Friday, 20 December 2013

Famous last words

Here's to hoping there are no more 4 month delays!

That was the last line I wrote in my previous post. Famous last words!

One should never think or write such ridiculous words at the end of November in this part of the country. What was I thinking? Mother Nature has a way of getting the last word in...always. Here's what the building site looks like now...

Whiteness as far as the eye can see!

...and it's snowing again as I write this!

The foot-deep blanket of snow looks lovely and I'm sure when the house is finally built I won't be so disappointed by its presence. Really, it is a gorgeous wintry scene here at Turtle Falls and that's all it will be now until spring...or at least a time when temperatures are conducive to pouring concrete. Along with the snow came the frigid temperatures, so we decided to close the site down until the thermometer and the concrete can play nicely together again.

So...until there is something else to report, and who knows when that will be, here are some fun photos, from prior to the snow, of the plumber making tracks in the foam for the plumbing bits that need to be below the concrete.

Cutting trenches in the foam with the trusty chainsaw.
Clearing trenches with the trusty hammer.
Setting the pipes with expanding foam.

Maybe I shouldn't push my luck with the hoping, but here's hoping you all have a wonderful time with family and friends during this Christmas holiday.

More later...much, much later,
Mimi



Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Let the building begin!

I can't believe it was the 2nd week of July when I last posted. A lot of life has happened since then, but not a lot of building. Until now!

We were hoping to be well into the project by this point, with not-so-distant visions of enjoying Turtle Falls in something other than a mobile mouse house. Poor Priscilla! She was neglected so much this summer that the vermin vacationed there more than we did. Why such neglectful behaviour towards our beloved Priscilla, you ask? The Reader's Digest version goes something like this....


Ras with her new, but gently-used, water toy.
On the very same day we were madly in the midst of buying a boat by text message...yes, we really bought a boat using only our opposable digits...a call came in from the hospital in the city to inform us that Ras's dad had taken a bad fall while out-and-about. The bad news...broken hip. They forgot to mention the unicorn horn growing on his forehead, the first point of impact during his fall. Fast forward to the partial hip replacement surgery, then a second surgery 5 days later, as a complication of the first surgery...oh, and did I mention Ras's dad, Lou, is 88. Anyway, he healed up pretty fast during his 2 months in the hospital and is now doing very well in his new long-term-care digs out near Turtle Falls. Needless to say, it was a hectic time (3 months in all) of hospital visits, organising 24-hour home care after the hospital stay, visiting and choosing long term care facilities, packing and moving Lou to his new place and clearing out his previous apartment. And hence, the reason Priscilla was left to fend for herself against the menacing mob of mice for the majority of the summer.

But why the delay in the building, you ask?

Let's just say that we lost the race against time to have Contractor Mark start our house before he had to start the next house in his queue. It all worked out as it should have though. The delayed start date for us gave us the chance to help Lou through his recovery and get him established in his new location. Lou loves his new joint...ha...I meant his new place, but I'm sure he probably loves his new and improved hip joint too!

Onward and upward...passive house Casa Tortuga is finally underway! It all started with one little truck loaded with high density geofoam for the sub-slab insulation. Then 2 more truck loads followed the next day. Smaller trucks are the only option for the winding driveway into Turtle Falls.

Here's what the excitement of the last few days looks like.

The first load of foam arrives at 4pm on Thursday.
Two more loads arrive mid-afternoon on Friday. And then we had a
weekend of high winds that lasted through to Monday night.
Nicer weather and the crew both arrive Tuesday, bright and early.
A chainsaw...with a foam-cutting blade?
Two layers of 7-inch (17.8cm) thick sheets getting assembled.
Seams are off-set to lessen thermal bridging.
14 inches (35.6cm) of high density, foot-warming, thermal-breaking
insulation for under the concrete slab.
Foam install almost complete.
The frost has no chance of getting into the ground now.
Next up is the plumber, so until he gets here the foam has been
covered with tarps to keep the wind and weather away.

Next up...the plumber will carve out the necessary water/waste lines in the foam before the slab gets poured.

Here's to hoping there are no more 4 month delays!

More later,
Mimi

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

We're finally adding, not subtracting...and a small visitor

Finally, we have reached the stage where taking stuff (trees, excavated soil) off the land has ceased and adding stuff (gravel fill) has begun. This is a welcome stage and the anticipation to see the beginnings of a house is as big for us as Christmas morning is for a 6 year old. But until then, here are a few photos of preparing the pit for the foundation.

Geotechnical engineer (in orange) checking to see if we are down
 to the bedrock.
Scraping down to the bedrock. You can see the area the geotech engineer
was in, to the right.
The first load of the "adding" phase.
Each load of gravel gets compacted before another is added.
Lots of packing. Adam's arms were probably vibrating in his sleep
for the 3 days he worked on this project.
Geotechnical engineer testing for proper compaction.
A nuclear surface gauge measures the density of the packed gravel.
Perfectly packed, level, and ready for the foundation.

With the many loads of gravel that were trucked in, the driveway took a brutal beating leaving ruts a foot (30cm) deep in the rain-soaked ground. Several loads of gravel needed to be spread along the winding drive into Turtle Falls to rectify this. Ras went right to work smoothing out her "reading room" section in front of Priscilla. Who needs a bobcat when you have Ras? Check out her cool technique in this short video.


Last but not least, after the noise of the machines (and Ras) had subsided for a few days, we had a little visitor. Right near the area where the entrance to the house will be, we spotted a turtle. Most likely, it was looking for a good spot in the dirt to lay her eggs but we take it as a good sign that the turtle approves of the soon-to-be Casa Tortuga. Not long after I took this photo, the turtle headed off...and promptly fell into the foundation hole! What's with the turtles around here? They fall down the rocks, they fall into holes...I guess we got it right with the name Turtle Falls.
 
The stake with the orange tape is where the entrance to the house will be.

Oh, and just so you know...turtle was unharmed by the fall into the foundation hole. Good thing...a hurtin' turtle would not have been such a good sign!

More later,
Mimi


 

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Watt's been happening in June?

While we wait for the building to start, a few things have been happening at Turtle Falls. Here's a pictorial summary of the activity over the last couple of weeks.

The second phase of excavating, in the area for the garage and screened porch, revealed more fantastic landscaping stones. There will be no shortage of rockery with which to restore the "natural" surroundings.

That's one monster rock. Makes the digger look not so big.

I love this picture...Ras doesn't let the noise of the excavation work dampen her joy of reading a chapter while soaking up a few rays of sunshine.

Relaxing at Turtle Falls means a whole different thing this year!

At the moment, it looks like a meteorite has landed and ripped a hole in the forest...certainly not the cozy, woodsy feel to the place that we enjoyed last summer. The remaining trees that needed to be removed came down as well. A huge pile of the brush was burned in the foundation pit. And yes, we had a burn permit...newly issued from the township the previous day!

Looks somewhat crater-like.
Ras gets busy helping with the tree removal. 
Alistair gets busy burning the brush. This photo was taken with  
the TurtleCam webcam, hence the blur.

Some of the excavated material had to be moved off the site.

photo credit: Mark Raison

The well has also been drilled. We ended up with a 150ft (45.7m) well with a very excellent flow rate. We got lucky as many wells in the area are double this depth.
 
The truck with a rotary drill gets positioned. 140ft was drilled with this truck.
photo credit: Mark Raison
The cable tool, or pounder, was then positioned over the well site.
The final 10ft was drilled with this truck.
photo credit: Mark Raison
It's a thing of beauty, especially after 2 years of collecting rainwater at TF.

The dock got delivered from its protective winter storage spot on the other side of the lake. The guys had it installed in no time. The swimming hole is finally open!


