Newly net-zero home in Oaklands has a little footprint but a big impact

Homeowner, entrepreneur, and City of Victoria Climate Champion Wendy Littlefield hopes to inspire her local and global neighbours

by Kiley Verbowski
May 11, 2021

Newly net-zero home in Oaklands has a little footprint but a big impact

Homeowner, entrepreneur, and City of Victoria Climate Champion Wendy Littlefield hopes to inspire her local and global neighbours

by Kiley Verbowski
May 11, 2021
Photo: Kiley Verbowski / Capital Daily
Photo: Kiley Verbowski / Capital Daily

Newly net-zero home in Oaklands has a little footprint but a big impact

Homeowner, entrepreneur, and City of Victoria Climate Champion Wendy Littlefield hopes to inspire her local and global neighbours

by Kiley Verbowski
May 11, 2021
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Newly net-zero home in Oaklands has a little footprint but a big impact
Photo: Kiley Verbowski / Capital Daily

The next time you walk up the Fernwood Road hill between Haultain Street and Kings Road, keep an eye out for the glittering solar panels atop Wendy Littlefield and Don Feinberg’s newly retrofitted net-zero home. While you’re there make sure to check out their Little Free Library, and if you catch Wendy puttering around the garden you might get to hear this story for yourself.

Inside, the 1912 arts and crafts architecture home is bright, airy, and the exact same temperature top to bottom thanks to the heat pump. The open floor plan and two guest bedrooms will invite plenty of future entertaining, and guests might even catch a few notes of the neighbours singing opera while enjoying a hot summer evening on one of the home’s three porches.

New local fir floors furnish the main floor, and the original fir upstairs has been patched and painted instead of being stripped and towed to the dump. The leather and steel built-in light fixtures were locally made in their architect’s workshop and the historic William Morris wallpaper in the front room maintains the core element of the architectural movement: craftsmanship.

A living room with a wood-burning stove, bookshelves, and historic wallpaper.
Photo: Kiley Verbowski / Capital Daily

The two-storey house was on the market in early 2018, and according to Littlefield, theirs was the only offer that wasn’t planning to tear it down. So, the former owners accepted the offer and befriended the couple—they even travel to garden centres with Littlefield to help outfit the garden.

Littlefield and Feinberg knew they wanted to renovate the home according to green principles, “but the more we talked to contractors, we realized that that was a very amorphous term.”

So, they settled on a goal with tidier measurements of success: zero emissions.

Thus commenced a 535-day project with labour and material shortages due to the pandemic, a family emergency in Chicago last September coupled with border restrictions that continue to trap Feinberg in the US, a handful of UVic students who had their international field course derailed, and hundreds of new associates, neighbours, and friends who made it all possible.

Littlefield moved in earlier this year, and in February 2021 the home’s EnerGuide results read 0 gigajoules per year, as opposed to 292 GJ/year and an annual 17.9 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions before renovations began.

“We’re facing an imminent depression and a climate crisis, so wouldn’t this be a really great time to imagine new ways of building and maintaining and providing energy to our homes?”

Paying it forward

Wendy Littlefield grew up in New York City and studied architectural history at Yale, where she met her husband Don. Forty-two years later they have many fond adventures and entrepreneurial pursuits to reminisce about, including a long stint as Belgium beer importers and brewers.

After convocation, they spent a few years in Europe, but settled in Cooperstown, NY, in their late twenties. That’s when Littlefield noticed there wasn’t any locally grown produce in their grocery stores. She started a farmers’ market, and her journey into sustainable food systems and ways of living began. From there she opened the first rural Slow Food USA chapter, and is now opening Canada’s first Yale Blue Green chapter in Victoria, for alumni interested in the environment and sustainability.

In 2018, after selling their car and Cooperstown apartment, the couple set off on a “senior gap year” to figure out what the next phase of their life together would look like. Only 10 days into their trip they arrived in Victoria and had the sense they had found something very special. “We just kind of bookmarked it. This place reminded us of all the places we've ever lived and loved rolled into one.”

They soonfound the listing for 2654 Fernwood Rd. “We thought it had good bones, it was very dated, and the stucco was ugly.”

Suddenly, the mission of their golden years became clear. They would renovate the home and use it as a case study for those wanting to make a similar impact. “Now the role is to be Johnny Appleseed,” she says.

But renovating wasn’t easy, or fast. After many months of planning, they raised the upstairs ceilings, added a second bathroom upstairs, and transformed a back room into another porch. A rainwater-fed cistern was built to irrigate the backyard, which will soon be home to a native plant garden and vegetables. All windows got triple-pane replacements and the roof rafters were extended to fit thicker insulation, which cuts down on heat loss.

