3 of the Best Upgrades for Your New Home

What are the best upgrades for your new home? If you’re building a new home, you may be wondering what are the best ways you can upgrade your home into a dream home. There are many upgrades that will cost you money but not have much of an impact on the quality of living your new home will provide, but there are other upgrades that can significantly impact your home in a great way! Here are three of the best upgrades for your new home.

Home Upgrade One: ICF Basement

3 of the best upgrades for your new home

Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs) are a fantastic upgrade to improve the insulation and quality of foundation for your home. They almost look like giant Lego blocks made out of styrofoam. They take a bit longer to put together than the regular plywood forms, but you end up with a basement wall with an R-value of 28. An R-value is how the calculation of how well your insulation can maintain and resist temperatures, the higher the R-value, the better your efficiency and the better your foundation and insulation will keep the heat in. For reference, a conventional concrete basement wall with wood framing around the perimeter insulated with fiberglass batts yields an effective R-value of 19.

To install ICF forms, the additional cost ends up being $1,200 to $2,000 per house, which is money well spent when you take into consideration the energy efficiency of the forms. In a northern climate where people develop and spend time in their basements, it makes for a far more comfortable space. Add to that the fact that the earth below a depth of about 5’ stays the same temperature all year round. This means that even in the summer when it’s hot outside, your basement is leaking heat into the ground.  It can feel blessedly cool on a scorcher of a day, but if you’re sitting down there for a prolonged period, it can feel downright chilly, so ICF forms help you feel more consistently comfortable all year round. A final benefit of using ICFs is that they give you more developable space in the basement.  An 8” concrete wall with perimeter framing to accommodate a 5 ½” fiberglass batt with a 1” airspace between the wall and the batt, ends up at a total wall thickness of 14 ½”.  An ICF wall is only 11 ¼” thick.On a 25’ x 40’ basement (that’s 1,0000 square feet), you end up with an extra 35 square feet of usable space!

Home Upgrade Two: Laminated, Bound Drawings

I have found that all too often, trades people make mistakes because they have misread, or misinterpreted a drawing. A set of paper drawings on site gets trashed pretty quickly. If it gets rained on, has coffee spilled on it, or it gets left in a pile of melting snow, the critical measurements you need quickly become a blurry mess.  “Is that a 3 or an 8?”  Almost as bad, is seeing trades people squinting at their phones to figure out what to do.  You see them repeatedly pinching and spreading their fingers on their tiny screens to decide what they’re supposed to build. I once had a foundation contractor put a basement window in the wrong place because he read 3’-0” as 30”. This is kind of a stupid mistake, but it might not have happened if he had been able to clearly see the plans. Another time a framer put a floor joist directly under a toilet. Why didn’t they question this? We’ll never know.

In an effort to avoid these kinds of problems, I get the construction drawings printed out in colour, laminated with plastic, and coil bound.  They are virtually indestructible.  I give them to the foundation contractor and they last right to the end of the job, at which point I present them to the clients. The plans usually have some paint, caulking, or Red Bull on them, but they are still clearly legible.  The cost of doing this is usually less than $100. Comparatively, every error that I have seen trades make as a result of misreading semi-legible drawings has cost more than twice this much to fix.  The trades can’t charge me for these kinds of mistakes, but they always have negative implications.  First of all, fixing the mistakes almost always affects the schedule. Secondly, it’s human nature for a trade to try to recoup the repair cost by trying to cut a corner somewhere else on the job, or finding something to charge me extra for, or burying the cost in the quote for the next project. Avoiding these mistakes helps everyone, especially the client as it ensures they get a quality home every time.

Home Upgrade Three: Talking to the Neighbours

Most of my projects are in mature neighbourhoods. As a result, most of the time I am building on a street that hasn’t seen a major construction project in decades. Suddenly people are going to be confronted with a lot more traffic, noise, dirt and the general mayhem that building a house can create. A week or two before I break ground, I visit every house on the street, plus the two or three across the alley, and apologize in advance for the disruptions to their lives that I am bound to cause. I promise that I will minimize the chaos to the best of my ability and ask them to contact me if the site needs my immediate attention. I had a door hanger made up that I leave for the folks who aren’t home.

