Talk with your MP

So I went in to chat with our new Member of Parliament last month. March 3rd.

I won’t lie, it was because it was Federal budget time and I wanted to put retrofitting homes for energy efficiency in the back of his head. It’s one of those things, like funding the arts, that people say we can’t afford but which are actually a great return for the investment.

As you may know, we elected a new government last year. Justin Trudeau is our Prime Minister now and, surprise of surprises, our local Liberal candidate, Dan Ruimy, is part of Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal majority government in the House of Commons.

I say it was a surprise because Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows (and formerly including Mission) has been a polarized Reform/Conservative vs. the NDP riding for a loooooong time. In 2015 I supported the very strong NDP candidate, Bob D’Eith, because I felt that if we sat back and pondered who to support, Stephen Harper would win.

Dan told me he doesn’t want to waste time. He wants to make a difference.

I made an appointment to see Dan in his brand new office before its official opening.  I told him about the Maple Ridge Net Zero Home Energy Retrofit Project now waiting on the shelf for someone to dust it off and set it going.

I told him about the Nelson BC Ecosave Energy Retrofits program.

I told him about Solar Colwood which released its final report last year.

And I told him about the Design Charrette we held in 2013 to move the Retrofit Project to the next step: a project manager and project design.CharretteGroup

Unfortunately, I have been too busy with our own retrofit and renovation of Hammond Forever House, which I hope will be the test case for the larger project, to have a clear proposal ready for Dan (and Justin, for that matter).

Among other things, we chatted about Dan’s apartment which he said is so badly insulated that there is no point wasting the energy to leave the heat on when he is not home. What a common problem! Tenants and homeowners alike suffer with high energy bills while the climate changes. Our best information estimates that Climate Change will cost Canada $5 billion per year by 2020 and there is very little being done to address the problem of inefficient existing buildings in a meaningful way.

The new Liberal Government, Dan said, is looking for innovative and unique programs they can support. Heritage, Energy, Climate Change, reducing home-heating costs for families–all these things are easy to support. Neither of us had a clear idea for the next steps in the Maple Ridge Retrofit program but Dan suggested we keep talking about it. Then he pointed to the large conference table in the next room and told me what it was for.

I left our meeting thinking it may be time to renew my conversation about the community project with our excellent City Staff to see if they have some new ideas on the subject. After all, I’m not the only one around here with ideas. (I haven’t had time to make that call, yet.)

It seems that since that first meeting with Dan, he spoke to a few other people because last week Leanne and I both found ourselves in that next room sitting around that big table with a bunch of other like-minded people. Leanne was there representing Ridge Meadows Recycling and I was there representing, well, this blog I suppose. Others from local environmental organizations were there, too.

DSC03460Dan’s idea was to start some sort of ongoing advisory panel on the environment.

There was a kind of stunned optimism in the room as a result of being invited. Many in the room remarked how much of a change the approach was to the previous government. If you remember, I had some professional criticism for our previous MP.

I also remember appealing to our former Prime Minister to attend a climate meeting while he was in New York in 2014. No luck.

It struck me afterwards that many Canadians may prefer the government to make decisions on their behalf without them having to lift a finger. I can understand that and it would be fine if our MPs were infallible gods and/or if everyone agreed with them. Other people, like myself, believe that building consensus is key and that means citizen engagement.

DSC03459Dan admits that he doesn’t know everything and is willing to collaborate and learn how he can help.

I think I can safely say that everyone in that room will be there next month with bells on. We have a lot of catching up to do!

Reduce Energy Use 70%

I told you about the first retrofit we did on our house in this post here that I wrote last October.

I told you that we had an energy audit done by the House Whisperers and then implemented a lot of their recommendations. I did not, however, share with you the audit itself. My bad.

I’d like to say this was a calculated move–that I was keeping you in suspense–but the truth is I couldn’t find it. It may have had something to do with our second child being born in 2008, but I couldn’t find that oh-so-helpful paper that some of you might be itching to see.

When I was putting together that post last October I contacted Garry at The House Whisperers and he was happy to send it to me. Here it is:

It’s 11 pages long and gives a good idea of how to reduce our energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Much of the advice was repeated by Monte Paulsen of Red Door Energy Design when he gave us notes on the computer energy model he made for us.

Garry also shared his views on the clawing back of energy efficiency incentives by both the federal and provincial governments. “At our peak we employed 15 energy advisors and 5 office staff. Today we have no employees. All of our employees moved on to other sectors.” I shared more of his letter in a post I naturally called, “Green Jobs”.

