Thursday, March 31, 2011


Tile, as it turns out, is quite difficult to find made in North America at a reasonable price. Sure, there are drop dead gorgeous tiles like these..
Heath Ceramics - made in California
... but as much as I would have loved to use hand glazed ceramic, or recycled glass, they just weren't in the budget.  Which I get, really.  Things produced here will cost more until it becomes commonplace.  It makes complete sense, it just doesn't help the bottom line.

Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that American Olean, a widely distributed tile manufacturer, actually produces some of their product in the US.  We got ours through the Tile and Stone factory in Kelowna.  They use recycled content,and lead-free glazes.  And it is priced no differently than ceramic tile coming from China or Mexico.  

On their very informational (if somewhat difficult to navigate) website, you can look up the recycled content, and the manufacturing plant of every tile they produce.   Cool, right?  Why don't all tile companies do this?

And so I happily picked an un-glazed colour body porcelain penny-round tile for the backsplash.  This tile comes in many beautiful colours, has 16.5% pre-consumer recycled content, and is made it Olean, New York.

The penny rounds are so happy, but because they are white the effect is a beautiful textured effect in the background.

One added benefit to the white tiles?  I can see the spiders before I get in.  Important.  

In the bathroom I wanted square, and this tile comes in many lovely colours.  I debated making a real colour statement in here, but Greg talked me out of it.  So we went with minimal white.  Both tiles are made with 34.9% pre-consumer recycled content and are made in El Paso, Texas.  To add some interest, I ordered 60% bright (gloss) and 40% matte, and then had them installed in random horizontal stripes.

I was going for subtle... but not this subtle.

The stripes actually show up better in these photos than they do in real life, if you can believe that.  If I were to do it again, I would have ordered the gloss in the warm white, and the matte in the cool white.  That would have shown up, and still been subtle.  Lesson learned.

can you see the stripes?  Wait.. try zooming in... look a little closer... there they are!

We had the tile wrapped around the end wall of the tub to add some texture to the rest of the bathroom, and it goes right to the ceiling.  Although I am still a little sad about not injecting some colour with the tile, in the long run I think I will be really happy with the white tile.. this tile will never date, and I am not committed to any colour in the finishes.  Honey, you were right.

All the grout and thin-set is low VOC, and I chose a grout colour darker than the tile hoping that it will show less staining over time.  Also, when choosing grout and tile colours for a shower, it is always important to take into consideration the water quality.  Water with a lot  of tannins (read: brown) will leave a film on tiles that will look grubby all the time, so in that case a darker tile and grout colour are preferable.  If you have hard water, matte white tiles do the best job of hiding the little white spots that refuse to come off.  Our water is treated coming into the house, so is clear and soft which gives  the most freedom in tile colours.  And yet we ended up with white.  Huh.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

No Impact Man

We watched an interesting movie last night... so interesting, that we forgot to shut it off for Earth Hour.  Oops.  So instead of turning our own lights out, we were watching a movie about a guy living in New York City with his wife and young child, without electricity and toilet paper.  On purpose.

If you've ever thought about what Reduce, Reuse, Recycle really means, you should check out this movie.  It's thought-provoking, entertaining, and an interesting social experiment.  If we all took one thing from the movie and applied it to our lives, what a difference we could make.

Happy Sunday.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


For our kitchen counters we decided to use soapstone, from Canyon Soapstone.  We chose soapstone for a number of reasons, the foremost being the health factor.  Because soapstone is non-porous, it is very sanitary (germs cannot sink into the stone).  It is also finished with a beeswax concoction that is non-toxic and all natural.  Beyond that I really like the fact that it is inert (does not react to alkaline or acid) and that I can maintain it myself.

Soapstone can be left un-waxed.  The photo above shows the counter after a month of no wax application.  The colour variations and veining in the stone is much more visible, and it is very matte... almost "powdery" looking.  The wax is for aesthetics only, the stone does not need protection.  As the wax slowly wears off the stone lightens, and over time the stone will naturally develop a dark patina and regardless of waxing.

applying the wax is just a simple rub on then buff with a rag

this is a good shot of how much the stone darkens when waxed

And there is the counter after waxing!  Dark, with a soft sheen.  An upside for me to periodically wax my counters is that it forces me to move everything off and reorganize (and I do so love a chance to reorganize!)

