Greening on a Shoestring

The Ecology Action Centre’s new green home is now a retrofit demonstration.

ECO-RENOVATING YOUR HOUSE on a budget is like one of those kids’ Choose Your Own Adventure books: Each decision delivers a unique set of challenges and consequences. Since most of us have limited funds, building an environmentally sound dream home means every choice must be weighed carefully for its expense and impact.

ECO-RENOVATING YOUR HOUSE on a budget is like one of those kids’ Choose Your Own Adventure books: Each decision delivers a unique set of challenges and consequences. Since most of us have limited funds, building an environmentally sound dream home means every choice must be weighed carefully for its expense and impact.

Now, imagine what it was like for Halifax’s Ecology Action Centre (EAC) when they started looking for a new home. For over 30 years, EAC has been the dominant environmental voice in Nova Scotia. With over 800 members, 250 volunteers, staff and committees that focus on marine, coastal, wilderness, food, transportation, energy and urban issues, EAC had outgrown its space. It was definitely time to find a building that better reflected the non-profit’s prominent role in the province.

After a five-year search for an affordable building in central Halifax, EAC found its future green dream home in the city’s north end. Tucked away on Fern Lane, a small dead-end road behind Agricola Street, the area is a mix of old and new. Traditional Maritime saltbox homes and long-time mom-and-pop businesses are interspersed with high-end designer furniture and antique stores. It’s where vegan hipsters meet for lunch and drink pints at night alongside the locals.

Preparing to take me on a tour of the facility, Maggie Burns, EAC’s internal director, stands across the street from the building. “It’s architecturally uninteresting,” she says, scrutinizing the exterior’s plain, pale siding. “Really, it’s a square box with a couple of windows, but it’s an awesome site with lots of southwest exposure.”

Fern Lane wasn’t the most obvious choice for the only working eco-renovation demonstration model in Nova Scotia. But during negotiations with the former owner and tenant, O’Malley Electric, it was serendipitously discovered that one of the owner’s kids was a dedicated EAC volunteer. This connection resulted in the owner generously knocking $25,000 off the asking price of the circa 1880s former residential building, so the deal was done.

Purchasing the 280-square-metre building and lot was only the first step in EAC’s adventure. Big questions lay ahead: demolish and rebuild, or renovate?

“We talked about tearing it down and starting again, but that wasn’t quite right. The main reason was most people don’t get to do that, they don’t have the option to do that, financially and otherwise,” explained Burns. “I have a home, and that’s not an option for me. We need to walk the talk, do more than just shut off the light switch. There are a tonne of ways we can be green; it’s a huge investment in our own sustainability.”

So, under the guidance of Peter Henry Architects, Archnet Home Build and Renovate, and Rod Malay, an environmental construction manager, EAC’s mostly volunteer home committee made critical decisions about each aspect of the eco-reno. Burns said, “The exact same decision was repeated over and over again – floors, roof, ceiling. How good are they for the people who make them? Live in them? And is it cost-effective?”

The committee made an extensive list of guiding principles to aid in their decision making. They favoured reused construction materials. Natural materials that met LEED guidelines were ideal, and wherever possible, they sourced locally produced products.

Burns points up to the roof to what she says was one of EAC’s wisest investments. Two thermodynamic, solar hot-water panels, refurbished from a hotel, sit on top of the roof, heating a glycol and water mix that runs through the panels to the basement and then back up again. A small electric boiler helps transfer heat to the in-floor radiant heating and water system. She says that the next step is to create a weather station that will monitor the panels’ effectiveness over time.

Insulation, Burns says, was a difficult decision. Older Nova Scotian homes are often insulated with seaweed, straw and horsehair, and although Fern Lane was reinsulated in the 1980s, it only received 16 out of 100 points in a home energy audit. They researched natural options such as sheep’s wool, but after deliberating on cost and local availability, sprayed-in foam and formaldehyde-free fibreglass bats were the best bet. The roof was also insulated, and all walls were sealed with a vapour barrier, tripling the energy audit score to 48.

Although few people would take a second look at the outside of Fern Lane, inside, there’s a relaxed, warm feeling that only thoughtfully designed buildings emanate. Burns says EAC’s mantra is “windows that open, doors that close,” so the space has a balanced mix of open and private offices with functioning windows. EAC’s new digs are quite simply a pleasant place to hang out.

In keeping with EAC’s desire to become a demonstration site, they used five different natural wall finishes, created from diverse materials such as pottery pigment, sand, clay and flour, mixed on site and applied by volunteers. Glass mosaics of dragonflies and other elements give the natural-toned walls a personal touch. When paint was used, EAC selected a combination of reconstituted latex, natural, mineral-based paints and low-odour commercial ones with zero volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Both the walls and the gorgeous acid-etched floor were treated with a high-contrast finish to aid the visually impaired – accessibility is also a key principle.

We continue the tour through the kitchen, up the stairs to the second floor, past the universal-access deck and look out over the fledging garden designed by Dalhousie University architecture students. A reused bicycle wheel and spoons have found new life as mounted pieces of sculpture. Burns explains that every detail could be easily recreated by homeowners: “It’s an extension of our mandate as educators. The building is a demonstration for people like me, what they can do when faced with their homes.”

Upstairs, the old, dark, wood-panelled hallways were refreshed with crisp, pale green and white walls. Offices were painted in bright colours, but with a sense of humour – remnants of the old antique wallpaper still pop through. Windows harvest sunlight, supplemented by fluorescent bulb task lights and a few ceiling fixtures where necessary. In the washroom there’s a waterless urinal, dual-flush toilet and a low-flow showerhead – an imperative for EAC’s cycling activists.

The boardroom is also bright and airy. Clay walls give the room warmth, as do the donated plants. A custom bookcase, built with certified, sustainably forested wood from a nearby farm, takes up an entire wall. As people move quietly in and out of the room, preparing for a meeting, sunlight streams through the large windows.

“I’m a little biased, but I think it’s great,” says Susanna Fuller, EAC’s marine conservation co-ordinator, over a coffee. A well-known Halifax activist, Fuller helped lead the renovation process. “What I take from it is that when people really like a space, they take care of it. They take ownership. The other offices were just insane. No one wanted to take out the garbage, do the dishes, no one took any ownership over the clutter. In this building, it’s never messy or cluttered.”

Burns, who also co-chairs EAC’s capital fundraising campaign, points out places where there’s room for improvement, where long-term green initiatives will just have to wait for more money. “We learned so much in the process of doing this. We realized that we didn’t have the organizational capacity to do it alone,” says Burns, “especially when making those difficult choices like weighing the energy required to tear something down versus the energy to try something new. And we demonstrated how challenging it is to be an environmentalist in this world.”


Sue Carter Flinn is a Halifax-based freelance writer.