Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Kitchen cabinets: IKEA or custom?

Our windows will be arriving soon, and we need to make a decision about where to buy our kitchen cabinets. We have spent several months fine tuning our kitchen layout with the help of IKEA’s great online planning tool. Highly recommend to everyone! We are finally done with the plan and happy with it. Here is the design:

IKEA cabinets would really work for us. They are durable, easy to assemble, very affordable and we love the style. The only major issue is that the particle board used for the cabinets contain added formaldehyde. There is a ton of information online about the toxic effect of added formaldehyde on health. While IKEA claims to adhere to European standards they still use particle board that contains added formaldehyde. Once you are aware of this information it is hard to just ignore it.

The alternative to IKEA cabinets is to buy used on-line or to go custom.  It is challenging to find used cabinets to match our space and custom cabinets would cost 2 or 3 times as much as IKEA cabinets.  We have been looking for a cabinet maker that would use no formaldehyde-added plywood, 0 VOC glue and 0 VOC paint. We contacted a cabinet maker in Guelph and will be meeting with him this weekend. Can’t deny that money is a major issue in this decision but so is a healthy environment. Hopefully, a face-to-face meeting will make it easier for us to decide.

Monday, 28 May 2012

The black and white ruffled skirt

To be more sustainable, I made myself a goal of not buying any new clothes this year. Instead, I will try to remake clothes that I already have but don’t wear. Some of the dresses I have are too big, others too short, some I just never liked and others I just got too tired of. I bet some of you can relate to this. I love shopping at thrift stores and often come home with great skirts and dresses that need just a BIT of adjusting. My challenge is to find the time and motivation to do so.

I looked through my closet full of sewing projects-in-waiting and decided to start with the one that seemed the easiest and could provide immediate gratification. During one of my bargain hunting trips I picked up this great, 100% cotton, black and white ruffled skirt for $2.

The skirt was in great condition and I liked the black and white contrast and the lace detail on it. There was only one issue with the skirt; it was size 14, which was a bit too large for me. Adjusting  it to my size was not complicated; I just opened up the waist and took out the elastic.

I love drawstring skirts for summer, so I decided not to use another elastic but go for a string that can be tied on the side. I picked a yellow ribbon, instead of a simple string, to add a bit of colour and soften up the black and white contrast. I pulled the ribbon into the waist opening with the help of a safety pin. I might even alternate between red and yellow ribbons, just for fun. Voila, here is my new summer skirt.

I feel great about finishing up my first sewing project of the season. It took me about 45 minutes to do with all the planning. I know for sure that I will get great use out of this skirt.

Friday, 25 May 2012

How we decided on aluminium windows

We finally ordered our new windows and they should arrive in about 4 weeks. A big step in our renovation planning. We ordered 3 windows for now; one for the bathroom and two for the kitchen. 

Our current windows are commercial aluminum with brown frames and tinted glass. There is nothing wrong with our windows other than the fact that two of them don’t open and the others have only tiny sliders at the bottom.  The sliders don’t provide much ventilation and they don’t seal well. Also, I am not a big fan of the brown frames and the tinted glass. See for yourself.

Our current kitchen windows

We want to have windows that open fully – casement style – especially in the kitchen and upstairs bedrooms. We could easily cool off the house in the summer by releasing the hot air accumulated upstairs.  Also, we are considering going without an exhaust fan for our new gas stove (I know, very non-comformist move). Instead, we will rely on opening our windows in the kitchen for ventilation; the old fashioned way. We will save money on our electricity bill and have a healthier environment.

Our starting point for the window research was Homestars We met with 4 window salesmen and received quotes for the replacement of all our windows. At that point we were looking at vinyl windows, even though we felt it just didn’t make sense to rip out aluminum windows and replace them with vinyl. After some research we learned that although vinyl windows are the cheapest they are potentially the worst window frames you can buy for health and environmental reasons. We quickly abandoned the vinyl idea and looked for other alternatives. We considered wood frames but felt they might be too high maintenance and were concerned that they were chemically treated. We also looked into fiberglass, which is highly recommended as a window frame material by many. The two Ontario based fiberglass window manufacturers we looked at had some questionable references on Homestars and we did not feel comfortable buying from either of them. 

