From The Editor
HOME BASE, Issue 5, 2017
The delight is in the details
I can spend hours touring historical buildings and marvelling at the craftsmanship that went into their construction and detailing. Modernism that follows the ‘less is more’ and ‘form follows function’ concepts just doesn’t appeal to me. I can gaze at, for example, University College Croft House in Toronto – a stunning Norman Romanesque example – or the Bank of Montreal in Montreal – Queen-Anne Revival at its finest – until the cows come home.
Gargoyles, marble or stone columns with a Doric, Ionic or Corinthian Green/Roman spin are right up my alley. I can appreciate the hours of labour that went into constructing edifices that include these details. Salisbury Cathedral in England devoured a day of my time when I visited the UK.
Other Canadian historical buildings that have occupied a considerable amount of my time are Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City; Chateau Laurier in Ottawa and Fort Garry in Winnipeg, all Grand Railway Hotels that were built with enormous attention to detail close to railway stations when this was the primary form of transportation from coast to coast.
I know that architectural design has changed considerably over the decades to cater to lifestyle changes, but I do believe that one of the underlying causes of the demise of ornate adornment has been the enormous increase in the cost of labour which now far exceeds the cost of building materials. I guess one cannot expect developers to pay skilled labourers to chip away at a piece of stone for hours on end to produce a decorative piece.
Even though most of our modern homes/buildings don’t offer much in the way of adornment of the old fashioned kind, I am in awe of the relief offered to drywall spaces above windows and fireplaces, adjacent to stairways and on ceilings and bulkheads by drywall art sculpture specialists like Canadian Bernie Mitchell. He uses drywall ‘mud’ to create stunning ‘pieces’ that can include blue herons, osprey, loons, horses, wolves and dogs in rural, mountainous and forest settings. With strategically located lighting these sculptures are works of art that enhance various spaces within the home. I was entranced when I watched his YouTube tutorial of a wolf and her cub surrounded by mountains and trees.
Although I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, I really envy craftsmen like Mitchell for their attention to detail and production of such beautiful sculptural pieces, as well as craftsmen from days of old who were skilled enough to provide us with details that have stood the test of time and continue to keep most of us enthralled with their beauty. Even gargoyles have a unique appeal.
HOME BASE ISSUE 4, 2017
A new recipe for concrete is more eco-friendly
Many moons ago, I remember a lecturer telling us that a creative writer worth his or her salt should be able to write an article about something as bland and uninspiring as concrete. Well, I didn’t ever try to prove him right or wrong at the time, but after all these years a new innovation in concrete longevity might just swing the odds in my favour.
Concrete has been around for about 2,000 years, ever since the Romans built the Pantheon and cracks have been inevitable, causing water infiltration and, if it gets to steel reinforcements (rebar), the structure could collapse.
Henk Jonkers of the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, has come up with a new invention called bio concrete. It is mixed like regular concrete but has an extra ‘healing agent’ added. Jonkers used bacillus pseudofirmus bacteria combined with calcium lactate in biodegradable plastic capsules and added them to wet concrete mix.
The bacteria thrive in alkaline conditions and produce spores that can lie dormant in stone-like, dry conditions for up to 200 years. When cracks occur and there is water ingression, the water opens the capsules, the bacteria germinate and multiply, feeding off the lactate, and combining the calcium with carbonate ions to form calcite (limestone) that is the repair material.
Jonkers says that the bio concrete combines nature with construction materials which improves the eco-friendly properties of concrete. There are three products: self-healing concrete, repair mortar and a liquid repair system that cater to old and new concrete situations and applications.
Architect Stefano Boeri has created a project called the City Forest in Liuzhai, China. This ‘green’ concrete jungle of high rises incorporates more trees than people – it is covered by almost 1 million plants and 40,000 trees, boosting solar energy and absorbing 10,000 tons of Co2 plus 51 tons of other pollutants. Other advantages are a decrease in temperature, creation of noise barriers and improved biodiversity. The project should be finished by 2020 and will house 30,000 people on 175 hectares.
