The Kids Are Alright: Arbourdale Construction’s team of new grads pushes green building forward
En route to what he thought might be a medical career, JD Burnes made an about face into construction. With no prior experience except a one-week high school trip to St. Lucia to build housing and a summer volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, he decided to switch streams. Rather than return to school, he stayed with the charity for the rest of the year.
The experience with Habitat for Humanity taught him about building codes and green building. “They were doing R-2000 homes before a lot of builders were, using structurally insulated panels as the standard in affordable housing,” says the 29 year old. “I thought, if this is the standard for affordable housing in the city, what’s the step up? If Habitat is doing this in homes for those who can’t get a home or mortgage, shouldn’t we be building better as the standard in the custom end of things?”
Those questions – fueled by a keen interest in sustainable building – prompted a return to formal education after Habitat. Enrolling at George Brown College for an advanced diploma in building renovation technology that included apprenticeships in carpentry, he learned about sustainable building practices including zoning, green building concepts and general building science requirements.
Still asking questions, though, Burnes kept wondering how to make Toronto’s older housing stock last even longer. “We’re often dealing with homes nearing the 80- to 100-year mark. How do we take those and repurpose what we have, using the same footprint? Obviously expectations are different, [so] how [do we] take that into consideration, [while] keeping [a good relationship] with neighbours and their desires? [We] don’t want to offend anyone, when doing a major reno can take long time.”
Within a year of graduating, Burnes launched his building and renovation company, Arbourdale Construction, on the principle that the building code is only a baseline to do “whatever we can that is better and will last the next 100 years. Pushing boundaries is something I’ve always liked to do.”
That’s exactly what the young builder is doing with his “test case”: a typical red brick, north Toronto home on Chudleigh Avenue. Purchased in 2014, the 90-year-old house had a wider than average lot, with private drive, detached garage and a sizable footprint of 1,700 square feet.
Burnes, who also grew up in the neighbourhood, has been working on the house with a team of similarly young George Brown construction graduates. For the past three years, they’ve been testing new green products and building methods, based on passive house principles, like the car charging port in the newly vaulted garage that can store two electric cars in vertical fashion. And the highvelocity air handler that runs heating and cooling in a three-zone air system controlled by an NTI boiler that holds hot water to heat up the air handler, and water for both storage tank and in-floor radiant heat.
But it’s the Intello vapour barrier which his site manager, Joshua Perida, raves about. “It’s a German product, and what’s amazing is it’s permeable on both sides. The main issue living in Canada is the changing seasons. It’s great to have a vapour barrier on the warm side to prohibit moisture diffusion into the walls from the house in winter. At the same time in the summer it’s preferable to allow the moisture to dry to the inside of the house with no condensation in the walls. This smart air vapour barrier is amazing: it senses the difference and allows reversed vapour diffusion in the cooling season when the vapour drive is directed towards the interior,” explains the 24-year-old George Brown building renovation graduate.
After purchasing the house, Burnes hired architect Tom Spragge, who had designed his parents’ home 30 years before. When Spragge asked whether LEED would be targeted, Burnes started researching LEED providers and came across Clearsphere’s John Godden and Project Future Proof. “In all likelihood the house would have attained LEED certification, but I felt our money was better spent on the house itself, through future proofing,” he explains.
Using passive house principles – good insulation, ERV mechanical systems, airtightness, highperformance windows, house siting, shading or wind barrier, and window placement – Burnes designed how the house would look. He then gutted the house right back to the bricks, leaving three exterior walls (the front and two sides), along with the original stone rubble foundation and most of the original floor joists, with an addition taking the place of the original back wall. It was at this point Perida came on the job as site manager to oversee the construction process.
Burnes chose to insulate the envelope with a Roxul 1.5-inch comfort board insulation directly against the brick, rather than spray foam, in order to get insulation on the inner warm side rather than the exterior side. R-20 batts were used on top of the Roxul board on the main and second floors, while R-14 batts were placed in the basement stud walls on top of the spray foam.
