Wednesday, June 30, 2010

hmmm, maybe "Great Stuff" isn't so green...

One of the interesting things about this project is that it forces you to take a hard look at everything you do. Most of the time I try to do that thoughtful review before I start working, this time it came afterwards...

I'll probably get into more detail on air leaks in another post, but for now lets just say that they are bad. One of the best ways to improve the efficiency of your home is to stop all your warm air from sneaking out. One highly recommended way of doing that is to fill all the voids between your windows and their frames.

So when all the kitchen walls were exposed, I grabbed a can of "Great Stuff - Window and Door" and started sealing. "Great Stuff" is an all purpose expanding polyurethane foam. It expands to fill the void and creates an airtight seal, insulating layer and repels water. The window and door version keeps the expansion in check so that it doesn't cause warping or cracking of your window.

I happily filled the cracks, emptying the whole can and then trimmed off the overfill. It was at this point that I took stock of the mess and waste I had generated

Keep in mind, we just finished our deconstruction efforts where we trying to ensure we created no garbage. So when I saw that one window's worth of insulation had generated a small pile of un-recyclable trimming and an empty aerosol can, I was disappointed.

I think what bugged me the most wasn't just the garbage, it was the fact that I had no idea how green the product was or if there were better alternatives.

I decided to do some after-the-fact investigation (I do have 12 more windows to seal) on the Internet. Below was what I managed to scrounge up for some environmental pros and cons of Dow's "Great Stuff":

- throw away packaging
- non-renewable product
- material is non-biodegradable and not easily recyclable
- may discharge VOCs during application but doesn't appear to off gas continually.
- potentially toxic to aquatic life

- no CFCs (non-ozone depleting, but I didn't think much was these days)
- no solvents
- contains no nuclear waste
- it works

The biggest advantage seems to be that last one. In an older house up to 17% of your heating bill is for energy lost through gaps around windows and doors. When I started looking into alternatives there didn't seem to be much that matched Great Stuff in effectiveness. The old school method was to jam fibreglass insulation in there which may slow a draft but isn't air tight and offers no insulation.

Modern alternatives tended to be non-expanding so they wouldn't provide a tight air seal or urethane or latex based which aren't as effective at controlling moisture. One alternative with a green twist was "Touch n Foam Max Fill", a "renewable resource" based expanding foam. Unfortunately though, the green version is not available in a "door and window" version.

So in the short term I am going to view it as a necessary evil. I will though convert to the Great Stuff pro series with the applicator gun. Bigger cans with control over the bead size should mean that I will have less overfill and generate a less waste from the aerosol cans.

But in the meant time I will keep searcher for something better. If anyone out there has found a greener solution, please let me know!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Life "Without" a Kitchen

One of the unique things about our LEED renovation, is that we are living in the house while we renovate. So, I wanted to share just how we are managing.

As crazy as it sounds, we wanted to do most of the renovations ourselves. The reasons being cost and we wanted firsthand experience with a LEED renovation. But, between work and family time, we don't have a lot left over to devote to the renovation. We estimated it would take us 3.5 months to complete the first phase of the project... a long time to be without a kitchen! To add to the typical difficulties of living without a kitchen, we have multiple food allergies in our family... so eating out/ordering in is a limited option for us.

The solution? Convert the dining room into a make shift kitchen. We bought a temporary pantry to house food and dishes, moved the refrigerator and stove into the dining room, and made the dining room table into more of a work space/eating area. We also packed up any non essential kitchen appliances (the popcorn popper is the one that has been missed the most) and many of our dishes.

Not too shabby, right? But wait, there is something missing... the kitchen sink and dishwasher! Yikes!

Not to worry! Being avid campers, we pulled out our plastic camp sinks and presto, luxury camping for the whole summer :) Who could ask for more!?!

Even the kids are enjoying washing dishes by hand in the camp sinks! Let's see how long their/our enthusiasm lasts! 4 weeks down, hopefully no more that 10.5 to go!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How our Kitchen will be Green: Cabinets

As we begin re-building our kitchen, our goal was to have something that was not just green but also liveable and affordable. As with most kitchen re-models a big part of the focus went into the cabinets. They determine the look and feel of the room but are also a huge factor in both how green and how healthy the room will be.

The big concern with cabinets is VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds. These are chemicals that release in gas form at room temperature. So essentially air pollution that can have an impact on the environment and your health. And unfortunately in a typical home renovation (or construction) you are going to introduce a lot of them into your home. They are traditionally in your paint, glues, sealant, cabinets, flooring, cabinets, etc. In cabinets, they are caused by the formaldehyde in the melamine or the plywood glue.

Apart from the VOC issue, the green factor is impacted by the material and its source. Solid wood cabinets are the best choice for the VOC side but they wouldn't be very environmentally friendly if the wood came from hacking down swathes of the Amazon. (Solid wood cabinets also tend to be out of most peoples price range).

