Mujaan (The Craftsman)


If I could document the workmanship of builders we work with here in southern Ontario, the work would be just as impressive, but my videography would be no where near as beautiful as Chris McKee’s production of Mujann (translation: The Craftsman). Though this is more documentary style, its up there with Babett’s Feast in story development and if you could only watch one documentary this year, take the 25 minutes and make it Mujaan!

Regarding the documentary, the liner notes read:

Mujaan  (The Craftsman) is a twenty-five minute poetic record of how Mongolian nomads have built their yurts by hand for the past 1,000 years. Released in 2005, it was featured in dozens of film festivals around the world, including Slamdance, Cinequest, the Banff Mountain Film Festival and the Japanese World Expo, as well as broadcast on UPN Detroit’s show The Indie Film Café.

Here’s a snippet from it:


For me, it highlights the fact that humans can live happy, fulfilled lives with very little and that good design is usually simple, durable, beautiful and above all – loved. As Tom Waits sings about in The House Where Nobody Lives:

They remind me that houses
Are just made of wood
What makes a house grand
Ain’t the roof or the doors
If there’s love in a house
It’s a palace for sure
Without love…
It ain’t nothin but a house
A house where nobody lives

No matter how many stones I buy from Lee Valley I struggle to keep a chisel sharp but the Mujaan keeps all his rustic tools sharp as a scalpel. To watch him cut, hew and shape wood reminds me of watching my grandfather build wood furniture when I was a kid. It also reminds me of my obsession with fine tools and that really, to do good work very few tools are needed – just time, skill and effort.

Unfortunately, I can’t find the free stream anymore, but you can buy and stream it from Chris’ web site and or if you live in the city of Ottawa you can get it at the Public Library!

Spoiler Alert: Please don’t be telling your kids “its like Mulan!”, they’ll never get over the fluffy snuff scene.

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UK’s first PH Deep Energy Retrofit

When in the UK in 2011, I had the chance to tour a Deep Energy Retrofit of a 1870′s Victorian terrace in progress in west London. The Lena Gardens Project was Tom Pakenham‘s brain child.

Like many old inner city’s in Canada, this home was one of the estimated 7 million uninsulated solid masonry buildings in the UK. In order to preserve the heritage the architects had to engineer their way around many issues common to retrofitting solid masonry homes.

I was fortunate to get a tour of the home from Edward Borgstein who showed me how they avoided the thermal bridging at beam pockets. By building a new support structure inside the brick walls, all floor loads were carried by this new steel structure which was tied to the  old masonry structure through glass rods epoxied into the brick. In the end this house managed to maintain the curb appeal.

I just stumbled on the video below that does a nice job explaining what they did and the tumbler link above is a great resource too. Thanks Tom for getting me into the house, I learned a lot and  – I owe you several pints!



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Its not the Heat, its the Humidity…

Is Toronto trending towards more heat and humidity like many Japanese cities? The City of Toronto projects that in just 25 years, we will see 66 days where temperatures exceed 30 degrees Celsius, up from 20 days experienced now. Like Japan’s “tsuyu” Ontarians can expect more rain. The mean annual daily maximum of rainfall will be 86mm. Today that number is 48mm.

It’s going to get hotter and wetter, which means, or course, it’s going to get more… sticky.

So what does this mean for high performance houses? Although nothing beats the heat better than superbly installed, air tight insulation detailing, even high performance houses are going to need dehumidification – but a lot less of it and ‘code built’ houses!

It’s not the Heat, it’s the Humidity

Leave it to Canadians to come up with the “humidex” which incorporates the twin thugs of discomfort; searing heat and punishing humidity. While the radiant summer heat (sensible heat) glides through a glass window and beats through poorly insulated wall and roof details, its brutal, relentless brother – humidity (latent heat ) – piggy-backs on outside air and slips into the house through openings in the home’s shell or worse through open windows. Together, these two brutes can deprive you of sleep and make you cranky as July crawls along.

