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Hiring a Renovator – Get It In Writing

Hiring a Renovator – Get It In Writing

The City of Ottawa Police Department has made a number of important arrests over the past 2 weeks involving rather sophisticated renovation scams. Everyone in the renovation or home building industry jumps for joy when arrests such as these are made because criminals usually do a lot of damage to innocent people before they are eventually caught. Anecdotal evidence to date suggests that these criminals have been active in Ottawa for years involving scams totaling millions of dollars and their activities have not only harmed innocent home owners but also the reputation of the renovation industry in general.

We all long for the days when a job could be based on a handshake but the sad reality is that those times are gone and consumers can sometimes unwittingly make themselves vulnerable to unprofessional renovators, scam artists and criminals. This column is intended to provide a general overview on how anyone considering a home renovation should best proceed. Many of us often accuse our children of demanding instant gratification but the truth is that most adults also fall into this category. Home owners will often spend many months thinking about and planning a renovation but once they make a decision to proceed, they want it done ‘next week’. This is their first big mistake because they begin to form decisions based on one of the least important factors – immediate availability. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the best and most professional renovators are the busiest and least available, and the least professionals are the most available. So the first lesson is that you should not be in an inappropriate rush. Recognize from the beginning that your project is going to take much longer to complete than you might like but the priority is to concentrate on getting the job done right – not completing the project in record time.

The first step following a decision to proceed with a renovation should be a review of contract material that is appropriate for the job because a cornerstone of successful renovations is to “Get It In Writing”. We all hope that our renovation project will proceed smoothly, without misunderstandings or disagreements and the best way to insure that this actually happens is to put it all down on a piece of paper. Contracts do not have to be 100 pages long. Most renovation contracts can be set out on 2 pages and cover the main issues being materials, time and money. Most professional renovators have contracts of their own and so by doing a little research before hand consumers can quickly determine whether there might be other matters they would like included. One good source for contract information is www.hiringacontractor.com

So you’ve now researched the issue of contracts and have a reasonable grasp of what is required and it’s time to actually start looking around for the right renovator. You could talk to a few satisfied friends who have had work done and get names from them. You could start writing down all the names and numbers that you see written on the side of renovator’s trucks as you drive around the city. You could start looking through the yellow pages. Lastly you could take a shortcut and visit the listing of renovator members of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association at www.GOHBA.ca. I describe this as a ‘shortcut’ because you would be immediately dealing with renovators who are care enough about what they do to pay thousands of dollars in membership fees every year. This gives them almost instantaneous access to information on every aspect of the renovation industry as it becomes available. For those who are really confident in their ability to consistently deliver quality work, membership in the GOHBA also provides the opportunity for renovators to become part of a new high standard of customer service called RenoMark. The RenoMark program was created in Toronto to raise the standard for professional renovators and it has performed extremely well. Some of the high points of being a RenoMark member are:

  • Return phone calls within 2 business days.
  • Offer a minimum two year warrantee on all work
  • Carry a minimum of $2 liability insurance
  • Have WSIB coverage and work only with other subcontractors who do
  • Provide a detailed written scope of work for all jobs

After talking to a number of renovators ask for an estimate from 2 or 3 that you feel comfortable dealing with. Call the Better Business Bureau and see what they have to say about each company. After you have received estimates and have made a tentative choice, ask for references and actually call them. Once the job gets started remember that renovators are not magicians. They are victims of suppliers every day of the week and must often delay work because they cannot get the materials or components they were promised and for which they have provided down payments. Take a few pictures as the job progresses, relax, and try to work with your renovator in addressing the challenges that he must face in delivering the service that you deserve.

Housing Is The "Green" Machine

Housing Is The “Green” Machine

Ottawa is being transformed through the combined efforts of private sector developers and investors, new home builders and local renovators, working with municipal autIt’s now been almost 20 years since the term “sustainable” first gained popularity and although most people had a vague notion of what it meant there wasn’t any clear definition.

It wasn’t for another 10 years that “sustainable” gave birth to a whole new generation of terminology that included the term “green”.

Over the past few years we have witnessed a green marketing wave of almost tidal proportions covering every aspect of western society. One sector that seems to have made the most significant contribution to all things “green” is housing.

Housing projects can be heated and cooled with geothermal technologies that rely completely on the consistent below grade temperatures provided by mother nature or with high efficiency gas furnaces that only use a small amount of the energy consumed by earlier technology.

Electricity generation for all the mechanical and lighting systems can be achieved through the installation of solar photo voltaics in the form of panels or shingles that are almost indistinguishable from conventional asphalt applications.

Lights can be energy efficient florescent or LED types that consume only a small fraction of the energy previously used by incandescent bulbs. Hot water needs can be met through the use of solar thermal panels.

Landscaping is kept healthy with rainwater that is collected and stored in plastic underground cisterns.

The home is framed using timber grown on farms specifically intended for construction and the house is sheathed in panels made from scrap materials.

Trusses are computer designed to minimize the material required while maximizing strength.

Energy efficiency begins with the home being wrapped in a plastic membrane that allows moisture out but nothing to come in and the exterior building envelope can be clad in brick fired from local clay and/or a range of sidings manufactured from material that would have previously been discarded as scrap.

Windows are filled with a range of inert gases that minimize heat transfer during both heating and cooling seasons.

Paints are water soluble environmentally friendly solutions that are easier to apply and faster to dry than previously hazardous oil based coverings.

Finishing materials include exotic elements such as bamboo flooring famous for its rapid growth characteristics.

The list of green materials and approaches in housing is almost limitless and the housing industry’s contribution to greenhouse gas reductions over the past 10 years is second to none in the world.