In the end we decided to go with aluminum casement style windows with LOW-E solar gain glass that are Energy Star qualified. Every window sales person wanted to persuade us to buy vinyl. Although aluminum frames are mainly used for commercial applications in Canada, we like them because they don’t off-gas, don’t warp over time, last longer than vinyl, are maintenance free and have thermal breaks that make them more energy efficient. They are slightly more expensive than vinyl, but we felt they would be the healthiest window frames we could get.

We chose Aluminum Window Designs windows because we liked their design, strength and Energy Star rating. 

Window shopping in the showroom 

For the window installers we picked Encore Windows .  They have excellent references on Homestars and work with Aluminum Window Designs. We also felt very comfortable with their sales rep, Dave, who was really patient with our needs.  He accommodated our request to use 0 VOC caulking and foam for the installation. He was the only rep that actually listened to our concerns and understood our need to use healthier materials.  He even arranged to have the vinyl jamb replaced with an aluminum one.

We went with the classic white colour for the frames, inside and out. Misha needed a bit of persuasion about the white. He REALLY likes the brown frames. I persuaded him with my MS Publisher mock-up.  He took one look at the pictures and was a convert. Phew......that worked :)

We can’t wait for our new windows to arrive!

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Natural wood floor refinishing

We were happy to find hardwood floors in surprisingly good condition under the old carpet.  The floors needed sanding and a few repairs and we wanted new hardwood laid in the back main floor hallway to replace the original tiles.  We hired a local contractor to sand and install the new hardwood.

We love the rustic, natural hardwood floor look but were shocked to learn that almost all widely used floor finishing products are toxic and release large amounts of VOCs. We knew that we didn’t want to use any renovation product that could be harmful to our health. I searched extensively for a natural product and settled on unrefined Tung Oil, which is a natural wood finishing oil used on ships in China for centuries. It took a few conversations to persuade Misha that using natural oil on our floors was a great alternative to polyurethane.  We bought the Tung Oil and citrus solvent thinner from the friendly folks from Homestead House in Toronto.  Misha was concerned about the maintenance and durability of the oil, but became a convert quickly as the oil application began.

Once the floors were sanded, Tung Oil was surprisingly easy to apply. The first two applications were cut with 100% citrus solvent to increase penetration and applied with buffing machines by the contractor. 

Tung oil being applied by the contractors.

The citrus solvent smelled great, but is a natural irritant, so I had to stay out of the house for a week, while it gradually evaporated. Misha, with the help of a friend, applied an additional 3 layers of pure Tung oil (without it being cut). Each application took about 90 min. to complete.  The result was a rich, bronze, matte finish that astounded even the contractor. 

Finishing up the Tung oil application.

The contractor was so smitten by the look that he was going to recommend it to his clients.  Any scratches from pets or heavy use can easily be eliminated with the wipe of oil on a rag. One year later our floors looks like the day we applied the oil. The oil brings out the natural grain of the wood and we love the feel of the natural wood under our bare feet. Using Tung Oil as a floor refinisher was, so far, the best green renovation decision we have made.  By Mia

BEFORE  - Stairs with the original polyurethane finish. Notice the yellow tone of the wood.

AFTER - Stairs sanded and finished with Tung oil

BEFORE - Living room floor with original polyurethane finish.

In process - Just after sanding, ready for the oil.

AFTER - Tung oil applied to the floor. 

Bedroom 1 after Tung oil application.

Bedroom 2 after Tung oil application.

Eco paint

Choosing the type of paint to use on the walls and doors was a big decision for us. We wanted to go with the most natural paint possible. I was open to using 100% natural milk paint on the walls but Misha was a bit hesitant about the application. We may try milk or clay paint in our basement once we renovate it, so stay tuned. At the end we decided to use a 0% VOC paint manufactured by a small, local paint company called Homestead House. The price is higher than regular paints but you will get a great “green” product, a high quality finish, great coverage and  exceptionally friendly service. I love going to this paint store just to experience the slow, old-fashioned style of doing business and to chat with the owners. The paint is easy to apply, and has only a slight odour that dissipates in a day. I am very sensitive to paint fumes, but can tolerate this paint well after couple of days.  