Here are a few things that struck me reading through the 2008 audit (see if you agree):

1. Right off the bat it says that by following all the recommendations we could reduce our energy consumption by 70%. With an oil furnace, what a huge improvement! What if every home that was going to be knocked down in Maple Ridge did that instead? We could lead the world.

2. The tragic mention so often of what measures are eligible for one ecoACTION grant or other, all of which, of course, were “ended”.

3. The mention of NRCan’s publication Keeping the Heat In. This book contains a wealth of objective, reliable information and advice to help improve home energy efficiency, lower heating bills, etc. When the ecoACTION funding was cancelled they were thrown away. I obtained a whole box of them from a member of the Maple Ridge Community Home Energy Retrofit Project team who had taken it because they were told the books were going into the dumpster. The publication is still available online, but I can’t understand why they would throw away the books. Perhaps it is true what Garry wrote, and our current government does not want a public that is educated about energy.

4. Right at the top is the Natural Resources Canada’s ecoACTION logo. The whole thing gives the impression that the federal government takes climate change seriously. There is no sign that the program will end suddenly when the new government decides its only purpose was economic stimulus (and it doesn’t believe in economic stimulus).

Continue reading Reduce Energy Use 70%

Hope for Oil Burners!

imageDo you heat your home with an oil furnace like we did?

If you could afford to switch it out for a much more efficient heat pump, would you do it?

What’s stopping you? Cost? Time? Knowing what the heck to do?

Well I have good news for you, my friend!

It’s true that the Federal Government cancelled the incentives in 2013 that could have helped you with the cost.

Dr. Doug Bing, MLA, and James Rowley, Eco-Warrior
Dr. Doug Bing, MLA, and James Rowley, Eco-Warrior

It’s also true that the BC Government eliminated its LiveSmartBC grants and passed the buck to BC Hydro and Fortis BC. If you heat with oil or wood, you are not eligible for BC Hydro’s incentives and with Fortis BC you are only eligible if you switch to a natural gas system–a much more efficient way to heat, but a fossil fuel nonetheless. Switching from the worst environmental options (heating with oil or wood) to the best environmental options (electric heat pumps) was not supported. I can tell you that I made sure to mention this gap to my Provincial Member of the Legislative Assembly, Dr. Doug Bing, when I met him in his office and when he visited the house.

However, now there is a new program just for us (can I thank you Dr. Bing for that?)

Oil burners rejoice!

My new best friend, Grace, who is the Senior Officer of Air Quality and Climate Change Planning, Policy and Environment at Metro Vancouver sent me the media release last week. Here’s what it says:

New Oil to Heat Pump Incentive Program for B.C. Homeowners

2 Sept 2015, Victoria, BC – Up to $1,700 per home is available to help British Columbians upgrade from oil heating to efficient electric air source heat pumps through the Oil to Heat Pump Incentive Program.

The program is funded by the B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines’ Innovative Clean Energy (ICE) Fund and administered by City Green Solutions, a non-profit energy efficiency organization.

“With the cooler weather of fall and winter approaching this is an excellent time for homeowners to think about investing in energy efficient heating solutions. Incentives of up to $1,700 to upgrade from oil heat to electric heat pumps will make it easier for British Columbians to lower their heating bills and reduce household greenhouse gas emissions,” says Bill Bennett, Minister of Energy and Mines.

“An oil to heat pump upgrade is one of the most important things we can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing homes. Participating homes’ typical carbon reductions will be better than taking a car off the road for 15 years,” explains Glenys Verhulst, Oil to Heat Pump Program Manager.

“Heat pumps are very efficient home heating systems because they use only a small amount of electricity to move a large amount of heat, to provide comfortable temperatures in the home year-round. An oil to heat pump upgrade will reduce a typical home’s energy bills by $1,300 to $2,700 every year, and will eliminate the risk of costly damage to air, soil, and waterways from home heating oil leaks,” adds Verhulst.

To qualify, homeowners must install a qualifying central or mini-split heat pump and remove their oil tank and oil heating system. Incentives are available on a first-come, first-served basis while funds last.

The Innovative Clean Energy (ICE) Fund is designed to support the B.C. government’s energy, economic, environmental, and greenhouse gas reduction priorities and advance B.C.’s clean energy sector.

To learn more, or to register for the Oil to Heat Pump Incentive Program,visit or call 1.877.545.6247.

Media Contact
Glenys Verhulst
Oil to Heat Pump Incentive Program Manager
[email protected]


  • A heat pump system typically pays for itself in energy savings quickly and can deliver a return on investment of 20 – 39%.
  • Cleanup costs from home heating oil spills typically range from $65,000 to $118,000, are the responsibility of the homeowner, and are generally not covered by home insurance.
  • Heating oil spills can be environmentally damaging. Oil can contaminate soil and water; harm or kill fish, pets, and other animals; and pollute air in the neighbourhood.
  • Heat pumps provide comfortable, clean, and affordable heating and cooling year round.

