The education of sustainable housing has grown rapidly over the past 10-15 years and, up until the past few years, has mostly been focused on new home assembly methods. More recently, I have had a considerable number of readers inquire about a specific project they are doing on an existing home.  In my other life the growth of major renovations, and trying to attain an efficient retrofit for energy savings, has grown considerably. Not everyone wants or can afford a new home; location being the primary consideration in nearly every case. Larger lots, community and the quiet of a rural setting are some of the most common preferences. The “Green Building” community has recognized this and development of more retrofit products and methods is the largest growing segment of the sustainable energy marketplace.

   We have all seen more than one TV retrofit on an older home and, once done, they are spectacular. Unfortunately, so is the budget amount. While it’s nice to see and admire these TV homes, very few average Canadians can afford to complete a retrofit like these.

   As many regular readers know, I reside in the country and my lady and I like the quiet life of rural living. I have been working on an off-grid new home design for some time now and that is still in our plans.  However, the opportunity to take a classic building and prove that a full energy retrofit of an older building can be done, at reasonable cost, has proven too great a challenge to pass up. This past month, we hit upon the opportunity to purchase a recently closed United Church nestled in the hamlet of Watson Corners in Eastern Ontario.

    Unlike nearly every print or TV retrofit that usually shows only the final result, over the next “X” months I will detail the real costs and the good and not so good decisions we make.  As well, each trade will be given a chance to explain what and how they go about their job. The expectation is that when we are done, a better, more down to earth understanding of the skill levels required and the actual costs of materials, done within a budget, is seen to be within the reach of many potential and current homeowners. Many of the planned retrofits, I expect, will be adaptable to a project anyone is considering. We are planning to hold “open house” once we are finished and when this extended series of columns is done, I plan to put it in booklet form in both print and on-line for anyone to read.

    Cost efficient renovations are growing in demand. One group in Toronto, the “Now House” project, started out nearly 4 years ago within the CMHC Equilibrium program to prove that retrofits and major energy savings are possible. They took a “Victory Home” in Toronto and completed an amazing retrofit, all be it at some cost. This was the only group within the program to attempt this and they went on to retrofit five similar Victory Homes in Windsor, Ontario. This time the set realistic budgets and these five homes saw retrofit costs range from $18,000 to 40.000. These budgets were for energy refits only. When you add in interior finish work, it will certainly be, as expected, higher.

    As Donna and I start out on this project, we are setting a budget to include a new kitchen and bathroom, a timber frame loft, which fits nicely in the open area of a church, and, of course, the long list of energy efficient retrofits needed to make an old church habitable through all four seasons.

    The first thing on our list to establish is, “what’s the real condition of this classic old building.” Before we take possession, we begin an assessment list, starting with a heritage home inspection, well test and confirmation of the septic system. Both of these last items are a must when buying a country home. Taking the time to fully understand the building is primary and, even if you are planning a major upgrade on a home you currently reside in, bring in the pros to evaluate your home. Too often I see situations where the homeowner is just too close to the home to realize its real condition. When considering a major retrofit like this, you have the opportunity to look at the home as more than four walls and a roof.


     Our next step, after the initial investigation, will be to bring in an experienced and qualified energy auditor. We have chosen Marty Verk from Verk Consulting in Kingston to do an initial audit and blower door test. Energy Auditing is an area where experience speaks volumes and Marty has been in the business for many years.  We will sit down with Marty and delve into his report at some length, looking at areas where the best energy saving “bang for the buck” can be attained. This is an important step, so when you get an energy audit done, make the time to sit down with the auditor, whomever you choose. They bring a wealth of experience to the table.

    Next up, we will develop a project plan, “where do we need to do any restorative structural work”…… this is work that must be done first. So often I see an older home where the interior is stunning, only to find major structural issues that should have been addressed long before the cosmetics were done. After that, we will move on to the actual energy retrofit work. 

    Our dream is to retain the character of this beautiful old church, respect the assembly and keep the exterior as close to its current state as possible. It fits quaintly in this quiet hamlet. Inside will change, but the beauty of the stained glass windows will still stream heavenly light into a home that, once done, will last another 100 years. This time around, we hope to make it an affordable 100 years.

   This project will take, we expect, about 4 months and every step will be recorded in our attempt to show that an old building can be reborn into a sustainable, affordable home.