We chose two different shades of white for our walls – Raw Silk and Champlain.  We used a semi-gloss Birch White for the trim, baseboards and doors. We are very happy with the paint and will use it again for our kitchen walls and cabinets. Mia

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Apple tree pruning

We were fortunate to inherit a garden with two fully grown apple trees. In early March, prior to taking possession of the house, we received permission to prune the 48 year old summer apple tree and the much younger fall apple tree.  My paternal grandfather had been a fruit grower as one of his many vocations.  He always had fruit trees at his home and even grafted different varieties on one tree.  With this genetic heritage, casual exposure in my youth and extensive internet search I was ready to tackle the pruning project.  There was much discussion throughout the process as to what and how much to prune; I wanting to prune more and Mia wanting to prune less.  I kept quoting an outspoken English gardening guru on a u-tube video who said, “You should be able to throw your hat through the tree when you are done!”   I kept throwing my hat through the tree to convince Mia we needed to prune more.  She was not impressed.  Our first pruning experience was great and we ended up harvesting enough apples to store for a few months. There is nothing like a fresh, organic backyard apple on a hot summer day. 
By Misha

Before- Apple tree in need of pruning

After - Pruned tree ready for spring

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Trellis making

Our beautiful climbing roses on the side of the house were becoming overgrown with hanging branches and so large we couldn’t walk by them; not great for the roses and also not the sight you want for your new house. We decided to do something about it.

Before - Rose bushes in need of support

While at Home Depot, Misha wanted to buy some ready made trellises and install them right away. I thought that this was an opportunity to make something from scratch and learn in the process.  We decided to pick up some wood and nails and make our own trellises. We created a fan shape for the design and finished the wood off with Tung oil. It took us about two hours to make two of them and we installed them with the aid of our neighbour's power drill (our lightweight B&D drill was not up to the task) and concrete screws. 

Getting ready for installation

In the end, all we needed to do was to weave the rose branches through the trellises. The final look is great. We have received a couple “it looks so professional” compliments from friends.  Can’t deny it, it feels good to make something with your own hands.


After - Trellises up and ready for the roses

Mould in the basement

When we bought our house, one thing that we worried about was our basement. We were aware that it did have some moisture issues as we found surface mould in the cold room.

Cold room with mould

The first thing we did when we moved in was to identify where the moisture was coming from. We discovered that the cold room is situated right below a wooden planter box beside the front porch. This planter used to get filled up with water, as the downspout ended in the planter. Water had been collecting there for years and working its way down into the cold room.

Misha figured out a great way to fix this. He bought a $15 drainpipe extension and installed it on the downspout. Immediately, the planter became drier, the cold room became drier and the moisture issue was solved. It was an easy, cheap and really effective solution. 

The solution

We then removed all the panelling and washed the concrete walls with an environmentally-friendly mould remover. For now, the basement is dry. We will consider re-sealing the basement walls from outside and replacing the weepers when we get to the basement reno, planned for 2013. 

By Mia.

Friday, 11 May 2012


Very soon, we are going to be ripping up our old linoleum kitchen floor and taking down ceiling tiles in our basement. Before we do this, we want to make sure that there is no asbestos present. We had three asbestos removal companies come out to inspect them and give us a quote for testing and removal. We found that they were not very helpful as they each gave us a different story: 1. “There probably is asbestos”, 2. “I’ve never seen tiles like these containing asbestos”, 3. “I don’t know and maybe you should get it tested”.  We realized that unless we sent the samplings into a lab, we couldn’t be 100% sure about what we are dealing with. Mia researched online for an independent testing laboratory and we chose Paracel Laboratories in Mississauga.  We sent in a linoleum kitchen floor sample and a basement ceiling tile sample. It cost us $100 but the result was e-mailed to us within a few days. We were relieved to learn that there is no asbestos in our kitchen floor or in the basement ceiling tiles. We can move on with our kitchen reno planning.  

By Misha



This year we decided to start our seeds indoors and grow our own seedlings.   It saved us money and allowed us to choose the heritage varieties we wanted.  Misha worked hard on saving a lot of seeds from our garden plants from last year which we supplemented with heritage/organic varieties from local gardening stores this year. In mid-March we started planting our seeds indoors and soon had bean, onion, chive, tomato, squash, cucumber and herb seedlings growing. These were moved out to the glassed-in mudroom in April and will be ready to be planted outside in mid-May.  We just need to find the time to do it.
The process was fairly easy and didn’t require any major skills. The one thing to watch out for is placing the seedlings in a well lit space. Some of ours seedlings were placed too low below a window which resulted in the seedlings being stretched out to the point where they couldn’t hold up any longer. Next year we will definitely pay more attention to this. Live and learn! By Mia

