Photography by Angus Fergusson
Learn how this Toronto family renovated their modern home using green materials and energy-saving strategies.
When homeowners Cindy and Jim Graham decided to renovate their 2,000-square-foot detached home in east-end Toronto, they had one overarching goal: Go green. “Being as environmentally responsible as possible was at the forefront of many of our decisions,” says Cindy. They wanted to minimize their ecological footprint— both during construction, a process that’s inherently wasteful, and in the long term—but spend only what they could afford.
“We knew such a massive undertaking was going to have a negative environmental impact, so we hoped to lessen that as much as we could.” Happily, after hiring Sustainable TO, an architectural firm that specializes in delivering energy-efficient solutions, they discovered their eco-friendly dreams could be achieved on budget. “We told them flat out we wanted to be as green as possible without going broke.”
Instead of immediately putting a garbage bin on the front lawn and unleashing a bulldozer on the property, they followed some sage advice: Live in the space for up to 12 months to determine your needs. In fact, they ended up waiting four years, until a friend’s rental apartment nearby became available. Only then did the 10-month renovation get underway.
Along with a sustainable mandate, the couple had a few more requests: Make the older home structurally sound (the third floor swayed during heavy winds); insulate the entire space, which was leaking heat like a sieve; and open up the ground floor for better flow. As a result, the house was gutted right back to the studs and rebuilt using some of the latest interior and exterior upgrades, such as a self-ventilating roof and sustainable insulation. Now filled with warm woods and plenty of natural light, the open-concept layout works hard as a cozy, energy-efficient family home. “I feel we reached up to 70 percent of our sustainability goal, without sacrificing design and comfort,” says Cindy.
Use reclaimed materials
The home is now so well insulated that this small (and, the homeowners admit, not very efficient) fireplace can heat the entire main floor in less than 10 minutes. A reclaimed beam of Douglas fir, repurposed from an old Ontario barn as a mantel, anchors the living room.
Rethink your layout
The old postage-stamp kitchen lacked counter space and had only a single bar sink—which didn’t work for the homeowners, who love to cook. During the reno, they relocated the space from the back of the house to the front, which has made lugging in groceries much easier. Set over the sink, an updated oversize window overlooks the front lawn and takes advantage of the natural light and heat on sunny mornings. A mix of floating shelves and floor-to-ceiling cabinets offers plenty of storage and a spot to display dishes and glassware. The island accommodates the pull-out microwave and provides ample seating. Solid white oak floors throughout have a durable, natural oil-based finish, which doesn’t emit any off-gas (unlike urethane), and stand up to heavy use.
The homeowners wanted a bigger area for the living room, so they moved it from the front of the house to the back, where the property is wider. This also sets it away from the hustle and bustle of the busy street. The almost wall-to-wall windows with screened sliding doors stretch 16 feet and open up onto the backyard. Wooden built-ins, which run the length of one wall—except for a small nook that holds a desk for the couple’s son, Iain, 12—keep the three main-floor zones (kitchen, living and dining rooms) unified.
Channel the sunlight
The once-unsteady third-floor office that shook in gusty winds is now rock solid and thoroughly insulated. Positioned in front of the large-scale windows, the desk area offers a prime view of the street, while the abundance of natural light lessens the reliance on electricity. Radiators provide heating during cooler months, and overhead fans cool and circulate the air on warmer days.
Add energy-efficient fixtures
Updating the bathrooms with low-flow faucets and toilets saves on water bills. And a wider layout in the second-floor bathroom allowed the outer walls to be double-layered and insulated, with the pipes nestled inside to avoid freezing.
Go green with finishes
In the second-floor master bedroom, the couple chose low-VOC wall paint and oil for the oak flooring. The ensuite bathroom was made smaller to free up space in the adjacent hallway for a laundry closet with a stacked high-efficiency washer and dryer.
FIVE ENERGY-SAVING MOVES
Fibreglass insulation on the side walls was replaced with Roxul—a sustainable, energy-efficient material made from recyclable rock and waste byproducts (such as slag from the steel and copper industry). Along with being fire-retardant and water-repellent, it eliminates any cold spots.
2. Steel roof
The roof is now corrugated steel with a coating that inhibits rust. This top layer also helps reflect sunlight and limit the amount of heat entering the third floor, reducing the use of cooling appliances during the summer. It can last for more than 50 years—twice as long as shingles.
Strategically placed windows take advantage of sunlight and allow natural cross-ventilation (when air enters one window and exits another), which cuts down on the need for artificial cooling.
4. Wall-mounted cooling units
When the homeowners require air-conditioning, they can turn on the ductless system on the upper floors to efficiently cool the space.
5. In-floor heating
Radiant heating is the primary source of warmth on the main floor. The in-floor system keeps the temperature uniform by preventing any hot or cold spots. A lightweight concrete was poured over the pipes to lock in the heat.