Perhaps the City Forest should be constructed from bio concrete to ensure at least 200 years of longevity and incorporate the eco-friendly attributes of this concrete product. The ingenuity within the building industry never ceases to amaze me.
Issue 3, 2017
No matter what you call your cottage, savour the joy it brings
Spring is my favourite time of the year. Perennial greens complement deeper boreal evergreen hues to provide a subtle backdrop for blossoms in a variety of shades of pink and lilac, and dormant bulbs spring to life and satiate the landscape with a multitude of brilliant colours. This is the time that we, the human species, also emerge from winter hibernation and begin to yearn for rural country areas that offer open spaces, idyllic days and tranquil, peaceful nights. The pull of the great Canadian cottage, cabin, chalet or camp destination is upon us. Across the country our retreats are referred to in a variety of ways. The first time I heard the term ‘camp’ was when my daughter’s friend (who hails from Sudbury) referred to their summer refuge in this manner. Camps are indicative to New Brunswick and northern Ontario and the reference is thought to have been derived from camps that were popular in these two areas from a logging perspective. Cottage is the name of choice in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and eastern and southern Ontario.Cottage comes from English architecture – the originals being small abodes with ground floor living and a bedroom or bedrooms in the eaves. Peasant farmers in Scotland and England were called ‘cotters’ so it is obvious where this term originated from. ‘Cottage Country’ is a generalized reference for rural areas where city dwellers retreat to, usually on a lake, and closest to the major cities that they reside in. Newfoundlanders, British Columbians, Albertans and Saskatchewanians typically refer to summer retreats as cabins and in Quebec chalets abound. Manitobans refer to summer destinations as ‘The Lake’. For some unfathomable reason Cape Bretonites refer to their cottages as ‘bungalows’. This is from the Hindustani word that describes a low-slung house with a verandah. The British used these ‘bungalows’ as summer retreats in the foothills of the Himalayas to escape the stifling Indian lowland heat. How this was accepted as the norm for people in Cape Breton is anybody’s guess but it clearly has a British colonial origin. In this issue we feature a cottage renovation that involves two separate structures and a boathouse, and another circa 1825 Muskoka cottage restoration project. Both are exceptional examples of all that we, as Canadians, value in summer retreats. I wouldn’t be able to pick one if they were both offered up as an option to retreat to and while away some down time. Wherever you are across this great country of ours and whatever you retreat to (cabin, cottage, chalet, bungalow or camp) make it enjoyable and have fun.
Issue 2, 2017
Put power in the right hands
Most of us have heard about Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, co-founder and product architect of Tesla Inc. and Solar City. SpaceX is a company committed to exploring the possibility of “a true spacefaring civilization.” This brilliant entrepreneur intends to send humans to Mars by (at the latest) 2031 – his vision is to establish a colony on the planet by 2040 with a population of 80,000, to “reduce the risk of human extinction.”
Tesla Inc. produces electric motor vehicles – 2008 saw delivery of its sports car Tesla Roadster, the Model S sedan in 2012 and the Model X arrived on the market in 2015.
Solar City is forging ahead to help eliminate global warming through sustainable energy production. Solar City and Tesla are collaborating – electric vehicle batteries are being utilized to store solar energy.
Another of his proposals is a high-speed transportation system (Hyperloop) and a supersonic jet aircraft with electric fan propulsion – coined the Musk electric jet.
I am particularly proud of Musk given that he is a fellow expat South African, born in Pretoria and his high school education completed at Pretoria Boys’ High, the counterpart to the school that I attended, Pretoria Girls’ High. He moved to Canada, attended Queens University and then became a U.S. citizen where his entrepreneurial wings took flight.
The latest addition to the Tesla innovations is the solar tile for roofing applications. These tiles emulate the look of a conventional roof and will be available in four different glass tile styles: Tuscan, Smooth, Textured and Slate.
Made of quartz they are virtually indestructible – a high-efficiency solar cell produces energy and is overlapped by a coloured louvre film allowing the cell to blend into the roof and reduce the loss of solar gain. The last layer is tempered glass.
