Comfort & Joy: Terri Chu on the struggles and triumphs of home renovation

How Ontario mom, Terri Chu, transformed her old, leaky semi into her family’s dream home

Long before she became a mother, Terri Chu was a committed environmentalist. As an Engineering Consultant in renewable energy projects, with a masters degree in Civil Engineering, she had definitive ideas about how she wanted to renovate her home before starting a family.

Like a lot of century homes, her semi-detached — built in 1907 — was lovely but far from efficient. Renewable energy is expensive, though, and — without significant subsidies — not feasible for small older homes. Terri knew she would have to make some concessions. Renovating a house is a big undertaking and an exhausting process, especially when pregnant, as Terri was during the final stages.

We spoke to Terri about the improvements she made and what others should expect when renovating their own home.

First winter post-renovation. Better insulation keeps the snow on Terri’s roof. Before the fix it would have melted.


Tell us about the renovations you did.

At the time we lived in the basement of our duplex. We could only afford to renovate the top unit, so we took it to the studs. If renovating, you may as well take it to the walls, and do it right. On the brick areas, we used insulated boards. Not as ideal as spray foam, but space restrictions killed that. Spray foam went everywhere else. Windows were upgraded to the highest efficiency available at the time. (The most popular brands have some of the lowest efficiency ratings, so it’s important to ask questions and be skeptical.)

We also have an induction stove and energy efficient appliances. We use a heat pump to supplement heating in the rooms we use most and keep the rest of the house cooler in the winter. In summer, those two are the only rooms with air conditioning.

What advice would you give homeowners wanting to make their homes more energy efficient?

Expect the unexpected. There are always surprises in these older homes. We hired an architect friend of ours. We also hired a general contractor but did the demolition ourselves because I wanted to know what was behind the walls. We found knob and tube, which extended the scope of our reno and doubled our budget. But we love our house now. And even if we decided to move in the future, we would keep this place and rent it out.

Terri, and her littles.

What’s the soundest investment when considering energy efficiency?

Our contractors were more interested in what colour cabinetry I might be interested in, but I was like, “No, show me the insulation.” When you have the opportunity to do these renovations yourself, you want to make sure that you have insulated barriers between the interior and exterior — especially in Canada where it gets so cold. I noticed the plates (in upstairs cupboards, where we renovated) were warm while those in the lower floor cabinets (where we didn’t) were cold. When you don’t insulate properly, it does cost a lot and — forget the actual cost of heating — it’s not comfortable.

If you’re looking to stay in your home a long time, then insulation is your best bet. We didn’t get into cost-prohibitive measures like looped underground heating or wind and solar energy harvesting. Solar energy may sound sexy, but saving a watt is always better value than creating another watt. Thermal collectors on the roof are a good idea and feasible if you are renovating the whole house. It wasn’t an option for us because our place is small and we have lots of trees overhead.

What is a “blower door” test?

It’s very cool. A green building inspector will tape up all known vents, remove the front door and insert what is known as a “blower door”. Imagine a regular door, with a jet engine attached (not quite, but you get the picture). It’ll suck the air out of the house, and they will measure how quickly that is happening. It is an excellent indicator of how good your air barriers are. If you’re leaking like a sieve, they can tell you. It’ll take more work to identify the leakage points, but knowing is half the battle. It’s not a mandatory test. If that became a standard in the real estate industry, then renovations like mine would be much more cost-effective since you could cover the outlay on the capital sale. Right now, I get zero cost recovery on the resale market for the work I put behind the walls. Energy efficiency ratings should be a mandatory part of home sales.

Anything else homebuyers need to consider?

When you view a house that’s done up to the nines, look past the marble countertops and think about everything you can’t see. Builders will give you all the shiny chrome, but you need to know what’s behind the walls. There’s no way to tell. It infuriates me that we don’t have green energy standards on new homes. Various governments have talked about it, but it has not happened. And we need them. I renovated for environmental reasons… Meanwhile, the house with the chrome will sell for more but will cost the new homeowner a lot in the long run because the house will leak energy.

Have you become more driven since becoming a mom?

If anything, being a mom has made [being an environmentalist] harder. I can my own food and use as little plastic as possible. But there are fewer choices for consumers. Everything comes in single-serve packaging instead of bulk. Buying grapes, without clamshell containers, is next to impossible.

I have two young children, and I fear for their future. The frustration and anger are huge. Everyone talks a good green game, but few people do anything. I have tried to work with MPPs, and I ran for city council during the last election. I also started the group, Why Should I Care, to get youth interested in public policy so they can lobby for change.


Julie Green is a freelance writer, artist, and autism advocate. She lives in Toronto with her husband, son, and bulldog. Learn more at

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