I see two benefits in doing this.  Firstly, I would much prefer that people phone me rather than the by-law enforcement team if something goes wrong, and putting a face to the construction crew of your new home creates more trust and respect. Secondly, I like to think that this small act of goodwill might prompt some of the neighbours to pay a little extra attention to the job site and call me if they see anything suspicious.

Singletree Builders is an Edmonton based home builder who specialized in infill developments. Singletree has over 20 years of experience in home building, and prioritizes quality and customer satisfaction with every project! If you’re interested in starting an infill project with Singletree, contact us today! We’d love to help you build your dream home.

Urban Loneliness

In 1966 The Beatles released a new song about “All the lonely people.”  Eleanor Rigby became a huge hit for them, but the poignant lyrics underlined the fact that even in cities, many people are desperately lonely. 

Fast forward more than half a century and UK Prime Minister Theresa May identifies loneliness as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time, and appoints a Minister of Loneliness to tackle the problem.  


Clearly the phenomenon of urban loneliness hasn’t changed much in the last half century. Nobel prize-winning Harvard economist Angus Deaton spoke of a global rise in “deaths of despair” such as suicide, addiction and alcohol-related liver disease. Experts are recognizing the outsized role that loneliness and social isolation play in these deaths.


A joint Kaiser Family Foundation and Economist study of the phenomenon in the UK, the US and Japan determined that more than 20% of adults in all three countries report feeling isolated and left out – and that these feelings have a negative impact on their physical health and work. It has been thought that this kind of isolation is most common among the elderly, but the study reported that more than half of those reporting feelings of loneliness were in individuals under 50.  


It is perplexing that in a society as digitally connected as ours, so many people feel disconnected. The study found that in all three countries around half the people feeling lonely thought social media helped, and the other half thought it didn’t.  The biggest factor in helping to ease loneliness was face-to-face interactions with family members and friends. Click here to see the full report.


As a builder and developer who specializes in infill, I have become interested in the way that we have built our cities, and how it isolates us from one another. The efforts of urban planners to make cities better for cars has made them worse for people.  


How can we have a face-to-face interaction with anyone when we drive into our garages and go straight from there into our houses?  There is no opportunity for what sociologists term “social friction.” We are unable to bump into our neighbours and strike up a friendly conversation.  


A generation or two ago, families were larger and houses were smaller – so it was not uncommon for siblings to share a bedroom.  Today, we are intent on providing our children with their own bedrooms thus isolating them from parents and siblings.  


Another recent isolating phenomenon is the increasing number of people who work from home. These people may be employees of companies but increasingly, they are solopreneurs working in the “gig economy”.  These people miss out on the social interactions of the office environment. We see the reaction to this in the growing phenomenon of coworking spaces and the number of people pecking away at their laptops in coffee shops around town.  


This observation appeared in a recent edition of Vice Magazine, “If we had deliberately aimed to make cities that create loneliness we could hardly have been more successful,” said Suzanne Lennard, an architect and the director of the International Making Cities Livable movement.We have built sprawling suburbs that since the 1960s were known to isolate stay-at-home wives who became lonely, depressed, and turned to alcohol and Valium.” How do we fix this?


In my opinion as a citizen, there is a role for government to play in helping isolated people to create connections.  I think any efforts in this area will pay dividends in reducing pressure on the health system. In my opinion as a builder, we can create buildings that include spaces that funnel people together, and generate opportunities for them to say hello and get to know each other.  A great example of a building like this in Edmonton is the El Mirador apartment on 108 Street.

The central courtyard has become a great gathering place for the residents of the building and a vibrant community has formed. The building itself is showing its age and is slated for demolition in the next few years, but it’s a great example of the Missing Middle and how, when done well, a building can trigger the creation of a community.  


Humans are social creatures; they don’t need much to prod them to interact with each other.  Here is a link to an Edmonton Journal article that does a great job of describing El Mirador and the community that the residents have formed.


I am currently in the design stage of a project in the McCauley neighbourhood that will have a central courtyard similar to that of the El Mirador.  Access to almost all of the suites will be through the central courtyard, and all of them will have a look onto it from the front door. Although it means that a portion of the site will be dedicated to community space rather than suites, I think it will pay dividends in liveability. Fingers crossed!


Keep your eye on the blog for more information about the project! 






In the early 2000’s, urban planning researchers in Australia came up with a new way to look at the effects of urban sprawl on the population. While most of us are aware how much fluctuations in bank rates affect housing affordability, and grumble when high food prices make headlines (remember when cauliflower cost $8?), we can usually come up with work-arounds.  


