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If You Build It

You may recognize Carlos Köppen as the head bartender at Jackson’s Hole & Grill in Nelson, British Columbia. He’s worked there for 12 years. What you might not know is that he is building his family a house with the same two hands that serve up Caesars on Wing Night to local residents. 

Carlos lives with his partner Julia, the wholesale manager at Kootenay Bakery, and seven-year-old daughter Aria in Krestova, BC. When Carlos first moved to the area, he lived in Nelson before buying a two acre property in Krestova in 2012. 

Are you familiar with the village of Krestova? It’s nestled 30 kilometres west of Nelson, at the south end of the Slocan Valley. Krestova was home to some of the first Doukhobor pioneers to this area. Today, you will see gravel pits, pastoral small farms, and historical tidbits that remain. There are still Doukhobors living there as well as a range of other residents.

Carlos and Julia’s property has a small old house on it which was in a state of disrepair when they purchased the land. 

“The property itself was ideal. I had this in mind when I bought this property, to build something like this, a passive solar home. I wanted a property that sloped to the south and had some exposure.” Carlos broke ground on the new house three years ago. 

Building a home makes financial sense for this family of three. 

“My year-to-year costs should be somewhere south of $500 for everything. Energy, water, heating, cooling. It’s all about stacking your functions. So your wall not only supports your structure, but it’s also your heating tank and your air conditioning system and is built like a bunker,” he laughs. “So it’s extremely strong.”

Although not a builder by trade, building is in Carlos’ blood. His father is a master woodsmith, carpenter, and timber framer. Carlos learned many skills from him as a teenager and helped with many projects. This experience is Carlos’ first time building a house, although he has built sheds and done home renovations. 

In 2016, he spent a month in New Mexico at a home building academy learning to build a passive solar earth shelter.

Carlos opens the doors that he and his dad built together.

The principle of this type of house, he says, is that “The house takes care of all your basic needs. It heats itself; it cools itself. It collects its own power, it collects its own water, and treats its own grey water as well. It’s not fully self-sustainable, but it definitely helps take the edge off trying to keep up with water bills and power bills. The whole point is to build it all into the design so that you’re not spending so much on living.”

In the training program, he says, “You live there and help on various builds at various stages of completion. So I did a lot of pounding tires, plastering, finishing work, putting in windows. And there is classwork as well, to learn the theory behind this kind of build.” The building style that he focused on in this course informed his design of his home.

Carlos’ primary motivation for building a home goes well beyond the financial.

“It’s a little bit of everything. I want to have a roof over my head, and I want to have fewer bills and do good for the planet. So it’s a trifecta.”

The family is living in the improved old small house for now. 

“The project is effectively in my backyard. ” Carlos works on it when he’s not working at the restaurant. He says, “We’re putting our foot on the gas this year to get it done by the end of the summer 2021. Knock on wood.”

When it’s finished, the house will have plenty of room for the family, with an 1,100 square foot living space and 650 square foot greenhouse. 

Passive solar homes are actively working

There is a wonderful simplicity to this type of home. Carlos was largely attracted to building this kind of house because he wouldn’t need to source a huge amount of manufactured materials. Since the house is made 80% from earth, sourcing was pretty easy. The walls are a sand and clay mixture purchased in BC from West K Concrete Ltd. in Genelle. 

So, how will a house designed for life in New Mexico work in our rainy, snowy, and at times freezing conditions? Carlos modified his home for the Kootenay climate. 

“I built in a poor man’s geothermal system.” He explains that there are a series of tubes along the back wall of the house that draw cool air through the ground. This air is heated by the wall. The inverse happens in the summer time as warm air is cooled to cool the house. 

He also added extra insulation and constructed extra-wide overhangs to protect the body of the house. He says that shedding the snow in the winter is vital to preserve the main house. The heating system is surprisingly simple. 

“The sand-clay is a thermal mass. So effectively, you’re using the wall on three sides, eight feet tall and roughly four feet thick; that’s basically a heat battery. So, during the day in the winter, the sun comes in and heats all that mass, and then basically that mass will then let that heat out again when the sun goes down (and warms the house). It’s always trying to achieve equilibrium between your living space and the walls. It does the inverse in the summertime.” 

