3 ways to renovate sustainably

Ecology Action Centre green building renovation view from outside

The Ecology Action Centre on the cure to green reno blues.

Over the years, the Ecology Action Centre — a Nova Scotia environmental charity — has had a number of homes and in 2005, they purchased an old saltbox house in Halifax’s North End. “This was exciting because owning our own building meant we could go beyond turning of the lights and printing double-sided, and really use our space to demonstrate our environmental values,” says Joanna Bull, who is the Volunteer Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre.

By 2015, they were bursting at the seams and began a much-needed renovation, incorporating as many green building practices as possible. “It was important to us to create a demonstration site to show what can be done with some of these old Halifax homes — that they could be made more eco-friendly, retain their charm and character, all while reducing waste,” shares Joanna.

We asked Joanna to give us some tips on how you can incorporate green building practices into your next home renovation and to highlight her three favourite features of the newly transformed Ecology Action Centre.

Green building before and after sequence
The Ecology Action Centre, before and after green building renovation. Design by Solterre Design | Photo by Acorn Art Photography.

#1. Source salvaged materials: Salvaged materials let you reduce the “embodied energy” of your renovation. All building materials take energy to manufacture and transport — by reusing these materials, you extend their life and preserve the embodied energy.

“When the historic Roy building in downtown Halifax was being torn down, we hopped in to see if we could repurpose any old building materials,” shares Joanna. “We found new home for some of their hardwood doors, putting a modern spin on them.” The EAC turned these doors on their side, stacked one on top of the other, and created a new sliding door for their conference room.

In your home: Incorporate lightly used or salvaged materials by checking out antique shops or your local Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore — proceeds support the charity’s construction projects for low income families.

Ecology Action Centre conference room with salvaged doors
Ecology Action Centre conference room with salvaged doors. Design by Solterre Design | Photo by Acorn Art Photography.

#2. Insulate, insulate, insulate: When we think about green buildings, we often consider renewable energy technologies, like solar thermal, battery storage, or even geothermal heating. There’s a lot to be said, though, for good old-fashioned insulation! “It doesn’t need much in the way of repairs or maintenance, and your energy pay back is usually 2-3 years!” notes Joanna.

One person’s trash is another’s treasure: We knew we needed to insulate (given how our staff would wear parkas indoors all winter!) and we wanted to use as much second-hand materials as possible — that’s when we learned about steel door cut-outs”.

When steel doors are made, the manufacturer creates a hollow metal box and fills it with insulation. Windows are then cut into these doors, creating insulation squares sandwiched between two layers of steel. “We called up a local window and door manufacturer to see if they had any they could donate. They said ‘How about 400?’ and before we knew it, a huge truck was unloading on our quiet residential street. Our volunteers stripped the metal off the sides, and we buried two layers of cut-outs in the basement,” recalls Joanna.

In your home: Sourcing steel door cut-outs may not be feasible for your home, but there are other environmentally-friendly, natural insulation materials available. The EAC also used Roxul insulation, a stone wool made from basalt and slag, to increase the insulation in their building. Basalt is an abundant natural resource and slag is a by-product of steel manufacturing — so you’re still helping find a new use for something that would normally be a waste product.

Ecology Action Centre volunteers installing roxul insulation
Ecology Action Centre volunteers installing Roxul insulation.

#3. Go au naturel: Another great way to make your home more eco-friendly is to use low VOC or natural paints. This allows you to improve your indoor air quality by eliminating the Volatile Organic Compounds that are found in many commercial paints.

“We ended up making our own clay paint! The recipe is super simple: just clay, chalk, wheat flour, and water, and sometimes a bit of mineral pigment,” says Joanna. The best part? “Your home doesn’t have to off-gas, as there were no harmful ingredients in your paint to begin with.”

Clay Paint Recipe: Ingredients: One Part Clay, One Part Fine Sand, one half Part Wheat paste, one and one half Part Cold Water. Instructions: Combine ingredients and mix to a fine consistency. Add mineral-based pigment or colour. Add fine chopped straw or mica for texture. Mix until texture and colour are consistent. Now the paint is ready to use!
Natural clay paint recipe courtesy of the Ecology Action Centre.

Three years later, the project is complete and the EAC and local architectural firm Solterre Design are celebrating, having just won a Canada Green Building Award from Sustainable Architecture and Building Magazine.

The Ecology Action Centre, view from the outside
Ecology Action Centre staff enjoying their newly renovated office. Design by Solterre Design | Photo by Acorn Art Photography.

Both the Ecology Action Centre and Solterre Design are proudly bullfrogpowered organizations, choosing green energy for their operations and working hard to improve environmental sustainability in Nova Scotia.

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