My Visit To An Off-The-Grid, Straw Bale Home – Part 1
Could you live off the grid?
For several years now, I have had a burning curiosity to see a home that is off the grid and to understand how it impacts daily life. Recently, I was invited to see just such a home in Grey Highlands, not far from Meaford.
“We live by the sun.” That’s what the owner said to me when I asked what life is like living in her home. I love that, don’t you? Here’s what I learned.
This charming and very comfortable home is not only off the grid but it is also constructed of timber frames and straw bales. Set on a scenic wooded piece of land, you first approach the house by driving down a winding laneway and arrive at a clearing where the house is situated to face south-west taking advantage of passive solar opportunities. I was greeted by a donkey, a pony, a very happy dog and the chatter of chickens. Unlike what I’d heard in fairy tales about straw homes, the house was clearly a solid construction that no pigs could ever blow down. Actually, the house looked much like any other country home. The two storey structure has a full walk-out basement and the exterior is plastered and painted while the roof is made of steel.
One of the first thing that struck me when I went inside was how evenly warm and comfortable the house was. There was no odour, no musty smell and it was very quiet. This home was built by a contractor as his own home in 2002. The basement is set on a concrete slab with rigid insulation below the frost line. The walls on the upper two floors are made of locally sourced, thick straw bales covered inside and out with a special plaster finish and completed with breathable paints sourced from a company in New Brunswick. Instead of the typical square returns and corners, the walls are thick and rounded giving it a charming, old world feel. The soaring, timber-frame ceilings give it a sense of airiness with lots of space and natural light pouring in. The doweled floors are made from maple and beech wood that were sourced and milled right from the property. Interestingly, there are two frames cut into the plaster to reveal the straw bales in behind as if a visitor like myself needs proof.
On first blush, the house features all the things one would expect such as a kitchen, great room, bedrooms, bathrooms and laundry. There were lights, plugs and a toaster. I’m not sure what I expected but something more rustic I suppose. This was more conventional and comfortable than I’d imagined. It took looking deeper to see how it was really operating.
First, the key component is the solar panels. There are only three and the energy generated by the sun provides the power needed. At full daylight power, everything operates easily and any surplus is directed to batteries that also supply a generator should it be needed. The batteries can store up to a week or two of the power needs of this family of four so certainly evenings and nights are not a problem. The power then transfers to the breaker panel through an inverter and supplies the house like any other. There is in-floor heating in the basement which is supplied by a dual purpose, propane hot water tank with the circulating pump running off the solar power. In practice, the owners rarely use it as they keep a fire burning in the wood stove that efficiently heats the entire house – a true testament to the insulation value of straw bales (R40 to R50). Water comes from a powerful and plentiful well, there is an ecoflow septic system for waste and propane supplies the fridge and stove. With a larger solar system, it would be possible to entirely eliminate the propane.
Stay tuned for Part 2 on Thursday when I ask the owners how life is different when you live off the grid and, what lessons have they learned. Read Part 2 here.
As an Accredited Green Broker™ with the National Association of Green Agents and Brokers, I’m committed to learning and improving sustainability and environmental awareness in real estate. I love to hear YOUR stories so please feel free to share them with me!