Wednesday, May 17, 2006

On Greening a Home

Vanessa Pfaff and Chris Miller come by their green thumbs honestly. Although, Chris would argue that his gardening green thumb is a little black.

I met them at their home in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood to discuss what they’ve done to “green” their place. Wearing flour dusted aprons, they treated me to a lovely brunch. Even Juliette, their 3 ½ year old daughter, was apron clad. She also sported fabulous Barbie high heel shoes (for you feminists, I was assured she also likes to drill). Since my time interviewing them, Juliette would undergo two wardrobe changes and serenade my voice recorder with her rendition of Baa Baa Black Sheep.

While Vanessa and Chris consider themselves environmentally conscious, they learned to conserve out of necessity while growing up. Chris’ parents divorced when he was young and Vanessa grew up in South Africa’s ‘coloured’ community during Apartheid. “We ate organic and we recycled without calling it that. We lived homeopathically and community-minded,” said Vanessa, who is Director of Programs at Easter Seals Canada.

Moving to Scarborough from Cape Town when she was 11, Vanessa recalls that her mother wasted nothing, reusing tissue boxes to write notes and milk plastic bags to freeze food.

Chris grew up with his mother, artist Katherine Oliver who resisted the mass consumerism (and waste) ethic that was blossoming in the 1950s and 60s. “She was a person who functioned on need and so was my father. They weren’t particularly enviro-conscious. They weren’t adamantly fighting against anything. They were doing what they thought was natural and the smart thing to do and I think that sort of fell through to me.”

A year ago, Chris, who is a sound editor and designer in the film/TV industry, went to work transforming their 100 + year old home from two apartments into one. In so doing, he saw an opportunity to make their house more energy efficient.

On Insulation
Their biggest challenge making their home energy efficient was dealing with an old porous house. Chris moved the kitchen from the second level to the main floor back space. Because his house is connected to another, he ended up gutting one exposed wall in order to properly insulate it. He used R12 Roxul, environmentally friendly mineral rock fiber, and created a vapour barrier. He is of two minds of making the home air tight.

“It’s good to trap air, it’s good to seal that it keeps the moisture out. It’s all good. It’s much more energy efficient, but in newer houses where this is done, some of the newer materials are filled with all kinds of chemicals and your house has to breath naturally it may be air tight and energy efficient but it’s more of a toxic environment I think.

“The one thing we did we did in terms of insulation that helped tremendously is re-insulate the attic area. We insulated the rafters – the floor of the attic or the ceiling of the second floor to keep a sort of, well cold area.

We shared a service with our next door neighbours. They were having it done and we jumped a board. It’s all blown in insulation which is great for an open space. It’s less aggressive and awful than your fiberglass pink insulation or your fiber… It’s like shredded puffy material. Shredded cotton. I think it has an R-value in the high teens or low 20s. R-value is its insulating value. And what’s that done in the winter is help contain the warm air and of course hot air rises. And in the summer it helps keep it cool too.”

Next step for Chris is to install roof vents for hot summer air to escape, and to replace single paned windows with double paned thermal. In the meantime, Chris sealed his single paned windows with removable caulking, although he suspects it’s toxic.

Chris is even considering painting the flat part of their roof white to reflect the suns rays to help keep the house cool in the summer.

On Paint
For paint, they turned to the clay-based product from Farrow Ball, a UK-based company.

On Reusing
Chris and Vanessa tried to reduce as much they could the waste from the renovation.

“I mean there’s a lot of stuff that we try to reclaim and reuse,” said Vanessa. “It matches our aesthetic anyway. We kinda like dusty old stuff.”

They reused the floorboards and a door, and found gems such as a light shade from an old schoolhouse and walnut banister from Artefacts, based in St. Jacobs, Ontario, that sells scavenged materials from renovated homes.

On Appliances
Appliance choices were important as well. Thought went into price, aesthetics and size, but also the number of kilowatt-hours used. A great example is the refrigerator. Older models gobble over 1000 kilowatt-hours/year. Chris and Vanessa chose a 19 ½ cubit foot Whirlpool that uses between 350 and 450 kilowatt hours/year.

They spent a little bit more on front end loaders because it uses less water. The dryer was another matter. “I don’t think they made great strides because they seem to use the same amount of energy as they always have – they’re all hovering around 900 kilowatt hours a year,” said Chris.

They also consider appliance use. Energy hogs such as the dishwasher and air conditioner are used sparingly, lights are off when not needed, and the thermostat is programmed between 20 and 17 degrees Celsius, depending on time of day. Most lights are low voltage and controlled by dimmers.

Has it paid off? Their hydro consumption alone plummeted from 2300 kilowatt hours during February/March 2005 to 800 during the same months in 2006.

On Waste
Chris was hyper aware of the waste generated by his renovation. As it stands, the province of Ontario does not have a waste recycling program for drywall and other renovation-related waste. “Going down to the transfer station on Commissioners once a week or a couple times a month, you know you become intimately aware of what your little contribution is to a massive contribution to one station in one part of the city, knowing that this going on all over the place.”

On a lighter note, Vanessa told me that Juliette was playing an imaginary game at day care. In the game, Juliette was going for a walk with a cat and during the walk the cat got sick. Juliette had to determine which waste bin to put the cat’s mess. She chose the Green Bin for organic waste.

“So she’s recycling even in her imaginary games,” said her proud mom.

On Food
Vanessa, Chris and Juliette have the good fortune to live right next door to their good friend Lulu Cohen-Farnell, owner and founder of Real Food for Real Kids. Lulu’s company caters wholesome and organic food to children and is recipient of two Toronto Green Awards. Lulu has been both their culinary companion and inspiration. The two families spend dinners together at least three times a week.

We try to eat organic as much as we can, at least not processed,” said Vanessa, who started eating this way after Juliette was born. “It obviously costs a little bit more money so we do as it as much as we can. We still eat meat. So if we can’t eat organic meat we’ll at least go to the butcher. Or buy Halal. We try to do it with home cosmetics and toiletries such as the toothpastes and shampoos.”

On Guilt
At one point during my visit, Vanessa interjected with: “I’m feeling ludicrous having this conversation. It just feels like a reminder of how much we have. It’s obscene. It’s ridiculous. I do like getting stuff but I think we need to consume less and be more community-minded, start sharing more. Reduce the output.”

“We’re typical in the sense. We try. We do a number of things but we don’t do everything,” said Chris.

“We try to leave a gentle footprint and I think a huge part of it is education. So we’ve learned and so that’s how it’s impacted us. We want to do the best with Juliette and Maxy [Lulu’s son] and every other kid we can,” said Vanessa.

“The most important thing is being conscious and being aware of what kind of mark your leaving,” said Chris.

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