The best way to avoid introducing VOCs into a new kitchen is to not buy new cabinets. Re-facing or re-finishing existing cabinets is the greenest option: no new materials, no new chemicals. Our existing cabinets were in decent shape but with reconfiguring our kitchen space they didn't fit. So... we started shopping. To be honest it was a brutal to start. The first couple places we went that specialized in "green" cabinets gave us rough quotes of $40 to $50k, which was light years out of our budget.

Luckily though, with some late night surfing Jody found AyA kitchens ( A couple visits and we were sold. The cabinets were attractive, affordable, and green:

Green features:

  • "EVO" particleboard box has no added formaldehyde and is made from 100% recycled content
  • Wood doors are FSC certified (Forest Stewardship Council - which means how the wood was harvested was done so in a sustainable manner)
  • All adhesives are also formaldehyde free
  • Any plastics are lead free and non-VOC
  • AyA also has a long list of green processes involved in their manufacture

Not only was the product green, but the beautiful kitchen in the pictures is the hard work of Tobi, AyA's designer/customer rep. We gave her dimensions and really rough guidelines of what we were after and loved what she came up with. So now we just need to wait 6-8 weeks for delivery.

LEED points: (MR2.2) A half point for "environmentally preferable" cabinets.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Our Kitchen Deconstruction

So we are complete the first phase of the kitchen project: the deconstruction. You might be asking what is the difference between demolition and deconstruction? about 1700lbs of garbage!

In changing our kitchen from this:

to this:

... you have to get rid of a lot of material. In a traditional demo, you go in with a sledgehammer knock everything down and ship it off to a landfill.

Actually to be fair, I imagine most people would have saved the cabinets. But that probably would have been the extent of it. Our deconstruction meant carefully taking everything apart. Drywall came off and was bagged for recycling. Existing insulation was was cut out of the framing for future re-use. Lumber was salvaged and all the nails pulled out.

To most people reading this, I imagine the idea of slowly prying off 1/2" round trim and pulling out all the finishing nails seems fairly crazy and two years ago (when we did our last reno) the idea never even occurred to me. But it is probably the same way everyone felt back in the 80's when people started suggesting we wash and sort our garbage. Since that time recycling has become second nature to most of us.

So why bother? As mentioned at the start we tore 1713lbs of material out of our kitchen. This is what made it to the landfill:

one 42 pound bag of garbage. So over 97% of the waste was diverted. Where did it end up?

827 lbs of drywall: to be recycled
20 lbs of insulation: to be reused
487 lbs of cabinets/counters: to be sold
22 lbs of metal corner bead: to be recycled
5 lbs of nails / screws: 20% reusable, 80% recycling
111 lbs of lumber: to be reused
137 lbs of plywood: to be reused / given away
54 lbs of trim: to be reused
10 lbs of electrical: aluminum wiring to be recycled, boxes and face plates re-used
40 lbs hood fan: to be sold

When it comes down to it, some of the above material will end up being waste. As an example some of the lumber will need to be trimmed because of damage but a huge chunk will have been diverted. Apart from generating less garbage there are some financial benefits to deconstruction as well: no dump fees and for every piece of material I reuse whether its a electrical outlet or a 2x4 I am saving cash.

The flip side; deconstruction takes twice as long as a demolition and is half as fun. So you need to evaluate your own project and patience to determine how much effort you are willing to invest.

In this post you'll notice there has been no reference to LEED points. I am disappointed to say that is because there are none. There is a prerequisite to document my diversion rate for demolition but points are only awarded for diverting construction waste (packing materials, drywall waste, etc.).

Monday, June 14, 2010

Size Matters

If the goal of LEED Canada for homes is to make the push towards more sustainable housing they have to account for size, and bigger isn't better.

If you build a sprawling 8,000 square foot home it is literally going to have a bigger ecological footprint than your standard size house. The home is going to take more material to build, more energy to sustain and generate more waste when it is ultimately demolished. LEED accounts for this by adjusting your target number of points needed for certification .

Certified LEED (what we are shooting for) is normally 45 points. Build a bigger than average home and that number will be adjusted up. Likewise if you build a more compact home, your required points goes down.

Our home is a roughly 1400 square foot bungalow. When we first started consulting the adjustment table we were laughing. A 3 bedroom, 1425 sq.ft home is a 10 point reduction... it would knock off over 20% of the total points! Unfortunately that excitement was short lived. The calculation requires that you include all "conditioned" or heated living space. We have a mammoth basement which is heated and potentially livable (not currently finished).

Counting the basement doubles the size of our house to 2850 sq.ft. Assuming our basement project adds one bedroom then our new adjustment -1 point. Nothing spectacular but every bit counts.

For anyone interested in the nitty gritty details of the program the Rating System can be found on the LEED Canada for Homes page on the Canadian Green Building Council's website:

And now back to work, we have been busy ripping out the kitchen...