Category Archives: design

concrete counters and steps

Kitchen counter and step-pan concrete has been poured. They both turned out very nicely–no cracks (hurray!) and smooth finishes throughout. We opted for no tinting in order to keep the raw look of the concrete itself. After much deliberation, we also decided to go for the epoxy finish on the countertops, knowing that it would be slightly shiny. After the first round of epoxy had dried, though, the surface was sanded, and I really like that texture and look much better. There will be another application of epoxy, and we may still buff that final application slightly. From what we have heard, shininess will also reduce over time. And, I think that once we have the lower cabinet doors up, the overall look will be more integrated, even if the counters remain somewhat glossy.

The steps look and feel great. They, too, will be treated with a top coat, but in a more “flat” finish. We are considering adding some grit to the basement steps in an effort to prevent slips while hauling wood down with our boots on (is it easier to prepare for the inevitability, or change the practice? We think: prepare.)

In the chicken pitcher picture (say this ten times quickly! tongue-testing-twisters at the boreal modern!), you’ll see a potential backsplash that we’re trying out. It’s the same 12×24 charcoal-coloured tiles that we have used throughout the house now, in the bathrooms, entryways, and beneath the stoves. On the far left is this tile, cut to 6×24; on the near left, it’s 4×24. We may use one of these sizes and also integrate some of the 1×1 red tiles into the kitchen backsplash.
. . . thoughts?


blower door test

The house envelope is super-insulated and super-sealed. In a passive house, the objective is to seal the home envelope so well that heat energy created by the sun, wood stoves or the back up electrical heaters stays in the house (as long as possible) because there are so few air exchanges or leaks.

The blower door test helps you measure how well your builder/team sealed the envelope: “With a blower door, builders can quantify airflow and the resulting heat
(or cooling) loss, pinpoint specific leaks, and determine when a home needs additional mechanical ventilation.” Energy conservatory has a good article on the testing process.

Rob Gawreletz from Alberta Eco-Visors came the other day to do the blower door test.

blower door test from inside

blower door test from outside

After an initial first reading, Rob depressurized the house so that outside air would try to enter the envelope. Then we walked around and identified a few spots where there were minor leaks around doors and windows that had not yet been caulked for painting etc. We noticed that the plumbing stack, which wasn’t hooked up yet, was not closed off. Oops. And we felt some leaks around where the HRV intake pipe entered the box. Both were easy to fix with duct tape.

The test is helpful. You can correct any minor leaks right away with acoustical sealant or other types of sealants in finished areas.

I’m really glad we went with the spray foam on rim joists and the blown in cellulose walls too. They are sealed nicely.

The results were good: .63 ACH (after we sealed the obvious pipes) – .84 ACH before). Congratulations to Doug the builder and the crew. Excellent job.

An average home today is 1.5 ACH or higher. The net zero homes in the city are at about .7 ACH or so after much hard work. . . so we are in the ballpark.

Doug Hyde (DC Hyde Construction, Athabasca) and his team were meticulous and deserve all the credit. Doug told me that he was trained to always take much care when sealing his homes. But this was the first time in his long career that he ever had one of his buildings assessed with the blower door test. Now that he saw the few small errors and fixes, he is looking forward to the next home and next test. And that’s how your good builders become even greener.

I hope Doug becomes an ambassador of the blower door test for other consumers and other builders up north, where winter is long and cold. If there were more grants to reward smarter building standards, as there are in other countries and provinces like British Columbia, then Alberta would be further ahead.

Tomato Man


stair pans

The concept on these stairs is to have pans filled with poured concrete. The stair pans and stringers were fabricated offsite and delivered and assembled in place, one flight from the first to the second floor, and another from the basement to the first.

stairs, first to second floor

Once assembled, it was solid and strong for carrying weight. However, because it was designed with two C-channels bolted together to construct the single stringer, there was some side-to-side flexing within the stair flight. We spent about a week consulting with everyone involved, from architect and engineer to general and welders to come up with a solution, which was a plate running the length of the stringer and welded (in-place now, which got exciting as things heated up around the subfloor. . . ) to encompass the width of both C-channels. We had plenty of experts after the fact to tell us that we should have started with a kind of square channel instead, which would have given us the strength and rigidity that we now have. Now, we have stability throughout.

stair, first to second, repaired

stair, first to second, repaired, side view

stair detail, repaired

The entire stair adventure took about four weeks, give or take. But don’t they look fantastic?

basement framing

Lucky for us, the concrete people were able to pour before all of the crazy Alberta weather hit. Even though we didn’t have huge snowdrifts here, it has been cold. We* are almost finished with the basement framing, and should have electrical rough-in complete now.

*Again, “we” in the royal sense. As in, “our people.” It would be slightly more entertaining (and much less likely to pass code) if it were actually us who were framing and roughing in electrical. We like to leave it with the experts, thanks.



siding at window

corrugated steel and siding

siding meets corrugated, with silicone

That’s Hardie board there, in the colour “heathered moss,” 7 1/2 inch (6 inch exposed), untextured, and butted up against corrugated steel. We had drama a few weeks ago when we thought that we desperately wanted mitred corners on our siding. As it turns out, making mitre joins isn’t so popular anymore. Or, rather, is might be popular if we actually were going with the one point four million dollar version of the BoMo. I swear* I heard “labour intensive” out of everyone involved in the project so many times that it echoed in my ears well into the wee hours of the night. In a weak-but-well-reasoned moment, the TMG, the budget and I decided to forget about mitres and go the way of every other house around and use corner boards. A small touch, but we think that it won’t make such a big difference in the long run. Except to our wallets. We may now be able to afford stairs in the BoMo. But that’s another story for another day.

