Image from the Guelph Mercury article about Ben Polley's recent eco-renovation

The Green House that Ben Built – The Guelph Mercury

Nicole O’Reilly

Everything old can be made new again and still look historical, while seamlessly using innovative efficiency and technology.

Once you wrap your head around that, says a local entrepreneur, it’s actually quite simple.

Ben Polley, environmentalist and two-time Green Party of Ontario candidate, and his wife Jen Woodside have purchased a soon-to-be designated historical home with the aim of renovating it to look authentic while maximizing its energy efficiency. Polley is the owner of Evolve Builders Group, which specializes in building sustainable, energy-efficient and eco-friendly homes.

The home at 60 Manitoba St. was of interest to the Heritage Guelph committee because of its links to Samuel Carter, a Guelph alderman, mayor and member of the Ontario legislative assembly in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Councilors voted in May to begin the process of heritage designation, despite the protests of Harold Godwin, the property manager. He wanted to sever the property, which is the original lot size of a tenth of a hectare (about one fifth of an acre), to build two homes.

But the charm of a home with history and proximity to downtown amenities attracted Polley and Woodside.

While many of the heritage details have been stripped away of the years, there are key structural elements that mark it as different from newer surrounding residencies. It is set back quite far from the road and a birds-eye view shows the homes traditional L shape and low front-end roof.

Certain small details, such as the fact that the door is squarely in the middle of the front room, will stay the same.

Through the pairs ongoing investigative demolition, they have discovered long covered-up details including original hardwood under the second story floor, brick and exterior wood paneling from the original walls and some baseboard.

While little of the baseboard remains, they can mimic it throughout the house, as they will with other period details.

“It’s a little bit like a time capsule,” Polley said, pointing to old newspaper stuffed as insulation in the walls.

Adding insulation will be a major energy-saving venture.

In their discoveries, the pair hope to also learn a little more about Samuel Carter.

Carter’s interest in politics and reputation as a progressive thinker made Polley feel akin to him. While he owned the Manitoba Street home, Carter operated a textile company that ran out of the property. At the same time, Woodside’s grandfather in Guelph was working for a company that was likely Carter’s competition.

Details like that, Woodside said, meant “the home was asking us to purchase it.”

Once purchased, the first step was meeting the the heritage committee. Polley said the meetings were encouraging, ending with the committee voting in favour of the pair’s plans for the house in principle.

Through the construction of a single-story straw bale addition with a living roof, photovoltaics for electricity production, solar hot water and grey water recycling, the home will use and waste very little electricity and water.

“It will be much more efficient than any new home,” Polley said.

The return to some older features are actually more environmentally friendly than modern practices he said. For instance, many modern paints emit toxic fumes, so the pair will use clay-based linseed oil paint that is not only more environmentally friendly, but more similar in character to paints that would have been used in the late 19th century.

“Progress isn’t always progress,” Woodside said.

The renovations will see the new kitchen ceiling opened up to renewal the original wood structure. The aim is to use as little new material as possible. Even the concrete floor will be refinished by being polished to expose the gravel and stone.

They are also considering using a small wind turbine designed to sit on roofs in urban areas, some type of rainwater harvesting system, and a solar air heating system that uses empty pop cans painted black to store solar heat that flows into the house.

They will follow government eco-energy guidelines and have an energy audit on their home to rate their efficiency on the scale.

An average rating for a 20 year old house in Canada is 66; Polley and Woodside say they will take their home to 95. The rating of 100 is reserved for homes that have been taken completely off the grid.

The renovations will cost approximately $120,000, but they will likely receive a $10,000 rebate from the provincial and federal government.

The hope is for construction to begin in December with a May or June move-in date.