Click here for an exclusive behind-the-scenes video produced by Jive Photographic of this unique off-grid home.
The first thing you notice about Jennifer Corson and Keith Robertson’s off-grid house on Nova Scotia’s South Shore isn’t the array of roof-mounted photovoltaic panels, or the energy-efficient lighting, or even the living roof.
It’s the view.
In the living room, large picture windows frame a vista that stretches out across Lunenburg’s Second Peninsula, pleasing the eye with vivid green pastures, woodlands and, in the distance, the blue waters of a craggy inlet.
The next thing that catches your attention is just how comfortable it is inside the 1,500-square-foot house. Even on a cold day, it’s warm despite high ceilings and a wall of windows.
“It was 18 degrees in here this morning, with no supplemental heat on,” says Corson, setting a kettle to boil on the propane range. “We put the wood stove on for you, just in case you felt cold.”
The house is so warm because of its many green building features, such as passive and active solar, extreme air tightness and a super-insulated building “envelope” that protects the home from the elements. As partners in Solterre Design, a Halifax-based architectural firm specializing in green design, LEED certifications and off-grid projects, Corson and Robertson are well-versed in the subject.
While the Second Peninsula house is the couple’s weekend home, it is also something of a showpiece—a concept cottage to demonstrate to friends, colleagues and clients some of the ideas they’ve been advocating in their work for over 20 years.
These include using solar energy to be independent of the electrical grid, using salvaged and recycled materials to reduce carbon footprint, and installing a living roof to curtail the need for cooling in warm weather as well as the need for fossil-fuel-based roofing materials.
“We wanted to show how someone could build an off-grid and efficient home that has all the modern conveniences one would expect,” says Robertson. That means the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house has TV, Internet, fridge, freezer, washing machine and dishwasher, all running off solar power.
Robertson is particularly pleased with the house in terms of its performance and reliability. “We can be away for two weeks with no concern it will freeze, and we know it will be comfortable when we come back,” he says.
Another pleasant effect is saving money on bills. Although they don’t pay for electricity, there are costs related to gas and propane. The highest outgoing, however, is for TV and Internet. “That’s more than our energy bill,” he says.
When the couple started Solterre in 1992, energy efficiency and green design were not the norm in Atlantic Canada. “They were still thought of as granola-crunchy, back-to-the-lander ideas,” says Robertson.
One of their first commissions in the early 1990s was for a couple in Cow Bay, Nova Scotia, who wanted a new, energy-efficient home that looked like a 100-year-old farmhouse. Making the house efficient was not too difficult, as Robertson is a great believer in the Atlantic Canadian climate for passive solar heating. The bigger challenge, Corson says, was to find and reuse materials that would recreate the feel of an old home.
As she sourced what she needed for the client, Corson realized there was a niche to be filled and, in 1994, she started Renovators Resource, an architectural salvage business located in downtown Halifax.
She tucked into some of those salvage stocks to finish the interior of the home in Second Peninsula. In fact, the home’s entire design was influenced by one item in particular: a set of 11-foot (three-metre) wooden doors that were rescued when Thornvale, a 19th-century estate in Halifax’s Northwest Arm, underwent a major renovation in 2010.
The doors had been painted over many times and were in desperate need of some tender loving care. Corson contacted Don Wilson of Lunenburg Chiselworks, who took on the task of stripping and refinishing the massive pieces. He split some of the larger doors in half for closet doors, and fitted others on barn door tracks to serve as movable walls in the main living area of the house.
Salvaged items crop up in other parts of the house, as well. The showers are lined with old vinyl signage, some of the wall trusses came from a movie set, and the kitchen sink and stainless fireplace surround were once used at Northwood Manor, a senior’s residence in Halifax.
In the concrete floors, recycled glass from Truro Sanitation, the company handling waste in Colchester County, replaced the traditional aggregate that is needed to mix cement. The floors were polished with a grinder to produce a glossy and smooth finish that allows the multi-coloured glass flecks to shine through.
To Trevor Giddy, a local contractor who laid the slab foundation for the house, the repurposed glass in the floor is the star of the show. “I think it’s just wonderful,” says the 30-year veteran of the contracting business. “I had never heard of such a thing.”
Corson and Robertson worked with a Dartmouth, N.S. manufacturer, TrueFoam, to develop a prefabricated styrofoam footprint in which to pour the concrete slab. It acts as both the structural form as well as the insulation for the foundation.
Giddy jokingly refers to it as a “Styrofoam bathtub.” Although he had never poured a foundation like this before, he said the learning curve was brief. It didn’t take long for his crew to figure out how the brick-shaped pieces of foam fit together and once they did, he says they were able to build the form in a matter of days.
For the family, living in an off-grid house has required a few adjustments. Before watching TV or doing the laundry, they first check on the batteries, located within easy reach in a systems room by the front door. Then they check the weather.
If the batteries are fully charged and the forecast calls for sunshine, the two children—Lil, nine, and Clay, 13—are free to shower, use the Internet and watch TV as much as they like. But if there are cloudy days ahead, the family must think more carefully about activities that need a lot of energy. “You become hyper-aware of the amount of electricity you use when you generate your own,” says Robertson.
That’s why he and Corson have set aside one small area of the kitchen that Corson calls “energy pig corner.” Small appliances like the toaster, electric kettle and coffee maker, “anything that runs on a red coil,” she says, are relegated to that corner.
In sunny weather, these are all fair game, but Corson also has a set of old-school alternatives for grey days, such as a camping toaster that sits on top of a burner on the propane stove.
Reminding the kids of the different rules between this self-sufficient cottage and their century home in Halifax can, Corson says, be challenging at times. “But I’m so used to always needing a scarf in the house in Halifax,” she says, “so I’m really pleased about the comfort here.”