Walls built of earth.

The insulation he uses is rock wool produced in Grand Forks. Rock wool, made of recycled slag (a waste product that comes from metal processing), is shredded into a fine mineral fibre which is double-layered. He also uses insulated concrete form which helps maintain a sunny temperature inside. Other mechanisms help keep the temperature in check: double-paned windows on the front face and triple-paned windows on the interior face. 

“There are five panes of glass between the actual living space and the outside air. The greenhouse acts as a buffer zone. You go from outside to the greenhouse into the living space, so you keep the temperature stable.”

Hard to imagine having a greenhouse inside your house? Well, this one has many purposes. 

“The greenhouse is going to have a 30-foot grey water planter in it so the wastewater from the tub, shower, and bathroom vanities and the washing machine will go through the planter. It runs down a little course, and plants uptake that water.” Incredibly, after the grey water goes through the planter, it will then flush the toilets, helping conserve freshwater.  

If this all sounds complicated, it isn’t so to Carlos. 

“It’s a pretty simple system. It’s a couple of sump pumps and building the planter itself. But when it’s in the design from the get-go, it’s pretty simple. Certainly simpler than an HVAC system (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning System).”

What Carlos is doing is a cost-effective labour of love. 

Build with a plan

Building a home by yourself isn’t for everyone, so for people who still want to build an energy efficient home, Marc Brillon at Ellenwood has some tips. Marc is the co-owner and head of sales and design at Ellenwood Homes Ltd., a full-service design and consulting company operating in Nelson. Marc co-founded the company in 2008 with his wife, Lara. With a staff of between 12 and 14, the company builds four or five houses a year locally. They also do a lot of renovations. 

Marc advises that before you break ground on a new home, have a solid plan, which is exactly what Carlos did when he extensively researched and planned prior to his build. Marc stresses the importance of picking the right materials and having a smart design in place before the build begins. 

Marc Brillon of Ellenwood Homes

Marc says it is ideal to pick materials that are healthy for you, like materials that are made from natural substances like wood. He explains that materials can also be chosen that have a low carbon footprint, for example, by sourcing locally as Carlos has done. Carbon footprint in this case is how much energy the house will use, both in its production and in its use. Marc breaks this down further.

 “When you build a house, about 8% of resources and energy goes into building it. And then throughout the life of the house, 92% is used to maintain and heat the house. So that’s why it’s important to be energy efficient upfront.”

Homebuilding hurdles

Any way you slice it, building a home is a huge undertaking. Carlos speaks to this:

“The building has all of its inherent challenges like it’s hard work. Like you gotta get up and go do it, but there’s nothing that’s like world-ending difficult.” He relies on friends and family support here and there, although he’s mostly built the house with his own two hands. His friend, who owns a crane, helped him put up the necessary 30-foot beams. Help from neighbours Ron and Chris has also been invaluable during the course of the project. 

“It’s just asking the neighbours when you need to and buckling down and doing the work. If it weren’t for outside influences like the bureaucracy, I would be perfectly happy just building my house.” 

His biggest hurdles are the administrative hoops.

“The biggest challenges would probably be the bureaucracy surrounding getting approval to do things. It’s frustrating because it’s on the front end. Like you’ve got to write this test now if you want to build your own home, an owner-builder test. Which is not very well implemented.” 

The BC Housing Owner Builder Exam evaluates the knowledge a potential home builder has around construction basics and legal requirements that all homes must meet. This test came into place just days before Carlos went to submit his building permit application in 2017.

He worries that the construction lobby pushes to put structures in place like this test to make it more challenging for owner-builders to build their own homes. He believes that owner-builders are capable of constructing excellent homes. 

“We’re building homes for ourselves to live in, so we take extra care with it. While contractor-built homes can sometimes be rushed. I’m not saying that they’re all bad or anything, but if corners are cut, it’s probably going to be in the construction industry.” 

The challenges are even more significant for builders working on non-traditional homes like Carlos is. The extra costs, especially initially, can add up. 

