Tracey Allen was tired of seeing her heating dollars vanish into the chilly outdoor air.
So she and her husband, Fr. Stephen Allen, decided to aggressively pursue the possibility of building a passive solar home from the ground up, with other aspects of sustainable living thrown in for good comfort measure.
They now live in an earth-bermed, insulated concrete form (ICF) passive solar home on close to four acres on Covehead Road.
And Allen is sharing her well-earned experiences in a new book, Building a Passive Solar House: My Experience Shared . . . , which is a homeowner’s perspective of building a passive solar home from start to finish.
“We were always back-to-basics kind of people, but I like a normal house. So I’m half and half; one foot homesteader, one foot city girl,” Allen laughs.
This former urbanite now has both feet firmly planted in rural P.E.I., just a 10-minute drive from Charlottetown, where she and her husband formerly lived in a 1,600 square feet home that despite having a high energy rating required a great deal of oil to heat.
Their decision to build a sustainable home was a long time coming for this environmentally minded couple, but the real push came for Allen when she started to look at the downward trends in the finance world and acknowledged that the world has passed the peak of easily available cheap oil.
“Add to this (the fact) that we are getting to that age when the hope of retirement is growing with each passing year — we had to do something — something to get our fixed expenses fixed,” she wrote in her book’s introduction.
Financially, it made sense for the couple to move just beyond the boundaries of the city to an area where property taxes are about one-third of what they were previously paying.
“Mind you we don’t get the services. We have our own septic and our own water, so you have the upfront cost that you pay when you build and that’s it,” says Allen, who waded through a myriad of sustainable housing possibilities, including straw bale, cob and rammed earth construction methods, for their home.
The couple ultimately went with ICF from the insulated concrete slab right up to the rafters and an earth berm on the west and north sides of the house.
Although the popular mindset is that all houses face the street or road, they let their location of the sun dictate the way their house would be positioned.
“In fact a number of people have said, ‘Why aren’t you facing the road?’ and (my reply is) ‘The sun is that way and the windows are on the front so that’s the way the house faces,’ “ Allen says.
The windows are a super efficient T-Rio triple pane low E and argon gas thermopane.
The house has no oil-fired or electric heating system, but it does have a Morso wood stove with a heating capacity of 1,200 square feet.
Being outside the city boundaries meant they could also erect a small wind turbine in the future, which at this point is allowed in their area.
“We were looking for a municipality that wasn’t going to cost a fortune, was close to town and didn’t have a lot of restrictions,” she says.
“I’m still researching it, and the prices are going down all the time.”
They have an electric hot water heater but during construction they added the infrastructure for a solar hot water heating system that they plan to purchase in the future.
“Honestly I don’t think that our house cost more than another 1,200 square foot home built because there were things you trade off,” Allen says.
“We paid a little more here and but we didn’t pay as much there. We’ve only got one bathroom and no furnace, so that cuts your costs quite a bit, too.”
Another cost-cutting measure was the polished concrete floor, which the couple did themselves, therefore eliminating the potential $20,000 cost for subfloor and flooring.
In addition to that, adding flooring would have diminished the heat collecting capacity by about 70 per cent.
“It cost us $200 to do the floors. We went with polished concrete because with passive solar that’s the best to absorb the heat and then release it at night. That’s the whole principle (of the system),” Allen says.
The couple was adaptable during the design and building process, and things did change quite a bit in some instances. The carport was removed from the initial design, for example.
They chose to focus most of their attention to the shell of the house itself.
“Anything else you can change but your windows, your walls or your roof, those are things that are going to last. Our steel roof will last 50 years, instead of 20 years for a shingled roof,” she says.
One shift from a typical passive solar house design was the addition of windows to the north-facing side of the house, where there are traditionally none.
“Honestly, the reason we put them in was for the cross airflow because that has been quoted as a problem in a lot of houses,” says Allen, who is making thermal curtains for the winter months to cut down on heat loss when the ventilation is not needed.
The Allens also installed solatubes in spots that do not have a lot of natural light coming in, which brightens these areas immensely.
“The only (overhead) light we have in our bathroom is the solar light, and we get people trying to shut it off because they think it’s (an electric) light,” she says.
In her book, Allen also presents ideas to help homeowners renovate existing homes to capture passive solar gain.
“This was the first house we built, so I wanted to share the experience. And then the other side of it is that every single thing that I researched on passive solar homes or net-zero homes or all these fancy names of these new energy efficient homes, they cost a mint.
“I thought ‘we’re on a budget and there are probably more people out there who can relate to being on a budget and wanting an energy efficient home,” says Allen, who is now going into her first winter in her passive solar home for which she anticipates will require less than a cord of wood for the Morse stove.
“That I can look at an oil truck and giggle every time (it drives by) is really, really great.”
AT A GLANCE
Building a Passive Solar House: My Experience Shared . . . is published by Earth Haven.
It is available at The Bookmark in the Confederation Court Mall in Charlottetown and online at Amazon in Kindle and in colour paperback.
Author Tracey Allen will be doing signings on Nov. 3 at the Saturday Bazaar at St. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church, 26 Lower Malpeque Rd. (behind Capital Honda) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
You can view a house tour online at http://youtu.be/33IWs4H3kL4.