The exterior of a house with two decks.
Photo: Kiley Verbowski / Capital Daily

In the nearly two-year process, Littlefield was anointed a City of Victoria Climate Champion, a program that focuses on “action, mobilization and behaviour change in line with the largest emissions sources in the City’s Climate Leadership Plan.” Low carbon high-performance buildings are one target area of the plan, alongside low carbon mobility options, waste management, municipal operations, and adapting climate-resilient infrastructure early.

Littlefield’s collaboration with other local Climate Champions prompted her to ask: “how do I pay it forward? How do I make it possible for other people to more easily follow in these footsteps? If I could convince 33 other people to do what I had done, or some fashion of it, that's what I would call success.”

The first step of her advocacy mission was to create a central resource database for each element of their renovation. With a little bit of help, a website was born to document the process and store information for their physical or electronic neighbours to undertake similar projects. The goal is to alleviate some of the stress they had at the outset of the project when they didn’t know where to turn, or were overwhelmed by options. “You can see what we did and use that as a starting point to say, ‘Well, I don't have to make those four phone calls,’” she said.

Between the Free Little Library and a poster that hung off the bones of the house for months reading, “We’re making this old house net zero,” hundreds of people stopped to chat. Those connections spawned larger networks, which introduced Littlefield to Andrew Namur of AGM Enterprises who provided all their excavation and manure needs, and John Ho, Community Energy Specialist with the City who provided countless resources.

The project’s spirit made it a perfect fit for Cam Owens and his students to participate in when COVID-19 grounded the Sustainable Cities geography class he teaches at UVic. Typically the summer field school has a European component where students get to study urban planning and sustainable development abroad, but instead students FaceTimed geographers and architects in Amsterdam from their own bedrooms.

To fulfill the hands-on component of the course, students produced research projects that focused on different aspects of the home renovation which are published on the website. Georgia Ginther and her classmate Aza Mather created a video about the architectural process, and she says that it has inspired her to take on a similar project for her future home.

In the video, Taylor McCarthy, the project contractor with Frontera Homes, says, “It’s really important to think about what the cultural value of the home is. When something has the structural integrity of a home like this, plus aesthetically and architecturally it’s pleasing to the eye, there’s a strong argument to keep it.”

The retrofitted home features exposed beams and the original staircase. Littlefield employed a company called Hall It Up to source quality wood from other demolition projects in the city, and fell in love with two stained glass panes, which she later learned came from a demolished home just blocks away. As for furnishings, almost everything came from the junkyard or an auction house, besides a few new items worth splurging on.

“The concept of sustainability is to look around and recognize that you already have everything you need,” Ginther said.

A sunny kitchen with blue cabinets.
Photo: Kiley Verbowski / Capital Daily

‘If it’s not affordable, it’s not sustainable’

According to 2016 data, 12% of all solid waste in Canada is generated by construction, renovation, and demolition.

Contributing to the landfill as little as possible was very important to Littlefield, and thankfully the home had virtually zero asbestos or other hazardous materials that needed to be discarded. As for the ugly stucco, they learned that they could shingle over the original finish, which ended up costing $35,000 in labour, but cut their total landfill waste by two thirds.

Littlefield is hesitant to share the total price tag, and is still in the process of dismantling their original budget. “I have to peel away that which is essential to achieving net zero versus those things that, aesthetically, we wanted to do, because we wanted to make our house as pretty as we could.”

Some basic costs that can’t be avoided are triple pane windows, insulation, solar panels, and a heat pump to replace the oil tanks that disproportionately populate older neighbourhoods like Oaklands. Luckily, Littlefield was involved in a Fernwood NRG solar panel bulk buy from Viridian Energy Co-operative that cut down on costs and avoided manufacturing delays due to COVID-19. Their south-facing solar panels now generate 110% of the home’s energy needs.

The exterior of the house with solar panels on the roof.
Photo: Kiley Verbowski / Capital Daily

“Let's say you bought a house for $700,000, my hope is for $150,000, you can make it net zero, and the payback is relatively quick,” she said. “We spent a lot more than that, but part of what we did was seismic upgrades and marble in certain rooms, and so on and so forth.”

David Scott, of Scott & Scott, the Vancouver-based architects that took on this unique project, refers to the upfront renovation payments as deferred costs. “You may choose something that lasts 20 years instead of 100 years,” he said. “The thing that lasts you 100 years may cost you more upfront but in the life of the house, replacing something four times versus not replacing it may have the same cost. It’s very difficult for people to endure that upfront cost.”

Scott and Littlefield agree that financing programs need to incentivize these long-term investments.

“I believe the government is going to have to get involved with these sort of pace loans, where you or I get a zero interest loan to do the things the government wants us to do,” Littlefield says. “And then the debt remains with the house. So it doesn't matter if it's your forever house or not, you do the right thing.”

Littlefield hopes that by getting the conversation started about living in a low-impact home that doesn’t sacrifice any creature comfort, she will inspire others to take the leap too.

“I think the more of these that happen,” Scott says, “the more that people will realize that it’s possible and that there’s value in doing it.”

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