The energy absorbed into the air’s moisture is significant. It affects our body’s primary mode of being able to cool itself by way of evaporation on the skin through sweating. Air is like a towel; when dry it can dry your skin off to relieve you of heat but if the towel is wet it won’t dry you off leaving you a sweaty mess. Controlling and reducing the levels of indoor humidity – or latent heat – are key to maintaining comfort but also controlling the proliferation of mold growth.

As the Japanese will tell you, festering moldy smells in the home and on furnishings as the summer drags on necessitates strategies to deal with the humidity, some even go as far as seasonally packing fabric goods in air tight containers for the rainy season. As Ontario summers grow long in the tooth, we may find ourselves needing to borrow ideas from the Japanese in managing summer humidity.

Long and Steady

The most efficient air conditioners on the market are mini split heat pump systems the best rate over 30 SEER. The best strategy is to run a smaller system for longer periods of time, and of course ensure that the windows are closed. Why a smaller system? Because large systems tend to lurch on and off frequently and only drop the sensible heat without precipitating as much moisture out of the air as it could. This may leave you feeling cool and sticky and mold blooms may still develop and linger. Besides its really important to give your skin’s natural cooling mechanism a fighting chance by significantly reducing the latent heat (air moisture) in the house.

This is where many mini split heat pumps excel. Not only do they have higher SEER ratings than central forced air units, many also modulate their output without sacrificing efficiency. You can’t do that with a central forced air system.  Because mini-split heat pumps draw so little power, the net effect of keeping the system on for longer periods of time won’t impact your energy consumption and will leave you feeling more comfortable.  It should be noted that moist air is more buoyant than dry air, so it makes sense to install the air returns high up on the wall, if not on the top floor ceiling.


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Homage to CMHC Technical Research

Since the 1950′s, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has provided years of excellent technical scientific research.  The research at CMHC ran the gamut from purely academic research to consumer digested and accessible documents that offered pragmatic help to homeowners. But the times they are a changin’…

In the years I did energy audits (1999-2007) I would routinely send homeowners relevant research papers – especially Research Highlights -  they would need to help them improve or inform the decision making process for upgrading homes which can be complicated.

Alas, the technical arm of CMHC is being dismantled by a government that’s focused on “profit” and is anti-science. Hedy Fry told the Straight that the Conservative government is “changing the mandate of CMHC” into a profit-making organization.

As a consumer and disseminator of these technical publications, its become increasingly difficult to get access to the documents as they get shuffled around and in many cases even off the CMHC website onto other governments web sites.

Recently, I was frustrated by Google searches not being able to find CMHC documents that were easily searchable a mere 5 years ago. Finally I got in touch with a very helpful librarian at CMHC. He told me that many of the publications are still available but can only be found on a Publications Canada web site. All this to say that if you’re having troubles finding research documents you need, you might find them at the two links above for a short while, but don’t count on it for much longer. I’ll go out on a limb here and recommend that you download what you can now to ensure access to this publicly funded and sorely needed information before it gets destroyed or worse you’ll have to pay for it a second time to a private corporation – just like the 407 highway.

Happy downloading!

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The Shed Reno

The lowly shed doesn’t get much cred in North America what with all our space and land. But in the UK the humble shed takes a real shine! Cuprinol has a yearly competition for entrants to submit their shed pics into categories that range from the Office Shed, the Eco Shed, the Pub Shed and even the Tardis Shed!

It makes me want to renovate the shed really…

Check out some of these awesome shed designs:

2013 Shed of the Year finalists

Marcus Shields, from Kentish Town, north London, who won the eco shed category with his Eco Bikehouse shed.
Photograph: Seana Hughes/PA

2013 Shed of the Year finalists

Jon Sullivan from Modbury in Devon won the garden office shed category with this Nest Design Studio shed
Photograph: Pippa Nightingale/PA

David Lifton's shed in Little Benton, Newcastle, which won the Tardis category  Photograph: Seana Hughes/PA

David Lifton’s shed in Little Benton, Newcastle, which won the Tardis category.
Photograph: Seana Hughes/PA

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Does Two Component ‘Kit’ Foam Insulate?

