In my last post I talked about how wasteful we are of our water and mentioned that, in this post, I would cover the many ways to re-fit your home and your behaviour to save our precious water. Well, I’m not. I’d like to put that off for one more post because, as winter approaches, it seems like a good time to report on the performance of our earth-sheltered house over the last year.
We have germination on our roof, probably not great news for most people, but very satisfying for us. Our nurse crop of oats has sprouted over creeping red fescue to hold the three feet of soil in place over the winter on both sides of our curving stone roof path that runs over the kitchen, hallway, study, and guest room. Planted here and there to spread over the next few years are a dozen varieties of native perennials such as Coreopsis, Coneflower, Butterfly Milkweed, and Yarrow. We will add a few more but generally are letting nature fill in with the hardiest plants for our rooftop meadow.
Out front, three multi-tonne rocks anchor a welcoming gateway and a wall of stone gathered from the site during construction. Inside the stone wall is a scree garden, 45 cm of Granular A road gravel, into which are planted Little Bluestem native grass, Prickly Pear cactus, Creeping Thyme and six other varieties also native to this part of Ontario. Here, the purpose is a nearly maintenance-free front garden with hardy perennials that need no watering or weeding.
The deciduous trees did their job to perfection, allowing warming sunlight in during the winter and shading the above-ground part of the house during the summer.
Of course, the river was a constant companion. We ate many meals on the shoreside deck and repaired several inner tubes after shooting down among the rocks on hot summer days.
Heating and Cooling
We were very relieved to have the underground concept do its job, too. Not that we had many doubts, but it is always nice to see an unusual idea work out the way it’s supposed to. In the winter we were warm and snug, and actually ran out of propane for the in-floor heating during construction and didn’t notice it for two days as the underground temperature remained constant.
The bedroom stayed cool all summer and it was just as pleasant as we had hoped to be lulled to sleep by the sounds of the flowing river.
The Trombe window provided a significant amount of heat throughout the winter on sunny days as the stone wall behind the glass was heated then slowly released that heat after sundown. We did, though, have to replace the single panes in the Trombe window with sheets of double-glazed, low-e, argon-filled glass to eliminate the waterfall of interior condensation. Tucking a flannel sheet along the bottom of the window every night and hanging it to dry in the mechanical room every day quickly lost its pioneer appeal. But it was great to feel the warmth of the sun flood in on sunny days, not enough to heat the entire two-storey section but a very good supplement.
The rest of the heating in this part of the house came from a woodstove with in-floor hydronic as a backup. There is nothing as comforting as the heat from a woodstove, or as handy when you come in from outside with cold hands. Standing next to a forced-air register just doesn’t do the job. Since we are harvesting wood only from this site, and have enough firewood for several years from the trees removed during construction and leftover lumber, we expect to be carbon neutral in wood.
The interior beamwork worked even better than we had hoped. Being surrounded by 300-year old wood does have a grounding effect and we are so happy to be able to mix the newest design with some of the oldest materials.
We chose cork floors because cork trees are peeled every seven years to make them, and no trees are cut. Cork is renewable, a bit soft, and warm from the in-floor heating, but wow, do the 3 m panels ever expand lengthwise in the summer humidity. We had one long run the whole length of the house, about 26 m in length, that swelled so much it looked like a skateboard track. One bump 20 cm high was a definite safety hazard; we had to place buckets of rocks here and there to make it flat enough to walk over without tripping and it took three visits from the installers to finally corral it.
Note: in hindsight, it was the long run that was a problem, and one year later, it has settled down and looks fine.
Water and Sewage
The Waterloo Biofilter® is working very well, delivering biologically cleaned water to the small drainfield that we surrounded by stumps pulled from the site. We have had many adventures with hard water and a water heater that sounded like a giant popcorn popper, but that, too, is a post for another day when we have it sorted out.
All and all, we can’t believe our good fortune in how well the house functions and we remind ourselves every day not to take it for granted.