Off-the-Grid Home

Photo by Mark Wanzel of Central Ontario Interiors Magazine
Photo by Mark Wanzel of Central Ontario Interiors Magazine
Photo by Mark Wanzel of Central Ontario Interiors Magazine
Photo by Mark Wanzel of Central Ontario Interiors Magazine
Photo by Mark Wanzel of Central Ontario Interiors Magazine
Photo by Mark Wanzel of Central Ontario Interiors Magazine
Photo by Mark Wanzel of Central Ontario Interiors Magazine
Photo by Mark Wanzel of Central Ontario Interiors Magazine

Green Features

  • 13 solar panels
  • Masonry heater (five tonnes of block, firebrick and mortar)
  • Hot water piping in the floor
  • South-facing windows to maximize the solar heat gain during the winter
  • Three foot eaves shade the windows during the summer
  • Majority of house was built with reclaimed and recycled material
  • Compact fluorescent lightbulbs
  • Wall switches to eliminate "phantom" loads
  • Energy Star appliances combined with the high levels of insulation

About the Building

Tiny Township: When my wife and I decided to build a house, we were replacing a 900 square foot 1931 frame cottage that we had lived in for 10 years with lousy insulation, and a breeze in the living room occurred every time there was a storm, we were going through 7 bush cords of firewood and thousands of dollars worth of electricity every year. The new home is a 1200 square foot raised bungalow -same lot, same power line passing the house, same place for stacking wood - only now the power line is disconnected and the woodpile is reduced to a stack in the basement. And there is no breeze unless we open windows.

The home has several design elements that help it conserve energy and resources. Most noticeable are the solar panels on the roof; 9 panels create electricity (which is stored in batteries) and 4 panels heat water for in-floor radiant heat and domestic use. The framing of the house is somewhat different in that it consists of two full sets of walls, each made of 2x4 lumber slats separated by 5.5 inches. This design allows for a total insulation value of R46 but does not require large dimensional lumber that has to come from large old trees.

The primary heat source is a masonry heater - 5 tonnes of block, firebrick and mortar - that provides an even, draft-free heat using a minimal amount of firewood. One very hot fire (about 20 kgs. of dry wood of any sort, including scrap) is enough to heat the entire main living space most days. If there is a major storm and -20c temperatures, we might have 3 fires every 2 days. The fire is not damped at all, which allows for a very clean burn, and there is a water-heating coil in the back of the firebox. The basement, which also has 2 bedrooms and a 3-piece bath, is heated by the hot water pipes in the floor. Many of the materials used to build the house are "reclaimed" materials - recovered from other homes that are being demolished. Virtually all of the framing lumber is "used" as is about 75% of the insulation in the walls. The hardwood floor was taken from another home and refinished.

Every room on the main level is wheel chair accessible as will be the house itself once final grading is done. Large south-facing windows maximize the view and the solar heat gain during the winter while large; 3 ft. eaves shade the windows during the summer. Natural gas is used to cook and to provide backup heat in exceptional circumstances.

Instead of a generator (standard in most "off grid" homes), we use power from the neighbour's cottage to recharge batteries during extended cloudy periods. We'd like to add a small windmill but are still looking for an appropriate model. The house was designed to keep the energy requirements to a bare minimum. Windows were placed and sized to get maximum benefit from daylight.

Compact fluorescent bulbs everywhere, wall switches to eliminate "phantom" loads and EnergyStar appliances combined with the high levels of insulation mean that our home uses about 80% less energy than the Ontario average. We tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the conventional refrigerator - that's an ongoing dream. Switching to laptop computers and an LCD television reduced the energy costs of "entertainment". I have no particular technical ability but, with the help of some research, a committed builder and knowledgeable suppliers, we have a home that is more comfortable than any I have lived in before, more secure in the event of natural disaster and has lower operating costs than I thought possible.