The Oil to Heat Pump Incentive Program is funded by the Ministry of Energy and Mines’ Innovative Clean Energy (ICE) Fund, designed to support the B.C. government’s energy, economic, environmental, and greenhouse gas reduction priorities and advance B.C.’s clean energy sector. This program is administered by City Green Solutions.

<a href=If there is justice in the world, Leanne and I should be able to get in on that action, right? a) We have (had) an oil furnace b) we want to switch to a heat pump and c) we could really use some financial assistance.

But what is so great about heat pumps, anyway? Well, if you recall what Monte Paulsen, Energy Advisor, wrote in his notes on our energy model:

In this climate region, nothing is as cost-effective as a high-performance ASHP [Air-Source Heat Pump] with a low balance point. These ASHPs operate close to 300% efficient in our climate. Compare that to 100% for AC baseboards, 95% for condensing gas boilers, or about 70% for most oil-fired furnaces.
I recommend planning for a high-performance ASHP from the outset, regardless of other decisions.

An energy advisor is someone you pay solely for their expert opinion. Monte does not sell heat pumps and his reputation is based on the quality of his advice. If you ignore such advice, why did you hire the expert in the first place? By the way, Monte Paulsen also worked for City Green Solutions, who administer the program, before starting his own company, Reddoor Energy Design. My point is that this is good information.

I applied for the program yesterday. The only things that make me nervous are a) we haven’t used our oil furnace for over two years (but we didn’t use any other central heating during that time either) b) we haven’t decided what heat pump we will replace the oil furnace with and c) we were going to do it even without any support from anybody (we’re just stubborn that way).

The reason I mention c is because of something that my Conservative MP, Randy Kamp, said about incentives when he visited Hammond Forever House in July. He said one concern with incentives is that you want them to encourage people to do things they would not have done otherwise. The image this conjures up for me is of a homeowner buying a heat pump at a store and her MLA* cutting her a cheque as she leaves the store. “What’s this?” asks the homeowner. “You bought a heat pump,” says the MLA “good for you.” She didn’t buy the heat pump because of the incentive, so the point of the incentive is lost.

<a href=In the real world, in my opinion, incentives work–but not in the simple way we want them to. People don’t hear about the incentive and run out and buy a heat pump, but there is always a media campaign which catches people’s attention and gets them thinking about switching to heat pumps in the future. The effect is cumulative and takes time. There is a risk that the public, being cynical, will get the impression that if somebody has to bribe them to do it, it must not be a very good idea, but in general all press is good press. The monetary incentive mostly serves to catch our attention and hold it for longer, which is good.

What I heard from energy advisors when I was working on the community home energy retrofit project was that homeowners typically wait until their furnace needs replacing and then find out about the rebate/grant/incentive from the salesperson. The incentive may steer them towards a more efficient furnace but most of the time they do not take the opportunity to improve their home’s efficiency in other ways such as insulation or sealing. In these cases we consumers just want to get the heat back on and get on with our lives because, hey, we’re busier than any generation before us.

How a heat pump works.

My conclusion was that incentives are very good for economic stimulus (they build a localized green economy) and they also work well to change behaviours gradually over years. People gradually become aware that other people are buying heat pumps and start to lean towards doing it, too. It takes time, however, because we’re not talking about switching to Fairtrade coffee we’re talking about something that will last decades: our homes.

The problem with the home energy efficiency grants that have come and gone over the past decade has been that they are inconsistent. They change year by year–even die and are re-born–making the home energy retrofit industry, including energy advisors and green reno experts, a bad choice for a career right when we are in desperate need of these skills. Consequently, homeowners have trouble finding contractors who are familiar with green renovation practices that are commonplace in other countries.

Now, if the green renovation and renewable energy industries could get a bigger piece of some of those subsidies to the oil and gas industries our government refuses to touch…

Green renovations don’t have to be as expensive and troublesome as ours. If more people were doing this, it would be easier and cheaper. It’s not a technical challenge, but a societal one. Incentives help push us to that tipping point of economies of scale where it makes economic sense not just for Canada and the world (both of which will see some pay-off in mitigating the mounting costs of climate change) but also for homeowners.

So, oil burners, do a quick calculation of how much in heating bills you will save, how nice it will be to have heating and cooling in one unit, and how much greenhouse gas you are emitting now and then check into that oil to heat pump program. Good luck!