The jury is still out regarding the costs associated with installation of a solar tile roof but Musk is confident that these tiles will be a cost-effective solution for homeowners wanting to save money, increase the resale value of their homes or ensure that they have better control over their energy needs. This is estimated in conjunction with utility bill savings.
On the other hand, South Africa’s illustrious (tongue-in-cheek) Number One, President Jacob Zuma, is collaborating with the Russian power utility, Rosatom, to build at least 10 more nuclear reactors in the country – there is currently only one.
He has, thus far, been thwarted by the current Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, but there are rumblings that Gordhan will be replaced during a cabinet reshuffle to give Zuma, a compliant Finance Minister, to allow him to proceed with his ‘greedy’ nuclear power plans.
Apart from the fact that the country cannot afford the plants, I have to give my head a shake, the man leads the country and he must know how much sunshine and wind is available as an alternative, sustainable power source? Let’s hope that clearer heads prevail to prevent the installations.
Two men, both born and raised in South Africa, with one committed to clean, sustainable power sources and enhancing all of humanity, and the other hell-bent on installing increasingly obsolete (from a power perspective) nuclear plants and crippling a beautiful country.
Sustainable energy production is paramount to advance civilization and eliminate the future use of fossil fuels, and it is individual brilliance of Musk’s nature that gives me some confidence in the possibility that the human race will endure and thrive.
Issue 1, 2017
This small home option is a unique idea for affordable housing
I have always had a penchant for small houses – houses being the operative word. I am not keen on apartment, condo or loft living which also classify, for the most part, as small. My biggest bug-bear is the high-rise attitude of these structures. I don’t do well above four floors and prefer to keep my feet on terra firma or as close to it as possible.
In today’s world of spiralling utility costs (particularly Ontario’s Wynnesque-style increasing hydro bills) it makes sense to reduce square footage and, as an end result, the associated heating and cooling costs.
One area of ‘small’ house construction that has captured my interest is shipping container homes. Some of the homes that I have perused have been downright cozy and include all the amenities that one could possibly want in a small space.
According to my research, there are some 17 million empty shipping containers across North America and most are standard sizes of 8-foot-wide by 8.5-foot-high and either 20- or 40-foot-long. The cost of each container is approximately $3,400.
One 40-foot container can supply about 300 square feet of living space – put a few of these together and a good sized, small house can come to fruition.
One homeowner cautioned about making sure you view the containers prior to purchase – there are containers in good shape and others that have sailed the seven seas on one or two many more occasions and are dented and corroded.
It is essential to insulate these steel structures to prevent condensation, particularly in colder climates. As a general consensus it appears that spray foam insulation is considered to be one of the best forms of insulation although it is more expensive. Other alternatives are blanket (or roll) insulation or insulated panels. Both roll and insulated panels need stud walls assembled prior to installation.
There are some opinions that container homes could be ideal for infill or affordable housing especially in inner cities where land is at a premium.
However, some say that the cost of having to erect stud walls within the container to accommodate the insulation is similar to the cost of a stick-built home. There are also opinions involving compromising the integrity of the container when window and door openings are involved which could spike costs by having to include steel beams within the structure.
If you are considering this form of construction, take a look at our article called Spray Foam Facts that looks at the inner machinations of spray foam insulation. I think the seamless vapour barrier that the spray foam affords one probably outweighs the need to be frugal – rather save on other elements of construction.
Here’s to 2017 and all that it has and will have to offer us in the building industry.
Issue 6, 2016
Nesting at its Best
Investing in a home can make for a nice nest egg
Friends of ours bought their home in West Vancouver, B.C. in 1995, just prior to the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997. Many Hong Kong residents were buying up properties in Vancouver, pushing up prices and making it almost impossible for many average Canadians to purchase homes in that city (and its surrounds).
At the same time, we went prospecting for a new home in Vancouver, with the intention of moving to that part of the country, but returned to Toronto empty handed because we couldn’t purchase anywhere near the same caliber of home in Langley, B.C. for the price that we could sell our home in the Greater Toronto area. The discrepancy was that great.
