The eco-friendly option is not always the obvious choice

by Janet Gyenes

Sometimes the difference between making a good choice for your home, and the best one, takes just enough curiosity to ask the right questions. Like finding out which materials can be reused or recycled, rather than dumped in the municipal landfill. Or determining whether there’s enough payback before installing a skylight or a tankless on-demand hot water heater. That’s what Karen Boriss and her husband Alex Holmes discovered three years ago when they embarked on an environmentally friendly teardown-and-rebuild home renovation project.

The couple had purchased a tiny, old bungalow in Vancouver’s Cambie Village neighbourhood, but the house wasn’t structurally sound enough to be renovated. Reluctant to tear it down, Boriss and Holmes found an eco-friendly alternative to dragging the remains to the landfill: getting a deconstruction permit from the City of Vancouver to “unbuild” the house—taking it apart by hand.

“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” says Boriss. “We knew you were required to recycle at least 75% of the home by repurposing and providing receipts to prove you avoided the landfill.”

Metro Vancouver reports that construction waste amounts to 1.6 million tonnes annually. About 75% of this waste is recycled, but more than half of the remaining materials that end up in the landfill could be diverted. Many materials are salvageable, whether renovating or building new. Drywall and wood-based building materials such as timber, lumber, wainscoting, interior doors and frames, and siding can all be reused. The same goes for steel beams (and studs), light fixtures, plumbing fittings, heating ducts, electrical equipment and even insulation. And much of what can’t be reused can be recycled instead of being dumped in the landfill. That includes metal items, such as piping, window frames, rebar and deck railings, plus materials including asphalt, cinder blocks and structural concrete.

Once their bungalow was torn down and recycled, Boriss and Holmes worked with EDG Homes and Mercia Construction to design and build a modern home that’s energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. Their new house rises over four storeys and includes four bedrooms, a basement bachelor pad and a triangular attic.

Building new allowed the couple to make smart choices to create a healthy environment for their family. But the challenge to starting fresh was that there were so many products in the home that would have to off-gas—releasing chemicals and other harmful airborne particulates—such as glue and finishes.

“We wanted a formaldehyde-free home, from the exterior plywood to the inside kitchen cabinets,” says Boriss. “I wanted the home to be as non-toxic as possible. That was a really big concern.”

Although Health Canada reports that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, “the risk of developing cancer from formaldehyde exposure at concentrations found in most Canadian homes is essentially zero.” But even at low levels, long-term exposure to formaldehyde concentrations can be an irritant that’s been linked to breathing problems, especially in children who have asthma.

The couple had to source formaldehyde-free products themselves, but quickly discovered that not only were these materials available, they were easily accessible. “I was shocked that it was that extra question—but for standard builders, it’s not on their radar,” says Boriss. And then came another surprise. “It was such a minimum price difference that we couldn’t even believe it. It was literally pennies.”

Other eco-friendly choices included using zero-VOC paint, non-toxic wallpaper glue and all-natural wool carpeting, which is free of toxins that can be found in non-sustainable synthetic materials (fibres are often made from petroleum), including the foam underlay and adhesives.

Reclaimed and repurposed items are sustainable choices, too. In the bathroom, a rustic step stool was made from wood, reclaimed from a heritage building Holmes’s father redeveloped in Victoria. Pillows Boriss sewed out of recycled fabric add pops of pattern and colour to the open-concept living and dining room.

In the kitchen and other areas of the house, ENERGY STAR® appliances were a must. Instead of buying double wall ovens—a fairly common choice in new builds, Holmes notes—the couple installed a range and compact steam/convection oven, which heats up very quickly and is a great size for everyday cooking.

High-efficiency laundry appliances were chosen, especially for the front-loading washer’s short 20-minute cycles, which are water- and energy-efficient. Another energy-saver: the natural gas tankless hot water system that only heats water on demand, compared to a conventional one that holds water in a tank at a constant temperature.

The smart use of skylights saves energy costs by keeping the house cool in summer and letting natural light flood through the home. “The architect hinted to us that [a skylight] was natural air conditioning. When we open it, you can feel the hot air gushing out in the summer,” says Boriss.

But does water seep in during wet weather? The single-pane skylights of yesterday were notoriously leak-prone, whereas today’s technologically advanced skylights feature a triple layer of LoE3 glass that improves overall performance, such as improved energy efficiency, better light transmittance and improved solar heat gain.

But even modern skylights are only as effective as their installation. Not all roofers have
the expertise required, so some choose to subcontract this work. Overall, it makes good sense to weigh the costs and benefits before cutting a hole in your roof.

In Boriss’s new home, the attic skylight lets light stream down to the floors below, while air flows around the staircase. A second skylight acts as a window in the bathroom, often eliminating the need for switching on the light during the day. All outdoor and indoor lights are programmed to turn on and off on different schedules. Brightness settings are dialed back to the minimum, like the 30% “morning” light Boriss uses when making coffee in the kitchen. It’s here that a wall of accordion doors open up to the south-facing backyard where the kids play and sunlight streams inside.

Ultimately, all these seemingly small decisions add up to big changes. The home’s comfort factor is immediate, while financial and energy savings pay off in the short and long term. And even though the tired bungalow was torn down and replaced with a more energy-efficient family home, Boriss says a piece of the original still exists. “The family who owned the home wanted a door frame with the kids’ heights on it.”

It’s an example of how salvaging not only keeps materials out of the landfill, but it can preserve some memories too.

Make the Switch

Showers can account for 15% of a household’s total energy use. Cut your shower by a minute and save $15 a year. Want to save even more without sacrificing water pressure? Install an efficient shower head.

Reclaimed and repurposed

The wooden step stool in the bathroom imprinted with the letter A, a bench in the foyer and shelves in the kitchen were all made from an old beam Holmes’s dad reclaimed from a heritage building. “It had family meaning,” says Boriss, who got in on the repurposing action by transforming leftover fabrics into handmade cushions. “I do that a fair bit,” she says. Another benefit: every item is one-of-a-kind, which adds character to the home. 

Check out BC Hydro’s renovation rebates to upgrade your home’s efficiency

Making energy efficiency upgrades will pay off year-round with lower energy bills and a more comfortable home. But budgets can be tight, so you need all the help you can get. BC Hydro offers a variety of home renovation rebates, including:

  • Up to $1,200 for upgrading insulation
  • Up to $500 for draftproofing
  • $800 for improving your heating system
  • Up to $50 for improving your home’s ventilation
  • An additional $750 when you make three or more eligible upgrades through a bonus rebate offer.

In addition, FortisBC offers rebates on natural gas hot water heaters and efficient fireplaces.

Financing help offered through Vancity
Need help financing your home renovations? BC Hydro works with Vancity to make your home energy-efficiency renovations much easier. The Vancity Home Energy™ Loan offers a prime +1% rate for loans between $3,500 and $50,000. Learn more at

Make the Switch

Instead of turning on the lights in the morning, draw curtains or blinds and let natural light flow inside during the day. A single south-facing window will illuminate 20 to 100 times its area. If you switch off just one 60-watt bulb for four hours a day, you’ll save $9 each year.