*I had to use MLA in my fantasy instead of MP because there are no federal incentive cheques to be had. The oil to heat pump deal is a Provincial initiative (but you can expect the federal government to take credit internationally for the reduction in greenhouse gases that results from it. Too political? Sorry, there’s a federal election on Oct. 19th and I couldn’t resist.)

Ready for Lift Off

[UPDATE MARCH 2016: since this post was written, Leanne and I have entered into a contract dispute with Ridgewater Homes. For more details, click here.]

It was my last chance to give you a good look at the way the basement was.

On Friday Ridgewater and Nickel Bros. will team up to lift the house up and support it on six cribs (which look like Jenga piles, but I’m sure they are much sturdier).

Here is a video walk around and guided tour. It’s 2m21s long.

A lot of people ask me how high we are lifting the house.

I answer that we are lifting it high enough to dig the basement deeper, pour a new foundation with super-de-duper insulation and put pipes in the basement floor for radiant heating. After that, we will put it back down to more or less the same elevation.

That’s when they give me a puzzled look. It’s a look that says, “you already have a basement and a foundation so why are you going to all this expense and effort to gain a couple of feet of basement ceiling height, a better foundation and more insulation?”

That’s what you’re thinking isn’t it? You look at this colossal project and think that there must be something seriously wrong with the house for us to go to these lengths. If not then why? Why not settle for good enough?

I’d like to tell you it’s because we’re going to recover the cost of this reno in savings on our fuel bills.

But I don’t think we will.

I’d like to tell you it’s because our energy advisor, one of the best in the province, Monte Paulsen, told us it would be a good idea.

But he didn’t. In fact he kinda tried to talk us out of it.

In fact, I came to the answer during a conversation with Monte a couple of months ago. The answer is, “because we want to.”

It’s a little more complex, I guess, but I want you to know that I’m not trying to tell you what you should do with your home because I can only speak for what we wanted to do, what is important to us and what brings us joy.

So why did we want to?

Mostly because we are fed up with the glacial pace of humanity’s response to climate change. We want to go further and do more.

I mean seriously, in 2013 the Canadian National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, chaired by former Governor General David Johnston, released a report called, “Paying the Price: The Economic Impacts of Climate Change for Canada.” The report introduction states:

Canada – the fourth report in the NRT’s Climate Prosperity series – is the first national study to show what the economic consequences to Canada could be as a result of climate change, under four separate scenarios involving two factors: global GHG emissions and Canadian economic and population growth.

Although Canada contributes approximately 1.5% of global emissions, the report concludes that climate change impacts brought about by increased world-wide emissions have a real and growing economic cost to Canada. It also shows that adaptation – our capacity to manage the impacts to come – while not cost-free, is a cost-effective way to alleviate some of those impacts.

Based on NRT original economic modelling, the report finds that the economic impact on Canada could reach:

2020: $5 billion per year
2050: Between $21 and $43 billion per year

Just how much are those forest fires costing British Columbia right now in 2015?

This is valuable Canada-specific analysis and speaks to the need to address the problem head on. Instead, we are subsidizing the oil and gas sector and have eliminated job-creating incentive programs for home energy retrofits like Hammond Forever House. We are buying more gasoline cars and quibbling over how to pay for desperately needed regional transit.

Oh, and after the report’s release, our Conservative government hastily shut down the National Roundtable in the name of belt-tightening–as if stopping the flow of information will make the problem disappear.

Can we blame consumers who choose to install new countertops instead of insulating their attics? Yeah, okay, but aren’t we all just trying to get by and eek out a little happiness for ourselves and our kids? Aren’t we bombarded with advertising all day every day? Making us feel guilty about stuff we buy isn’t going to help!

Can we blame politicians who seem unable to act on the mountain of evidence that is at their fingertips? Yes, but when you are running to be elected for a four-year term, is it courage to propose investing in climate change mitigation and aggressive greenhouse gas reduction? Is it courage or political suicide? Our Conservative Federal Government is pretty voter-savvy, and they always choose to send a small cheque to voters instead of actually solving problems. I think a lot of us see through this doggy-biscuit tactic, but it seems to work. Can we blame them for doing what gets them re-elected?

With climate change, we all seem to be waiting for someone else to act. Oil companies and car manufacturers have billions of dollars to insinuate their messages into our brains, but who is telling the other side of the story? Scientists publish results, but they don’t advertise. Contractors make more money building a new house than retrofitting an old one. Homeowners who are passionate about reducing their carbon footprint are usually too busy doing it to tell the world about it.