Polyurethane spray foam can be applied with 3 entirely different delivery systems and for simplicity sake lets call them “can” foam, “kit” foam and “bulk” foam. All spray foam systems are not equal as far as insulation R-value and air-sealing for energy performance goes and some systems can be a liability to the uninitiated.

In particular, kit foam can be a liability for the professional contractor and DIYer if not trained in proper application techniques, is unaware of the products limitations and isn’t wearing appropriate PPE. The liabilities include the potential for “kit” foam to go off ratio, if not careful the system can make a mess, disposal issues and the installer can become sensitized to MDI – a chemical that can’t be easily filtered out.

A Primer on Systems for Spray Applied Foam

“Can” foam is a one component system sold by all hardware stores that squirts out much like a grocery store can of whipped cream. Installed at room temperature and used to air seal a gap, this spray foam is particularly useful for sealing the gap between windows and rough opening or other deep gaps that won’t move much.  Its not used as an insulation. May take several minutes to cure if temperature and humidity levels optimal. Aerosol can can’t be recycled.

Two-component “Kit” foam is a two part (A – Isocyanate/ MDI and B – Polyol) spray foam applied at room temperature. The two pre-charged canisters that range in size from paint spray can to propane-sized BBQ cylinders which are joined by a set of hoses and mixed at the nozzle tip and sprayed into a gap to form an air seal in a gap that hopefully won’t move much. As the tanks empty, the pressure drops in the tank cylinders. Its common for one of the tanks to deplete before the other and for the foam to go off-ratio near the end – not a desirable quality in spray foam. It should cure to the touch within 5 seconds if the chemical ratio, temperature, pressure and ambient humidity levels are optimal. Local dumps won’t accept the tanks with chemical or pressure in them.

Bulk spray foam is a two part (45 Gallon drums of A – Isocyanate and B – Polyol) spray foam applied at a greater range of temperatures by a $50-$100,000 truck or trailer system, hopefully by a licensed professional who wears proper PPE and knows the foam and “manufacturing system” intimately. The temperature and pressure are controlled precisely to ensure consistent quality spray foam. This spray foam has a high R-value and is used as both a sealant and insulation. Should cure to the touch within 5 seconds if the chemical ratio, temperature, pressure and ambient humidity are optimal. An attentive sprayer knows almost immediately if the spray foam goes off ratio and will stop the application to figure out what’s happening, though its always nice to let the newly sprayed foam set a few days to check for shrinkage before dry-walling over. Once empty, barrels are cleaned and can be recycled.

Type of Spray Foam

DIY or Professional

Delivery System



Can Foam


One can (like whipped cream)


2 Component “Kit” Foam


Two (A+B) Pressurised Canisters


Bulk Foam


Truck /Trailer Industrial  (A+B) System

I’ve used “kit” foam from a few manufacturers and the spray foam usually looks good for two thirds of the tank set. When the tanks are full and warm, kit foam is wonderful for sealing attic penetrations quickly and effectively. If a clog in the nozzle doesn’t slow one of the components down to throw off the chemical flow in either line, typically the last third to quarter of chemical in the tanks become a liability with the dying pressure. About the dregs, if you’re in the habit of spraying out everything, come back to your job a few days later and test the foam with a blower door.

The people most vulnerable to using ‘kit’ spray foam are renovators. Renovators who have crews who may not know a lot about insulation and very little about the dangers of using a pressurised two component spray foam system that will produce noxious chemicals during application. It should be noted that the MSDS’ are published for each liquid component under pressure in the tank, but that once these two chemical mix to form a new set of chemical compounds no MSDS exists for the newly ‘manufactured’ foam, so don’t expect the MSDS to provide any accurate safety guidance on the mixed reagents.

Just Pay for Bulk Foam!

I’ve had the misfortune of having to return to client’s homes to re-do foam that shrunk in a rim-joist or to clean up a foam system that leaked or exploded in the client’s home. It’s practically impossible to clean up without ruining finishes and its expensive to go back and redo work. Our advice to renovators is that kit foam is a fast, expensive effective air sealant but should not be used as insulation. For field insulation with a high R-value dig in your heels and get the client to commit to using a different insulating strategy or invest in bulk spray foam instead.



“Kit” foam available from a Toronto building supplier. No mention on its packaging that it shoudl be used for wall or attic insulation. Unfortunately, whom ever set up this display was careless about the brand’s image.  Note the reflective wet-looking drip of what was likely uncured spray foam drooling down the back of the stud cavity (photo below shows closeup).


A close up of the “kit” spray foam display above of a foam bead applied to the back of the stud bay which  shows a dark reddish crusty resin covered by a newer white fluffy coat of spray foam. The reddish resin is the result of an improper application of the foam. It can stay in liquid form for several days – it has no beneficial insulative or air sealing properties.


More ‘kit” foam from another Toronto supplier. Dow’s Froth-Pak states clearly on their packaging that the foam is intended as a sealant and it does an excellent job at air sealing bigger gaps that can foam just won’t cover effectively.

Ceiling 2

This ceiling detail shows what can happen when “kit” foam goes wrong. The applicator sprayed quite a bit of foam even though the foam wasn’t setting up quickly. He did what most of us do, “Maybe if I keep spraying it’ll right itself and start curing up!” The home owners had a mess to clean up in their kitchen as finished surfaces weren’t protected with drop sheets from the over-spray. Note the same deep reddish colour pooling on the 6mil poly.


This rim joist was spray foamed with a thick coat of “kit” foam that looked alright, but within hours, the foam’s edges pulled away from the floor joists revealing the leaky joints. This job had to be redone, an expensive proposition.


The floor rim joist was sprayed with “kit” spray foam and had to be redone as the off-ratio foam massive shrank revealing all the leaky edges .

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In the News – BGG at the Annette St Library

A few weeks back we presented on the topic of energy retrofitting solid masonry homes at the Annette Street Public Library. It was put on by the folks at Green 13 and BGG was fortunate to have a room full of attentive home owners. Thank you for coming out and hearing what we had to say on the subject. Thanks too to SNAP Bloor West for covering the event and to Vincent for video taping, sound recording and uploading to YouTube for us.

If you missed it, here it is:


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Drain the Rain: Extending Eaves on a 1950′s House

One of Joe Lstiburek‘s building mantras is simply “Drain the rain.” When approaching a new construction project, it helps to keep this mantra in mind when detailing foundations, window rough openings and roofs – you can apply the mantra everywhere for a better life really. It just makes sense to protect your investment and manage the rain – or condensation for that matter.

But a certain prone design aesthetic tends to crop up perennially. An aesthetic that, as Christopher Hume wrote about the beloved ROM’s Crystal, taunts the forces of nature and leaves our buildings vulnerable to rain penetration and eventually to building envelope deterioration.

The trend to produce homes post WWII without eaves was very common and last weekend, I had the chance to right the 50 year old wrong by partaking in an Eaves Extending. Like an old fashioned Barn Raising* it’s where family and friends get together for extending the eaves of a 1950′s story and a half house as part of a re-roofing project.

This house was prone to water getting into the windows, the window’s brick row-lock sills, solar vapour drive through walls into the house and for rain not being managed at grade even though the foundation walls were meticulously waterproofed from the outside recently and grade was sloped away appropriately from the foundation wall. These eaves extensions would give the house the fighting chance it deserved at lasting another 100 years.


BEFORE: The original homestead with no eaves to help keep the rain off the walls and foundation at grade level.


AFTER: With the eaves extended by 16″the house certainly looks richer with eaves. With the soffit and eaves troughs on, this fetchingly handsome house will stand out from its peers on the street.


Exposing the roof rafters and ceiling joists at the back of the house.


Sistering of new rafters extending beyond the brick wall and attaching a new fascia board.



The new sheathing installed on the extended eaves portion of the roof deck.


