On Decluttering, Downsizing and Surviving a Green Renovation

credit: Lloyd Alter

For thirty years we raised our family in the middle house in this photo, in what was a streetcar suburb built after the St. Clair line opened at the edge of Toronto in 1913. Although it is on a smallish 30 foot by 90 foot lot, it was a big house, with three stories, six bedrooms and one bathroom. Because it was on a hill, the previous owners were able to drill a garage into the basement in the 70s, something that was made illegal shortly thereafter because it was so seriously ugly. More on my neighborhood: Streetcars save cities: A look at 100 years of a Toronto streetcar line

credit: Lloyd Alter/ rear of house before renovation

The rear of the house was a serious mess. To the right, there is a sunroom, single glazed on three sides, with a leaking crawl space under. To the left, a screened porch with what was a kitchen on top, that we turned into a laundry room. It was pulling away from the house to the point you could see daylight between it and the house. It was so cold in winter and so expensive to heat. Something had to be done. The kids had moved out and I wanted to sell, move into an apartment; two people don't need six bedrooms and a full basement, particularly when one of them spends his time writing about tiny houses and green living. My wife Kelly hated the idea of an apartment. She had her garden. Her piano. Then I hit upon the idea of duplexing the house, with us living on the ground floor and renting out the upper floors. It turned out that our daughter was paying a lot of money to rent an apartment with her friends, and she liked the idea of renting the upstairs. So it seemed like a good idea at the time. See more on our thinking in When it comes to housing, small is the new big

credit: Lloyd Alter

Now this house was really cold and drafty. There really was no place on the living where you could sit except in front of the gas fireplace; when our contractor, Greening Homes, did a blower test they found air coming in everywhere. They never could do the test properly to figure out the air changes at 50 pascals; the house was too leaky. But besides being interested in green living, I am also a past president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario and I like old buildings, I love the character of the wood and the windows and there was no way I was going to gut the place and lose all that. More on our blower test: Why the caulking gun (and the thermal imager) are the best weapons in the war against energy waste

credit: Workshop Architecture

Although I have practiced as an architect, it has been a while, and I got fired by Kelly the last renovation we did because I was too busy to give it the attention it needed. This time we assumed from the start that we would hire an architect. We chose David Colussi of Workshop Architecture, a young, talented firm that happened to be around the corner. Working for another architect is never easy and can easily lead to conflict. I was on my best behavior and deferred to Kelly and tried really hard to let David take the lead. He did, and the job ran incredibly smoothly. Here you can see the ground floor plan; the main front hall becomes part of the upper unit while we come in the side door. We get the original living room, dining room and kitchen, while at the rear, all of the old stuff is demolished and replaced with a new stair to the lower level, and an office for Kelly. There is a mid-landing exit to the rear yard.

credit: Workshop Architecture

But it is the lower level where the fun begins. Here we are going to build an office for me, our new bedroom, bathroom, laundry and a little den/ TV room. There is a tiny bit of storage under the mid landing and that's it. This was going to be a huge problem; we had a basement full of stuff, the third floor was filled with stuff, a library and thousands of books. To top it all off, Kelly's mother got sick and had to move to a small apartment, and unfortunately died shortly thereafter, so Kelly had to deal with another entire household full of stuff.

credit: Kelly Rossiter

Getting rid of all the stuff was hard, especially the books. My son's rock collection. My rock collection, things I have carried around all my life. We gave much of it away to our kids' friends who were invited to come over and take what they need; they are at the age where they are starting their own households. We freecycled a lot. In the end, we put a lot out on the curb and let neighbors take it. If I had been willing to spend the time on it, I probably could have got quite a bit of money for much of the stuff we just gave away. I know the architecture books I gave to our architect were valuable. But this takes a lot of work and a lot of time which I didn't have. I am told there are people who will do this for you, sell the stuff and take a percentage, but I couldn't find them. See more on how to get rid of stuff: Steve Mouzon on what he learned from downsizing his office

credit: Lloyd Alter/ Under construction

About the only place I really asserted my influence was in the bathroom; I am a bit obsessed about the subject. Read about it in Why am I building such a weird bathroom? So how did it all turn out? And you can see more on the construction, the detailing and the green features in: Help, my house is covered by sticky orange frogs Gimme a thermal break dept: What is a Cascadia Clip? Every house should have roof overhangs, except when they shouldn't or can't What happened to my hot water?