We put off buying a house or condo until we save a bigger down payment. We leave cauliflower off our menus. But what about expenses we can’t avoid, like gas? We need to commute to work, bring the kids to baseball and take Grandma to her doctor’s appointment. Most of us don’t have an alternative to regularly filling the tank. 


What Happens When Our Work-Arounds Stop Working?

Many Edmonton families bought homes in the outer suburbs to stay within their budget – but committed to a 35 minute commute to work. A lengthy commute implies a further commitment to buying a tank of gas at least once a week. If the price of gas goes up by 20% per litre, like it has many times in the last few years, how does the family cope?

If your mortgage payment represents a significant amount of your monthly income, you don’t have a lot of room for other expenses. In too many cases, this means a gradual increase in household debt through larger credit card and overdraft balances. This increase in debt increases the families’ vulnerability to a rise in interest rates.    


The VAMPIRE Index is a Vulnerability Assessment for Mortgage, Petrol and Inflation Risks and Expenses. Here is a link to the 2006 article.


The further we live from downtown, and a city’s core, the more exacerbated commuting issues become by a lack of public transportation. The above article provides the example of Sydney, Australia where just under half of commutes to work are made using private motor vehicles, and over 75% of trips from outer suburbs are made by car. This is due to the decreasing availability of public transportation the further you are from downtown. 


The City of Edmonton is very similar to Sydney in this regard (and to other major urban centres that have seen a lot of growth since the 1950’s). Edmonton has just engaged in a major overhaul of its transit routes. It has succeeded in increasing frequency of buses, but has substantially reduced the number of routes. What came up repeatedly during the revision process was the fact that our road network makes it very difficult (and expensive) to provide a transit service that will provide an attractive alternative to a private vehicle. Sadly, the city persists in approving suburban developments that are difficult to service with public transit.


The below heat map of the city of Brisbane shows the areas most vulnerable to interest rate and gasoline price increases in dark red, and the least vulnerable in dark green. Brisbane is a good predictor for what Edmonton could grow into if we don’t change our growth patterns.  Brisbane has a population of almost 2.2 million, but occupies an area over 23 times as large as Edmonton. More than half of Brisbane’s population is clearly vulnerable to increases in  gas and interest rates. If we think about what such a map of Edmonton would look like, we could imagine green areas in the downtown core and the first ring suburbs and along the LRT lines. The rest of the city would be highlighted in red – especially the newest suburbs.


The illusion of cheap land (and a lack of immediate impacts of car oriented development) has shaped our city in a way that has left a substantial proportion of our population vulnerable to the negative effects of poor urban planning. Unfortunately, our developers and city planners continually increase density in our newest suburbs, while doing little to make them transit-friendly. As a result, an increasing number of Edmontonians are vulnerable to changes in gas prices and interest rates.    


Edmonton’s Infill Journey

Urbanism is the broad term used for the study of city life and its ongoing evolution.  Urbanism includes infill, public transportation, neighbourhood composition, public transit, walkability, built form, active transportation, urban isolation, community and all of the myriad human impacts all of these elements have.  Human beings are fascinating creatures. Well-designed cities can catalyze human creativity and connection. In my journey as an infill builder and developer I have done a great deal of research about the ingredients of a successful city.  There are all kinds of examples around the world and throughout history of good and bad urban development. I hope you will find this as interesting as I do.


There has been an enormous amount of research done on the evolution of big cities around the world.  There have been many missteps and failed strategies but we have the opportunity to learn from all of them.  According to a UN report published last year, 55% of the global population lives in a city. By 2050 this number is projected to rise to 68%.  In 1950, when urban planners were contemplating cities where everyone would drive everywhere because land was plentiful, car ownership was synonymous with freedom, and pollution associated with burning fossil fuels wasn’t part of the calculus, only 29.5% of the world lived in a city.   Concepts like sustainable development, walkability, active transportation, and urban isolation were barely considered. As we face the future we need to wrestle with these complexities if we are to leave our children with a city in which they can thrive. 


As an infill builder and developer, I am constantly on the lookout for best practices regarding the many factors that impact on the evolution of Edmonton as a world-class city.  It’s a fascinating subject and I count myself truly privileged to have the opportunity to play a small role. I’m also happy to share what I learn and I hope to learn even more from the many smart and thoughtful people who recognize the changes happening in our city and are invested in making the ongoing process as positive as it can be.