The final reason we chose the soapstone is that we were able to use leftover slab pieces from other jobs.  It made me feel a little better that a slab wasn't brought from South America just for us.  Almost all stone slabs are imported from distant parts of the globe, and so the carbon footprint is high.  There are a few stone options that are available closer to home (I posted about them here), but they did not have the health advantages of soapstone.  Because we wanted to use leftover pieces of stones, we chose two different varieties of stone.. one called "Beleza" for the kitchen, and "Julia" for the bathroom.

The "Julia" stone is much lighter in look and has an overall spotty appearance.  It does not retain the wax very long (I believe that is because it is a very hard soapstone), so I have been leaving it unwaxed.  It is absolutely gorgeous, but does show water rings and drips that sit on the surface.  All it takes is a quick wipe with a microfiber cloth to clean it right up.  

I believe there are two schools of thought on home finishes... those who want materials that "hide" the dirt, and those that don't mind it showing.  I suppose I fall into the second category, although let's be clear that it doesn't mean that the dirt doesn't bother me.  I look at it this way.. if I can't see the dirt, then I don't know that it needs cleaned.. which means we are using it dirty (ick).  So I would rather see the dirt, and clean it more often!

Our third and final countertop material is maple butcher block for the islands.  Once again, it requires frequent oiling (this time with mineral oil).  It's a darn good thing I don't mind oiling things.  I actually find it satisfying to renew a surface with oil.  A fresh start of sorts.

The butcher block is made with a non-toxic glue so it is food safe, but I don't actually use the surface for much prep.  It is nice to have the option of wood for rolling pastry dough, and soapstone for prepping a chicken.  The wood will stain, and that's OK with me.  I like patina... when did we get so worried about our home showing evidence of how we live?  I enjoy leaving my mark, and giving over the stress of "damaging" surfaces which are supposed to look perfect.  That said, I still can't bring myself to chop directly on the counters.  Maybe I'll get there one day, and maybe I won't.. at least I have the choice!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Kitchen Cabinets 2

The kitchen islands provide so much storage and counter space, that they almost double my kitchen size.  I had them built on casters so that I can move them around based on what I need them for.  The tops are the same size and height so they can be pushed together into one very large (4' x 8') island, or split into two.
One island is open underneath.  I had Kelowna steel fabricators build two legs based on my drawings, and SuCasa Cabinets attached the counter, shelves and casters.  This island also has an overhang to allow for two counter height stools.
The other island is enclosed, two big cupboards on one side, and drawers on the other.

The legs are 2"square steel pipe, with plates on the top and bottom.  There are two crossbars for the shelves to sit on.
The legs could have been painted, or powder coated, but I like the industrial feel of them just the way they are.  A quick wipe and a couple of clear coats and they were done!
When they first got delivered I thought I had made them way too big, but now that my eye has gotten used to them (and I have filled them to the brim) I am so happy that I maximized my storage space.  In this little house every inch counts!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

bathroom cabinets

In taking the photos of the bathroom cabinets, I was reminded how small our bathroom is!  We'll have to make do here with shots of bits and pieces.

The cabinets are the same as the kitchen, with a fun upper cabinet between the sinks.  I love the little cubbies, and as this is our only bathroom it allows us to keep things close at hand while still looking tidy.

At the last minute we decided to add the plywood panels behind the mirrors.  The idea initially came about because one of the lights had to be moved slightly, and we were going to need to have the drywall patched.  I think this is a much more interesting solution, and I love how it ties the mirrors and lights into what looks like one big unit.

Although the bathroom is small, we have lots of storage thanks to the addition of a shelf and a pull-out drawer under each sink.  We had 4 drawers put down the center so we would have one each should the need arise.

cabinets by SuCasa Cabinets

The toe kick is recessed quite far back so that the cabinet appears to be floating.  It's always amazing to me how a little detail like that can make a small space feel larger.  

The counters and back splash are "Julia" soapstone through Canyon Soapstone.  This was a part slab left over from another installation.  We chose the toilet and two rectangular under mount sinks by TOTO, and the faucets are my Moen.  I spent a lot of time searching for plumbing fixtures made in North America, and didn't have any luck.  I decided on TOTO because as a company they have some good green initiatives, and their toilet quality is reputedly very high.  I chose the Moen taps for their water efficiency.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

kitchen cabinets

Our kitchen cabinets were custom built by SuCasa Cabinets, a really fantastic local cabinet company.  Rick deserves full credit for putting up with my unusual requests during this project, and I am sure that at times he thought I was crazy (don't worry Rick, I won't hold it against you!)

