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Pushing the Envelope

By Ann-Margret Hovsepian

Carroll Homes leads the pack in building innovative energy efficient houses.

John Carroll is a problem solver by nature. The inevitable challenges that pop up while designing or building a new home don't faze him. "What makes my job so exciting is that there are new problems every day - new opportunities to figure out ways of making things work."
The Saskatoon small custom home builder started out as a tradesman and moved from framing and finishing homes to building them himself. So began Carroll Homes Ltd. in 1979 and, today, the company specializes in designing and building award-winning energy-efficient houses.
Designing and building are the stages of new home construction that Carroll - all at once designer, site supervisor and hands-on builder - likes best. "During framing, it starts coming together and you get your first real look at the physical shape of the building," he explains, adding that the finishing stage is exciting, too, because that's when he gets the most positive feedback from his customers. "There are a lot of 'oohs' and 'aahs' during the designing, framing and finishing stages; in between, there's a lot of scratching of heads." To Carroll, nothing is more rewarding than seeing a customer's pleased reaction to a finished home. "Those are the things that fuel the passion for what I do."

Energy expert
Carroll Homes, which employs two office staff and has two workers on its construction crew - not counting Carroll - focuses heavily on the energy side of building. "We've always been into solar energy and passive/active systems to varying degrees," Carroll says. "We've been installing radiant floor heating since 1990."
Currently, Carroll Homes is finishing a high-energy house in Saskatoon that features an active solar heating system and floor radiant heat. "All the hot points you need," says Carroll, who is in the process of designing another house about two hours north of Saskatoon. "It will be on grid, but we want to be close to off-grid. We're going about that with a super-large water storage tank, superior insulation, floor heating, and an active solar hot water storage system."
Carroll says it's refreshing that, whereas he was pushing for energy efficiency and environmental responsibility in the 1980s, customers are now coming to him and asking for it. "Over the years, there have been different trends in homes, but the overwhelming request lately is just for energy efficiency - for warm, responsible housing, which is wonderful." He adds: "People are concerned about the footprint of a house. Houses today seem to do nothing but get bigger and bigger and it's hard to be environmentally responsible when we're being gluttons." His company is trying to build more moderately sized houses and putting money into energy efficiency instead. "It's easier to make a smaller house energy efficient," Carroll explains.
To a lesser degree but also of importance to Carroll's customers is accessibility. "A lot of my customers are move-up buyers, middle-aged or looking at retirement, so handicapped-type housing is something to be concerned about." His company sometimes puts more "optional" bedrooms on the main floor and, for two-storey homes, makes sure there is the possibility of making everything work on one level. All of Carroll's bungalows are access friendly.

Old dog, new tricks
Known in industry circles for his innovative approach to building, Carroll says he has tried just about every type of construction over the years and likes to try new things. "I believe there should always be reasons we do everything," he explains. "I like to do things that make sense." He cites radiant floor heating as an example: "I do it slightly different than others do. I run domestic hot water through the floor, which is a great way of doing it. It's very affordable!" In an Advanced House he built, Carroll came up with a way of running cold water through the ceiling to cool the house. "It lowers the temperature slightly. With air conditioning, you have to lower the humidity level, too."
Carroll admits he tends to push the envelope on things like air changes in his houses. "If you build the house correctly, some of our codes are not minimum codes; they're safety codes. Some homes can operate well with much less than what's required by codes."
In the 1980s, Carroll built an R-2000 Showcase home and, in 1991, the Saskatchewan Advanced Technology House. "That was a state-of-the-art house," he says. "Wiring, heating, recycling, everything." Perhaps his most famous project, the Dumont House Carroll built in 1992 was named the best insulated house in the world. "The David Suzuki Foundation wrote an article in Macleans about the Kyoto protocol and stated that if you want to build a Kyoto-friendly house in Canada, you should use the Dumont House as the example." The house, owned by Rob Dumont, is reported to use only 16 per cent of the Saskatchewan average for energy usage.

Giving back
Carroll's expertise in energy efficiency, as well as his broad technical knowledge in the various aspects of home building, have earned him the respect of many in the industry... and a seat on a number of boards and committees. He jokes that what drives him to be so involved is "guilt and arm twisting."
"I guess I care about and enjoy what I do," he says. "I have one of the best jobs in the world and there are a lot of positive strokes you get out of building a house." That's why Carroll sometimes gets frustrated by codes and standards "that limit you from doing something you know works well. Some standards seem to indicate that what you're doing is substandard, but it isn't; it's just different."
Putting his money where his mouth is, Carroll has gotten involved, participating in the Technical Research Council and working on CSA standards such as F326 for Residential Mechanical Ventilation Systems, for example. "As things come up, when you see things in codes that don't make sense or aren't need, it gets the juices flowing," he says. "I had an influence on the Standing Committee on Housing - not making drastic changes, but fine tuning things."
Though the "on-site one-man show" builder finds it difficult at times to attend all his committee meetings, he says it's worth it. "When you make a difference, you get the right payback. We all have to put something back in somehow."

Building good builders
"There are lots of good builders around," says Carroll, pointing out that it's hard to stand out today. "This has a lot to do with the work of the CHBA and professional builder programs. The quality of builders today is better than it's ever been." He says he wishes there had been certified home building courses when he started in the business. "During the first five years, I was trying to develop systems: financing, working with sub-trades, managing marketing - it's not just about designing and building."
Carroll says one of the most important things he's learned as a veteran builder is to always have an open mind. "There's always a way of making everything work. You just have to figure it out."

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