


I’ve also been doing some research on space-efficient home design. If you wade through books of house plans, you soon get the impression that people are very conservative in room size, function and layout. Or perhaps they’re just thinking of resale value and avoiding anything controversial or unusual. At any rate these plans are incredibly boring and unimaginative. There are some interesting ideas that architects and designers are at least talking about, mostly movable walls that allow room usage to evolve as the owners mature and their needs for space change. Since necessity is the mother of invention, the best ideas, especially those relating to multi-purpose rooms and multi-purpose furniture, are to be found in small house designs (e.g. townhouses) and houses built in areas where space is at a premium (e.g. Netherlands).

I want our next house to be a showcase, exemplary and very creative, to throw out all the rules and focus first on function. Here are the radical design principles I’d like to give an open-minded and very imaginative architect.

  • Let nature provide the art and aesthetics. We’re going to have acres of wilderness on three sides of the house. We want huge (energy-efficient) floor-to-ceiling windows, and to let what’s outside be the centrepiece. Let the house and the adjacent forest be in joyous and harmonious conversation with each other. Let the barrier between in and out be as invisible as possible (though we’ll use shadow stickers to prevent birds flying into the windows).
  • Let no room be single-purpose except the bathrooms. Example: Why not combine the kitchen and dining room into one, with a table that expands and contracts to suit the number of diners? Who needs both a living room and a ‘family’ room? And for that matter, why not combine the kitchen/dining and living/family rooms? They all have cupboards (even the kitchen appliances can be ‘cupboarded’), chairs and a table, so why not make one magnificent big room that serves all four functions? Yes, you need food preparation surfaces, but make them foldaway for the 95% of the day when you don’t need them, or do the food prep in the middle of the (very big) table like they do in those Japanese restaurants. And make the height of the table hydraulically adjustable so it works for different purposes.
  • And for that matter, why not cupboard (walk-in) the clothes at the same time and have the all-purpose room also serve as the master bedroom, with a hideable, yet elegant, bed. And a fireplace. And a hot tub in the floor. Except for the bathrooms and cupboard space it’s all one big room. But not square — interesting angles, soaring roof, gracious curves.
  • Let the house be conservation-smart. Lights that go on when darkness and motion is detected, off when either ceases. Use the science that circulates air in a car to circulate air in the house, so less escapes out the roof. Thermostats with remote control. Hot and cold water that doesn’t flow into your sink or shower or glass until it reaches target temperature.
  • Make the chairs light, ergonomic, comfortable and portable, so you only need one chair per person — you just take it with you wherever you want to go. And make the legs removable. Sitting on the floor is healthy, fun and natural.
  • Second floor smaller than the ground floor, open and configurable into one big or three small rooms with movable partitions. For kids’ bedrooms. Overnight guests. Home office. Hobbies. Whatever. As long as it’s on wheels.
  • Parking underground. Save space and energy, no shoveling, shivering or broiling on the way to the car.
  • Organic garden on the roof. Nice space to sit and star-watch, play music, write, make love.

What do you think, are these ideas crazy, impractical, impossible? Can a small, energy-efficient house make you gasp at its beauty, simplicity, grace, harmony, space, flair and utility?

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  1. Philip says:

    Hot tubs generate an incredible amount of humidity, my preference is to keep them outside. A bathing tub that is emptied might work as a hidden feature. Bath’s are luxuries really rather wasteful in terms of cleaning oneself. If you have a hot tub for lounging you just might want to consider showering.When living up in the San Juan Islands one shower was outdoors. A real great experience. Consider installing a pad and shower head outdoors (Solar may work if you have a sunny spot). A couple of strategic planks provided our privacy.A neat idea I saw for a table, the “top” was a triangular solid like a prism with an axle inserted through it. Each facet of the prism had a different surface, one for dining the other for food prep and the third was a game surface. As the reason for using the table changed all you had to do was rotate the pyramid around the axle and the table top changed surfaces (you can lock it down so it is really stable). Combine that with a variable height and the table is multipurpose dining, gaming and food prep surface.The great room is gaining in popularity depending on your lifestyle it may very well work for you. It is important though to have retreats where people can get away for a while. Sounds like you have that covered with a second floor. Open designs enforce their own order on your life. No place to hide anything.If you do go with the great room concept you may want to look into radiant heat flooring. Great rooms are difficult to heat evenly.Best of luck!

