Inexpensive and Sustainable Homes are Easy to Build and the Way of the Future – Organic Earth Magazine

By Gary Crawford

For whatever reason, be it dwindling oil supplies, the threat of global warming, or the encouragement of the One Tonne Challenge, we are all beginning to consider ways to reduce our fossil fuel consumption. And we want it to be easy, attractive and cost effective.

The folks at Everdale Farm and Environmental Learning Centre, in Hillsburgh Ontario, have some suggestions. They claim that by combining natural building techniques, renewable energy, smart conservation technology, and integrating living systems into their houses, home-owners can reduce their energy consumption. And because they believe in the philosophy “to see is to believe,” Everdale offers tours of Home Alive!™ every Saturday from the beginning of June until the end of September. Everyone is invited to come witness for themselves a living, breathing, thinking and drinking to be exact, example of the future of a planet-friendly housing in our cold climate.

“Households are the one domain where we can all take initiatives as individuals that make an immediate environmental difference,” says Home Alive’s builder and owner of Harvest Homes, Ben Polley. Home Alive was built to be a modern demonstration of environmentally sensitive housing design, methods and materials with a focus on livability, affordability and beauty. We want people to see how these techniques can be used in their own homes, claims Polley.

Home Alive, to the untrained eye, is just a cute family sized, modern, two-storey house with some good-looking landscaping. But this home is built entirely with natural and non-toxic building materials, energy efficient technologies and integrated living and recycling systems.

Through a combination of straw bale building and insulation, state-of-the-art solar and wind energy generation, and energy efficient appliances, fixtures and climate control technology, Home Alive’s energy consumption is substantially lower than a conventional house. In addition, the integrated living and recycling systems as well as the permaculture landscaping help to reduce the home’s operating costs while processing wastes, improving air quality, increasing soil fertility.

A guided tour through Home Alive introduces you to the many ways that you can reduce your dirty energy consumption. Most of the home’s energy is produced through a combination of wind energy and solar (photovoltaic) roof panels. The wind turbine takes up a bit of space, set on a 68 foot tower behind the house, but is surprisingly quiet and soothing to watch. Heat and hot water are generated  using a solar hot water system, which runs the warm water through radiant heat tubing in the concrete floor. Walking on the smoothly finished floors, it is hard to believe that a little innovative plumbing is actually heating – or cooling – the room.

Perhaps the most significant contribution to reducing energy consumption comes from the choice of material for the walls. The house is made from straw bales (discarded wheat stalks normally used for animal bedding). The bales, stacked like Lego and covered with an inch of cement-lime plaster, provide an insulation value 2 to 3 times that of a conventional home. Only the deep window wells, reminiscent of an old stone house, give away the fact that thse walls were made from bales.

And how will these homes hold up to the forces of weather, time and change? Polley argues that they can withstand moisture, humidity, animals and the test of time. Load bearing straw bale homes built at the turn of the century in Nebraska are still standing today. And given technological advances that have been made, it can be expected that the homes built today are going to last, Polley claims.

The straw bales, are not only renewable, long lasting and grown in Ontario, they are also cheaper than traditional building materials. However, some natural and ecological building materials on show at Home Alive, like natural paints and bamboo flooring are beautiful and versatile but hard to get your hands on it seems. You can pick up the long list of local suppliers who do carry these products at the show house.

In addition to the stylish interior design, there are many striking, and of course energy efficient, aspects of the exterior of Home Alive. The landscape was designed by Landscape Architect Brad Peterson, with permaculture principles in mind. Each element has been designed to integrate function and beauty. The vertical garden, for example, not only provides a stunning curtain of greenery, but also serves to create shade and vegetative insulation to cool the house while also producing fresh herbs for winter cooking. An innovative way of thinking about gardening! Water overflowing from the rain barrels makes it a self watering garden, and most of the beds are both beautiful and practical providing food, fibre and fuel.

Nothing is wasted in this family home The rainwater is caught running off the inert steel roof and filtered before being used for drinking water and washing. The grey water from the sinks and showers is cleaned as it passes through the engineered wetland. Home Alive provides examples of attractive living systems and techniques that can help us to use the resources we have more efficiently. Also how to reuse them! There is a high-capacity composting toilet outfitted with a heater and fan, which turns human waste into nutrient rich soil for the non-edible flower gardens.

Home Alive makes reducing energy consumption seem easy, graceful and accessible. This is why the folks at Everdale believe that it is only a matter of time before Home Alive is no-longer unique and one of Canada’s only living homes. According to Cathy Dandy, an Everdale Board Member, Home Alive is a source of inspiration for the future, but it is also a practical guide for the average person on how to make their homes sustainable today.

Guided tours of Home Alive!™ are offered every Saturday from the beginning of June to the end of September, 10am-4pm. And for those who like to get their hands dirty, Everdale offers hands-on workshops throughout the season. See or call 519-855-859 x 101 for more info.