That’s why I’m sharing this journey with you. I’m not pretending to be an expert on heritage houses and home energy retrofits, but I will share what I learn with you.

Now let me introduce you to an actual expert. Monte Paulsen of Red Door Energy Design got involved in our project via our architect, Annabel Vaughan. I can’t blame our decisions on him because I was already pushing for an extreme energy retrofit before he came on board. He was the one who questioned spending $300K on a $400K house and he has questions about promoting the idea of “Net-Zero Energy” as a reasonable goal.

Monte doing the blower door test, Feb. 5, 2013
Monte doing the blower door test, Feb. 5, 2013

I’m going to post Monte’s entire Preliminary Modelling Notes for you now because I know that some of you are going to geek-out and eat it up. It gives a base case and a selection of possible upgrades and what energy and greenhouse gas reductions we may expect from each. This document has proven invaluable and guided us through many decisions (which I will tell you more about, I promise).

Preliminary Hot 2000 modeling notes.
Monte Paulsen. Feb 21-24, 2013.

The modeling exercise begins with a “base case” model. Often this is either the existing house, or the new house as planned. For this project, the “base case” is a bit of a hybrid. We consider components of the existing house that could be retained in the renovation, in conjunction with components of the new house if built to minimum specs. Here are some key assumptions of the base case:
Continue reading Ready for Lift Off

The Missing Contractor

[UPDATE MARCH 2016: since this post was written, Leanne and I have entered into a contract dispute with Ridgewater Homes. For more details, click here.]

I only want to name people if I can say something nice about them.

I have a few nice things to say about Kingswood Builders Group but we’ll never know how good a company they really are because I can’t get them on the phone.

Let me clarify that they are not the contractor that we hired this year (but they could have been). We hired Ridgewater Homes after some careful research this year and I’ll tell you about that next week.

I can only guess Kingswood were sick and tired of giving me quotes and didn’t believe our project would ever actually happen. Fair enough, we did get two quotes and three meetings out of them over the course of three years without going ahead. They were the only company to do that for us and we appreciated it. It’s just too bad they went off the radar when we finally got our ducks in a row this year.

Anyway, here is their quote from January 2014, insulated concrete form (“quadlock walls”), insulation, interior finishing and all:


TEL. 604 941-4849 FAX. 604 941-0241




________________________________________________________________ ALL OF THE ABOVE WORK TO BE COMPLETED IN A GOOD AND WORKMANLIKE MANNER



As I mentioned before, setting a goal of obtaining 5 or 6 quotes is all very well, but finding 5 or 6 contractors who are interested enough in meeting us, let alone submitting a quote on the project, is another matter entirely.

I can understand that contractors are hesitant to provide quotes. It’s not that they are unscrupulous or trying to cheat you. Putting together an estimate that is at all accurate takes time. How many times have they worked for a week on an estimate for a customer only to never hear back from them? I imagine after a few experiences like that you might start getting a lot more vague with your numbers.
Continue reading The Missing Contractor

Meet your MLA!

A lot of people thought the British Columbia Liberal Party led by Christy Clark wouldn’t win the last Provincial election, but they did.

My Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), Dr. Doug Bing, is one of those Liberals. Last Friday I had my first formal meeting with him to tell him about Hammond Forever House.

Have you ever met with one of your government representatives? I recommend it. I met with former Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin a couple of times and with all of the last batch of Maple Ridge Councillors, too. I’ve never had a formal meeting with my Member of Parliament, but I hope to soon.

I think the Provincial Government should be involved in the Hammond Forever House project because we’re doing something that will benefit our community, the province and the country.

Dr. Doug Bing, MLA and James Rowley, Eco-Warrior
Dr. Doug Bing, MLA and James Rowley, Eco-Warrior

Although the BC Liberals made a great leap forward by bringing in a Carbon Tax I am critical of their emphasis on Liquified Natural Gas and, ehem, a few other things.

But what was I going to say in my meeting? What would you say if you had a meeting with your MLA? Would it start with, “now you listen here, you work for me and…”?

I think most people don’t request a meeting because things seem basically okay. Maybe those who do have an issue don’t think a meeting will do any good. I can understand that sentiment. My MLA is one member of a team. It’s not like he’s going to go back to Victoria and bang on the table until Premier Clark agrees to fund putting solar panels on the roofs of low-income homes (like they are doing in California). That’s not how it works. So how does it work?

Time for meetings is running out.

Come July, the house will be in turmoil. Now is the time to reach out. I bit the bullet and made an appointment for the last Friday Dr. Bing was in his office before the Legislature went back in session for a final 10 days before the summer.

Leanne asked me if I had a specific “ask”, putting name to my fear of not knowing what I was going to say.