  2. Marijo says:

    The hippies at The Farm have been learning about and working on these issues since the mid-seventies. Although the climate is very different from yours, you may find it useful to visit their building projects to look for ideas:http://www.thefarm.org/etc/courses.htmlIt’s a couple of hours away from my house, but if you decide to come down, I can help you with whatever. (You’d probably want to fly into Nashville.)

  3. Phil says:

    “ceiling pot lights “Those things will drain a LOT of electricity, and may garner you a “free” energy audit from whatever passes for DEA in Canada ;-)

  4. Sean says:

    One of my friends lives in a dome house he built with assistance from Oregon Dome, a local company from where I lived. It’s been a while since I talked with him about the house, and so I don’t remember a lot of the details and specifics, but I know he saved a bit more than $5 per sq. ft. on materials (compared to the construction of a tradition rectangular house) because of its efficient design, and it takes about 30% less energy to heat.Aesthetically speaking, I think it’s one of the most amazing homes I’ve been in. It’s built up more than it’s build out, something that was important to my friend because he has a small lot on the river and wanted to keep as much of the parcel in its natural condition. This is merely a perception of mine, but I’ve always felt that the design seemed fluid, simplistic and comfortable.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Philip: Great advice, thanks. Our existing hot tub is indoors, covered by a heavily insulated cover that traps in humidity and prevents water loss, and cleaned with an ozonator instead of chemicals. It’s near a window which we open when we use it, the only time the cover is off. Never had a problem, and for me it’s a medical as well as psychological necessity. The table sounds fantastic — let me know if you recall where you saw it. We have a great room now and it lives up to its name in both senses of the word. The reason for all the closets & cabinets is precisely as you state — to get all the clutter out of sight. We are looking at radiant heat flooring, and I need to find out if it works with Pergo, which we just love as a flooring surface.Marijo: How kind of you! And thanks for the link. We have very similar groups here, near to where I live. I confess I think they make a bit of a fetish out of natural living, and work harder than they need to if they were a bit less uncompromising, but maybe I’m just jealous because I can’t do a thing with my hands (don’t read too much into that) ;-)Phil: Hah. Maybe ‘pot lights’ is a Canadianism — everyone has recessed floodlights here. Thanks for reminding me I need to check on energy-efficient bulbs for them (I hear they’re now available). And if anyone knows how to insulate (airseal) a pot light when you have no attic and don’t want to tear apart the ceiling, please let me know.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Sean — I love curved rather than angled designs as well, so I’ll look into this. The Inuit recognized the value of this shape in home construction centuries before Bucky Fuller came along.

  7. Evan says:

    I like a lot of your ideas, Dave (though I will suggest that you might come to regret the choice of having the great room and the bedroom be one and the same, as soon as you have guests).If you haven’t read “A Pattern Language” yet, run-don’t-walk to the library.

  8. Philip says:

    The table I saw was built for “Monster House” it was really cool I can see combining the rolling top with variable height allowing it to be used for different things. Pergo is a floating floor. Radiant heat is usually installed in a concrete slab. I can’t see where floating a floor over the slab would be a problem. Pergo claims it is “perfect” for such applications.An interesting spin on curved space is the spiral like in a Nautilus. The inner spiral is smaller space but becomes hidden when you walk the curve outward.I would still be reluctant to keep the hottub in a relatively small closed “hidden” space but that is your call I would think the hydraulics needed to raise and lower such a tub would be very expensive.Keep us posted. When it comes to living in efficient spaces there is no better training than living on a sailboat. There you learn how space is utilized.

  9. Yule Heibel says:

    Yes, definitely take a look at Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, but you probably already have! I would love to see energy efficient bulbs (yes, for pot lights!) that work with dimmers and/ or timers. So far, they don’t seem to work with those two energy-saving devices, and I like having as many lights as possible on dimmers.And Dave, I have to hand it to you: a roof garden for love making! You old dog, what a great idea!

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Evan/Yule: Thanks for the reference — I wasn’t familiar with A Pattern Language, and I’ll pick it up, although it looks like most of it is available on their website.

