Friday, November 12, 2010

The old place

This house still stands on the site of the new build. It once was a small store which serviced the rural community which used to be here. Someone built a small addition in the back for a kitchen and a washroom and the store became a home. Other houses were built in the area and soon a neighbourhood had sprung up. In the decades since, some of those neighbouring houses were torn down and newer, bigger houses were built. The old house, though, was left more or less alone and it aged.

Its walls started to bow out from the weight of decades of successive snow loads on its flat roof.

The brick facade peeled away from the wood frame beneath. In the image above, you can see the large gap between the west facing window, which still sits firm in the house frame, and the bricks around it buckling out under compression.

There are other gaps and cracks throughout the exterior walls of the house, some of which run almost the full height or width of the house.

Some of the wood from the walls taken out of the second floor lie in the backyard. There is almost nothing salvageable.

In the backyard, there is a metal shed made from two sheds pushed together with a hole cut into the common wall. This double shed was used to store car parts and repair tools but most of that has been cleaned out.

Beside the front door: a phone book, thrown through the front window. When I walk inside, I smell the odor of old age. The house is tired.

It sags in the middle. Adrian tells me that some lumber posts were shoved under the floor joists by the previous owners to keep them from sagging any further.

Broken mechanics remain in place, thick with dust, and power cords, yellowed and cracked.

Something greasy, sticky covers all the cabinetry - testimony to the thousands of meals that were prepared here.

Who sat around this table? Where are they now? Was this kitchen filled with laughter or daily drudgery?

Aside from the wallpaper, the curved railings at the top of the stairs on the second floor seem to be the only other design flourish in the whole house. Maybe they can be salvaged.

Knob and tube wiring hidden in the walls.

The washroom is cramped, barely enough floor space for the sink, toilet and tub. And that rattling, single pane window - it must have been cold stepping out of the bath in the winter.

The house is old. It is out of breath; its joints are brittle; its skin is cracked. It's done its job, kept its occupants sheltered and warm all those decades, but it can no longer fulfill that purpose. Sometime in the spring, it will be torn down.

A little history

One day, a long time ago in the south of France, Andre, a club carrying Cro-Magnon man with an unusually large head, dragged his wimpy hairless butt into a cave to warm it up from the wind and rain and a little spark in his little brain decided it might be a good idea to claim the place for himself. He set up a couple of comfy armchairs and a table in the middle of the cave and then threw down a futon in the corner. He got himself a kitchen unit (unassembled but cheap from some nomadic Neanderthal who had arrived from Sweden) and looked forward to preparing his signature mastadon steaks au poivre and curly frites. He decorated the cave walls with charcoal cartoon drawings of his somewhat exaggerated exploits and then he got himself a mate, or two, and made little versions of himself, some of whom died - but that was to be expected given the lack of decent socialized health-care back then - and the surviving little versions of himself grew up and eventually moved out and got their own caves to live in.

All the other Cro-Mags in the clan, who at first just laughed at Andre and his brood for living "indoors", calling cave dwelling a fad, weren't laughing when suddenly real estate prices started to rise and mortgages were invented.

Those early "found" homes were quickly all claimed and the rest of the proto-human grunts had to make their own shelters. Fast forward from leaf and twig huts to stone cottages to hand carved palaces to cookie cutter suburban sprawl and now here we are, millenia later, and we all still yearn for our own castles and people being people, we all want our castles to be uniquely special, an expression of our personal values, tastes and, more often than not, our wealth. We want to create a bold statement for our friends, if not the world, to see and experience.

Ever since I was a little kid, I've thought about building my own home, after all, what bolder statement can be made than by saying, "Oh, this place here, yeah, I built it. Used a hammer, a saw, a pile of timber and a bag of nails. No biggie," but that thought was like other thoughts along the lines of "gee, one day I'd like to write a book or learn to play the piano really well or climb one of those mountains where Sherpas do most of the heavy lifting" in that it never materialized. Plus, living vicariously through the never ending reno nightmares of so many friends and acquaintances, the thought of building a whole house by someone who's never built a whole house before, just seemed like a crazy idea.

The closest to building my own home was a one room bungalow in red and white LEGO blocks which I crafted when I was eight and which was promptly destroyed when I did some "structural testing" on it by throwing it out of my second floor bedroom window onto the driveway below. Unfortunately, my father's car was in between my window and the driveway at the time so the hood of the Thunderbird got structurally tested as well.

A few years ago, I met Adrian through work (I hired him). During one of our lunch time conversations, Adrian mentioned that he wanted to build his own house. Everyone at the table nodded knowingly. There I was with my engineering degree, another person had an architecture degree, another person had been reno'ing his house for ten years or more and none of us had ever built our own homes. Here comes Adrian, a recent immigrant to Canada, and he wanted to build his own home. He wanted to design and build a house that would only use a minimal amount of energy to run. He was talking about a net zero house, though I didn't know the term at the time - and he wanted to build it in Toronto. That was just crazy talk.

One person's crazy is another person's reality. Apparently, for Adrian, crazy is just a challenge that has not yet been overcome. He's gone and bought the property he will build on. He's come up with an initial design which has been submitted for the first round of city approvals. The old house still sitting on the lot will be demolished in the spring and construction will follow immediately after. I'm going to record the whole process and help out with the build whenever I can. It's still a crazy idea but every day it seems less so.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Home is where the hearth is

Never mind what the official first day of fall is. For me, the start of the cool season is the day I turn on the furnace. I hear the whumf as it chugs to life after a months long sleep. It's like I've revived the patient. His heart beats once again. I feel the subtle shift in pressure as the fan starts pushing the air around. A gas fired warmth flows out from the floor vents.

I live in an old house. I've seen it identified on a city planner's map from the 1880s. When I had the roof shingles replaced a few years ago, the workers dug up four layers of various roofing materials including the original, and mostly rotted, cedar shakes and hand made nails. There are tree trunks in the basement holding up the joists. There is a certain allure to living in a house with history but it's predicted we will have a colder winter this year and when faced with another season of drafts and cold floors and plastic film on windows, there are days when I would gladly trade yesterday's charm for tomorrow's technology.

To live in comfort. To see the end of utility bills. To decrease the damage upon the Earth's ecology. To be free from the seemingly intransigent structures modern living and modern comfort are so dependent upon. This is what is embodied in the pursuit of a net zero house, a passive house, a green house - call it what you will.