The reason we wanted plywood cabinets was twofold... we thought it would reduce the cost of the cabinets (turns out we were wrong), and we loved the unconventional look of them. I have always been a fan of flat-front cabinets, but solid wood is tricky because of warping and cupping.  Veneer looks great, and  plywood is just a very honest and industrial version of veneer.  Especially with the edges exposed!

From a cost perspective, it turns out cabinets like these are actually a little bit more expensive than standard cabinets... the reasons for this are:  
  • There is extra labour involved every step of the way.  Screwing the boxes together, finishing all the exposed edges, leaving the frame exposed, cutting out the handles, oiling everything by hand.
  • The Appleply plywood was more costly than standard ply, as well as an upcharge for NAUF glue.
  • Hardwax Oil isn't cheap either

But, now no-one has a kitchen quite like ours.  Was it worth it?  Absolutely!
Here are a couple of inspirational photos of cabinets that I love.  I took these with me when I went to meet with Rick to see what would be possible.

yum yum farm house kitchen loft
inspiration: image from dwell

inspiration: kerf cabinets
I then sourced some plywood called "appleply" through Upper Canada Forest Products.  It is a type of plywood with extra layers so that the edges can be exposed without fraying.  It's made with NAUF glue and domestic white birch, and then Rick finished it with hardwax oil (I know, that all goes without saying at this point.. and yet I feel compelled to mention it yet again).  The boxes of the cabinets are screwed together wherever possible (instead of glued and nailed) and are constructed of NAUF birch plywood.  And so without further ado here is our finished kitchen!

This photo shows the kitchen how we actually live in it, complete with cakes that didn't rise and wood stacked too high outside the window.

detail of drawer interior

detail of lower cabinet cutout

detail of upper cabinet cutout
You can see in the detail shots the lovely striations of the exposed plywood edges.  The ends feel just as smooth and satiny as the fronts.  We decided on the cutouts instead of hardware because to me if feels very organic to have the handle integrated instead of applied.  The look is unusual for sure,  but that's what we love about it!

Soapstone counters by Canyon Soapstone.. more later!

The open shelving - a first for me.. would you do it?
I am getting used to the open shelving, although because I like to have everything just so I am feeling a strong desire to replace my motley crew of mugs with something more appropriate... and handmade.  I have two by Meghann Hubert which I love, so I think I will add to the collection! 

I am so thrilled with the finished kitchen.. the cabinets function beautifully, the finish is durable, and the interiors don't smell like new cabinets (in fact, they don't smell at all!).
I have too many photos to show you all at once, so you can look forward to seeing the islands and the bathroom cabinets in upcoming posts!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

the woodstove

I will admit to being resistant to the idea of a wood stove.  I was worried about spiders, and wood chips, and soot.  And yes, wood chips and soot abound.  I have not yet witnessed any spiders emerging from the woodpile... but I assure you the day will come.  It will not make me happy.  In spite of all this, I still love the fire.  The crackling of the wood, the light from the flames dancing on the walls, the lovely heat that prevents me from wearing a scarf in the house (my usual habit in the winter).  This perpetually cold girl is finally warm.  At times too warm.  But that's OK too.

Pacific Energy Fusion wood stove

The model we finally purchased is the nicest looking one I could find.  Amidst a sea of Victorian detail, faux decoration, and shiny brass.. this lovely black monolithic looking stove was clearly the winner.  It also has a great warranty, and is made on Vancouver Island.  What's not to love?

Our other sources of heat for the house are passive solar (on sunny days we don't even need the wood stove), and radiant in floor heating (using an on-demand hot water system fueled by propane).  Right now the wood stove is our primary source of heat, and is considered a green heat source because it is renewable.

Now we're looking to replace the propane (mostly, it will still fuel my cook top and the BBQ) with something like this...

E-Classic 2300
central boiler outdoor wood boiler

This wood-stove-doubting girl is officially converted.   I can now build a fire all by myself if Greg cuts the wood (thanks honey!).  I think he's hoping I'll start doing that too.  I think not.. I know my limits!