Transforming Ottawa One Home at a Time

Transforming Ottawa One Home at a Time

Ottawa is being transformed through the combined efforts of private sector developers and investors, new home builders and local renovators, working with municipal authorities. Between 2001 and 2010, densities of residential communities increased in virtually every urban center and region in Canada. More ‘walkable’ neighbourhoods and communities are being created through market forces operating in welcoming regulatory environments. Living, working, and recreational spaces are being brought together in dynamic new forms of urban growth.

According to forecasts and urban planning policy statements, single detached housing will remain a major element of Canada’s urban and suburban markets, driven by consumer demand. At the same time, diverse offerings appeal to “baby boomers”, younger Canadians, and international migrants in particular. All need to find accommodation within their financial means and convenient to work, shops, services, and recreational facilities. Costs of urban transportation are also increasing. Congestion, increases in fuel prices, increases in auto insurance costs, and growing recognition of the value of time spent commuting are all contributing to an increased desire to shorten commuting distances and times. These trends can be facilitated or hampered by policies and actions of governments at all levels.

The challenge ahead is to obtain the most positive benefits possible from increased densities, and to address potential negative impacts through public-private cooperation. Four key requirements to meet this challenge are:

  • Industry principals need to recognize that neighbourhood resident interests in and concerns about new developments in their midst are inevitable and to prepare their plans accordingly, and in a consultative manner.
  • Municipal governments need to remove barriers to innovative forms of development, invest in the infrastructure to support them, and play leadership roles to increase understanding among resident groups of the positive benefits of well-planned new developments. Infrastructure location and quality, especially transportation facilities, are key long term drivers of development feasibility and community attractiveness.
  • A broader choice of development forms must be imbedded in the “planning culture” of municipalities, both in policies and day-to-day approval processes.
  • All three levels of government as well as public and private sectors need to cooperate to build neighbourhoods where market-driven, innovative housing forms that broaden choice can succeed.

The most important single contribution that governments can make in the future to facilitate increasing densities is to provide development approvals as a matter of right once long term plans for growth have been established. This is the main area where the city of Ottawa has failed to date. The city took the first important step in its long term growth plans by announcing the adoption of an “intensification” strategy but has never taken the second critical step of explaining to residents and industry where it will can take place.

This has left the development industry in the position of having to “guess” what might be appropriate for a given site based on vague statements contained in the City’s official plan. Inevitably, residents and ward councillors feel that the proponent guessed wrong and the site is not appropriate for whatever is being proposed leading to needless disagreements, confrontation and often trips to the Ontario Municipal Board where objective professionals must decide on an outcome which seldom satisfies either party.

This ongoing confrontation could have been easily avoided if the city had simply adopted an appropriate zoning bylaw at the same time as it adopted a policy of intensification. If this approach had been taken, residents in Ottawa would have been consulted about the type and height of developments that they were prepared to accept in their neighbourhoods. This would have eliminated all of the guesswork and most of the conflict now being experienced in almost every development project in inner city Ottawa.

When the development industry first asked for a new comprehensive zoning bylaw to support intensification we were assured that it would be undertaken within a couple of years. Unfortunately a decision was subsequently made to try and cobble together all of the zoning bylaws that had previously been adopted by local municipalities prior to amalgamation.

It has now been eight years since the housing industry in Ottawa first requested a new comprehensive zoning bylaw and although the city has continued to refuse, it’s never too late. If the right Mayor and enough new councillors are elected this fall, we could eliminate the never-ending conflict of intensification and direct our collective energies towards building a great city that the majority agree on and will support.

Ottawa Soil Conditions Can Present Major Challenges for Home Builders

Ottawa Soil Conditions Can Present Major Challenges for Home Builders

Ottawa residents who are not involved in the construction industry may not be aware of this region’s reputation for extremely variable soil conditions. On a new project, builders spend hundreds of thousands of dollars taking soil samples on a very dense grid pattern, having them tested and designing appropriate footing systems to support new homes but very often even this isn’t enough.

If you have driven past the site of a home being built recently, you may have seen big white blocks of polystyrene foam, and wondered what they’re for. The reason for the blocks goes back some 12,000 years, to the end of the last Ice Age, when the Champlain Sea covered much of what are now the St. Lawrence and Ottawa valleys. Some of the former area of this now-vanished sea became covered with what is called Leda clay.

Leda clay has a high water content, which makes it highly compressible. Putting extra weight on it – such as the weight of a new home – has the potential to squeeze out some of the water, so that the clay compresses. While exposure to the surface has dried out and hardened the upper layers of this clay, the un-weathered soil below still compresses easily.

The limited ability of Leda clay to support a load is what causes problems for builders. Without proper steps being taken, a house constructed on this type of clay might develop foundation cracks, subside, or even collapse. Thorough analysis of the soil underneath the building site helps guide the builders regarding what construction methods are needed. It is important to learn the maximum weight the soil will support, and to work within those limitations. This weight includes the house itself, as well as the weight of any soil fill that has been added to bring the house up to a level that will allow adequate drainage.

Sometimes, the calculations in planning a new home show that the expected weight of a house, plus the weight of the necessary fill, might be too much for the underlying soil to support. Due to the compressible nature of Leda clay, this is not uncommon in the St. Lawrence and Ottawa valleys. So, the builder must find a way to reduce the planned weight of the house or the weight of the fill – and this is where those big white blocks come in. By inserting some light manufactured materials underground, such as polystyrene foam blocks, the house grade can be raised to the required height so the property will drain properly, without exceeding the load-bearing capacity of the soil. These blocks are used only in areas where it is safe to do so, in that they do not support the house itself. This means that the blocks sometimes get inserted around the outside of the basement walls or below the garage floor. The result may be a slight increase in cost – but it also means that the home can be built safely.

