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These basics aren't so basic anymore.

March 26, 2024

By David Godkin

When Henri Belisle, President of Burnaby, B.C.-based TQ Construction made that remark he was reflecting on his firm’s presence in Vancouver’s renovation market – first under the guidance of his father Ralph Belisle who founded the company in the spare bedroom of the family home in 1989.

What were the basics then and what are they now? Ask a homeowner and it’s always been about end product, said Belisle. “What people assume should be basic to even the simplest renovated house was not included ever years ago,” said Belisle, “for example, premium items like a heat pump, in-floor heating intricate door systems, and multi-point hardware.”

Today, don’t expect the contractor to include the cost of those items in project price, Belisle added. Jeff Bain, president of Port Coquitlam’s JKB Construction Ltd., agrees. But actual back to basics where contractor performance is concerned is driven by, among other things, technology, he says. “When I started out as a carpenter in 1979 it was all bricks and mortar, we were building boxes.”

“Now everything is energy efficiency, insulation, air tightness and mechanically driven solutions.” These have become the new basics in building renovation. Along with these are  tools no longer considered very essential, such as the once common manual level used years ago and now almost entirely replaced by lasers and thought key by most renovation contractors.

“We’re slowly getting away from every extension cord and air line as well, which pleases me because I’m always tripping over the damn things,” said Bain. Above all, “you have to be a smarter builder,” supported by the half dozen classes Bain takes every year “to upgrade our knowledge base. Everything keeps changing.”

For a medium sized contractor like TQ Construction specializing in additions, full home renos and high performance custom homes the basics are also technology driven. But once again squaring that with what the customer and renovator want is always a challenge.

Take the increasing demand for net-zero renos or energy efficiency. Increasing energy standards, accompanying that demand, focus the contractor’s attention on wall thickness and layout, for example, often set against limitations in architectural freedom.

“That’s because you need to factor heat loss into the building design itself as opposed to simply asking Does it look beautiful?” Belisle said. Pleasing windows styles run head on into more practical requirements. Many homeowners are very keen on Eurostyle tilt and turn handles, for example.

“However, in a higher performing house where you’re trying to maximize air tightness and insulation values you are often limited in the functionality of your windows,” said Belisle. “Or you have to go with a very expensive window that will meet a high-performance standard while having a more complicated operation.”

Go big or go home? 

In contrast to British Columbia’s recent Five Step mandate for more energy efficiency in new and custom-built houses, Mark Cooper views renovation as “more like a gradually changing dial,” where much needed changes will be mostly incremental.

Movement of that dial to more resilient, higher performance renovations will pose major changes for homeowners, added the president of North Vancouver-based Shakespeare Homes & Renovations Inc.

They will, for example, no longer be able to simply hire a contractor saying, “`I want to strip all my siding off, make my house airtight and outinsulate it with rigid foam panels to increase my R value for heat loss,’” without, Cooper noted, contractors “talking to the homeowner about mechanical needs.”

“Air tightness is a wonderful thing, but now you’re going from a house that naturally breathes to enveloping the house in an airtight environment where it no longer breathes,” Cooper explained. “And if you’re not doing something about that, you’re going to have structural failure and potentially an unhealthy house.”

Large scale renovations can be as complex or more so than new houses, he added. An existing structure will hold you back during renovation if there is no insulation beneath an older slab, for example. Ditto tying in an addition to a home to meet code while simultaneously failing to ask, “how you are addressing the old side of the house in conjunction with a renovation?”

Meantime, going for air tightness, insulation and mechanical requirements without the requisite knowledge and training “means you’re actually playing with something dangerous,” Cooper cautioned. By upping a wall’s R value and adding spray foam or outsulation while missing a mechanical requirement you create a dew point factor “where the air in your home is no longer being exchanged and you rot your structure.”

So are the basics, particularly in larger scale renovations, changing, Cooper was asked. “I think so,” he replied. Problem is many homeowners look to install heat pumps and electrification of their homes without fully realizing that the latter in particular “is a massive undertaking,” noted Cooper.

That said, advanced load sharing technology to add a dryer and car charger to a single charger is out there, provided you discuss it with a well-educated electrical contractor, Cooper stressed. “I don’t think anything is like what it was ten or twenty years ago.”

The same can be said on the HR side. Geotechnical consultants have become very common on renovation sites for excavation and even basic footings to ensure materials stability. Also of importance are structural engineers, of course, and notably energy consultants to help you obtain government sponsored energy rebates.

One more thing

Whatever you do don’t overlook basic comfort, said Cooper. “It is one of the most important features of your home.” Contractors need to know where comfort comes from. “Is it the couch you’re sitting on that’s cozy or is it a draft-free room?” he asks. “Is it on the thermal side preventing loss of heat through your quality, high performance windows while keeping cool in summer?”

In other words, think more deeply, Cooper urges contactors. Ask more questions. Ultimately, these drive the serious contractor to finding answers to these and other questions through better education and training. This, in turn, forms the knowledge base upon which the basics – never entirely carved in stone – are best understood and put into practice.

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