The ‘hot’ Vancouver Metro and surrounding markets don’t seem to have slowed, with Chinese investors buying up residential properties, and reportedly pushing up prices, reportedly by 30 per cent in a year in some cases. In July the B.C. Labour provincial government imposed a 15 per cent tax on foreign owned properties to try and arrest the exponential increase in property prices in the city.
To date, even that tax doesn’t seem to have significantly slowed the demand in Vancouver, but it is early days yet and the impact may be more evident in 2017.
Our youngest daughter lives in Kelowna, B.C. and during my visits to her through the summer, I met a few couples who had ‘sold up’ in Vancouver and moved to Kelowna, purchasing a property of similar stature but costing a whole lot less than its Vancouver counterpart.
Consequently, prices in Kelowna have also started to climb but there is nothing wrong with retirees pocketing a few extra thousand dollars to pad the retirement fund and in such a magnificent part of the province.
My cousin just sold his home in Schomberg, Ontario for a hefty profit after only living in it for three years. I believe he realized a 30 per cent profit and has hedged his bets by purchasing a ‘fixer upper’ six bedroom log home just outside of Barrie, Ontario with the intention of renovating and flipping the home – it’s far too large for the three of them but he is looking at it as an investment.
I, on the other hand, am convinced that the bubble is going to burst and don’t want to be caught short by selling, buying ‘up’ and flipping a property. Maybe we should consider selling our home and renting something more modest to ride out the wave and see where it washes up.
The jury is out but, statistically, investing in property still seems to be a solid bet so we will probably sit tight and see what the New Year brings. It’s time to hunker down for the winter and enjoy the upcoming festive season.
To one and all, the Homes & Cottages team wishes you all the very best for the holidays and a wonderful 2017 – whatever it may bring.
Issue 5, 2017
Doors represent much more than just decor
“The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.” — Confucius
One day when I was seven years old, my older sister locked me out of the house. Although I cannot recall why, I am sure I deserved it. We had a glass panelled front door and I furiously kicked the bottom panel until it fractured into a glass spider web. Our punishment was that we were not allowed to go to the pantomime Cinderella that night, and I have never forgotten the incident, nor kicked in another door again. I did, however, grow up with a love and appreciation of all that doors do and represent.
The doors of Quebec City are some of my favourites. Years ago I spent an afternoon photographing the most memorable ones and I have a couple of poster-sized images of doors in my home. There is something intriguing about doors and the many metaphors they represent. Closed door policy denotes intrigue and mystery. A revolving door shows a lack of permanence. When one door closes, another one opens, representing possibility. Wolves scratching at the door suggests poverty. Got your foot caught in the door — betrayal. A door is also symbolic of protection since it shields those inside.
I also enjoyed Alice in Wonderland as a child and was particularly intrigued by the small door in the circular room that was hidden behind a curtain. Alice had to unlock it and then shrink in size by drinking a potion to gain access to the enchanted garden.
Then there is the 1960s rock band called The Doors. Jim Morrison, the lead singer, was controversial and created songs that were dark, yet memorable and meaningful. Apparently the band was named after Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception and the title was a reference to a quote by William Blake: If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. You can see how this would have appealed to Morrison and influenced his lyrics.
During medieval times there was often a door within a door, called a wicket, to allow pedestrians through to the castle without having to open the grand double doors. This provided safety and security. Usually the door was just wide enough to allow only one person through at a time. The photo of one of my favourite wicket doors is shown here. This was taken at Cape Point Vineyards in South Africa and shows the rustic carving above the door and the wicket door positioned within the larger double doors.
The front door of a home is one of the first things that I look at when we receive images for a feature article. I think a front door is indicative of the personality of the homeowners. If you have a unique front door, please send me an image of it because we would like to showcase interesting front doors. Also include a description indicating why you chose it and what doors mean to you.
Fall is upon us so enjoy this time of transition and transformation — as we go through the door of one season and into the next.
Janice Naisby, Editor-in-Chief