Lightweight construction materials have been used for similar purposes in construction projects such as bridge rams and embankments in the Ottawa area for many decades. Anyone driving between Kanata and Ottawa over the past several months will probably have noticed massive quantities of white polystyrene blocks being used in construction of the highway 417 widening since this type of construction also suffers from the compressibility of leda clay.

These types of problems and solutions are representative of the construction challenges constantly faced by the home building industry, but with sufficient professional analysis, reasonable solutions can usually be found. We only wish that this approach could also work to solve the higher level housing problems being created by the city of Ottawa. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to matter how much study and professional advice is offered to staff and members of city council. They continue to labour under the illusion that they can control and direct the minutest details of the housing system when in fact, all they are doing is adding needless cost and delay to every new home. As with most other industries, physical problems can usually be overcome, it’s the problems created by human nature that remain unsolvable.

What’s New in New Homes

What’s New in New Homes

Energy Efficiency Tops the List

As we move into the spring and summer seasons, I suspect we can count on the topic of clotheslines in Ottawa neighbourhoods to pop up along with colourful tulips.

You may have heard about the fact that some communities have restrictive covenants that do not allow clotheslines in neighbourhoods. And with that, some suggest that builders are pushing for these restrictions and therefore not supportive of the need for energy conservation in our homes and communities.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Ottawa home renovation companies and new home builders are on the cutting edge when it comes to home design and incorporating energy efficiencies and conservation in into their construction projects.

Firstly, it should be noted that historically, clotheslines restrictions are a result of what new home purchasers want. That is how they originated and in fact, it still could be a material consideration in the purchase of a home in a particular community.

Secondly, let me point out that the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association and its members, support consumer choice. We do not create the marketplace. We, as an industry, respond to what the consumer tells us they want.

At the end of the day, if the pro clothesline support is large enough and the supporters challenge the restrictive covenant through the courts and the courts rule that in fact a clothesline restriction or ban is contrary to the greater public good, then the issue will be put to rest.

In the meantime, our association and its members are focussing our attention and efforts on other environmental and energy conservation issues and initiatives that we believe will give us a “bigger bang for our buck.”

In 1998, the Ontario Home Builders’ Association, the Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance and Natural Resources Canada formed EnerQuality Corporation. One of EnerQuality’s goals is to improve energy efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of new homes build in Ontario.

These are some of the major programs that builders in Ottawa support through the Enerquality Corporation.

  • ENERGY STAR for New Homes are about 30 percent more energy efficient than those built to the minimum Ontario Building Code standards and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 3 tonnes a year per home.
  • R-2000 certified homes offer both energy efficiency and green building features. Only licensed R-2000 builder who have been trained and certified can build R-2000 homes.
  • EnerGuide for New Houses is a rating system that informs consumers and supports choice by measuring the energy use and efficiency of a new house.
  • The Building Canada program aims to reduce construction costs, customer call-backs, warranty claims, construction time and construction waste, while improving the energy efficiency of our homes.
  • GreenHouse is a brand new labelling program aimed at delivering a whole-house green option to homebuyers. To qualify, homes will have to meet conservation/reduction criteria in four areas – energy use, water management, indoor air quality and resource management.

The quest for energy efficient housing is a trend that’s on the rise, and Ottawa builders are up for the challenge. One interesting example of this is Minto’s “Inspiration” home being built in Manotick that is part of a CMHC Canada wide program known as “Equilibrium”. Builders across Canada submitted 72 proposals for energy efficient homes from which 12 winners were chosen.

Minto’s creation is a 2500 sq. ft. “zero net energy” home that incorporates a wide range of energy efficient features that will become commonplace over the next 5 -10 years. Not only is the home extremely well insulated with R-52 walls and roof but it also demonstrates solar thermal and solar PV panels. Another interesting feature is a 550 gallon rain water collection tank in the basement that will be used to provide water for landscape maintenance purposes. The home’s energy balance will be closely monitored over a 12 month period to determine whether in fact a “net zero energy” balance has been achieved. The home will be officially open to the general public in mid to late June and we encourage anyone who is interested in energy efficient housing to tour the home and see a little about what the future is going to bring.

Much of the innovation and efficiency in houses has been pioneered by new home builders such as Minto and we will continue to look for ways to reduce our dependency and consumption of energy in new homes.

So no matter which side of the fence you are on when it comes to the clothesline issue – rest assured Ottawa’s contractors and builders are committed to finding new and creative ways to build green and build better.

Drywall and Your New Home: Drywall Nail Pops and Cracks

Drywall and Your New Home:

Drywall Nail Pops and Cracks
Shrinkage, Temperature, Settlement

Drywall nail pops and cracks are a common occurrence in new homes and they can occur to varying degrees in each home depending on several factors. The three most common causes of cracks and nail pops are the drying of wood framing material (shrinkage), temperature changes associated with the four seasons and normal settlement. These factors contribute to the drywall cracking and nail pops at the wall and ceiling corners (inside and outside corners). This is especially common in every home built in our northern climate and is usually more prominent during the first year of occupying a new home.

It is for this reason that most new home builders and renovation companies recommend waiting a minimum of 1 year before applying custom paint colors to walls or ceilings. This is also the same reason that most builders use a mid quality paint product that is builder grade as they are aware most homeowners will add their own paint colors to match their taste and choice after patching drywall cracks and nail pops. In addition, it is much easier to determine color and texture choices once you have lived in your home for awhile and get a feel for what design elements would work best for you.

The Tarion Warranty Corporation “Construction Performance Guidelines” that govern minimum warranty requirements and protect Ontario new home buyers considers the occurrence of nil pops and cracks in article 9.4 as follows: One-Year – Work and Materials – Cracks resulting from normal shrinkage of materials due to drying after construction are excluded from the statutory warranty. For further details regarding nail pops and cracks or to view article 9.4 as noted above please visit www.tarion.com to review the construction performance guidelines in their entirety.