Urban Planning in Edmonton


When we consider that people have inhabited Edmonton and the area around it for at least 3,000 years we get a small sense of the massive changes humans have made upon the land.  From its beginnings as an intersection of trade routes of various local indigenous peoples, which was adopted by the early fur traders in the late 1700’s, Edmonton has been a local commercial centre for a very long time.  When the Hudson’s Bay Company moved the original Fort Edmonton from the Fort Saskatchewan area to the approximate location of the current Alberta Legislature, a small hamlet soon sprang up outside the walls of the fort. In 1882 the original lots were surveyed for the farmers who lived in log cabins along the river.  In 1894 the Town of Edmonton was established around today’s Boyle Street and McCauley neighbourhoods. When Alberta joined confederation in 1905 and Edmonton was named as the capital city, development accelerated.



Edmonton’s first Zoning Bylaw was passed in 1933.  There were only 11 zones created and it’s important to note that Zone A (they were lettered back then, not numbered) designated the “public park zone” encompassing several small urban parks and officially protecting the North Saskatchewan River Valley and ravine system.  Almost a century has passed and the Zoning Bylaw has grown to 45 Standard Zones, 49 Special Area Zones, 1,154 Direct Control Zones and 126 Use Classes but the protection of the river valley and ravine park system has changed very little. Clearly, Edmontonians are consistent in the value they place on this special land.


What About Infill?


Our modern cities are incredibly complex, particularly when contrasted with the ancient cities of Europe and the rest of the world.  Our street systems are much more elaborate than the cart tracks that were the norm long ago. We also have municipal water and sewer systems, an electrical and telecommunications grid, policing, fire safety, public health and education infrastructure.  The list is almost endless. As they evolve, modern cities need to consider the impacts on all these elements and on the stakeholders who depend on them. This evolution includes infill, but also encompasses all of these other factors.


Infill has been around for a long time.  In the last couple of generations it has also been known as “Urban Renewal” or “Gentrification” or, in many cases, “Colonialization”.  Nevertheless, cities around the world have been doing it for centuries but nobody called it infill. Does anyone imagine that the Rome we know today bears any resemblance to the Etruscan fishing village it evolved from?  What about the changes that occurred in London during the rise of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution? Here is a great video showing the Renovation of Paris mandated by Napoleon III and executed by Baron Haussmann.  Everyone loves the lively public spaces, the majestic boulevards and the magnificent buildings that these efforts have produced.  If we think about it at all, we applaud the foresight and imagination of the municipal leaders who organized and directed the changes.  We don’t often think about what the impacts on the residents must have been.  


When new buildings are built in a busy city, old ones usually come down.  They may be decrepit, dangerous, and derelict, but they may also be someone’s home.  At the very least, they are familiar landmarks in the neighbourhood. Without a doubt, they are being replaced by something much better, but we have a responsibility to think about a transition process.  In the developed world, in a city like Edmonton, the residents of a neighbourhood have a much louder voice than they have ever had historically. One of the frustrations of a democracy is that even the least informed members participate.  When a city is planning what it will look like in 30 or 40 years, a great deal of consultation and education is in order.


Edmonton has been engaged in extensive consultation and as a result has created the Infill Roadmap – a list of actions aimed at welcoming more people into Edmonton’s core, mature, and established neighbourhoods.  The urban planning methodology that Edmonton has followed since the 1950’s has resulted in neighbourhoods comprised almost exclusively of single-family detached housing. There are a few high-rises here and there, but not much in the way of duplexes, row houses or low-rise apartments.  The most pronounced and obvious result of the changes to the zoning by-laws has been the phenomenon of the so-called skinny house. In 2013, Council approved a motion to reduce the minimum width for RF1 (single-family) lots from 33’ to 25’. This triggered many builders to buy 50’ lots, demolish the existing house, subdivide the property and build two narrower, taller houses.  Many long time residents of mature neighbourhoods were upset by the idea that the architecture they saw on their street would undergo a dramatic change. They were used to a streetscape composed mostly of bungalows and were emotionally connected to the view they had had from their front porch for so many years. While there was some backlash at first, after 5 years or so, people have generally accepted that skinny houses aren’t so bad after all, and in fact are usually an improvement on the crappy, run-down house they replaced.  Indeed, if we objectively consider the aesthetic value of the homes of the 1950’s we can’t help but conclude that they weren’t very thoughtfully designed.