I had been mulling it over and replied, “no.”

I had some ideas, but I realised it doesn’t help to simply demand action. As a citizen, it is important for me to explain my situation and be open to accepting whatever help Dr. Bing can offer. Maybe we can come up with some ideas together. I don’t think average citizens should feel they have to know how to make things happen in Victoria before they meet their MLA.

So I told him the story of our renovation that grew and the frustration that grew as well. I told him about the beautiful but stalled community retrofit project. I showed him plans and charts and booklets.

It wasn’t easy, but I managed to reduce my theme to one central question which was this:

given that we know we must stop burning fossil fuels and, in BC, switching to electrical power means renewable hydro-electric power now and homes generating their own electricity with solar panels in the future, are the home energy efficiency incentives we have now doing enough?

To my mind, the incentives are flawed, unreliable and inadequate.

Continue reading Meet your MLA!

Good Staff

Maple Ridge City Hall is blessed with some amazing staff.

Deeply held convictions must always be subject to new information, even if it means giving up a dream. Image by Now House.

In 2013 I was certain that my municipal government and BC Hydro were the right partners to get our Home Energy Retrofit Project off the ground. However, I learned that City Council had given staff instructions to spend no new money and anyway, the most cost-effective way for Maple Ridge to fight climate change was to stem the flow of cars commuting in and out of town every day. These were inconvenient facts that messed with my plans.

Similarly, in Metro Vancouver’s current Anti-Congestion Tax Plebiscite, voting yes to an increase in Provincial Sales Tax to pay for better transit also feels wrong to many people. There is a deeply held belief that we are being cheated, in spite of the fact that we live in one of the most advanced liberal democracies in the world in which every dollar of public money can be traced.

When I hear this perspective I often think back to my experience with my local government here in Maple Ridge. I especially think of that time when I learned how transparent and accountable our government really is.

On November 1st 2013, I had a pivotal meeting with staff of the then District of Maple Ridge (now the City of Maple Ridge don’t you know). Honestly, I was at the end of my willingness to volunteer my time in the name of acheiving a project to benefit the community and the planet. I needed a life-line.

I proposed that the District apply to BC Hydro under their Sustainable Communities Program for funding to create a program aimed at helping Maple Ridge homeowners reduce their home energy consumption and creating a local green-building economy. I had already drafted a rough application.

I had also met with then-Mayor Ernie Daykin and all the City Councillors. They were all very supportive of the idea. I even presented to Council. Everybody smiled. It was a good day.

BC Hydro’s program required a small contribution of under $15000 from the District which could be in-kind (it could be used to pay for Municipal staff time). BC Hydro would pay a maximum of $50K and 25% of the total funds had to come from the municipality.

Retrofitting existing homes saves the energy and materials of building new ones, helps the local economy, and reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. It also maintains the character and affordability of neighbourhoods. There are a lot of justifications for government help in this noble pursuit.
Image by Now House.

In our meeting staff explained (gently) that from a municipal perspective, it didn’t add up.

Even if Maple Ridge Council had not directed staff to avoid new spending to keep property taxes low, how would Maple Ridge benefit, they asked? In Nelson, where a successful municipal retrofit project is in place, the city owns the electrical utility so any energy savings means money to Nelson. In Maple Ridge, BC Hydro provides the power. Our retrofit project would help BC Hydro meet its energy targets, the municipality reduce its carbon footprint and a relatively small number of homeowners reduce their energy bills and that was if it worked as well as we hoped.

There would be no direct financial benefit to Maple Ridge therefore it was not something Council or the public would support.

This line of thinking was all too familiar. I hear it in the question everyone asks about solar panels, “how long until they pay for themselves?” as if that were their only purpose.

Even in my bitterness at hearing this, it struck me that this is what a good municipal staff does, it takes Council direction seriously.

The imminent costs of climate change are not part of this calculation.

The preservation of neighbourhood character and all the social and economic benefits therein are not, either.

My last hope was the carbon tax.
Continue reading Good Staff

Lorraine Writes Back Oct. 29, 2012

Lorraine Gauthier of The Now House Project wrote back to my letter within a few days with a thoughtful, energized letter of her own. In it she asked a lot of questions you might be asking. Here it is, unedited, but with my comments added.

Hi there James,
Glad you were able to make it to the SFU event. I love the Craftsman-style cottages, they are definitely a step up in style and building quality from our 1 1/2 storey bungalows.