Truss Uplift

The occurrence of truss uplift is most frequently reported during the colder months of the year as temperature is one of the primary factors influencing this condition. Truss uplift becomes visible when the bottom chords (the ceiling joist part of the truss above your ceiling), which are covered by insulation, stay warm and dry but the top chords are exposed to moisture changes. The resulting stress causes the truss to lift up at its center thus causing cracks and gaps to appear. Signs of truss uplift are observed as gaps between the wall/ceiling juncture and usually measure 4mm or less. It is important to note that this does not represent a structural problem or defect, but at worst is a cosmetic issue that in some cases could repeat itself every year during the colder months. As this does not occur in all homes and is often the result of conditions beyond a builder’s control, no action is required unless the gap exceeds 4 mm. Although there are a number of ways that this cosmetic condition can be remedied, the easiest way is to install molding such as crown molding directly connected to the ceiling. (Where the condition is within the acceptable tolerance, the cost of repair would be the responsibility of the homeowner). By using this technique, the molding is allowed to move freely up and down whenever truss uplift occurs and because the molding is not attached to the wall this movement does not affect the molding. Best of all, the gap is no longer visible and the fix is cosmetically pleasing to the eye. A variety of contractors can be hired to perform this type of work, such as trim installers, carpenters or general contractors. Lastly, The Tarion Warranty Corporation “Construction performance guidelines” article 9.5 states the following: Cracks resulting from normal shrinkage are acceptable; crack width in excess of 4 mm is not acceptable. One-Year – Work and Materials – Cracks resulting from normal shrinkage of materials caused by drying after construction are excluded from the statutory warranty . For further detail regarding truss uplift or to view the entire article as noted above please visit www.tarion.com to review the construction performance guidelines in their entirety.

We’ve come a long way

We’ve come a long way

New homes keep on getting better

Earlier this winter, I was driving my car in the middle of one of southern Ontario’s heavy snowstorms. It was very cold, snowing heavily and the visibility was pretty poor.

I was relieved to be driving a fairly late model vehicle complete with snow tires, a very efficient heating and defrosting system and windshield wipers that thankfully didn’t clog up with snow and ice, so I could get safely along my way.

But imagine if I had been driving an old car in that same scenario. I suspect my driving experience would have been a lot more nerve-racking. Let’s face it, there have been a lot of advancements in the automotive field in the last 40 years or so. Seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock breaks, catalytic converters, hybrids, air conditioning, just to name a few. Imagine if you were currently driving a 1968 Chevy and all of a sudden you were behind the wheel of a brand new 2008 model – the changes would be astounding!

The same can be said for housing. If you have not lived in a brand new home in the last 40, 30 or even 20 years, you would be amazed at the advances.

Today’s new homes include:

  • Solid energy-efficient construction
  • Bright, open interiors.
  • A healthy, comfortable indoor environment.
  • Low-maintenance materials inside and out.
  • Innovative features that meet the needs of today’s lifestyle.

In a very competitive marketplace, new home builders and local contractors are using advanced design, materials and construction techniques to provide home buyers with a wide range of options and great value.

Design: It all begins with design. Good home design begins with an understanding of how people live in their homes. Times have changed. Families have changed and with it, our lifestyles have evolved. New home builders offer fresh, innovative plans and designs to meet the needs of today’s consumers, using modern technology to build homes that are attractive, highly functional and feel good to live in. Homes that include efficient use of space, open layouts, plenty of natural light, kitchens that work, flexible space and of course, lots of storage (something that’s usually absent in older homes)

Energy Efficiency: The energy efficiency of Canadian homes has improved greatly over the years. Thanks to major advances in building techniques and product innovation, today’s new home owner can expect to use only half of the energy required for a similar home built in 1950, and at the same time enjoy a far more comfortable living environment. From windows to insulation to state-of-the-art heating and air conditioning systems, today’s new homes are superior when it comes to energy efficiency. And we can expect that advances in energy efficiency will only grow as the price of energy goes up and we, as a society, recognize our responsibility to conserve energy and reduce our own environmental footprint.

Environmentally Responsible Products: No doubt about it, today’s new home buyers have the opportunity to build a much more environmentally-friendly home than was built 40 or 50 years ago. Great advances have been made in developing and manufacturing building products that contribute to the “greening” of Canadian homes. Manufacturers and suppliers are continually looking for ways to make their products and systems more acceptable to today’s environmentally savvy customer.

Safety: In part because of changes to Ontario’s Building Code over the years, new homes boast many products and features that ensure your family home is a safe environment. Whether it’s superior air ventilation and heating systems, stair railings and risers built to code, improved electrical components or products that reduce gas emissions, a new house is built to a stringent code. A newly-built home is also inspected during various phases of construction, ensuring that the home is built to minimum code and safety requirements.

No doubt about it, a brand new home is a lot different than a home built 40 years or so ago.

There’s a saying you often hear people say about new homes – “They don’t build them like they used to.” I say, that is very, very true! Because the reality is……we build them better – much better.

Extreme Snow Conditions & Your Home

Extreme Snow Conditions & Your Home

What to Watch For

The heavy snowfalls that Ottawa has been receiving are just about over but some of the potential problems for homeowners are just about to begin.

Dry light snow and high wind conditions in Ottawa have presented some unusual problems not seen for many years. One of these is a much higher incidence of snow entering through roof vents and accumulating in attic spaces where it eventually melts. The ‘mushroom’ vent that has been commonly used for more than 40 years has been pushed beyond its design limits this year. In response, some builders may switch to a new ‘chimney’ style roof vent that has begun to appear recently although roofers caution that even this design cannot be seen as a guarantee in preventing snow penetration under all conditions.