credit: Craig A. Williams

Rather nicely I think. Photographer Craig Williams has a seriously wide angle lens that makes this room look a lot bigger than it is. Note the stained glass window on the side wall; this was previously a sort of boxed out window that was so leaky it was unsalvageable, so we put a new window in and hung the old one just inside. (we needed something, there is a brick wall two feet away)

credit: Craig A. Williams

This was going to be Kelly's office, over looking the garden, but early in the renovation she got laid off and didn't need a big office off the kitchen any more to write about food. So it has become a sort of reading room/ den. Note the back wall of the existing house; we were not allowed to go one inch further out than the previous additions, so every inch counted. There was real history here; I painted that white in the screened porch 30 years ago. you can see the old wood beam that held up the brick, really the history of the house is shown right there.

credit: Craig A. Williams

The view across from upper level to mid-landing. We all feel that the upper part of that book case beside the stair was a mistake and blocks the view, making it feel less open. I'm going to move that. I should note that I really, really hate drywall, and liked playing with the wood, brick and concrete block. This stuff lasts forever and doesn't need a lot of maintenance and feels a whole lot warmer.

credit: Craig A. Williams

The view from the dining room to the mid-landing. Kelly has sort of furnished this as homage to her mom, with her crystal chandelier looking wonderful against the wood ceiling, and her antique desk down below.

credit: Craig A. Williams

A view back to the stairs and desk. Note the radiator mounted under the bookshelves; there was really nowhere else to put it. For future reference, hot water radiators and particle board millwork do not play well together. The tiniest leak and the millwork explodes.

credit: Craig A. Williams

Then down the stairs to my office, with standing desk and old George Nelson/ Herman Miller classic. See more of my office here: A walk around my new "active office" with standing desk

credit: Craig A. Williams

Looking back from my desk at stairs and book-case.

credit: Craig A. Williams

The stair up, around bookcase and on top of all the storage we have. I can't quite believe we did it. (Well we really didn't. Because of all Kelly's mom's stuff and my snowboards and rowing machine that don't fit, we do have a storage locker right now, but will be getting rid of that soon.)

credit: Craig A. Williams

The view from the bedroom. You can see the sink and the shower to the left. It is amazing how much light pours down to this room through the stair opening; the other night you could almost read in bed by the moonlight. It is all well insulated; there is no radiator in this room, it's heated by the exposed pipes on the ceiling that lead to the upper floor radiators.

credit: My bright white bath with separate shower/ Craig A. Williams

Even Craig's wide angle lens couldn't get all of the tub and shower room in one shot. Note that as per my weird bathroom plans, the shower is beside the tub, not in it. I wanted a deeper, Japanese style tub, but they are very expensive so I got a western style one. The CREE LED lights just flood the place. The toilet is in a separate room, you can see it and my fancy toilet seat in Why I spent $1200 on a toilet seat and why you should too. There is not a single incandescent or fluorescent bulb in the place; see I converted my home to 100% LED lighting and you should too

credit: Craig A. Williams

And last for now, the bedroom, with bed by Toronto's Style Garage. I can't say that we have kept the place as spotlessly minimalist as these photos, but it's pretty close. I don't have photos of the exterior or the upstairs yet, the backyard still needs work and the upstairs is now occupied. It is probably obvious by now that this is not exactly tiny house living. We have a separate living room, dining room, den and bedroom, totalling about 1300 square feet. That's huge by apartment standards and more than two people need, even if both work out of the house. However in the course of this renovation we have increased the population density from two to six and are using less gas and electricity than we did before. We have made the changes that were necessary so that we could stay in this house comfortably for a long time. It's -20°C outside (-4°F) right now and I am warm and comfortable; a year ago I would be wearing thermal underwear and have trouble typing. There is a lot of life in these old houses yet; you don't have to gut them, demolish them, or move out of them. They are adaptable to changing needs and play nice with new technologies like LEDs and jazzy Indow window inserts. We stayed put and I am glad we did.