For the basement, though, spray foam was used, creating R-20 to R-22 on the walls and underpinning, with R-14 batts placed in the basement stud walls on top.
Amvic Radiant barrier was used to enhance the basement floor heating system. Its reflective film barrier is placed under the floor slab to direct most of the heat back to the basement slab rather than the soil area.
All windows were replaced with double-glazed Weathershield windows, which offer about the same U-value as lower-end triple glazed, Burnes says. Fakro skylights, imported from Poland, flood the upstairs – especially the master bath, which has no outside window – with light. Another Fakro skylight adds light over the stairwell from the second to third floor, where there’s a bedroom with ensuite.
Glass railings are used throughout the house, again to promote a wide, open feeling. Along with fans by Haiku Home, the interior is anything but the closed off, chopped up, old feeling of north Toronto homes built a century ago. These are remote operated through the Nest system, and make use of an airfoil design to achieve high efficiency levels even when using low speed.
Ceiling heights vary throughout the house between 8’2″ and 8’8″, but the second floor master bedroom and ensuite luxuriate in 14-foot ceilings inside the master suite bath and bedroom and a separate vaulted entry to the third floor. While this reduces footprint on the upper level, it adds a lot in terms of spaciousness.
They also increased the home’s size to 3,900 square feet, including the basement. This governed the heat load for the HVAC system, which was designed to take into consideration square footage balanced against windows, heat loss, integrity of
construction and tests of the house. But even with the home’s incredible sense of space and highend finishes, Perida says it’s “kind of hard to ‘sell’ a sustainable product, unless the client is well informed and wants to make a difference.”
The cost to complete the home and addition was about $900,000 – on top of the purchase price. “Will prospective home owners be prepared to pay this much?” Burnes asks. “I think so. The efficiencies of the home will definitely pay off in the long run. It’s not only about future proofing against inflationary energy price hikes, although heat for the first winter ran only $60 a
month and the AC was similarly low. But it’s also about comfort, air quality, and lower maintenance costs that come with higher grade materials. Our materials are not dramatically different from basic inputs – PVC or similar materials hold paint and result in lower long-term cost.
I’m keen now to get final test results on air efficiency and expense. Already the indoor atmosphere is very comfortable.” It helps being in the north Toronto location, where real estate prices are among the highest in Canada and will only increase. So for builders thinking about similar experiments, it pays off to choose the area well, selecting one that can sustain the higher prices.
But Burnes also says this level of finish fits the neighbourhood, with its many secluded ravines: “[the area is home to] environmentally conscious residents who will embrace [being] walking distance to a subway stop, buses, schools, green grocers, shops and restaurants. This would apply to a range of neighbourhoods which benefit from densification.”
The house has definitely been a test lab for Burnes and his young company. As apprentices do, he learned through doing: sourcing good products, learning at seminars and conferences, testing building practices for the future, improving his technique and training a team.
So far, Burnes has only hired graduates from the George Brown building programs, Perida says. “At college, we learned the theory of construction with a stress on sustainability and high-performance building methods.
One of the reasons I wanted to work for JD was his method of building and his commitment to constructing high performance, whether it was new homes or retrofit renos.” Like the other grads, Perida worked as an apprentice after college and before starting with Arbourdale. He believes in the apprentice model. “The value of the course is consistency of instruction, but in this industry you gain invaluable experience and knowledge on the job. That said, some contractors you work for are not keen on building beyond the code, and they continue building pretty typical homes. They’re accustomed to a particular method, and when they hire someone younger with different ideology who wants to learn to build better, there can be a clash.”
Perida and Burnes are both millennials, and like many others of their generation, are often driven by a need for purpose and belief in something good, even if they have to take less money for it. As Perida says, “I want to work for someone who builds to last, who believes in what they are doing, and who builds for future generations.” BB
Source: Alex Newman is a writer, editor and researcher at alexnewmanwriter.com
BETTERBUILDER.CA | ISSUE 23 | AUTUMN 2017