Unfortunately there is no way for Ottawa builders, renovation companies or home owners to completely prevent this problem but if it does occur, the wet insulation should be removed as soon as possible and replaced. Home owners who have experienced a significant problem this year should also give consideration to having their ‘mushroom’ vents replaced with ‘chimney’ vents in case this year’s extreme conditions are repeated at some future date.

The next problem resulting from this year’s heavy snow falls will likely be widespread reporting of ice-damming. This is a problem that can occur at any time but is most common in late winter where roofs are covered with a thick layer of snow and daytime temperatures begin to rise above zero.

The problem can be further exacerbated when the roof vents are covered in snow. This prevents air from flowing through the attic and allows the temperature to rise to the point where the layer of snow in contact with the shingles begins to melt. Water runs down the roof until it reaches the area just beyond the home’s exterior wall. At this point the roof temperature is much colder and the water freezes. As the process continues a thick layer of ice is formed that finally ‘dams’ the water from flowing down the roof and it begins to pool and back up under the shingles. As the water is forced further up under the shingles it begins to penetrate the roof decking through nail holes and other small openings and drips down onto the ceiling insulation. In extreme cases there is enough water to penetrate the ceiling drywall and cause considerable damage.

Home owners should visually check their roof to make sure that all of the roof vents, including plumbing stacks are open and not covered with snow. If they are not open, the snow should be removed as soon as possible. Home owners who have experienced ice-damming in the past should consider having any snow removed from the lowest 3 feet of their roof.

While checking the roof vents it would also be worthwhile to quickly assess a few other important issues that could cause problems. One of these could be basement window wells that are full of snow to the point where the window is no longer visible. Under these conditions, a fast melt, heavy or freezing rain may expose basement windows to extremes they are not designed for and they will begin to leak. In some cases it is worth removing the snow from window wells.

In older homes the furnaces were typically vented through the roof. New natural gas and hi-efficiency furnaces, appliances and air handling equipment are now commonly vented out the side of the building not very far off the ground. In most winters this is not an issue but the depth of snow this year could completely block the vent and prevent the appliance from operating.

Similarly, fireplaces are no longer always vented above the roof. Gas fireplaces can have vents within 16 “of the ground if the unit is located in a basement and even a ground floor fireplace vent may vent close to the ground.

They say that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” and given this years extreme weather conditions we believe it would be worthwhile to take 10 minutes to conduct the inspections described above because it could save thousands of dollars in damage and / or service calls.

Sprinkler Lobby All Wet?

Sprinkler Lobby All Wet?

The Truth About Fire Sprinklers At the City of Ottawa’s Community and Protective Services Committee meeting of January 17th Councilor Deans had a motion approved that “Staff be directed to prepare a full report outlining the feasibility of a municipal by-law to require residential fire sprinklers in all new residential construction in the City of Ottawa.” When it comes to residential fire sprinklers, people tend to fall into three different camps: those who insist sprinklers must be made mandatory; those who insist they shouldn’t be; and those who really don’t know much about them at all. Frankly, the vast majority of people fall into the third category, so a review of the facts about sprinklers is well-warranted. Then you can decide for yourself if you think residential fire sprinklers should or should not be made mandatory in Ottawa.

What are they?

A residential fire sprinkler system can be classified as either a “wet” system or a “dry” system. Each has its merits and difficulties. Without getting too technical, the wet system always has water in the pipes right to the sprinkler head. Unlike what you might see in the movies, only the heads directly affected by the heat of the fire are activated. It may only take one sprinkler head to control the fire. A dry system is much more complicated and costly. Dry systems require a means of holding back the water and maintaining the pipes in a dry state until the sprinkler head is triggered and the water is allowed to flow. Some dry systems use a compressor with a battery backup to maintain an air pressure higher than the water pressure to hold the water back. Maintenance concerns require regularly draining condensation caused by the compressor as well as regularly checking to make sure the compressor is working and pressure levels are maintained.

What do they cost?

Sprinkler systems can represent a significant cost component of the overall construction cost for the dwelling unit. Because there is not a lot of residential installation experience in Ontario, numbers are never precise. And because there are two types of systems, a direct comparison is not always done. Wet systems will conservatively cost about $3.00 per square foot and so an average 2,000 square foot home will cost about $6,000 to outfit with a wet system. Assuming that the house in this example will sell for $400,000, this represents about 1.5% of the total price of the home. Dry systems are more technically complex and therefore have a higher initial price tag. Prices can range from $6.00 to $8.00 per square foot depending on options chosen and how the system is designed to work.

Construction Adaptation

One of the biggest questions builders have is, “How do you keep the pipes from freezing in the attic?” Your plumber or sprinkler contractor will give you a price to install a wet system, and the cost may seem reasonable, but it’s unlikely that he is going to factor in insulating pipes where they run through cold spaces. Bottom chords of trusses cannot be cut or drilled, so that means running pipes above them and into potentially hazardous freezing conditions. Insulation can be added, at an additional cost of course. There are also interior-only systems that work from a high-wall head located on an interior partition wall. These will work in most room design applications but they won’t work in all. As house designs continue to change and incorporate larger, more open space, the effectiveness of interior-only applications is reduced on a wet system because the spray pattern from an interior high-wall sprinkler head can only reach so far.