The other visible change triggered by the Infill Roadmap is the emergence of the Garage or Garden Suite.  The most popular form is the Garage Suite. Most of the time this is simply an apartment above the garage like the place Fonzie lived on the TV show Happy Days.  Increasingly, people are building them with some living space at grade as well as more upstairs. Usually this is done at the expense of one inside parking space.



If you want to learn more about Edmonton’s Infill Roadmap, click on this link.


The Missing Middle


In most modern cities in the western hemisphere, the suburbs were designed around the idea that people would be happy to drive everywhere.  There was no need to have stores, restaurants, schools or recreation facilities close by when there was no perceived reason that people wouldn’t rather drive than walk.  As a result our neighbourhoods are characterized by lots of detached single-family houses, perhaps a tower on a busy intersection and very little in between.



Our neighbourhoods don’t have the density to support local businesses or recreational infrastructure.  Everyone is compelled to drive to the “Big Box” whether it’s for sports, shopping or entertainment. If we’re going to create the density in our neighbourhoods that will support local businesses and make our local streets interesting places to walk around on, we need to find more creative and affordable ways to fit more households onto them.


Another benefit of the Missing Middle is that it creates more affordable housing types.  Fitting more households onto expensive urban land reduces the cost per unit. Granted, these units won’t have big yards for kids to run around in, and will not be as private as a detached home, but let’s face it, most of the world shares a wall and/or a ceiling with a neighbour. 


If we think about the increasingly recognized phenomenon of Urban Isolation and the mental health problems that accompany it, we must recognize the value of a housing type that brings people into closer proximity in a neighbourhood but not in such high numbers that they become anonymous.  Missing Middle housing is community scale. Most people don’t have the capacity to get to know 200 neighbours in a high rise, but they will easily recognize the dozen or so people that live close to them in a smaller multi-family development. These developments are easy to design in ways that cause people to bump into each other and provide the opportunity for neighbourly conversations.  Psychologists refer to this neighbourly behaviour as collective effervescence. Humans have lived in tribes for thousands of years. Our instincts to get to know the people around us are still there. We’ve just built our cities in ways that suppress these instincts, much to our detriment.


There are a few reasons the Middle is Missing in Edmonton.  The main one is that the current zoning bylaws are very restrictive and completely out of step with the market.  If a developer wants to build a missing middle project that won’t require significant variances it probably won’t make money.  Allowable densities are too low, lot size requirements are too high, setbacks are too wide, parking requirements are too strict, and spatial separation requirements between buildings are too big.


Another reason is utility infrastructure.  If water, sewer, or electricity upgrades are required to accommodate the higher density a Missing Middle project brings, it falls on the developer to pay for everything.  This policy works fine if the developer is building a 200 unit high-rise or a 40 hectare subdivision where the infrastructure cost can be shared across hundreds of lots, but it doesn’t make any sense for a small condo project.  Here is a link to an Edmonton Journal article about a project I didn’t build because of this policy.


Think about the cities we love to visit because they are interesting to walk around in.  The sidewalks are wide, the buildings are usually a maximum of 6 stories tall and there are lots of restaurants, cafes, pubs and shops at street level.  We don’t visit them because traffic flows smoothly and parking is readily available. On the contrary, traffic is snarled and chaotic and parking is rare and expensive; it’s much more pleasant to walk or take transit.  These cities are built to a Missing Middle scale. With some sensible changes to zoning and infrastructure policy, we have the opportunity to build Edmonton into a more interesting, walkable, neighbourly place.

The Missing Middle in Edmonton

As an Infill builder and developer, and grateful citizen of Edmonton I have seen the necessity for adding density and variety to Edmonton’s Mature Neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods have a lot to offer but, for the most part, these offerings are only for people who want to live in detached single-family houses. The infill we have seen in the last few years looks different from what was originally built but is still, mostly, detached single-family houses. As a result, these neighbourhoods are developing a demographic problem. It is difficult for young families to move into them because land costs are so high. It is difficult for seniors to stay in them when they want, or need, to live in something other than a detached single-family house. Most of these neighbourhoods have populations that have grown in the 40 to 70-year-old age group and have shrunk in every other age group.

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