Last year, Jim Sandercock and Melanie Harmsma’s house got a panelized deep retrofit.
Learn what they have to say about living in the home after the retrofit.
But first, a panelized deep whatzit?
The Sandercock-Harmsma panelized deep retrofit was inspired by a Netherlands approach to deep retrofits known as EnergieSprong.
The builder who did the retrofit, Butterwick Projects, used cutting-edge imaging technology to design wall panels to perfectly fit the home’s exterior. The airtight panels were prebuilt off-site. Even the windows were pre-installed. After the panels were done and delivered to the site, Butterwick worked with a crane operator to attach them right to the outside of the house.
The Harmsa-Sandercock house got its new digs last summer. The project was the first panelized deep retrofit of a single-family home in North America.
If you’re one of the neighbours, you got to watch the transformation in real time and saw the house go from this...
But Melanie and Jim will tell you there’s much more to the retrofit than the brand-new, low-maintenance exterior and new veranda that perfectly fits in with the vibe of their historic Highlands neighbourhood in Edmonton, Alberta.
The house is now way more comfortable, the indoor air is fresher and cleaner, and the building’s so energy efficient it can get all its energy from renewables.
Unless you count the entire structure being leaky as “ventilation”, letting air in and out like nobody’s business, the only actual ventilation in the home allegedly used to be the kitchen ceiling fan. But during the retrofit, crews found out the ducting just vented straight into the attic and was plugged with an old wasp’s nest to boot.
The retrofit replaced the home’s entire HVAC system, including that useless kitchen vent, with a state-of-the-art air-to-air heat exchanger that provides continuous ventilation with a fraction of the energy. Thanks to that and the airtight structure that prevents outside pollutants from getting inside, the family now enjoys clean, fresh air year-round.
Melanie’s seasonal allergies plagued her pre-retrofit even when inside her home when the apple trees started blossoming. This spring, the first since the retrofit, she’s enjoying the luxury of clean, contaminant-free indoor air.
“I don't have my usual allergies when I’m home now, but as soon as I go out the door, I start sneezing,” said Melanie.
Melanie also says the improved indoor air quality gave her peace of mind during the tail end of the pandemic.
“When we were dealing with COVID, isolating sick people in different areas for the house, it felt like it was possible to keep the disease somewhat limited because it's going through this better filtration system.”
The Sandercock-Harmsma 1950s home used to be a perfect example of how hard it is to maintain even temperatures in an old house.
Now Jim and Melanie’s kids can divide family history into the Before Times, when they had to sleep in the basement during heatwaves and avoid it during cold snaps, and the new era of Deep Retrofit Magic, where every room and floor in the house is comfortable regardless of the outside temperature.
They’ll think fondly of the time their father, an expert in green energy, used an old mattress to block off the second-floor landing to stop cool air from escaping down the stairs one sweltering summer night.
Jim says the kids are happier today and have stopped migrating to different parts of the house because of uncomfortable temperatures.
“Normally, when you get to the high 20s or 30-degree temperatures, the kids are dying and sleeping in the basement. But last week, we hit 32 degrees, didn’t even have the new air conditioning on, and no one needed to sleep in the basement.”
Last winter, Jim also didn’t see frost build up on the new triple-pane windows, which used to happen when outside temperatures dipped below freezing due to condensation.
That nice, stable, even temperature throughout Jim and Melanie’s house is a hallmark of a deep retrofit done right. Making the house airtight, installing high-performance windows and doors, and dramatically increasing R values of the insulation are critical if you don’t want your home (and your energy bills) at the mercy of extreme outside temperatures.
Who knows! But Jim and Melanie did, and now they’re living the no-utility-bill dream.
In spring 2022, Jim and Melanie watched their natural gas meter get removed and the line capped off. They’re still plugged into the City of Edmonton’s power grid and did pay for power during the darkest days last winter. But they expect a net utility bill of a grand total of zero at the end of the first year since the retrofit because they can sell power back to the utility company in the summer thanks to their solar modules.
“We’ll never have to pay for natural gas again. And now that summer is coming up, we're going to make a lot of money off our solar. So I think on an annual basis, we probably will have no utility bill,” said Jim.
The couple got here by going electric. The panelized deep retrofit made their home so energy efficient it could get its energy from solar. But they also needed to replace their gas HVAC equipment and appliances with new units that could run on power. Only the combination of an efficient structure, renewable energy and electrification allowed Jim and Melanie to say goodbye to utility costs for the rest of their lives.
So Jim and Melanie never have to pay a utility bill again. Mission accomplished, right?
Well, only partially.
Jim and Melanie dove into this project for a couple of reasons. Reducing their monthly expenses as they get ready for retirement was just one.
They were willing to be the guinea pig for a new approach to deep retrofits never tried on a single-family home in North America for motivations completely unrelated to finances. The couple wanted to take responsibility for reducing their carbon emissions, show other homeowners it’s doable, and role model climate action for their kids.
“Going through this process grew the kids' sensitivity and understanding of their carbon footprint,” said Melanie. “Last week, our 13-year-old realized that we can sell electricity back to the utility company, and he was running around the house shutting off the lights,” Melanie said.
For Jim, who is also chair of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s Alternative Energy Tech program, doing the retrofit was a chance to do practical research and development on his home that would make a meaningful contribution to knowledge in the green building sector.
“Energiesprong number one came with some bumps along the way, including some costs we didn't anticipate. But I think the early adopters will accept some of that stuff, so by the time it gets to the mainstream, those things will be all smoothed out,” said Jim.
Retrofit Canada agrees completely - there's a long road to tread to get Canada to net-zero, but leaders like Jim and Melanie are paving the way for other homeowners.
Retrofit Canada’s mission is to share solutions, eliminate barriers, and accelerate deep retrofits in Canada to avert a climate catastrophe.
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