Overall Demand

The debate over whether or not residential sprinkler systems should be made mandatory for all new home construction is certainly not new. It has been going on for at least 20 years in Ontario alone. The debate aside, is there really a demand for these systems? Are consumers crying out to their builder to have one installed? The simple answer is “no.” Builders opposed to making sprinklers mandatory say that they are quite willing to install sprinkler systems for any customer who requests one and is willing to pay for it but there has been no demand. As an example a reputable builder member of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association (OHBA) offered residential sprinkler systems in 2003 (as an option) to 1,069 purchasers in a subdivision in the GTA. Not one purchaser opted for the upgrade. In another anecdotal case, a builder in Windsor constructed a subdivision in 2003 with 165 homes with residential sprinkler systems included as a standard feature of the homes. This builder noted that during the sales process, most purchasers requested a credit towards other upgrades in lieu of the sprinkler system. Through the builder’s sales information, the purchasers were aware of the benefits of the sprinkler system, but they just didn’t want one. In the fall of 2005, OHBA surveyed 1152 builder member companies and asked if a new home purchaser has ever requested the installation of a home fire sprinkler system? 97 per cent of respondents said “no�? while only 3 per cent said they had received a request.

Mandatory or Voluntary

It is, perhaps, because of such inconclusive results that the lobby effort to make sprinkler systems mandatory in all new homes has been so aggressive. Consumers are fickle and have every right to be. They know that certain things are good for them, but when it comes to dollars and cents, what is “right” may not be as much of a priority as what they “want”. Sprinklers aren’t sexy like granite counter tops or plasma screen TVs. The sprinkler lobby effort has criticized the voluntary model as not working. Therefore the only logical conclusion is that we have to “make” people be safe. Or do we? According to data from the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal, residential fires are declining. With that, the number of fire-related deaths in residential buildings is also decreasing. In a study conducted by CMHC, Canadian Housing Fire Statistics 2004, it noted that since the inception of mandatory hard-wired smoke alarms in the National and Ontario Building Codes, fire severity and fire losses continue to decline for houses built after 1985. It is irrefutable that properly functioning smoke alarms save lives. If statistics and independent, third-party studies indicate that on the whole, fire losses in newer construction are on the decline, is it necessary to make sprinklers mandatory? Further, why mandate sprinklers only in new houses? If it has already been shown that newer-built housing does not constitute as high a risk to the occupants as older housing, then the proposal should be to mandate fire sprinklers in houses built prior to mandatory hard-wired smoke alarms.

Societal Costs

Still you can’t have a discussion on mandatory residential fire sprinklers without someone asking, “What is the cost of a human life?” That’s not an easy question to answer and most of us would say you can’t put a value on a human life, but there is in fact an answer. It is called the Statistical Value of Life or SVL. There are federal studies that have assumed the SVL in Canada to be $6.7 million per statistical life. According to an independent study conducted by CMHC in 2005, Fire Experience, Smoke Alarms and Sprinklers in Canadian Houses, fire deaths could be reduced by 0.77 per 100,000 houses by adding sprinklers. When the cost per average installation is factored in, the cost per life saved equals approximately $38 million invested per life saved. On the other hand, the same study places the cost per life saved at a little over $2 million per 100,000 houses for mandatory smoke alarms. This CMHC study recommends that governments consider residential sprinkler systems as voluntary for new one- and two-family houses. At the same time, it recommends that smoke alarms be installed in the estimated 18 per cent of older houses that don’t have them. Municipal governments have traditionally been quick to look at residential sprinkler by-laws as a way to cut or curtail rising fire-services budgets. The arguments typically revolve around reducing the number of fire stations and increasing the response times for fire services. In another CMHC study, Costs and Benefits to Municipalities of Mandatory Residential Fire Sprinklers (CMHC 1998), two municipal case study areas in Ontario were used: Burlington and Barrie. The CMHC report found that some municipalities might achieve savings in direct costs. The key to achieving savings however, were: the expectation of significant new Greenfield development located outside the areas presently served by existing stations; sprinklers in all new buildings (residential and non-residential occupancies); acceptance of longer fire service response times; and fire services which concentrate on fire suppression, providing only secondary support for non-fire emergencies when requested. Given Ottawa’s resistant to allowing any urban boundary expansion whatsoever, this factor would not appear to be relevant. A report by the National Fire Laboratory (NFL) used a fire risk assessment computer model to estimate the level of fire safety. It concluded that risks to life would be reduced in areas with sprinklers that experienced longer fire service response times. No attempt was made in either study to evaluate the impact of longer response times on medical or other non-fire emergencies, or on fires outside sprinklered buildings. These can be a large percentage of fire service emergency calls as illustrated by the following statistic obtained from the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA – US): “In 2004, fire departments responded to an estimated 22.6 million calls. 62 percent were for medical assistance, 9 percent were false alarms, and 7 percent were for actual fires.” Proponents of mandatory fire sprinklers claim that home owner insurance premiums could be lowered if the house has a sprinkler system installed. In jurisdictions where residential sprinklers have been mandated, reports indicate that typically home owners see savings of about 10% for home fire insurance coverage premiums. Still, there is concern among insurers regarding the long-term reliability and performance of sprinkler systems especially where homeowner maintenance and malfunction are concerned. The more systems installed in the marketplace equates to more risk exposure to the insurance industry. The net result savings may not be as substantial as anticipated. Only time and experience will tell. Another societal cost is the impact that imposed government regulations and taxation applied to the housing industry has on the economy as a whole. In a recent study conducted by the National Association of Home Builders in the United States, it is estimated that for every $1,000 increase in the cost of housing, 250,000 potential purchasers are eliminated from the new home market. A more recent study conducted by the Greater Toronto Home Builders’ Association uncovered similar results. For every $1,000 increase in the cost of housing there are 284 fewer housing starts; 1,015 fewer jobs; $20.6 million less in government revenue; and a $2.2 million annual reduction in future realty taxes. Summary of Sprinkler System facts:

  • not always easily or cost-effectively adapted to all new housing designs
  • installation cost of approximately $6,000 per 2,000 square foot house
  • virtually no consumer demand
  • residential fires and fire losses in Ontario steadily declining
  • estimated reduction in fire-related deaths 0.77 lives saved per 100,000 houses with sprinklers
  • societal cost of $38 million per life saved with sprinklers versus $2 million per life saved with mandatory smoke alarms (2005 costs)
  • mandatory sprinklers in new homes do not address the actual, statistical problem of higher mortality rates in older homes without working smoke alarms
  • inconclusive savings to municipalities
  • inconclusive home owner insurance savings
  • significant impact on residential construction industry as the engine that drives Ontario’s economy

Sometimes the most elementary statistics convey the most valuable information and so I would like to leave you with the following numbers. In Ontario in 2005 the odds of being killed in a car accident were 19,000 to 1; the odds of being killed in a homicide were 57,000 to 1; the odds of being killed by drowning were 88,000 to 1; and lastly, the odds of being killed in a fatal home fire were 168,000 to 1. Given the facts, feel free to draw your own conclusions on whether fire sprinklers should be mandatory in new homes or additions built in Ottawa.

Be Prepared

Be Prepared

Flexibility is Key in Managing Delays

A couple of weeks ago, I joined some friends at one of our favourite restaurants for a much anticipated evening out. Our reservation was for 7:30 but our table wasn’t ready so we waited in the lounge until about 8:00 p.m. and then enjoyed a wonderful meal and great time. Incidentally, I wasn’t able to wear my new suit to dinner that night as I planned, because despite his original promise, the tailor wasn’t able to hem the cuffs in time. Since we all enjoyed some wine with our meal, we ordered a cab to take us home, which was a bit late in arriving at the restaurant, as the driver ran into some problems due to some road construction. So we all enjoyed an extra cup of coffee while we waited for our ride home.

The message I’m trying to convey is that despite a number of unexpected delays and changes to our plans that evening, we adjusted and still enjoyed a really great night out with fine wine, delicious food and wonderful friends.

The fact is delays are an inevitable reality in our busy lives and often beyond our control. But how we choose to react, adjust or deal with a delay is our decision.

Last year thousands of families in Ontario moved into a brand new home. Most of them moved into their home pretty much around the time the builder and homebuyer originally agreed upon. However, there were also some cases, where the home was not completed by the original move-in date and both the builder and homebuyer had to deal with a delay in the closing date.

In a survey conducted by the Ontario Home Builders’ Association in 2007 almost 45 per cent of builders surveyed noted that they had had experienced a delayed closing over the previous 12 months.

Fortunately in Ontario, a delay in the closing date in the construction of a new home is still not commonplace. Not so in provinces such as Alberta which is experiencing a major housing boom and simply can’t keep up with the demand for new homes right now. In fact, in some cases, builders have refused to sell homes to ready buyers because they know they can’t complete the home in a timely fashion. I once spoke to a busy builder from Texas who told me he doesn’t even put a closing date into his agreement with a purchaser adding with his southern drawl, “I tell them the house will close when it’s ready.”

My point is, while relatively rare, as the potential purchaser of a new home in Ontario, it is prudent to be prepared for the possibility of delays. Building a house is a very complicated project and utilizes dozens of subcontractors, workers, suppliers and inspectors. Delays can happen. If a municipality delays issuing a building permit, for example, the whole process is then backed up. A delay in the framing stage stops everything: electricians and plumbers are unable to do their “rough-in” work until the framing is completed.

Still, a delay, while perhaps irritating, is often better than the alternative. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Delay is preferable to error”. In other words, it is definitely better for a builder to take the time to do the job properly in the first place, even if it means a delay in a homeowner’s closing date.

Building a new home usually takes many months and a myriad of things must be coordinated during this timeframe. In the case of condominium construction the timelines are even longer and the potential for problems, setbacks and delays even greater.

Fortunately in Ontario, all new homes must be registered with the Tarion Warranty Program which sets out specific rules on how builders must communicate and inform purchasers of delays in the closing date for the home. This does not prevent delays, but ensures that purchasers are made aware of what is (or isn’t) happening in the construction process so that they can make adjustments if needed.

No matter what timeframe your builder gives you, there is always the possibility of delays. Inclement weather, shortages of supplies and labour problems can all factor into delaying the completion of your home or condominium. It’s important to be aware of this going into the building process and be prepared to be somewhat flexible.

“Be prepared” is the Boy Scout’s motto, but one that new home buyers would be wise heed as well. It can help ensure your new home purchase is relatively stress-free and enjoyable. When it comes to buying a new home remember: “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”

Protecting Your Family

Protecting Your Family

Smoke Alarms Save Lives

Most of us see our homes as a safe, secure and protective shelter for our families. And with the proper precautions that’s likely very true.

As we welcome yet another spring season, we are reminded that it’s that time of year again to ensure that your home has properly installed, functioning smoke alarms. If your home has battery-operated alarms, you are urged to invest a little time and money and install fresh batteries in your home’s smoke alarms this spring.

There is no doubt that smoke alarms save lives. In its yearly report the Ontario Fire Marshall reported the number of residential fire fatalities fell from 97 in 1996 to 65 in 2005, representing a decline of 33 percent.

Since 1985 the Ontario Building Code has required new home builders to install hard-wired smoke alarms in all new homes and since March 1, 2006 every existing home in Ontario must have a working alarm on each storey and outside all sleeping areas.

Smoke alarms are the most reliable and cost-effective, early-warning method to alert people to fires and ultimately save lives. But there are some who suggest that it should be mandatory for builders to also install fire sprinklers in new houses, condos and apartments.

On the surface that may seem like a good idea, but upon deeper reflection, the research and evidence points in a different direction – right back to smoke alarms.