Here is a view of the first few boards going up, with the corner board mounted.

outside corner, with corner board

*And that’s, again, another story. What is it about hanging around building contractors that leads me to swear so much? It isn’t that they are actually cursing all the time. huh. Well, I’ll try to keep it clean here on the blog.


inspiration and a designer’s perspective: eight questions for Shafraaz Kaba

1. What was your inspiration for the solar chimney? Can you explain how it will function?

The solar chimney was inspired by the BedZED housing development in the United Kingdom, where they use natural ventilation the draw air through the house. When you create an area like a greenhouse through solar gain, the heated air will naturally rise in this space. We hope that by creating a chimney effect, it will provide some solar gain heating and this heated air will be pushed around the house with the HRV and natural ventilation that we are encouraging with operable windows.

2. What inspired your solution to our problem of having the best view on the least window-friendly side of the house?

When I visited the site, there were two view angles to take advantage of. The view directly north to the river and one to the bridge that is slightly east of north. Creating the saw-tooth on the north side allowed for little windows that framed views to the bridge. Larger “picture windows” provided views to the river on the north side. The large windows on the east side for the living area and loft also took advantage of the view and the morning sun.

3. What two words encapsulate the essence of your design style today (this month, year, era)?

BOREAL MODERN, of course! Seriously, I think “style” always needs to be tempered by the client. So, you have really picked the appropriate words for me. Generally, my design aims to reflect our time [contemporary] and aim for environmental sensitivity.

4. What really gets you going at the beginning of a design project?

Visiting the project site provides the inspiration for design and talking to the clients/users provides the defining ideas for a building.

5. What gets you through the “slugging away at it” part?

I don’t really notice the slugging away part because time usually goes by too quickly to take much notice!

6. How do you let go at the end? (Can you let go at the end?)

No, I can’t let go! I really think creating buildings is like raising children. I will have to let go of the building at some point, and let it grow into the world- but it seems it will always be connected to me somehow.

7. You’ve seen a lot of the world. Why live and work in Edmonton and northern Alberta?

I grew up in Edmonton, so it will always feel like home. My wife and I also have our families here, so that too helps, especially as our parents like to host our son, so we can have a few nights to ourselves. I also like seasons- cross-country and downhill skiing, and tobogganing in the winter as well as cycling and hiking in the summer really create times of the year to look forward too. When I was younger, I was drawn to big cities like London and New York and I lived and worked there for a period of time. Now I like to visit them, and I think I appreciate the time I have to travel more when I can return to Edmonton.

8. Edmonton’s new art gallery: thoughts.

I love the Children’s Gallery!
I think it is a remarkable building that helps anchor Sir Winston Churchill Square. I also enjoy many of the great spaces inside like the roof sculpture garden and members lounge balcony. As an architect, I get nit-picky about how the roof drains don’t get hidden well in the main atrium space and worry about how the swoop of steel will capture hail and rain in a summer thunderstorm and it makes me nervous if that drain clogs up, how it may leak. I really don’t like the “white” material that the swoop of steel changes into, when it curves inside the building…

I can see why Shafraaz likes the Children’s Gallery. . . he designed it! You can read about it in the Edmonton Journal article.
Thanks to Shafraaz for sharing his thoughts. . . and seeing eye-to-eye with us on a modern design!


*photo credit: Manasc Isaac Architects

lighting the BoMo

From the start, we’ve had both an inkling and no idea at all on how to light the Boreal Modern. See, it’s hard (for one of us, at least) to imagine all the interesting and thoughtfully-created nooks of the BoMo, let alone how they need to be lit, and how we’ll manage to make that imagination of how it should all be lit into reality. Of course, we’ve had architectural help, but still. . . the imagining part.

Light Bulb, Hammer, and Strobe by John Shappell, used under Creative Commons License and exemplifying the early lighting plan feelings of WW

Early on, we took a field trip to Park Lighting with Shafraaz holding our hands, and were still completely overwhelmed by all the possibilities. The good news is that the TMG and I generally agree on style. The not-so-good news: so many decisions to make! Today, we revisited the Park Lighting trip and really made progress. Somewhere up there, the gods of light (Apollo? . . .Artemis?) sent us Elisabeth, and she made it all better (note to anyone building or retro-fitting: call Park Lighting and ask to see Elisabeth). We met, we walked through the entire house electrical plan again, and we picked out lights. This time, really imagining the lighting in each room. And with good advice on how different types of lighting work for different areas and tasks. Further, Elisabeth steered us away from models that she thought we’d be unhappy with. Today, we’re way closer to an actual lighting plan. Even if we don’t actually have any “rooms” yet, per se. Here’s a little taste of what we’re thinking about. . . .

outdoor, beside-the-door lights

ceiling light

lights for basement

Somewhat amazing to me is that these are all pictures taken on our first trip to Park. And they’re still favourites.

Meanwhile, we are considering the benefits of different qualities of light versus their energy draw. And how a hotter light like the halogen might contribute to the ambient temperature of the house.

To be continued. . . .