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…

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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.

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