 

Nothin' but blue sky and treetops up there!
And last, but not least, I made another trek to the top of the internet tower to install the cell phone signal booster. We've had enough of the "can you hear me now" and the dropped calls...or the no calls at all! Internet phone options, like Vonage or MagicJack, leave a lot to be desired too. We can't depend on the phone companies to get around to improving the cell service in this area any time soon, so we took matters into our own hands. An online search resulted in finding a commercial grade signal booster. They guaranteed an easy install, excellent reception and a full refund if we weren't completely satisfied with the product. Who could resist such promises? Amazingly, the install actually was a breeze, just like they claimed, although my legs were a bit...no...a lot!...wobbly after the climb, two times. The promise of excellent reception was also true. We've gone from no bars to full bars on both our phones. That's one antenna providing improved service to two phones on different carriers. How cool is that? It helps that the tower is tall enough to get the antenna above the treetops, for now...

Hallelujah, we can hear you now!

I'm hoping that's the last thing we have to install on the tower...it's getting crowded up there!

More later,
Mimi



Friday, 31 May 2013

We hereby Permit you!

Time is a funny thing. It goes by so quickly when you're soaking up life and enjoying every moment but it goes ever so slowly when you are anticipating a future moment you long to be enjoying.

June 17th will mark the 2nd anniversary of owning Turtle Falls...where did that time go? On the other end of it, it seems like we have been working on designing this house for an eternity! One year and one week after signing contracts to get this ball rolling I am happy to finally say...

We have the building permit!

Kudos to the team that made it possible to approach the township building department with plans, the likes of which they have never seen before, and have the permit issued after the first kick at it. As far as I know, this is the first passive house to be built in this township. Big thanks to Architect Chris, Contractor Mark (who did some fancy talking at the meeting with the building inspector) and Homesol guys, Ross and Stephen.

Even more exciting than finally getting the building permit is watching the surveyors marking out the exact location of the house within the excavation. This house needs to be dead-on true south for our PHPP numbers to work for us.

Surveyors are marking the line that runs true East-West. The South elevation of the house will follow this line.

In the fall, we did some preliminary excavating to eliminate any surprises that the rocky ground inevitably holds in this area. In doing this we would be ready to go once the building permit was issued. During the wait from December to now, there has been much worrying (mostly on contractor Mark's part) about whether the excavation is on the right orientation. Trying to figure out where true (rather than magnetic) south lies, can be confusing when there is a declination to be factored in.

If we calculated wrong with our little hand held compasses back in the fall, it could mean the house would have to sit on more of the disturbed soil than the undisturbed. That would mean heaps more engineered fill to be packed in that corner where the disturbed soil is...more expense...like we need more of that! It could mean having to orient the house away from true south...not good for our PHPP numbers. It could mean more hoe ramming...you guessed it...more expense!

Exhale. Contractor Mark is not just a pretty face...he is master of the Mark-hole! Apparently, around here, a Mark-hole is an excavation in tricky ground that everyone else thought to be impossible, except for Mark...hence Mark-hole. Anyway, although this particular excavation does not score enough difficulty points to be a bonafide Mark-hole, we consider it to be so for its magical ability to be spot on the correct orientation when all compasses on the land at dig time showed different readings. Simply reMarkable!!

Next up...engineered fill in the south-east corner of the lot and well drilling in the opposite corner. Aaah...the sounds of summer at Turtle Falls!

More later,
Mimi

Monday, 6 May 2013

A New Name...and the Canadian Cold Climate Heat Pump

Ohm my God...watts been happening?

Sold...finally!
Lots has happened since I last posted. The house in the city finally sold, after 10 long months of showings and keeping the house showroom immaculate. I have been spending my time over the last 60 days, prior to the May 1st closing, packing and moving the house contents to the rental condo (or the pied-a-terre as a good friend has named it) and packing and moving my woodshop to the storage locker where it will remain until the new house is finally built What will I ever do without my tools for that length of time? I'm hoping contractor Mark will be ok with me worming my way onto his crew so I can at least get my tool and wood fix by helping out with the build.

Before I get to the telling of what's happening with the new house I must take a moment to thank you all for your weird and wonderful suggestions for the blog's new name. It was really hard to decide what the final name should be. I finally went with a name that would make at least some sense sitting at the top of each post. Some suggestions were very clever but were only relevant for that one post where I asked for help renaming the blog. Some suggestions were just cryptic enough that, I have to admit, I didn't get them. Some were excellent but already taken...such as Casa Costalotta. And all of them I completely appreciated. Thank you for your interest and participation in my little blog. And Doris...thank you for your winning suggestion! (Joe & Flora, one of your suggestions I used in the opening sentence...it was a contender). I have added the "passive" edit mark to the new header sketch a bit prematurely I suppose. Same goes for the past tense "built" but we are definitely on target to make these pending characteristics a most certain reality. There's no turning back now...there's a big hole in the ground at Turtle Falls and we no longer have a house, of any kind, to live in at the moment! We must forge on!!