In 2005, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) released the results of its study of the use of smoke alarms versus fire sprinklers in homes. It noted that “the purchase and installation and maintenance of sprinklers produce a comparatively high cost per life saved.” In fact the study concluded that fire sprinklers cost $38 million per life saved compared to mandatory smoke alarms at about $2 million per life saved and about $2.6 million per life saved through children’s sleepwear flammability standards. In other words, smoke alarms represent an extremely economical and effective regulatory way to save lives in the event of a fire.

So why not fire sprinklers too? It’s not that builders oppose fire sprinklers – we just don’t think it should be a mandatory requirement in the construction of new homes.

Another thing to consider is that newly-constructed homes are more fire-retardant and less likely to burn than ever before. New homes that are least susceptible to fire, would be the ones forced to have fire sprinklers while the older, existing homes that spawn the majority of fires and burn faster would be left untouched.

Recently, Mike Holmes, a leading Canadian contractor and well-known media personality weighed in the issue of mandatory fire sprinklers, referring to sprinklers as a “band-aid” solution. Instead Holmes says when it comes to fire safety in your house, the right options, hands down, are smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers.

The reality is that the cost to install functioning smoke alarms in unprotected houses is small compared to the cost to install sprinklers – and the impact on safety is much higher.

Clearly, smoke alarms are the first line of defense in the case of fire. Here are some fire safety tips for you and your family to consider:

  • Make sure smoke alarms are placed either on the ceiling or 15 to 30 cm below the ceiling wall.
  • Make sure your smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are in good operating condition. Test them once a month by pushing the test button.
  • If your battery-powered detector begins to emit its low-power warning, such as a chirping sound, replace the battery immediately with a fresh one
  • Develop and practice an escape route with a meeting place.
  • Once you exit your home don’t return. Too many people lose their lives going back into a burning home.

Certainly, every fire death is a tragedy, a life cut short. As builders, we share a duty with governments, firefighters and homeowners to do what makes the most sense to prevent future fire deaths and promote fire safety. It’s time to return our focus to the dramatic impact properly functioning smoke alarms can have on fire safety in our communities. It’s time to turn the need for smoke alarms into a social movement akin to anti-smoking efforts and seatbelt campaigns. This will save many more lives.

And on final note, take care of your home and family today. Make sure you have smoke alarms on every floor of your home and outside sleeping areas ….and please, please, make sure they are functioning properly.

Housing then, now and tomorrow

Housing then, now and tomorrow

Moving to more energy efficient homes

You might be surprised to know how much housing in Ontario and Canada has evolved over the past 60 years. In fact, it’s very likely that your parents or grandparents lived in homes that were significantly different than the house you and your family live in today.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) recently published Sixty Years of Housing Progress In Canada to mark the corporation’s 60th anniversary and I was amazed by how housing conditions have rapidly changed over the past several decades. For example, in the early 1940s less than half of Canada’s three million homes had an installed bath or shower and close to 30% of dwellings were in need of major repairs. Surprisingly 44% of homes in the early 1940s had no inside flush toilet and 93% were heated by coal, coke or wood fuel.

Clearly a lot has changed over the years, and without a doubt we can expect further change. And, I believe we can predict major changes and evolution in terms of the energy efficiency of our homes. As the general public becomes more and more educated about environmental issues such as global warming, climate change, air quality and of course, the rising cost of energy, we can expect an increase in demand for more energy efficient housing. In, fact that trend is already on the rise and builders are responding.

Recent changes (some 700 technical changes) to Ontario’s Building Code specified some significant increases to the energy efficiency of buildings, so Ottawa’s builders are already incorporating many energy efficient building technologies into new homes. And then of course there is R.2000, EnerGuide for New Houses, LEED and ENERGY STAR® for New Homes.

All these terms can get a bit confusing for buyers, so here’s a primer on what’s what when it comes to energy efficiency in new housing and how the new housing industry continues to play a pivotal role in facilitating innovation and change in this sphere.

In 1998, the Ontario Home Builders’ Association (OHBA), the Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) entered into an agreement to continue R-2000 and related programs under the name EnerQuality Corporation.

One of EnerQuality’s goals is to improve energy efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of new homes built in Ontario through the following four federal government programs: ENERGY STAR® for New Homes, R-2000, EnerGuide for New Homes and Building Canada.

  • ENERGY STAR® for New Homes is a label earned only by homes that have met strict requirements, allowing homebuyers to rely on the performance tested, third party verified, government backed ENERGY STAR label to know they are buying the most efficient house on the market.  New homes that receive this label are approximately 30 percent more energy efficient than those built to the minimum Ontario Building Code standards and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 3 tonnes a year per house.
  • R-2000 certified homes offer both energy efficiency and green building features. Only licensed R-2000 builders who have been trained and certified can build R-2000 homes.
  • EnerGuide for New Houses is a rating system that informs consumers and supports choice by measuring the energy use and efficiency of a new house.
  • The Building Canada program in Ontario aims to reduce construction costs, customer call-backs, warranty claims, construction time and construction waste of builders while improving the energy efficiency of our homes.

In addition you may see or hear of the term LEED, (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). This voluntary, consensus-based rating system was developed in the United States but is being piloted in some regions in Canada and evaluates environmental performance from a whole building perspective over a building’s life cycle.

All these programs are experiencing tremendous growth and interest as more and more builders obtain the necessary training to meet rising consumer demand for energy efficient housing.

The quest for energy efficient housing is a trend that’s on the rise and the move, and Ontario builders, local contractors and renovators are up for the challenge. Much of the innovation and efficiency in houses has been pioneered by new home builders and we will continue to look for ways to reduce our dependency and consumption of energy in new homes.

And with the expected growth in innovative technological changes and advancements, I think you can expect that your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will likely be living in houses much different (and better) than you and I are living in today.

Contact Us

35 G Robinson Ave.
Ottawa ON, K1N 8N8
Tel: (613) 832-1717
Email: sandyhill@sandyhill.ca

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