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Living Green: The house in the hill

Updated: Apr 22, 2021


“It came down to one: an electric egg beater.”




When Anthony and Mary Ketchum’s country home was in the planning stages, she was asked for a list of all the electrical appliances she’d like in the kitchen.

“It came down to one: an electric egg beater,” Mary relates, 16 years later.

The lack of appliances — an antique manual toaster and small 55-watt fridge are the only other kitchen plug-ins — is one example of how the retired couple is “living lightly on the Earth,” as Anthony puts it.

The full scope of their relationship with nature is in their half-buried hillside home near Hockley Valley, where the sun, rain and wind keep things ticking along year-round.

Anthony says the off-grid house, comfortably nestled in a once seemingly impossible location, prompted neighbours to label them “crazy.” However, after an ice storm knocked out electricity for two weeks, “their attitudes changed quickly.”

The couple wanted to build something sustainable because, he explains, “I had a sense we had to do something drastic to ensure the climate didn’t get out of control.” That “something drastic” materialized with the help of Greg Allen, an engineer from Sustainable Edge Inc. in Toronto.

“The genius of the whole thing is Greg,” Anthony says of the project’s start when they were trying to figure out how to build on the untamed 1.6-hectare property. “He spent an hour crawling through the bush. Then he said, ‘This is where the house should be built.’ Our jaws dropped.”

The spot was an inaccessible steep slope on the far side of a gully.

“He took a slice out of the hill and pushed it over there to make a flat area,” Anthony says, standing on the hilltop that now overlooks the two flat roofs of his house. More earth was pushed into the gully to bridge the gap. With two storeys underground in the hill on the north and east sides, the house warms and cools itself. On winter days the temperature inside never falls below 10C, even when there’s no heat on, Anthony says.

Grape and kiwi vines shade the front of the house in summer while letting in the sun’s rays in winter after the leaves have fallen. Fresh air that’s drawn from a vent in the west retaining wall is warmed or cooled as it runs the 12 metres underground before entering the house, where two 25-watt fans keep it moving.

A masonry wood heater separating the living room from the kitchen warms the whole house on the coldest days and functions as a built-in bake oven on the other side. The couple uses a wood-fired stove for cooking, with a propane stove as a summer option.

Heat-absorbing interior brick walls and tile floors help keep the place toasty while “heat mirror” windows with krypton gas between the panes prevent heat loss.

Those windows filling the south and west walls were one of the biggest costs in the 1,700-square-foot house, according to Anthony, who became a general contractor for renovation projects after retiring from teaching English in 1992.

By acting as construction supervisor and doing much of the labour with his sons, he says the total cost was $145 per square foot.

With seven solar collectors on the roof, backed up by a small, 100-watt wind turbine, the Ketchum's have never paid an electricity bill. On the odd day when there’s no sun or wind, they use a gas-powered generator, consuming no more in a year than an average car fill-up. “The whole culture has encouraged the use of electricity through gadget after gadget,” observes Anthony, who thinks most people could cut their energy use by 50 per cent.

On a partly cloudy day, he checks the reading in the house’s mechanical room: the sun is beaming 313 watts their way. Maximum power, he says, is 448 watts.

The couple’s drinking water is pumped from a well, and rainwater for washing is drained from the flat roofs into a 9,000-litre cistern. Solar panels built inside the skylights provide hot water that’s stored in a 340-litre tank.

Grey waste water is fed to an indoor garden planted with canna lilies that take up the toxins. There’s no black water to worry about because the composting toilets that Mary says she “just loves” turn waste into fertilizer in a separate compartment that still hasn’t needed emptying.

Even the contents of the house are planet-friendly with furnishings and materials that were recycled or reused. The front door came from the dump, the banister was salvaged from a demolished house and the dining table was made from reclaimed lumber from an old distillery.

“We are not consumers,” Mary, a retired social worker, says proudly about their green lifestyle.

The Ketchums divide their time between their country retreat and an energy-efficient home in downtown Toronto.

Anthony credits his rural upbringing and childhood summers on a lake with no motor boats for putting him on the path to environmental consciousness. Now the couple is putting their passion to use for their grandchildren’s future. They’re founding members of For Our Grandchildren, a Toronto group committed to promoting sustainability and dealing with the effects of climate change.

But 16 years after moving earth — if not heaven — to lighten their footprint, they’re still known locally as “the people who built that crazy house,” Mary laughs.

Carola Vyhnak is a freelance writer living in rural Ontario.

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