Now, back to what's going on with the house.

Several weeks back we had a meeting with the HVAC supplier for Casa Tortuga, Encore Geothermal Inc. Ras and I have never been known as very conventional, so what we have decided on for our mechanical system is also not conventional, at least not for a passive house. Let me explain.

Passive houses, typically, are primarily heated using the solar gain from the triple-glazed windows strategically sized and placed on the south side of the house. The amount of insulation and the air-sealing is critical for keeping the warm air inside the house in winter and outside the house in summer. The required HRV or ERV helps to condition and distribute the air. A secondary heat source typically only needs to be small, such as a mini-split heat pump or a small amount of electric heat to name only two options. The idea is that by not having to buy a conventional furnace you can put that money into the extra insulation, air sealing and windows. The temperatures in a passive house are supposed to be fairly consistent and slow to fluctuate. Much has been written about whether the criteria developed for passive house for the European market are right for the North American market. The Canadian climate offers up a bit more severity for us to deal with when trying to reach the numbers necessary for passive house certification.

Passive House is in its infancy in North America. Builders of passive houses here, more often than they would like, are having to resort to buying European made HRV/ERV systems and windows because they are not available in the numbers or qualities they are in Europe. That is starting to change, but at a snail's pace. Architect Chris has mentioned that at least one of the Canadian window manufacturers he has approached for our project is striving to produce windows that are good enough for passive house certification.

There's all kinds of info about building a passive house here in Canada and the USA. Many builders of passive houses feel compelled to blog about it to get the word out...exactly the reason why I blather on at great length. There's not a lot of info yet about the experience of living in a passive house, particularly in my area of interest - Canada. The little bit of information I have been able to find makes me a bit apprehensive. It seems temperatures within some of these passive houses fluctuate more than the marketing blurbs say is typical. It's hard for me to determine if this is because of the difference in climate, our relative lack of experience in building passive house here in North America, or the fact that the materials and systems we have to choose from are not the quality with which the European passive house is built.

Admissions of cold bedrooms when doors are closed, temperature differentials from room to room, temperature fluctuations wider than expected, and constant tweaking of mini-split and HRV performance to balance out these characteristics make me wonder. I may have mentioned once or twice how I absolutely dislike the cold. One of my other pet peeves is overly obtrusive sound levels of heating and cooling systems. Loud mechanical systems are simply annoying! All that being said, I'm very sure the mini-split option (the most common secondary heat source of choice) for heating and cooling our passive house is not the way to go for us. Electric heat is quiet but not efficient. Electric cooling...not very quiet. Radiant floor heat is too much heat for a passive house for the expense and it's not very helpful at cooling in the summer. These were not the only options we looked at. We looked at them all. Confusing and unsatisfactory options...each and every one!

So off we go to see Encore Geothermal...and the world made sense once again with our introduction to the Cold Climate Heat Pump.

Oh...the joys of winter in Canada!
A mini-split is an air to air heat pump that usually comes with a specification that it will work with some degree of efficiency to temperatures as low as -10°C, some to -15C. Minus 10°C is the temperature at which most Canadian postal workers start wearing their long pants rather than shorts to deliver the mail and it's certainly nowhere near as cold as it can get in many parts of Canada in the winter.