  11. Stu Savory says:

    Tips from Germany:1) Keep a separate kitchen, if only to contain the smells.2) Movement sensitive or IR light switches are NOT a good idea if you have pets.3) External Movement sensitive or IR light switches for the garden/terrace are also NOT a good idea if you have a wilderness outside or the neighbors have cats etc.4) one big room is not a good idea if one of you watches TV whilst the other listens to stereo or wants/need to concentrate/read etc.We know, we’ve been there.

  12. Kevin says:

    I really like the idea to make everything into one room. Recently my partner moved into my small three room apartment here in Japan (bath, kitchen, living). We have not encountered any problems with doing all of our “living” in one-room, which is only about 10 square meters (with one square meter taken up by a big bird cage), and I think we would even be ok with up to one small child.I know one guy commented about the smells from the kitchen, and I guess if you are a gourmet, who cares about mingling your food smells when you eat, this applies, but since we aren’t, we would really rather have at least the stove in the living room. It’s such a waste to cook in the kitchen, then bring the food back to the living room to eat, while the kitchen is still so toasty and warm from cooking.We don’t have any problem having guests, although many apartments are small here, so people are used to hanging out and eating next to the hosts bed. Although, a futon can be rolled up and stored in the corner when not in use. Even overnight guests tend to think of it more as an adventure rather than an inconvenience… and since you will have that garden on the roof…Also, you spoke of the Japanese table with a stove on top… they also have tables with stoves on the bottom. We throw a big quilt over the table, and the stove on the bottom heats our legs. The rest of the room is generally unheated. I use this technique often when I work at my desk for long periods… no use heating that unused 7 meters behind me!It will never win any design awards, as it is a simple square, but we’re kind of minimalists, and we would have a hard time defending a new, nicely designed table, if we could pick up a used square table at the local junk shop. And, although I realize that the only way to make energy efficient homes/lifestyles appealing to the masses is to make them more aesthetically attractive than my apartment, we still have to be careful of the line between need and waste.If you give an inch of efficiency for aesthetics, why not give two, or three, or…

  13. O RLY YA RLY says:

    When our university moved to a new building it had those motion detection lights. This meant that a few minutes into a test the room would go dark. Just imagine it. You’ve settled on your couch, trying to relax, watch a bit of tv, and the lights go out!

  14. Given your goals for your space-efficient house, be sure to research some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian (not the Prarie-style everyone is familiar with) designs–space efficient and very inclusive of the surrounding landscape. Obviously much of the design of these homes is out-of-date, but inside they are amazing: small, beautiful and welcoming. I don’t know of any near you, but if you can visit one, you’ll come away with some ideas. (the best Usonian I’ve been in is in Lafayette, Indiana, near Purdue U.)

  15. Dave Pollard says:

    Stu: Excellent thinking. We live in an open ‘California’ style house now so the kitchen odours go everywhere. Fortunately my wife is an excellent cook, and I practice my modest cooking skills mainly outdoors in the summer. I have a solution for the noise problem in the great room, too, but I’m saving that for a future post.Kevin: Thanks for the terrific idea on the dual-purpose stove and the valuable caution on the efficiency/aesthetics tradeoffs — the architects I know sometimes favour the latter at the expense of the former, and need to be kept focused. But no harm trying to have it all.Harald: Heh. I’ve had that experience myself. The new devices actually have a timer override you can set so if you’re doing something inactive you won’t suddenly find yourself in the dark unless you want to be ;-)

  16. Dave Pollard says:

    Douglas: I’d orginally planned to illustrate this post with one of Wright’s houses, but I hadn’t heard of his Usonian work. There’s some great stuff carrying it forward on MattTaylor.com including the work of Eichler, some fascinating hexagonal-footprint layouts, and Taylor’s own ‘post-usonian’ project (Usonian with less sprawl — I guess Wright didn’t realize in his early work how quickly land would become scarce in America). Thanks for the lead on this.

  17. Evan says:

    Dave: Thank you! It’s an honestly joyous thing to know that *I* am the guy who turned Dave Pollard on to Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language”.I think you will find in him a kindred spirit. He’s a world saver too.It’s a life-changing book.

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