Saturday, 21 April 2012

Time to Realize a Dream

So what started all of this?  What is our need?  Why do I need to change anything?

Well, our 1954 bungalow has been showing its age for as long as we have owned it.  My wife and I have struggled with the appropriate way to move forward for years.   Do we renovate the existing structure, add on, or start from scratch?

Yes, we could just renovate the existing structure to make it ‘pretty’ for us and generally satisfy our ‘needs’, but this would not address the fact that many of the systems within the home are reaching the end of their service life.  So the renovation would need to be much more extensive and would have to include new domestic water supply and waste drains, new windows, insulating all exterior walls and increasing the insulation in the attic, replacement of the hydronic radiant piping going to the wall registers (which means replacement of all of the flooring).  If this amount of work is being done, I would be foolish to not also re-wire while I had the chance.  This would most likely set us back somewhere around $100K in today’s construction costs with me providing most of the labour.

But then we would still be left with a 1500 ft2 2 bedroom dwelling that does not represent the ‘highest and best use’ of the generous 73’ x 146’ property in an urban area where most buyers are young families needing 3-5 bedrooms.  As a result, whatever we did to the existing dwelling would likely not save it from the wrecking ball if we sold it.  I have a problem with sinking a sizable pot of money and resources into something that would still be thrown away if we ever sold.  It does not, to me, feel like a wise use of limited resources (both ours and the planets).

Aside form the ability to sell the dwelling; I also feel it is inappropriate to create a house that would only be sized for two people.  I have reviewed some of the concepts of architect Frank Lloyd Wright who did encourage homes to be built “just big enough” for the current occupants and “expandable” for an increase in occupant load.  However, when you look at the details, this does not seem to be practical method in my view.  It is very difficult (close to impossible and very expensive) to build an ‘expandable’ home and still meet best practices when it comes to building a bullet proof building enclosure not to mention a properly laid out and sized space and domestic heating system.  Unless the house is enlarged at the same time periods the existing mechanicals were worn out, I would be removing components that had life left and wasting the embodied energy that went into making those products.  I feel instead that multi-family dwellings are much more appropriate to build for 1 or 2 occupants and will easily fill this need in our society.

It is more appropriate, in my view, to design a single family dwelling that looks to the future to predict possible uses and is then built with as much flexibility as possible to meet those needs for the next 50 to100 years.  If this kind of structure is then designed in a durable and highly energy efficient design, I believe you have now achieved the lowest overall carbon footprint for not only your use of that dwelling, but also that of its future occupants.  You would have designed and built a legacy instead of a liability.

So, I need to build a new or heavily modified dwelling.  Now what?  Well, if I am going to build a home, then why not built it to incorporate the best of all of the various ‘sustainable’ programs currently available. Build it with foresight; looking at the ‘operating costs’ when making build decisions and not the short term ‘build costs’.  What are the operating paybacks to putting in better windows or higher levels of insulation? It is all fine and dandy to say I want an energy-efficient, low-carbon footprint, durable and sustainable home, but if I cannot afford to build it, it is not going to happen. 

We have a limited budget for building, and my wife does not completely share my passion for all things ‘sustainable’.  So throughout this process, I will need to make hard decisions on where the biggest bang for our buck will occur.  I will focus on making the long term components (the foresight I was talking about) of the home the best they can be (structure & building envelope) and only install ‘affordable’ short term components (plumbing & electrical fixtures, appliances, and furnishings).  These are all items that are renewed several times throughout a dwelling’s life and so can be upgraded at a later date as desired and as affordable. For the mid term components like the heating systems, I will try to design as efficient a system as possible that can be modified in the future to be even more efficient (like including solar capturing or solid fuel burning systems).

So it appears an exiting new chapter in my life is starting to unfold.  A realization of a dream that started 40+ years ago.  As I start down this road, I have realized my need for learning will never be quenched and that unless I analyze and challenge the decisions I make on a day-to-day basis, I will not be able to ensure that I make the right ones.

I would like to charge you, readers of this blog, to provide words of encouragement, advice, and even critique.  And in the meantime, I hope that each of you enjoys taking this ride with me as I document my personal journey in the realization of this amazing dream.

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