Tiny Home Renovation Pushes Every TreeHugger Button

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credit: Carla Weinberg

There are a lot of things that we preach about green building at TreeHugger. It might be the idea of living in smaller spaces, downtown where the city is your living room, retrofitting and insulating rather than demolishing, minimalist design, lots of natural light and fresh air. It almost never happens that I find it all in one place, in one home. But I did in Tom Knezic and Christine Lolley's little house in Toronto. It pushes every button. Or as Dave LeBlanc of the Globe and Mail noted, "an energy-sucking pig of a century-old home is now an energy-sipping, sustainable calling-card." It's a dangerous thing, an architect renovating their own house; they have nobody to blame but themselves if it doesn't work out. But Tom and Christine have nothing to worry about here.

credit: Solares Architecture

The house was gutted right back to the brick, which usually fills a couple of bins that get hauled off to the dump. However they did it carefully:

Limiting waste and reducing fuel usage is very important to us, so our whole team took care to strip things down neatly and pack everything carefully into a single dumpster. That’s right, we only filled one big dumpster for the entire demolition process! Typically, major renovation demolition for a home can fill dozens of dumpsters, adding cost to the project and burning more fuel to transport each one to landfill. We also found new uses for reusable items – for example, one of our new neighbours took all the interior doors to repurpose as a room divider for an interior design project.
credit: Solares Architecture

The floor plan is simple and open; in a little over 400 square feet on each floor it pretty much has to be. The kitchen has a huge island for such a small house; it is the dominant architectural feature. Upstairs there is a small master bedroom with a wall of storage, two tiny bedrooms and a bathroom/ laundry. The children, 4 and 2, share one bedroom while the other is a playroom/ guest room. The basement level is a separate apartment. To create the apartment, the house was underpinned so that the floor could be dropped enough to have an 8'-6" ceiling.

When we committed to a rental suite in the first place, we also committed to creating a bright, beautiful space that will allow us to seek a higher rental fee and increase the chance that the tenant will stay for the long term. It’s not only pragmatic from a financial standpoint, but it’s also important to us that whoever lives under our roof feels happy and healthy in their home.
credit: Carla Weinberg

Despite its small size, the ground floor feels very spacious. It's an extremely workable kitchen, and a comfortable living and dining area, filled with lovely mid-century modern furniture of course, we architects are all alike. Behind that drywall is four inches of Icynene foam insulation with an R value of 27; in a house this small every inch counts and foam takes up a lot less space (and seals up a lot tighter) than batt or cellulose insulation. They then went over the whole job with an infrared camera and sealed up every pinhole leak they could find.

credit: Carla Weinberg

A view of the kitchen and island. I found it interesting that the lighting in the ceiling is from little halogen pot lights, exactly like the ones I just ripped out of my ceiling during my renovation. The lights over the island are conventional incandescent bulbs. I asked Christine about this and she told me that she is fanatical about the color balance of lighting and she has not yet found an LED light that is as nice as good old incandescent. Architects going for deep energy retrofits don't usually say such things! However given the stats on how effective this renovation was, it is hard to complain.

credit: Solares Architecture

And in fact, the numbers are phenomenal. Heat loss is a fraction of what it was before the renovation. Energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are way down as well. I will shut up about the light bulbs. Designing mechanical systems for a 900 square foot house is hard; it is almost too small. Here they have used a tiny combination boiler that feeds radiant flooring for heat as well as domestic hot water.

The boiler is the smallest available unit – about the size of a small backpack – as we don’t need anything larger with our extremely efficient building envelope. By investing in insulation, air tightness and good windows, we get a super comfortable home and we save on HVAC equipment!

Fresh air is supplied by two ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilators). Unusually, they have tied a ductless mini-split air conditioner into their ERV ductwork. " By tying it into our ducts, we can drop cool air more consistently through each room, and we’re piggy-packing on the money we’re already spending for the smaller, economical ERV ductwork. By integrating our chilled air into the ERV’s fresh air delivery system, we have a unified, consistent and quiet air delivery system for both heat and air conditioning."

credit: Carla Weinberg

Upstairs is the master and two tiny bedrooms, along with the bathroom which includes a stacked washer and condensing dryer, which is not vented to the outside so that the heat is retained.

credit: Carla Weinberg

The results are impressive; not only is this lovely to look at, but the stats are pretty too:

  • Final EnerGuide rating of 83 (up from 38!)
  • 84% reduction in energy use
  • 92% reduction in space heating
  • 15-tonne reduction in CO2 emissions
  • 71% reduction in air leakage
  • 2.08 ACH final air leakage rate
  • 900 sq.ft, 2-story family residence
  • 450 sq.ft. rental suite
  • 1 happy family FINALLY living in a Solares house!