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The family that builds together

An ambitious project in Antigonish, N.S.

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Photo by Steve Smith, VisionFireStudios

Friends, family, neighbours, and trades people fill nearly all the open space in Ernie and Jane Porter’s open concept living room-kitchen. Some point out the window at boats passing by in Antigonish Harbour; others gather around the kitchen island sharing introductions and trays of snacks.

The party is reminiscent of a medieval European tradition called pendaison de crémaillère, literally the “hanging of the chimney hook,” in which homeowners invited those who built their new home to share a thank-you meal.

“This little event is to thank the people who helped with this project,” says Ernie to the dozens of people gathered to celebrate the final product. “Thank you very much for your help. So many people contributed in so many ways to this project. It makes us feel so very special.”

Two years earlier, the land at Town Point just outside of Antigonish, N.S. was mud. Ernie moved his parents’ uninsulated cottage to the site in 2005, but when he retired it came time to enact a plan he conceived years before: His family would build the house themselves.

The fireplace is tilt up concrete, meaning Ernie poured each panel on the floor and tilted it up. “It was a little bit odd for people watching from the water,” says Ernie. “We had to stand this up in advance of building the structure so it stood there for weeks. People said, ‘What the heck is he doing over there?’”

“From the time I could walk I wanted to build stuff,” says Porter, who spent his career as a structural civil engineer at Lindsay Construction, and was president his last 12 years on the job. “That’s kind of at the root of it, but on top of that there are the benefits of having a way to cooperate on something so significant with your family. What better way to connect your kids to yourself and to where you hope they will want to come back to.”

Ernie’s and his sons, John (the eldest, a freestyle-ski instructor in Maine) and Ted (an electrical engineering student at Dalhousie University in Halifax), started the project in spring 2016. It took them seven months of 10- to 12-hour days to build out the basic structure of the house. Sundry friends and neighbours popped in to install windows, polish the concrete floor, and aid in other tasks, and Ernie brought in tradespeople for the jobs he wasn’t ready to take on himself.

At one point, “This tall, long-haired fella with a German accent, comes up the driveway saying, ‘Are you the fella that knows how to build the SIPs?’ I said, I’m a fella who knows how to build the SIPs.” The stranger volunteered to learn about working with structural insulated panels (SIPS), and soon became a friend.

SIPs are an insulating foam core sandwiched between two structural facings, often wood or metal. Each panel connects to the next using a spline, a joint that slips into both panels and attaches with construction adhesive. Because insulation is built in and there is no gap between panels, SIP structures leak 90% less heat than stud-built homes, according to the National Institute of Building Sciences.

SIPs are commercially available, but the Porters saved money by building their own. It took family and friends nine hours to build the panels they needed, with a few left over.
“We started at [the east] end and just moved along a room at a time because to put the timber rafters up I was just using my backhoe,” says Porter of construction. “They had to be on the floor [inside the house] so we could reach in from the outside. We grew the building from one end to the other.”

SIPs are sturdy and stand up by themselves so the initial build went quickly, but it wasn’t without challenges.

Most of the home’s lighting comes from 72 recessed pot lights throughout the house. Jane used pot lights because their low profile meant changing décor over time would be easier if she didn’t need to change light fixtures.

Once the house was weather tight, the team wired the ceiling lights and fixtures. This meant having the ceiling wiring inspected before laying the insulation and roof, and having the project inspected again once wall wiring was complete. Electrician Tony Bray says there was a lot of planning.

“We needed to make sure the electrical panels were in there and ready to go as the SIPs were installed because there’s no room for afterthought,” says Bray. “Once it’s done, it’s done.”

Water was also a challenge. Dense clay soil slows water flow to wells on Town Point and the surrounding area. The house has a 30,000-gallon well (about three times larger than average) but Jane was still concerned they’d run dry in summer.

To supplement the well, Ernie harvests rainwater from the metal roof, but needed a system to remove contaminants like dust and seagull poop.

Conventional above-ground cistern systems are prone to freezing and Ernie didn’t think they would survive their first winter. After brainstorming on a long flight, Ernie and John crafted an innovative system.

Rain water flows off the roof to an underground well crock through a T-shaped line. The first 50 gallons of water flows through the vertical leg of the T, raising a float as the crock fills. When the crock is full, the float blocks the vertical leg, and water flows into the main well through the horizontal leg. The crock water slowly drains out into Antigonish Harbour through the ground. The water undergoes further filtration upon and after entering the house.

While the technical side of the house is Ernie’s brainchild, he says “interior-design touches that Jane added really make this space come alive.”

John made the wood cuts on the rafters, so he picked this bedroom so could admire his work from bed each morning.

The home features soaring ceilings and a large open concept living room–kitchen, but it’s sparsely furnished to give each room space to breathe.

“I really like the coastal look, but I didn’t want it to be kitschy cottagey,” says Jane. “What I was trying to go for was a blend between contemporary and a coastal cottage feel.” The result is a comfortable, modern space that plays well with the ample natural light and water view from the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows in the main room.

“I really bargain shopped because, honestly, we’re doing this project as I’m retiring,” Jane says with a laugh. “I felt like I really can’t be going overboard with anything here.”
She used online shopping hub Wayfair and project website Houzz extensively for ideas and logged her inspiration on Pinterest boards to stay organized.

All of the bedroom furniture is Ikea, which Ernie gave an engineer’s eye before approving. At the La-Z-boy Discount Centre and The Bay in Halifax she scooped up deals on individual sale pieces, and on vacation in the U.S. bought deeply discounted seconds at the Crate & Barrel store.

Bargain hunting saved her enough to splurge on some custom upholstery pieces from Thornbloom in Halifax, aided by her friend Neva Becker, and artist and freelance designer (see the side bar for her tips on finishing a room).

At the party, Ernie, Jane, John, and Ted, make the rounds of the room, shaking hands and thanking the people who came together to build the house. Ernie’s pride is evident when he talks about the project, even when he admits he wasn’t always convinced building a house with his family would work.

“I knew my kids were capable of being great helpers, but I wasn’t certain the emotional part would actually turn on,” he says. “We were probably into the master bedroom and I looked out from my back hoe and my boys are taking pictures of the house and typing. And it’s like, OK, they’re proud of what they’re doing and sharing it with their friends.”

A little help from her friends

Jane Porter and Neva Becker were friends and neighbours in Bedford, N.S. for years before working on this project together. Becker, an artist and freelance designer, works with Thornbloom, a Halifax home-furnishing and décor shop, creating floor plans for The Curve and The Pavilion, a rental-condominium development in downtown Halifax. She shares tips for decorating a new space.

  • Collect pictures of rooms that emulate the feeling you want to create. “You’ll find things that keep repeating in the pictures, whether it be all cream furniture or specific shades of blue,” says Becker. “That gives you a place to start.”
  • When picking living room upholstery, the pair ordered custom slip covers from Hammock by Thornbloom, the décor store’s Bedford, N.S. location. In addition to being easy to remove and clean, slip covers offer the option to change the living room’s colour palette without replacing furniture.
  • Don’t do all of your shopping at once. “When you get into big projects that last over a year, people want it to be finished,” says Becker. “Take your time, there is no real hurry. Live in it for a while and you’ll know what’s necessary and what isn’t.”
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