Sprouting beans

Our first vegetable garden

We both love gardening and want to be as self-sufficient as possible.  Mia is a vegan and I eat mostly vegetables with occasional seafood.  We both really wanted to grow as much of our food as possible.  When we moved in, the renovation delayed the start of our vegetable garden but we were able to prep a small existing plot by the house and dig a new garden behind the garage. At first, I was concerned about the amount of sunlight in that location and lobbied for a location on the south side of the backyard.  Mia thought that there would be enough sunlight behind the garage and that it would be nicer to have a flower garden along the fence to view from the house. I must admit, Mia was right.  We had just over 6 hours of sunlight on the vegetable garden and our veggies loved the location.  From June to November we supplied all our own vegetable needs without the need to buy any from the grocery store. Since then the back neighbour cut down an old Manitoba maple that will give us another 1 – 2 hours of sunlight per day. Yay, more heat units for the veggies! By Misha

Before - front garden

Veggies growing

Ready to harvest

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Build a twig fence

During a visit to Canada Blooms, we saw a twig wall at one of the displays.  We liked the look and the fact that it provides great habitat for birds and bugs.  We thought we would try to build one to help cover the plain concrete wall of our neighbour’s garage.  The only tricky part of building it was finding enough appropriately sized twigs and poles. Misha, always on the lookout for found items, spotted some tall cedar trunks in the yard of a neighbour who was more than happy to part with them.  We used a simple stack construction with the twigs from our apple tree pruning to build the wall.  We plan to grow some vines on it to make it a green wall.  We love the rustic feel of it and it is my favourite lounging spot in the garden. Posted by Mia.


After - Twig fence ready

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Cedar screen

The view to the neighbour on our south side is quite open and we wanted a screen part way along the backyard for privacy.  We struggled with what kind of shrubs to purchase as we wanted an intermittent screen.  We considered white cedar, black cedar, emerald cedar and junipers.  In the end, we settled on the emerald cedars despite our concern that they were too ornamental.  They started looking a lot better as the price dropped at Home Depot from $30.00 per tree to $10.00 per tree.  We ended up getting 7 and are really happy with them. They are easy to maintain and look bright green all year around. 
By Misha

Before - Fence in need of privacy

After - Cedars just planted

One year later - Cedars growing well

Window Well Done!

Oh, window wells. How much more exciting can a project get? This is another “it has to get done but so don’t want to do” project. Surprisingly, Misha was quiet excited about getting started on it. The advantage of a window well is that we can maintain the soil grade slope away from the house. This is very important to keep the water draining away from the house and maintaining a dry basement. The well would also prevent rot around the window as we still have wood frames around our basement windows. It took us about couple hours to finish off the project and now the front of the house is ready for some native woodland landscaping. Misha did a great job on this one! Posted by Mia

Before - basement window

During - Prepping for the window well

Window well in place - the proud handyman!

Insulation removal

The detached garage is one of our favourite perks that came with the house.  It is solidly built, looks great and we couldn’t live without the extra storage space for garden/reno items. When we bought our house and had a home inspection done, the inspector suggested removing the insulation in the ceiling of the garage since we were not going to heat it.  He said it would improve ventilation, prevent moisture build up and extend the life of the shingles.  In other words, it would make the space healthier. It is not an exciting project, I must admit, but we decided to dedicate a whole day to removing the insulation and cleaning it up for the upcoming kitchen reno. It was so worth it! The place is healthier, cleaner and we feel great about getting it done. Another project is checked off the list. Posted by Mia.

Before - Garage with insulation

After - Insulation removed
Job well done!

Getting started

We bought our house a year ago and were very excited to begin the renovation immediately. We have no experience with renovations but we know our priorities; green, healthy, sustainable living choices. We are researching a lot to find alternatives to mainstream, toxic renovation products. This is our house when we purchased it.  It is a solid, well-built house in need of a major interior remodelling and updating, as you can see.

Before-Bedroom 1
Before-Master Bedroom
Before-Upper Bathroom

To kick off the reno projects, Misha organized a “Barn Raising Day” by inviting our friends and family to check out our new house and help with the demolition and removal of the 80s d├ęcor. With the help of our friends, we removed the old aluminium awnings, the wood panelling, old floor to ceiling mirrors, wallpaper, built in cabinets …and the list goes on. It was a great day and the help was very much appreciated. Our adventure with healthy home renovation had officially begun!