From our experience working with the Heritage Association in the city of Kitchener, Ontario, on one of our Now House projects, we found that there were quite a few restrictions on what we could do to improve the energy efficiency of the home. Adding spray foam to the exterior of the building, even though it was clad in the traditional asbestos board siding, was not permitted. We did insulate the walls from the inside by using a cavity fill foam and added a spray foam to the attic and basement walls. We did a careful air sealing to improve the air tightness, which is done from the inside and of course doesn’t alter the appearance. The front door, although not an original feature, could not be changed so we literally altered the framing on the inside and insulated the door from the inside.

The front door with single-paned glass
The front door with single-paned glass

Leanne and I never contemplated removing siding and insulating from the outside. As for the front door, it may be an original feature but we have not decided what to do about it.

The heritage designation does add some challenges. Two years ago, I spoke with a group from Vancouver Heritage who were looking at the prospect of reconsidering the benefit of sustainability as well as heritage in their retrofits. They too, did not seem concerned when I showed pictures of the alterations to the Now House in Toronto, but then, there are only a few communities in Canada where the 1 1/2 storey home has been designated heritage and the Toronto house wasn’t one of them.

The City of Maple Ridge’s Heritage Revitalization Agreement allows for alterations as long as certain features and elements, identified in the Statement of Significance, are retained. It is quite flexible.

Maple Ridge, Hammond Neighbours appears to have a lot of the community interest in the overall community, which is a key element in a community scale retrofit project. The five year, no municipal taxes is also a great incentive. Approximately, how much would five years of municipal taxes amount to?

In 2014 we paid about $4000 in property taxes, but the Heritage exemption only applies to the municipal portion, which was $2068.81. At that rate, a five-year exemption would save us $10344.05. Sound good? Well, it does help, but Statements of Significances, Conservation Plans, lawyers  and surveyors ain’t cheap. Why, the storm sewer connection we are required to install cost over $16000 all by itself. Sigh.

Have you discussed with your Hammond ‘disorganized, organized’ committee the concept of a multi-house retrofit? If you recall from my presentation, feasibility comes from affordability and economies of scale come from having multiples of a reasonably uniform housing type. The link you sent me provided pictures of heritage homes, however, they appeared to be dissimilar in size and attributes. I wonder how many are reasonably close in their size and layout. Would you be able to take a guesstimate on that? Also, what does population demographics look like in Maple Ridge? Is this community growing? When some of these aging, wood-frame homes are being torn down, how does that affect demand for housing?

The diversity of housing type and the challenge of uniting individual owners remains a key challenge to the project. These questions would be answered in the next steps.

Let’s chat by email about the potential for a project. Can you and Leanne find out from someone else who has entered the Heritage Revitalization Agreement, what features of the Craftsman-style cottage are deemed of heritage value and what their experience was in carrying out their renovation? That might be a good place to start.

best regards


Lorraine Gauthier
Work Worth Doing – Now House

The question that is still open is: can we make a multi-house retrofit work here? Are these houses too different? How can we bring homeowners together?

Meeting Now House

Let me tell you how I decided we should help all the homeowners in Maple Ridge retrofit their homes at once.

The sign I painted for Earth Day on the living room floor
The sign I painted for Earth Day on the living room floor

As you may recall, all this started with an ugly bathroom, squishy toilet and carpenter ants. When it became clear to us that our simple bathroom reno had morphed into a Heritage Revitalization Agreement and re-zoning it made us consider our long-term plans.

If we wanted to live here while the kids grow up, what did we need? This line of thinking is how we came to adding a spare room and bathroom for the kids upstairs, a larger bathroom and closet downstairs, and a comfortable covered back porch. From a sustainability perspective, it was comforting to know that we would be reusing the resources that went into building the house instead of tearing down and building new. Making ourselves comfortable here for the forseeable future is good for the planet.

However, inspired by my in-laws, Walter’s house and others, I figured we should do better than simply using standard construction and minimum standards. There is a host of sustainable building options available, and I didn’t want to regret not taking advantage of them.

I got the impression from contractors I had spoken to that homeowners typically opt for the cheapest methods to meet the minimum building codes. Why?

Not because they are unaware of climate change or the long-term savings possible, but for two reasons. 1. Upfront costs–the income gap is real and the middle class is being pushed lower and we simply do not have the money for any “bells and whistles” and 2. lack of expertise–how can we trust that the heat pump we read about is a good idea when every contractor we talk too has a different advice about it?

Well, call me stubborn but I wasn’t going to let the upfront cost of doing the right thing stop us when we know it will save us money later. It’s not like we can afford what we plan to do, I just believe that we will find a way.

It was sustainability that steered our plans towards digging down below the new addition instead of creating an unheated crawlspace under the porch and bathroom. It was sustainability that inspired my interest in geothermal and solar energy, air to air heat exchange, waste water heat recovery and rainwater retention.


