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The ‘Little House’ – a Sustainable Journey

Hello there and welcome to my personal journal, chronicling some of the experiences and decisions during a major renovation to my ‘little house’ that sits patiently waiting for activity to get underway.  Like many of you out there, I know very little about retrofits and passive housing, nor do I know much about all the technology or the various grants and incentives that may be available to help move the ‘little house’ towards net zero emissions. What I do know is that I want to add close to the same amount of square footage again and to do so as sustainably as possible within my means.   

The intent behind this article and those that will follow is to share some of the learnings, the compromises and, no doubt, some frustrations along the way. The renovation and upgrades to my ‘little house’ will take time—lots of time, perhaps more than a year. But don’t worry, we’ll keep the reporting to a reasonable pace and only communicate at key milestones along the way. We’re hopeful that sharing this real-time pursuit of sustainability will provide a pathway and some motivation for others to learn from and follow.  So, let’s get started. 

Purchasing and Planning.  

Many of you wisely steer clear of older buildings, but I’m a sucker for them. It’s one of the things I love about Orillia, and I’m so proud of all the people who have lovingly maintained their beautiful century homes throughout the city – their homes have character and so do they. My ‘little house’ is over 100 years old. It is a wood-frame, two-story worker’s cottage located on one of the main thoroughfares in a nearby town. Its charm and location were very appealing; however, at 1200 square feet and with only two bedrooms, it is a ‘little too little’ for future needs, even as a rental investment. It didn’t take much curb-side math to figure out that what we saved on the purchase could be used to expand and upgrade the ‘little house.’ A foolhardy project, to say the least—which may have made it even more attractive. Within days, the deal was inked.

The town planner confirmed that there is room to expand the house’s footprint. Upon possession we found the house was in excellent condition – no small feat in an older home. We had a good starting point. The next step was not only to confirm the design of the new sections of the house, but also to audit and improve key features and systems of the existing ‘little house.’ 

And that’s where we are today . . . well into the planning process, which at times has been delayed by availability of services (both professional and trades), a lack of time on our part, and, of course, the pandemic. Patience has been, and continues to be, requisite. The good news is that I’ve been able to use this time to research and learn more about what I can build into our plans that will make the ‘little house’ as emissions-free as possible. 

As my partner and the architect work through the functions, flow and finishes of the new design, I’m racing to read up and research key sustainable systems so they can be incorporated into the final drawings. The obvious one is heating and cooling. Presently there is a twenty-plus year-old furnace in the basement, and since I don’t want to heat or cool the house using fossil fuels, the timing seems right to replace the furnace. Finding a furnace guy with the know-how to assess and advise on how best to convert to an air-source heat pump has been no small task. People seem to have difficulty getting their head around this not-so-new technology—and everyone keeps telling me how expensive it is!  A recurring theme. That being said, I believe that the longer-term economics, not to mention the environmental benefits of an air-source heat pump, will more than pay for themselves over the next few years. Other key systems in the existing and new parts of the ‘little house’ include the water, hydro and insulation, including windows and doors—all of which are being looked at and will have sustainable solutions embedded into the final plans.     

I can’t help but think that a lot of people avoid restoring or retrofitting an older building because it is too much hassle. And it can feel like too much risk, as well! Those are understandable considerations in retrofitting an older building. However, the urgency of climate change, the proven technology and solutions to reduce household emissions, and the incentives to invest now—all are good reasons to take on a sustainable retrofit sooner than later. There are many contractors and tradespeople with expertise, experience and passion for sustainable solutions, but it may take a little time to find one. We’ll keep looking, and I’m sure I’ll have something encouraging to report in the next edition of this journal.   

And that’s where we stand today: in the planning process confirming that the design for the work to be done supports the best sustainable solutions possible. I’ve learned already that it’s more complicated than just installing an electric vehicle charger, some solar panels and a greenhouse. And I’m sure I’ll learn even more in the months to come. 

I hope you’ll stay with me on this journey. I’ll be back with the next update once we’ve got the final plans and building permit.  

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The author is a member of the Sustainable Orillia team and welcomes any comments or suggestions c/o info@sustainableorillia.ca.  Please use the heading ‘The Little House.’  

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