That's why the good people at Ecologix, a Canadian company from Cambridge Ontario, have developed a cold climate heat pump meant for the Canadian climate. These cold climate heat pumps operate efficiently down to a -25°C outdoor temperature. That -25°C is the efficient operating temperature that is guaranteed with these heat pumps and not just the oftentimes exaggerated marketing hype target. You know the hype I mean...I'll use the car industry as an example. This new car uses 6 litres/100kms. But what isn't stated are the conditions needed to get that actual fuel efficiency, like the outdoor temperature needs to be a constant 15°C, you must never exceed the speed of 80km/h, you must never use your brakes or idle at a stop light, and accelerate only as if you are a member of Gas Savers. Ok, I digress and exaggerate just a bit, but my point is these cold climate heat pumps will work at temperatures of -25°C, day after day. Although the literature for these heat pumps states -25°C, word is that at -40°C they still won't freeze up. It's refreshing when a company actually under-promises and over-delivers. My kind of company...Canadian and modest.

The Ecologix CCHP pulls heat from the outdoor air to heat the home in
winter and pumps heat to the outside to cool the home in summer.
The CCHP adjusts capacity to meet the immediate need, delivering
only what the home needs without waste.
In the configuration we have chosen, the heat pump is coupled with a ducted air handler that will distribute the conditioned air in 3 separate zones in the house. What a fantastic concept...heat/cool only the areas that need it rather than heat/cool the whole house. I know this sounds like overkill and, yes, we are spending the money on a
"furnace" when we are not supposed to need it but it is the best solution we have found to have everything that we want...quiet, efficient and even secondary heat in the winter and cooling in the summer.

This exercise of planning to build a passive house has raised so many questions that seem almost impossible to answer. Much thought and revision, on many levels, has gone into designing this house. Let me back up a little, to explain one of those more esoteric levels.

The house in the city that we just sold was a very interesting and unique little house..."one-of-a-kind" as all the real estate agents described it. Over the years we have done some crazy things to it, like turning it into, essentially, a one bedroom house, removing the closets because they were so small anyway what was the point of keeping them, removing any semblance of a "yard" and replacing the grass with meandering walkways and low-maintenance perennial gardens, over-spending on the renovation we added in 2010...all because we truly thought we would never move from this house so what did it matter that the house was not suitable for anybody else with clothes, children or dogs...and we would be able to amortize the cost of the reno over the rest of our lives. As always, life finds a way to throw you a curve ball when you get too deep into it. And our plans to stay in that crazy little house forever, ultimately, were severely revised.

That is, for the most part, why our house took so long to sell. We had to wait for a similarly unique buyer with enough money to pay for an over-improved, under-sized house but was neither a clothes horse nor responsible for several dependents of either the 2 or 4-legged type...talk about seriously limiting our market! You can only hear potential buyers say, "too small, no closets, no garage" so many times before you want to throw in the towel.

Ras and I agreed not to make the same mistakes with our next house. Therefore, this house is bigger than we want it or need it to be. And although we are choosing this cold climate heat pump, first and foremost, because we want the benefits it offers us, it is also a consideration for the next people that will eventually own this house. We may be all gung-ho about passive house and willing to live with its inherent characteristics but the next people may not. We really don't like thinking of resale when designing this house but the thought of trying to sell another crazy one-of-a-kind house sends shivers down both our spines. This secondary heat source solution will not only completely satisfy us but, with its conventional furnace look, will put the future owners of this house at ease. Hopefully, by the time we are ready to pass this house along, passive house and cold climate heat pumps will be the norm.

In some way, I truly believe that passive house in North America needs to find its own way. What works in Europe may not be the best approach here...just my opinion. We are trying an approach that we believe we can live with comfortably and efficiently into the future. (Edit May 12: It seems I am not the only one with this opinion. This Green Building Advisor article,"Passivehaus Buildings Don't Heat Themselves", was posted four days after I wrote my post. Confirms, for me, our decision to go for the cold climate heat pump).

Now...if only we could get the building permit! We're apparently just waiting for a few engineers' stamps on some documents. Once we have those...we'll be madly off in all directions. Can't wait! Soon we'll be Living La Vida Ohm Free (Thanks for that suggestion, Kaye. It was also a contender).

That's it for now,
Mimi


For those interested in more info about the Ecologix Cold Climate Heat Pump, see the following:
Ecologix Inc.
University of Waterloo researchers change the face of home heating and cooling in Canada
Canadian Federal Government announce $4 million in support from the Clean Energy Fund for cold climate heat pump development