By October of 2012 I was asking staff at city hall about how to go about implementing these ideas. That was why Lisa Zosiak let me know about Lorraine Gauthier’s presentation at SFU on October 24th, 2012. On October 26th, in our already scheduled meeting with representatives from the Engineering, Environmental Planning, Building and Heritage Planning departments, I wanted to know if we could create a Now House Project in Hammond.

I have already described the Now House Project in my long, rambling pre-election post of October 2014. There is so much more to tell.

The first Now House
The first Now House

You can read all about it at the Now House website, of course, (check out this news video from 2011) but here is what sticks in my mind.

The first Now House was created in response to a competition held by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to create an EQuilibrium demonstration home. EQuilibrium homes are designed to address occupant health and comfort, energy efficiency and renewable energy production, resource conservation, reduced environmental impact and affordability.

The brass ring in this competition was to achieve net-zero energy consumption. That means the house creates its own power and, over the course of a year, the amount of power it creates is more than what it consumes.

Of the 15 entries chosen to build and demonstrate their EQuilibrium project, Now House was the only entry in the competition that wanted to retrofit an existing house. All the others were built from scratch. This is a key distinction because, as I have mentioned, knocking down existing houses to build superhouses is so wasteful it defeats the purpose.

It is poetic that Now House chose the 60 year-old houses that CMHC was created to build following World War II. There are a lot of these in clusters all across Canada, waiting to be retrofit into net-zero homes.

One way to achieve net-zero, of course, is to cover every available surface with solar panels and install a massive geothermal system and call it a day. Expensive and wasteful, yes, but net-zero all the same. Hey, if you’re rich, go for it!

However, CMHC set some challenging criteria which included making the house as efficient as possible first, then adding enough renewable energy sources to meet the demand. It also had to be affordable and repeatable.

From the Now House website
From the Now House website

I liked those last two words. The Now House project had taken them to heart, too. By the time Lorraine presented at SFU they had completed retrofits on 100 other similar homes in Ontario and the last 95 cost as little as about $11000 before solar panels.

I wanted our house to be a Now House and every other house in Hammond, too! Now that Leanne and I are costing out the work ahead of us, I wish we could team up with other homeowners more than ever.

The day after hearing Lorraine’s presentation I sent her the following gushy e-mail:


I had the pleasure of attending Lorraine Gauthier’s lecture at SFU in Vancouver last night and I couldn’t help thinking that my neighbourhood might be a good fit for a Now House Project.

My wife and I live in a 1923 Craftsman-style cottage down the street from the largest cedar mill in the world. There is also a smaller “mill workers house” on our property and many similar in the neighbourhood. We are working with the District of Maple Ridge already with the expectation of renovating our home to make it more liveable and as close to net-zero as possible.

We are working with an architect and the district’s planning, engineering and building departments as well as the heritage and environmental planning departments.

We are also active in organizing the neighbourhood through community projects and a web-site. Many photos of houses in the neighbourhood can be seen here:

In fact, the only way we can get permission to renovate is to enter into a Heritage Revitalization Agreement with the District. This identifies features of the property which can reasonably be deemed of heritage value and protects those features while not restricting what we do with everything else. The district offers five years of no municipal taxes as incentive.

I disagree with the gentleman at the lecture who was so horrified at your treatment of the exterior walls of the Now Houses. I think heritage and sustainable retro-fits should work well together, with each group of houses presenting different solutions.

In Hammond there are many aging, wood-frame houses built in the 20s and 30s to house mill workers. The area has never experienced a period of great affluence so few have been bull-dozed to make way for monster houses. However, several have been torn down as unsafe and many are falling into disrepair and are in danger of being ‘developed’.

In planning our own house I am interested in solar hydronic heating to work together with geothermal and all the items on your basic package. We have an oil furnace and no gas connection, so we have an opportunity to use no fossil fuels. I’d like to capture rainwater and use it in the toilets and garden and am hopeful the District will allow this.

As you can no doubt sympathize with, the approval process is slow and I expect now to put off the work until Spring. Can we get a Now Project going before then?

Is Lorraine still in town and would she like to visit our beautiful community to hobnob with the local dignitaries?

Thanks so very much for the inspiring work you’re doing!

As you may be aware, Lorraine did indeed visit beautiful Maple Ridge–twice! Her response in my next post.

I have to laugh when I read “I expect now to put off the work until Spring”! That was over two years ago! Today we almost signed our heritage agreement and set a date for a final reading of City Council, but there was one more thing to clear up.

Maybe Thursday…