Heritage houses — an energy efficient house is a forever house

We live in a historic neighbourhood: Port Hammond, which is part of Maple Ridge, BC.

There are cute little houses built 80 to 100 years ago that were inhabited by workers at the local mill. They are surrounded by lush, spacious yards and really define the character of the neighbourhood.

Our house--bigger than many
Our house–bigger than many in Hammond

There is a new process in Maple Ridge to encourage us to preserve . If we agree to preserve the main character-defining elements of our heritage house, we can enjoy a break from the municipal portion of our taxes for a certain number of years. We also are given certain allowances when altering the property because the house was built before the rules were changed.

That’s great and Leanne and I are taking them up on it, but the market forces against keeping these cute practical houses are large and from all sides.

Let me put my cards on the table and say that these homes are valuable. They hold memories, history and are the embodiment of the hard work it took to build them. They also represent all the energy and resources that went into making them. If one is torn down, all that energy is lost; all that wood and metal and plaster is lost; all the energy to harvest and shape those materials is lost. On top of that, the energy and materials of a new structure, no matter how efficient or “green”, will never recoup the waste.

Clearly, retrofitting is the way to go if we are going to be conservative about this, however, the deck is stacked: out with the old, in with the new! Here’s what we seem to focus on:

Old houses are uncomfortable, with fewer bathrooms and odd floorplans designed for a different time.

A house at the end of the block. One of several built by Leanne's grandfather to rent out to millworkers.
A house at the end of the block. One of several built by Leanne’s grandfather to rent out to millworkers.

They are smaller than our consumer culture has led us to believe we need.

Builders know how to knock them down and build new really really fast and -gasp- sometimes cheaper than renovating!

Renovating is complicated by building codes and property setbacks which have been legislated since the house was constructed. The building department and engineering department of your municipality have an easier job if you build new.

They are inefficient–the older ones were built without insulation and even those built in the 80s leak a lot of heat. This is a drawback to Heritage agreements. You may want to preserve your home and may be willing to pay high heating bills for now, but for the forseeable future? Electricity and fuel costs are only going up and your house is contributing to climate change BIG TIME.

Another recently renovated Hammond mill house
Another recently renovated Hammond mill house

Realtors benefit every time someone decides to give up on fixing their house and sell for a bigger/better/newer one. Hence the term “starter home” and “re-sale value” (as if people enjoy packing and moving every few years).

Financial institutions also benefit by lending bigger and bigger mortgages to the same people.

Even municipalities benefit from building new. Larger houses are assessed a little higher which means more property tax. Much more significantly, however, is the tax gain when a lot is cleared and subdivided into two or more lots or densified in other ways such as townhouses or apartment buildings.

This house, seen here in 1969, burnt down 10 years ago. It was about 40 years old and could have lasted...forever!
This house, built by Leanne’s grandfather and seen here in 1969, burnt down 10 years ago. It was about 70 years old and could have lasted…forever!

What we need is a municipal program to help people, not only preserve their homes, but make their homes more efficient.

How about another tax incentive like the Heritage Agreement deal? Apply it to heritage houses as well as houses not old enough to qualify and we would save a lot of money, resources and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Maple Ridge would be heroes!

Another help would be if approval for retrofits was streamlined and/or fast-tracked through the building and engineering departments. Permits are a headache. A lot of people seem to be doing the minimum fix-ups to their homes so as not to trigger any permits from city hall.

Still another idea is to make the grants and incentives for retrofitting homes to higher efficiency more robust. We know they work, but they change with the tide. In BC we still have the Livesmart BC grants and we have incentives from utilities, but the federal government of Canada has failed to replace the Ecoenergy grants that were so successful.

Come on guys! Show us you’re not in the pockets of the oil industry! Help me retrofit!

Sometimes it feels like it’s us little guys who are working so hard to preserve neighbourhoods, protect heritage and combat climate change. How can we fight this economy that only measures profit and growth?

One blog post at a time I guess.

Published by

James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

3 thoughts on “Heritage houses — an energy efficient house is a forever house”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *