It was back in 2006 when my husband A.J. and I began to have the big discussion, as many couples eventually do...should we renovate?
Our house was built in 1918 and had many benefits of an older home such as quality craftsmanship, durability and lovely old trees lining the street. However, it also had some of the downsides of older homes, including a kitchen that was separated from the dining room by a wall and a rather poorly done upgrade that was at least a few decades old.
So, we decided to dive into the project and do a renovation of the kitchen, including opening it up to the dining room and doing it as sustainably as possible! I was already teaching sustainability and working in the field, so I knew that I wanted to do something that reflected these values.
And we knew that we wanted to achieve a more functional space, as most of the cupboards and appliances were all clustered in one corner. The cupboards were from about the 1050s or perhaps earlier, and every time you opened a drawer, it would create a wee little bit of sawdust in the drawer below. Not ideal to say the least.
In addition, the largest stretch of countertop was about 30 cm or 1 ft lower than standard counter height to accommodate a low window. As a result, the kitchen was really not as functional as it should be.
First off, we set out to determine our priorities for how to undertake the renovation, and these priorities ended up being incredibly useful through the myriad of decisions that we would need to make along the way.
We decided to focus on these simple priorities:
1. To use the existing footprint of the kitchen.
2. To use as few new materials as possible, by using repurposed materials, and to also repurpose our old materials.
3. To use non-toxic materials and finishings.
4. To use sustainable and renewable resources as much as possible.
5. To use local materials and support local businesses.
6. To purchase quality, energy- and water-efficient appliances.
7. To hire people whose values aligned with ours.
8. To communicate and educate others about sustainable renovations.
The first hurdle that we encountered was just finding a contractor who was willing to work with us on these ideas. And, back then we were aware that just asking for something like this was part of educating the local builders - showing them that people like us, in this market were looking for greener alternatives.
We eventually found an amazing small family business called Mosaic Millwork that was eager to work with us on this unusual project. But sustainability aligned with their values and their love of craftsmanship and quality. So it was a perfect fit, and we have never regretted that decision!
Now, unfortunately, I don't have many "before" pictures from way back then. But, if you want to imagine an older home with well-worn cupboards in just one corner, melamine countertops, and vinyl flooring in a black and white pattern that was peeling and ripped, you have a sense of what the kitchen looked like.
In addition, there was a standard older refrigerator and my parent's old portable dishwasher. It did not score points for functionality or for beauty, and certainly not for sustainability!
So, the renovation was on!
We removed the wall between the dining room and kitchen, as you can see in the photo above, instantly making the 3m x 4m (10' x 14') space look larger.
Then the search for the new materials that we needed was our next challenge. Countertops, flooring, cupboards, and appliances would all be needed. We were at first really stumped about what to do for the countertops. I knew that I didn't want melamine, and there is a granite quarry within 100 km of us, but I wasn't excited about the colour.
Then one day, on a visit to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, as I stood at the counter to pay for entry, I realized that the counter, in addition to the entire building, was from our local limestone! Perhaps we could do limestone countertops!
So, we went to visit Gillis Quarries in Tyndall, Manitoba, just 40 km northeast of us. They have a beautiful limestone product that is used on and in many local buildings in our region, but we didn't know if they would do countertops.
But, luckily for us, they were interested in trying it out, and they also thought they could make floor tiles for us. They were incredibly enthusiastic to work with us, and we loved what they created, so it was a win-win situation!
We got to have super-local beautiful stone counters and flooring, and they got to have a client try out a limestone countertop. They were so generous and kind to us, not only by taking on this unique project, but they even spent considerable time determining if the stone would meet the durability and stain-resistant qualities needed for a kitchen countertop.
In the end, we found a water-based stone sealant - the same kind used for granite counters that we used to seal the stone and we reapply every few years - or when we remember!
And, the limestone has performed beautifully, surviving quite well many a house party, red wine spills, lemon juice, and whatever else had us all concerned in the beginning!
That same Tyndall stone was also useful in redesigning the window with the low counter below it. To insert a smaller window, we needed to add something to the outside of the house where the missing bricks would be, so again, Tyndall stone was the answer!
Two rows of brick were removed from the window beside this one and both then had the Tyndall stone added, filling the void due to the smaller window and making the two windows match. Plus Tyndall stone was already used on the front steps, so it worked with the look of the house.
To work within the footprint of the kitchen, we needed to get clever with space, and a designer had the perfect solution for finding room for a bookshelf for my cookbooks and a few drawers for wallets and keys and a place for phone charging, and so on.
Around the corner from the bookshelf nook is our bedroom, and a 1m (3 ft) deep linen closet. As it turned out, we were able to take 30 cm (1 ft) from the linen closet to create the bookshelf nook without even missing that space from the closet! It was a perfect solution.
In addition, we were able to reuse the thick oak shelving from a dismantled built-in china cabinet from the old kitchen. The shelves just need to be extended at the back, which our professional carpenters did seamlessly.
Then we had to consider the cupboards. Fortunately, there was a local supplier of "Strawboard", yep, it looks like pressed wood but is made of pressed straw, and although the company had recently closed, our contractor was able to source this local product for our project.
We stained it in this warm medium brown to match the oak trim in the rest of the house and varnished it with a water-based product. While the water-based varnish itself was the same price as a regular, high VOC product, the application cost twice as much because the shop was not set up to handle this regularly. But, we decided it was worth it to avoid the VOCs of a traditional varnish.
Then things got fun with appliances! If you have ever gone appliance shopping, you may have also found that there is a whole world of interesting things out there that you never knew about. At this stage, we were SO happy to have saved money elsewhere so that we could afford to buy the quality, energy- and water-efficient options that we did...oh, and a great coffee maker!
Above is the Fisher&Paykel water-saving dishwasher that is also super for a small household that occasionally needs to do larger loads with the two separate drawer dishwashers.
Below is our solution to where to put the fridge, the U-line refrigerated drawers! It fits right under the counter and is incredibly energy efficient.
It is efficient by design! Where a traditional refrigerator lets all of the cold air just slip out of the open door, the drawer system doesn't have that problem.
When the drawers are open, the cool air inside has a hard time escaping as we know that cool air sinks and tends to stay in place. Brilliant right?
We thought it would be a big adjustment to have just 2 drawers for a fridge, but it turns out it was a seamless transition. The drawers have good capacity, and all of the space is accessible and in sight, unlike a regular refrigerator where things tend to get lost at the back, and forgotten.
Plus, the counter height of the fridge let us open up the space, as we were no longer constrained by having to find room for a large appliance.
So, we also went with smaller (European sized) appliances elsewhere, and have never regretted it, despite doing plenty of cooking and entertaining!
The 24" stovetop and oven have served us well, and as an avid baker, I especially love the high-quality baking sheets that come with our Miele oven and the convection setting increases the energy efficiency by about 20% over non-convection ovens - another bonus!
Then, I just couldn't say no to the Miele coffee maker - this is before all of those waste-inducing coffee "pods" came on the scene, and I love that I put my Fair Trade beans in and get my coffee out with minimal waste, easily composting the used coffee grounds. Thank you again, Miele!
We used an engineered wood or "Glulam" product called Parallam which is both local and sustainable for its use of fast-growing softwood tree species and the beams have almost the same load-bearing capacity as steel, which is better than solid wood. The long strands of wood are glued and pressed together along the length of the beam, and there is very little wasted wood in this process.
This beam is located where the wall to the dining room was removed and it was also used as a decorative finish capping the half wall by the basement stairs.
Because this is a very high density engineered wood, it sequesters significant amounts of Carbon, and is actually considered to have a net negative Carbon footprint!
The other innovative use of wood was the reuse of the oak trim from the former door to the dining room. We used that to trim the new back door, just relying on the carpentry skills of our cabinet makers to add on a bit of extra wood as needed! You really can't even see the join from a distance.
Avoiding the use of new materials was one of our key priorities for the project, and we love the story behind so many of the materials that we used! Below are the cabinets that hang between the kitchen and dining room. They are made with reclaimed wood that we had from the upstairs of the house when we added new insulation and removed the old "shiplap" wood walls.
We had the contractors re-mill the rough wood and build the cabinets to the dimensions of the reclaimed tempered glass that we bought from our local Habitat for Humanity's Re-Store. Of course, I first had to remove all of the nails, and wouldn't you know it, this was in February in Winnipeg, and I worked on it in -20°C temperatures in the backyard!
But, we love the story that our kitchen tells. The nail holes in the cabinet wood that was originally rough shiplap, the local stone and strawboard, the unique and super-energy-efficient refrigerator, and of course the extra space from the back of the linen closet!
To help get the word out about our little example of a Green Home Renovation, we decided to enter the kitchen into the local Ciao magazine's kitchen renovation contest. While we didn't win first place, we had an honorable mention, way back in 2007!
If you would like me to guide you through how you can make the most of greening your renovation project, head on over to my Green Home Renovation Mini-course. I give you simple steps to understand the key issues, create your own priorities, and know how to avoid the common pitfalls when doing a green renovation.
I hope to see you there!
Join my mailing list to receive the latest news and updates. Your information will not be shared.