Pierre Harrison and Susanne Leffler built their own passive design straw bale home near Wanup and have been living there for over 11 years. “Living in a straw bale house is very calming, relaxing and cozy because the walls block out so much sound. In the winter, the stucco on the walls stores a lot of heat which makes the house very comfortable. All of these nurture a sense of well-being in the house. It also helps that we are in the middle of the forest,” says Pierre.
Pierre always wanted to built his own house. “Having grown up in Northern Ontario, I was fortunate to spend a lot of time in nature. At a young age, I felt a responsibility to protect and preserve the wonderful nature that surrounds us. From that point on, I tried to live with the smallest ecological footprint possible. So going off grid was a simple choice. After researching various sustainable building practices, I decided that straw bale was the best option for our area.”
Building the house took determination. “Due to a lack of knowledge, interest and vision, the City made it very difficult for us to build our house. But we persevered and are now enjoying the benefits of living in a straw bale off-grid house. Susa and I built the house ourselves with occasional help from friends and strangers interested in helping out. We placed every straw bale, screwed in every screw and troweled thousands of pounds of stucco. I designed and installed the electrical and plumbing systems. We hired a contractor to help with the foundation and another to install the steel roofing sheets,” Pierre shares.
Thinking sustainably went into every aspect of the house. Straw is often considered a waste product, but in this case, straw grown nearby in Sturgeon Falls become building material for their home.
The passive design and thick insulated walls mean little energy is used to heat the house and zero energy is used to cool the house. “The orientation of the house, the positioning of the windows along with the use of blinds and the design of our eaves allow for passive solar gain in the winter but not in the summer. During the winter, along with the passive solar heat we gain on sunny days, we heat the house with a small wood burning stove. During the summer, we use zero energy to cool our house because the walls are effective at keeping the heat out and so the temperature always remains very comfortable,” Pierre explains.
They are 100% independent of the electricity grid. “As a family, our electricity needs are lower than a standard house because we chose to live this way. Any house can be off-grid, it just depends on how much electricity you want to use to power all the devices you want to have and then purchase the appropriately sized renewable energy source to power the house. Our photo voltaic system is sized according to our needs and is thus very small. We use just under 1 KWh on average per day,” says Pierre.
Most waste is taken care of on-site by composting kitchen organics and using a composting toilet. Water is from a well, and water leaving the house goes through our grey water system.
In many ways, life in an off-grid strawbale home is not so different. “Our daily routine is very similar to any working family with children in elementary school.” Some of the differences would be being very conscious of energy use and knowing where every watt is going, chopping kindling and keeping a fire going to keep the house warm, and using and maintaining a composting toilet.