Extending lookouts on the gable end meant installing new roof outriggers or lookouts. This was done by cutting a slot in the tops of the end rafters and fastening the new outriggers.


Getting straight roof lines is critical and in old houses, there are no safe reference points. Best to snap a chalk line and cut outriggers in place.


Fastening the fascia or barge rafter on the outriggers.

It was an amazing project to be on and my 4 brothers, sister in law, cousin, a long-time friend and neighbour all pulled together to get the roof on before the rains fell the following Monday. *The 5th brother couldn’t make it he was busy with a barn raising party!

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Air Barriers for Vintage Solid Masonry Homes

As we ratchet up the performance of new and renovated homes, it has come to the point where we can no longer ignore air leakage in homes:

  1. Not air sealing a house wastes money and leads to discomfort and dryness.
  2. Not air sealing a house and insulating it may affect the durability of the structure.

Air sealing vintage, solid masonry (either block and brick or double brick) just makes sense, but how do we do it? I’ve been complaining for years at every chance I get to say how laggardly Canadians are for adopting innovative products and techniques that increase efficiency by way of simplifying the air sealing aspects of vintage homes.


Cross Section of what a 1950's 'Block and Brick' wall looks like in East York.

Cross Section of what a 1950′s ‘Block and Brick’ wall looks like in East York. Though its true that ‘block and brick’ houses are more air tight than older ‘double brick’ homes, the walls minimum air leakage won’t come close to 0.02 litres of air per second per meter square as specified in the OBC (


The issues that accompany successfully air sealing vintage homes include:

  1. The transitions where the new addition meets the old existing – always prone to air leakage.
  2. If the new frame wasn’t spaced away form the wall and spray foam was used between studs and relied on as a durable air barrier. Pull new wall away form masonry to get a monolithic coat BEHIND your new wall and the air tightness will improve dramatically.
  3. Floor Joists that penetrate through the insulation intended as air barrier (ie spray foam) or the air barrier itself.

One technique I’ve been reading about and hearing about at technical conferences is the use of liquid applied air barriers. I heard about it through local builder Ed Marion, then read an article in Fine Home Building and gain at last year’s Passive House Conference by architect Julie Torrez Moskovitz of Fabrica 718 with The Tight House. There are a few aqueous-based products out there, but the two I know of are Sto Gold Coat and for a more local product Henry Bakor’s Air-Bloc® 31MR. Both are applied quickly with a roller and though I’ve never used it, I can’t wait to try it out! As in the video, cracks or seams are filled with a different product. A recent Green Building Advisor Blog post extols the virtues of liquid applied air barriers.

I happen by Greening Homes’ DER of a East York bungalow today off O’Connor and was gob smacked by what I saw; Yellow Gold. That’s right, liquid yellow gold applied to the inside face of masonry. Steven Gray, the Site Super told me “To bridge larger cracks, Sto has another product “Sto Gold Fill” which has the consistency of drywall compound and is used in conjunction with a mesh tape.  We removed the existing sheathing and perimeter blocking to be able to access the joist ends – that’s how committed we are to a tight envelope!”


STo Gold Coat

Sto Gold Coat applied from grade to transition from vintage masonry to new addition framing.



A generous coat of Sto Gold Coat applied over the whole wall and lapped up the cheeks of each floor joist should stop air movement. Cracks, holes and joints between different materials were first spanned with fiber mesh tape (seen above) and filled with another more viscous product called Sto Gold Fill.

So kudos to Christopher Phillips and Stephen Gray at Greening Homes for trying something new!

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Pre-Drywall Air Tightness Test

Many people often ask us “If I could only do one blower door test – which would you prefer before or after the drywall goes on?” I always say;

“Take Manny and Anderson’s awesome build as an example. The pre-drywall test, which came in at a wonderful 1.4 Air Changes per Hour (ACH) caught a number of crucial air leaks and because the drywall was off, we were able to not only identify but to do something about the air leaks!”

But I digress, check out this vid:


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