BY DANIELLE POPE | PHOTOS BY LEANNA RATHKELLY
A solar home on Salt Spring Island built by NZ Builders operates independently from the energy grid, using active and passive solar energy, collecting water from the roof and built using concrete insulated panels.
When Jayson Biggins and Natalie Foley decided to build their dream home, they knew it would look a little different than the mansions they saw in glossy magazines. The two had just purchased 50 acres of forest and bare land on the south end of Salt Spring Island, and they wanted their lifestyle block (a New Zealand term for hobby farm) to be focused on passive energy use, permaculture, sustainable living — and their dogs.
“Believe it or not, the dogs were a big factor in us starting this project and getting the property,” says Biggins. “We wanted space for them to run, rather than living in an area where we’d always have to take them for walks.”
Their seven rescue dogs were also the instigators for the home’s design, which the couple wanted to be as indestructible to dozens of paws as it was sustainable. The family got their wish, in the form of a revolutionary passive-inspired house, created by Victoria’s NZ Builders, that pairs off-the-grid living with a sturdy, modern approach to design.
Passive-inspired homes, like the one Biggins and Foley now have, utilize entirely sustainable materials, like concrete, while absorbing and producing all the energy, water and heat needed for the inhabitants. It’s a tall order, but one that Damon Gray, general manager of NZ Builders, is comfortable providing. Gray, originally from New Zealand, has been bringing his alternative designs to the West Coast for the last 20 years.
“Passive-inspired houses are about as energy efficient and low maintenance as you can get,” says Gray. “You live in a healthy, resilient and durable home, and for a wet climate like B.C.’s, it’s the ultimate way to go. When people ask me how long these homes last, I tell them to just look at the masonry of pubs and castles built in the U.K. — 500 years ago. These buildings are here to stay.”
While rammed-earth houses and eco cottages have earned some popularity in the last decade, their labour and material costs make them prohibitive for many. This home took a different approach, using concrete-insulated panels that are common in New Zealand real estate but remain relatively rare on Canada’s West Coast. The home was built in just four months, and the protective exterior not only acts as a natural insulator against temperature changes, but also prevents mould and decay, can be tinted in an array of natural colours and is impenetrable against little paws.
Thanks to strategic location planning, the house operates independently of the energy grid, using active and passive solar energy. It also collects water from the roof with rainwater catchment technology. Wood-burning fireplaces and a robust generator system produce enough heat to warm the 1,800-square-foot home.
The design also utilizes a metal snap-lock roof and fibreglass windows for added insulation, along with reclaimed wood and clay walls to build in the continuity of sustainable materials — an element that makes Biggins especially proud.
“We wanted to go with a completely off-grid build, so the entire construction team was able to run 12- and 14-hour days on solar power alone,” says Biggins. “I thought, if this is feasible, we can go even further.”
Though the house is entirely self-sustaining, visitors wouldn’t know that just by looking at it. Everything operates as a “normal” home, from water and electricity to propane and even Internet access — provided, unexpectedly in this rural area, from a tower on top of Mount Bruce.
The home’s open-concept great room showcases elegant wood beams and generous lighting, paired with the warm tones of lime clay that won’t ever need a repaint. The kitchen features ocean-coloured backsplash tiling against modern white cabinets and stainless-steel appliances. Down the hall, the master bedroom and ensuite maintain a simple reclaimed wood and concrete motif, while the textured stone wall in the bath and a pebble sink backsplash add a fanciful organic touch to this stone house.
Natural-edge wood counters and Japanese-themed sliding doors keep a bright continuity with contemporary style. Beyond the master, a guest room and office complete the first level, along with a laundry room and special dog shower for the four-legged residents. The mezzanine, at half the size of the main level, grants the house an additional guest room and yoga studio, and the exterior two-car garage adds a top-level art studio, with cold storage below.
“I’ve never actually done anything like this before, but the more I learned, the more I wanted to see what was possible — and the more I started to understand how these natural systems work,” says Biggins.
While typical homes of this size may spend a few hundred dollars monthly in hydro and utilities, this home marks about $200 per year in active energy consumption. Gray says it’s important people consider how sustainable they need their house to be before embarking on a passive journey — chasing the final 20 per cent will often cost as much as the first 80 per cent.
“You need to know your priorities when you build a home like this,” says Gray. “The reality is that a home is one of the most polluted places we can be, if we don’t pick the right materials. But if we do, we can create a high-performance structure that’s as beautiful as it is healthy.”
Part of the inspiration for this house came from a Salt Spring eco-tour Biggins and Foley attended a year previous, which showcased everything from straw-bale and “hempcrete” structures to earth ships (houses made from tires and rammed earth) and a variety of other sustainable-themed homes. With his background in environmental studies and philosophy, Biggins had always taken an interest in alternative building modalities, but it wasn’t until he and Foley began researching their own home that he saw the potential.
Biggins, who works as a paragliding instructor, decided to take a six-week permaculture course to learn more about living entirely self-sufficiently. The result would allow him to take their property to the next level in off-the-grid practices, adding in landscaping elements that would help them operate unaided by the outer world. The property has since become one long-term experiment in using resources wisely.
“We try to keep everything functioning without needing external inputs,” says Biggins. “It’s different when you live like this, because you start realizing how much waste happens every day, and how many opportunities there are to save.”
As long-time vegans, the couple carved out space on their property for gardens, fruit trees, mushrooms, a pond, a backup well and six potbellied pigs (for fertilizing). Everything from compost to waste is used in the process, and Biggins says they’ve learned about permaculture cycles through first-hand experience, from avoiding monocrops to fallowing growing spaces to making use of natural lighting. Even their interactions with their house have started to shift with the seasons.
“This experience has given me a lot of perspective on time and change, on the seasons and life and death,” he says. “You realize how nature has its own timeline. Winter, for example, is the earth’s rest period. Everything slows down. Now, instead of trying to stay up late with the lights on, working long hours, I read and learn and rest myself. It’s amazing to see how this all connects in real life.”
Construction: NZ Builders
Insulation: Alpine Insulation
Concrete: Gulf Coast Concrete and National Concrete Accessories
Drywall: Malibu Drywall
Flooring: Pacific Rim Flooring
Floor protection system: Skudo
Lumber: Lumberworld and Slegg Building Materials
Windows and plumbing fixtures: Slegg Building Materials
Sealants and silicones: Cascade Aqua-Tech
Heat and energy recovery ventilators: Zehnder America