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WE ARE L’OEUF: 5 lessons learned ... from a pro renovating her home.

This week at WE ARE L’OEUF, in our “5 Lessons Learned” series, Amy tells us about her adventures in reno land. She and her husband bought a shoebox in Rosemont in 2019 and are now in the process of adding a second floor to accommodate them, their daughter, Sienne, and their dog, Oscar. Amy told us about the compromises she and her husband had to make, their thought process and the surprises that awaited them.

A proud collaborator at L’OEUF for several years, Amy also holds a doctorate in environmental design and is an expert in neighbourhood-scale sustainability frameworks. She now divides her time between practice, research, and teaching. At L’OEUF, Amy has worked on many citizen consultation projects, IDP and she was also part of the winning team of the C40 Montreal competition won by the office in 2019.

Here is her testimony.

First lesson: Be prepared for the worst, but also be equally adaptable.
“There are always things you can’t prepare for and surprises on the site. You just have to adapt. The thing that gave us the most headaches was the masonry wall along the laneway, where the interior concrete blocks were in bad condition. We had to reinforce the concrete block wall and install a steel welded on site to our steel structure, which became a thermal bridge that could cause condensation within the wall. It ended up changing our total plan for the wall composition.”

Second lesson: Futureproof.
“This is something that I have learned from L’OEUF for many years, and I was able to apply to our renovations. Basically, futureproofing allows for you to plan for future sustainability (or other) strategies that you can’t afford now but may want to easily implement in the future. In our case, we prepared our basement in order to accommodate an interior rainwater tank. It’s a product from Ontario that has just been patented, so it hasn’t been released yet. In order to prepare for that, we avoided putting radiant floor heating in the area where the tank will be – since it will be a very heavy tank. We also separated the plumbing for toilets from the rest, so eventually rainwater can be used for flushing the toilets and for irrigation in the back. It only costed a few hundred dollars in piping to futureproof, but of course the tank is much more expensive. We will order the tank when our budget allows for it. And when it does, we’ll be able to install the tank with very little additional cost.”

Third lesson: Relationships are key.
“It is really important to build good relationships with your neighbours, and to communicate with them. Tell them in advance that you will be doing the project. Ask them how you can make their lives easier. It’s disruptive for them, so you want to be considerate. Especially since sometimes you will need to ask them for favors, like moving their cars to make room for scaffolding or a crane. (laughter)
Also, prioritize an excellent relationship with your contractor. Building trust is really key, because when things get tough and you have to make important decisions, you want to be able to rely on them. Don’t ever let things deteriorate. Have a very tight coordination with them as well. Especially at the beginning, sit down with your contractor and explain them your priorities. Go over all your atypical details that will cause them headaches. We have very good contractors, and they are doing a wonderful job, but they were not used to working with some of the details I had drawn. I made sure to hear their concerns and made modifications accordingly. Otherwise, if you are more hands-off and simply send them the drawings, thinking that they will be able to figure out these new details that they have never done before…things are probably not going to go the way you hoped! (laughter)
Coming back to my example of the concrete block wall that has caused a lot of headaches, I racked my brains trying to improve the thermal bridging problem created by the steel plate, researching thermally broken shelf angles and foamglas blocks. After discussing with a colleague, I finally decided not to overcomplicate things with delays and details that could put strain on the relationship with my contractor, and opted for a few low-tech solutions to improve the detail. ”

Fourth lesson: In risk management, prioritize water over energy.
“This was actually a very good lesson for myself. We originally planned to reach the Passivehouse standard (or at least be inspired by it) and I was so focused on all these thermal performances and energy issues, when now my perspective has really shifted and I think water and humidity are way scarier. Dealing with water issues and humidity issues is, I think, a much more important risk to consider, as the impacts in terms of damage to your structure and health are more severe. After working with 475 High Performance Building Supply, who offers WUFI* analysis, we decided to rent industrial dehumidifiers to dry out everything and we will heat the house before the drywall goes in. The simulation our supplier did on one wall in particular showed that if we were to close it before the wood structure was dry, we had a high potential for lots of mold growth. It’s important to make a plan for minimizing water getting in during construction. And when it does almost inevitably get in, it’s a good idea to budget for the cost and time to allow for everything to dry before you close it up. And of course, good details that minimize the risk for condensation to build up in your walls with no way to dry out is key.”

* WUFI is a computer program that can tell how moisture and heat flow affect building materials over time.

Fifth lesson: Enjoy the present.
“One day, this fall, it was warm and sunny. The contractor had just finished building the walls of the second story and I walked up to see the space for the very first time. I could finally picture my family living there. I can just tell you, with that gorgeous fall light, to be finally able to feel and imagine the space, I had a feeling of euphoria. I also cherish the memories of all the late nights designing our future home with my husband. I was pregnant at the time, making these memories even more special. Another fun moment was when we saw the crane lift the steel onto the site. It was very exciting!”

Crédits :
Cover picture : Amy Oliver
Amy’s portrait: Caroline Corbex
Pictures in the text: Amy Oliver