“You’ve got to get building permits, which take a lot of doing, especially when you’re doing something unconventional. You’ve got to hire a bunch of third party consultants. Structural engineers, and you’ve got to get an energy audit on your plans. These buildings are proven to work, especially in this kind of climate, but (local) energy auditors don’t have the tools to be able to quantify a lot of the thermal mass properties and solar gain, and the buffer zone between the outside air and the living space, which is the greenhouse effectively, a lot of that didn’t get calculated into my plan. Because the whole south side is windows on paper, it looks like it’s going to blow energy out of the front of the house.” 

Carlos installed triple-pane windows to satisfy the local energy auditor. He says while it’s not the end of the world, he believes his home is over-built.

Marc at Ellenwood Homes believes that support at the outset from professionals can make a huge difference to an owner built house. He explains, “You want to make sure the house is oriented properly to take maximum advantage of sun exposures and also views and standard architectural features.” 

He also says, “Work with an energy consultant if you want to build it energy efficient and you have to do some testing. Houses are now way more involved than they used to be. You have to treat the house as a whole system. So unless you have a bit of education and training in that, I think you’re going to find it pretty difficult to build something that’s high performing in terms of energy use.”

Marc warns potential builders that there are some challenges that are unique to this area.  “There’s a little bit of a premium on sourcing materials because we’re somewhat isolated. That makes it a bit more expensive to build, but it’s not ridiculously higher.” However, the price of materials has skyrocketed since the onset of Covid-19. Lumber, for example, is at an all time high due to Covid-19 and has nearly tripled in price since last year. 

Marc says people are still building homes despite these financial challenges. Carlos certainly is pushing through these unexpected increases in costs. He’s come too far in his project to turn back. Plus, building this home has given his life much meaning. 

Jake is always on site.

Carlos has one wish for making this process easier for other home builders. While he is supportive of having a regulatory framework for building a home, he wishes it could be better implemented. He says, “The whole purpose of the BC building code is to move towards net-zero (carbon) or net negative building, and the building inspectors are not trained to evaluate a building like this. It’s all about liability. Because they don’t have the data or the experience they can’t sign off on it because if they do and something fails, they’re basically on the hook as far as legal liability goes.”

Building Towards a Better Future

Carlos makes sure to celebrate his construction wins. 

“My biggest success is that there’s an actual structure sitting there. I can’t think of anything better than that. And my marriage is still intact. Usually, when you build a house, you lose a spouse,” he laughs. It is truly a team effort. While he builds, his partner Julia is usually looking after their daughter Aria. 

Julia at the building site.

Carlos knew from the moment he set foot here 12 years ago that this was the place for him. 

“What’s not to like? I knew as soon as I got here 12 years ago, this was it. I can root down. I spent my 20s bouncing around Canada. East to west. This area is the best place going, I think. At risk of advertising that to the outside world,” he laughs again. Carlos shows us that having a sense of humour can help relieve the stress of home building. 

He is pretty content at the moment. He gets his social and financial needs met at the bar. 

“I’ve got a pretty decent work/life balance. Working on the house and then work at work, and then I’ve got a fair amount of time to hang out with my daughter, too. So it’s pretty ideal.” 

He’s already dreaming of one day buying another piece of land and building another passive solar home. He’s even mulling over the idea of trying to plan a build with multiple units that could be an affordable housing situation. There would be hoops to jump through to do that, he recognizes. That doesn’t stop him from dreaming. 

He hopes one day the barriers around home building lessen to improve the serious housing shortages that many communities face. 

“We should be facilitating building houses as opposed to roadblocking.”

Carlos at work as head bartender at Jackson’s Hole & Grill

Carlos advises people considering building an energy-conscious home to do thorough research. Other than the month course he took, he learned everything he needed to know regarding building from the internet. He recommends having a critical eye to find information on topics from design to materials to how-to tutorials. His original inspiration came from the project in New Mexico which he says was a great place to learn. 

 Carlos makes sure to be thankful for what he has. 

“We all live in paradise. Sometimes it’s good to take a moment to recognize that fact. It can be hard these days to count your blessings sometimes. I think we have it pretty good over here. I think the sketchier the world gets, the more we’re going to need this kind of building.”