Even old houses can turn green

Photo: Phil Lameira / Beach Metro News

Renovating an old house is bad enough. Renovating an old house to be as environmentally-friendly as possible – well, that’s a giant job.

But that’s what Beacher Keely Kemp decided to do when she bought a 1917 fixer-upper some three years ago. The house had been vacant for several years, and had been in the same family for decades. The foundation was crumbling and all the walls had to be torn out, but Keely saw an opportunity.

“It was actually quite exciting to start from scratch,” she says. “I put in all the things to make it a really good, solid home for the next hundred years.” Her goal was clear: to create a healthy home – one with fewer toxins in the materials she used – and an energy-efficient home.

Following her dream
Fortunately, she’s passionate about sustainability – doing things in a way that has as little environmental impact as possible. Good thing. Keely and her partner only had a 30-day window to finish the job. Considering all the bits and pieces that go into a house, that’s mission impossible for any reno, let alone a sustainable one.

“I put myself on a crash course. I went to work every day and came home and stayed up until 3 in the morning researching this stuff,” she recalls. Carpets, wood, flooring, windows, finishes – she learned the ins and outs of these and other housing elements. Keely was working with a good general contractor, but he wasn’t very familiar with eco-renovations. (Who at the time was?) “Sourcing the materials was my contribution to the project.”

Fortunately, she didn’t have to start entirely from scratch in her research. “I knew an architect specialising in eco-architecture,” Keely says. “She provided me with a list of sources.”

Check the details
But Keely’s not a person to take anything for granted – she wants to know the details. Bamboo, for example, is a trendy flooring now because it’s a renewable resource – bamboo grows way faster than trees, But add in other factors like pesticide use, the fossil fuel needed to transport bamboo thousands of miles, and its total ‘carbon footprint’ may be a bit dirty.

In fact, Keely chose to use good old Ontario maple flooring that’s FSC (Forest Services Council) certified. The FSC certification assures that the trees are grown and harvested sustainably.

Other choices included drywall that’s 99% recycled (who knew such a thing existed?), paints without harmful volatile oil compounds (otherwise known as no/low VOC paints) and even quartz countertops that were LEED certified.

Pause here for a word about LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. It’s a term being bounced around more and more in environmental or ‘green’ circles. In Really Simple Terms, it’s an international rating system that measures the sustainability of buildings and the materials used in them. Think of it as a sort of environmental report card.

Scores are assigned to dozens of factors and out pops a pretty reliable rating. In Canada, it’s handled by the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC).

Happiness is….
After a month of mind-bending work, sometimes firing off emails to her contractor at midnight – and getting prompt replies! – Keely’s eco dream house was done.

Now, she says, “I love my house! I feel so good here and I’m so happy here. My bills are so low, I’m saving money every month, too.”

When she launched the project, she adds, she thought a lot about people she knew who had environmental sensitivities. She also thought about children and pets who are more vulnerable to home hazards because of their smaller size. She’s confident now that her house is a safe and healthy place for another hundred years or so.

Advice for an eco-renovation
Keely Kemp’s tips:
• Search out forums and groups online: Google “eco renovations.”
• Give yourself some time. “Not 30 days!”
• Decide how far you want to go, and how much you can spend.
• Consider trade-offs in your choices: If you must have a not-so-sustainable floor, for example, balance it by choosing a smaller, more efficient oven.
• Enjoy the adventure and the experience.

Want to learn more? You can meet Keely and other eco-homeowners at the Green Home Fair being held Oct. 29, from 1 to 4 p.m, at Calvary Baptist Church, 72 Main St.

The fair will feature vendors of sustainable housing materials like flooring, paint and insulation; contractors; energy audit companies and others.

Workshops will also be held on quick fixes for winter energy savings and on how to have a healthy home.

Admission is free. The fair is organized by Greening Ward 32, a group of local volunteers interested in promoting ways of living in a green world (an offshoot of the town meetings held by Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon).

Mary Fran McQuade is a hobby gardener and freelance writer

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