Can This Home Be Greened? A 1930s British Columbia Home

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Electric baseboard heaters waste energy and could be replaced with ceiling-mounted electric radiant heat panels.
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Joanne MacKinnon and Rob Beynon and their children, Rohan and Zoe (with her pet lizard, Ra) want a home that’s healthy, energy-efficient and full of character.
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Though beautiful, the fireplace loses more heat than it creates.
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Replacing inefficient doors and windows and beefing up insulation would go a long way toward making this home in British Columbia more eco-friendly.
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The existing kitchen work triangle is wedged into the corner.

After years of renting, last spring Joanne MacKinnon and Rob Beynon of Vancouver, British Columbia, finally made their dream of home ownership come true. Joanne had always envisioned living in a home with lots of character. And she got her wish–sort of. The 1936 house they bought was extensively renovated in the 1970s. The remodel had altered the home’s vintage flair, but it had also added the second story, where Rob and Joanne’s home office is located. More important, Joanne and Rob could offset the cost of owning a home by renting out the bottom floor, which already has a kitchen, bath and separate entrance.

While the house the family bought is very different from their vision, it does have natural light and good ventilation. And the location is ideal–just eight blocks from fun and funky Commercial Drive and within walking distance of Joanne’s office.

Excited about their new roles as home-owners, Rob and Joanne got to work right away. First they removed the main-level carpets and installed locally milled hardwood floors. Upstairs, where they live with their children, Zoe, 12, and Rohan, 9, they added a new, energy-efficient stacking washer and dryer and gave the interior walls a fresh coat of zero-VOC paint.

Rob and Joanne wanted a long-term plan for green remodeling. Our suggestions tend to be broad strokes, along with several smaller pieces that can be implemented over time.

1. Slow winter heat loss

Problem: As with many older homes, keeping the temperature comfortable during winter–without blowing the bank–is the biggest challenge. Four major elements rob this home of heat: single-pane, aluminum-frame windows; sliding doors from the 1970s; an open-hearth fireplace; and poor insulation. The windows and doors conduct cold in winter, through both the glass and frames. The fireplace hearth vents warm air out the chimney even when there’s no fire. The roof attic has less than 4 inches of fiberglass insulation (12 inches is ideal). And while the upper-level walls are filled with pink fiberglass, the couple doesn’t know if insulation was added to the main and lower levels during the remodel.

Solutions: Rob and Joanne should replace the aluminum windows and doors with energy-efficient, fiberglass-framed units. While the windows are being replaced, they should check whether adjacent wall cavities are insulated, and blow in cellulose insulation if needed. A tight-fitting glass fireplace door would keep room heat from going up the chimney.

Attic insulation also should be increased. This attic is very shallow so, to ensure the vents don’t get blocked by thicker insulation, vent baffles should be installed from the outside through the soffits (the underside of the roof overhang). Cellulose insulation should then be blown over the existing batts to a total depth of 12 inches. The wood soffits should be reinstalled with a clear vent area of 1 inch or more above the new insulation.

Cost: Fiberglass windows and sliding-glass doors: $330 for a 3-by-3-foot window; $1,028 for a 6-by-4-foot slider; and $1,248 for a 6-foot sliding door, plus $50 per unit for installation. Fireplace glass door: $650. Blown-in cellulose insulation: $1.10 per square foot (installed), plus drywall repair at 65 cents per square foot. Roof vent work and soffit repairs: $2,200.

2. Update the heating system

Problem: A 33-year-old forced-air gas furnace heats the home’s main level and the lower-level apartment, and the duct-work between the main-floor TV room and the apartment bedroom transmits noise between the spaces. The upper-level bedrooms have inefficient electric baseboard heaters. One tank-type gas water heater serves the entire building.

Solutions: Shawn Oram at energy-consulting firm Ecotope suggested installing a 94 percent-efficient gas furnace (the most cost-effective solution) or a vertical geothermal loop system (the most energy efficient). Either improvement could use the existing ductwork and leave the upper level on a separate system.

Because Vancouver gets most of its power from clean, renewable hydro-electricity, electric heat is still a good choice. Joanne and Rob could replace the baseboard heaters on the upper level with radiant electric heat panels mounted on the wall or ceiling. These panels also could be used in the lower-level bedroom; the duct in that space could then be sealed off to minimize sound migration from above.

Solar hot water panels, installed vertically on the south (rear) wall, would preheat water to about 80 degrees, and the old water heater tank (with the burner removed) could hold preheated water. A tankless system designed to operate with very slow water flow (standard tankless systems require more gallons per minute for the heater to be activated) could boost the heat. A circulating pump would eliminate the wait for hot water to be delivered.

Cost: Central heating: varies from $4,500 for gas furnace to $15,000 for vertical geothermal loop. Radiant heat panels: two 400-watt panels (per room), $300. Solar water collector with on-demand booster and recirculation pump: $9,100 (installed).

3. Improve indoor air quality

Problem: The bathrooms have no exhaust fans. The kitchen hood vent is blocked. The gas furnace and water heater are in a closet in the apartment that opens to a bedroom, which could allow combustion gases and carbon monoxide into the sleeping area. There is mold around the aluminum window frames from condensation.

Solutions: Install an exhaust fan that vents to the outside in each bathroom (and in the kitchen). If a gas heat system is selected, the furnace-room door should be relocated to open off the adjacent living area, and a carbon monoxide detector must be installed just outside the door. Replacing the windows should help alleviate mold.

Cost: Bath exhaust fans: $320 each (installed). Relocated furnace room door: $650 (using same door). Carbon monoxide detector: $55.

4. Fix problem kitchen

Problem: The stove and refrigerator are in a tight corner next to the sink, making it difficult for more than one person to cook. The appliances are old, and the dishwasher is broken. A previous owner covered up the kitchen hood.

Solutions: Joanne and Rob should rearrange appliances to open up the work triangle without replacing cabinets. The fridge can be relocated to the wall opposite the sink and the stove moved into that spot. They should also install a hood, vented to the outside, above the stove. They could replace the counter with a solid-surface product made from abundant quartz, such as CaesarStone.

Rob and Joanne should upgrade all appliances more than 10 years old to Energy Star models. The refrigerator should go first–it’s the top energy guzzler. Induction and radiant ceramic cooktops and convection ovens use the least energy.

Cost: Exhaust fan: $530 (installed). Caesarstone counter: $2,800 (installed). Bosch Evolution 300 dishwasher: $500. Amana Bottom Mount Refrigerator (22.1 cubic feet): $850.

Terry K. Phelan founded Living Shelter Design, an architecture firm in Issaquah, Washington, that specializes in green homes.

RX At Your House: Making it Healthier

1. First things first–remove carpet! Even when vacuumed twice a week and steam-cleaned semiannually, carpet collects allergens, dirt and toxins.

2. Heating system alternatives are complex and based on many variables. Explore your options with an independent mechanical engineer who has experience with superefficient systems. Equipment efficiency could offset consultation cost.

3. Next to heating, the biggest energy user in a home is the refrigerator. If yours is more than 10 years old, consider investing in a new one. Refrigerators without ice and water dispensers on the door are the most energy efficient, and models with the freezer on the top or bottom are better performers than side-by-sides. Some landfills will drain the coolant and recycle the metal; for refrigerator disposal and recycling in your area visit

4. Replace windows carefully and mindfully. Resist the temptation to buy low-cost vinyl windows; normal ultraviolet rays cause deterioration, and the vinyl (PVC) industry is under scrutiny for environmental problems caused during the manufacture and disposal of its products.