Dwelling in possibility

Published April 1, 2010

Sun frost fridge uses same power as a bedside lamp, says Anthony Ketchum.

“When people come to an off-grid house they inevitably think they are coming to the most primitive sort of establishment,” says Anthony Ketchum. But the house that he and his wife built in 1998 is a lovely, comfortable home.

Overlooking HockleyValley near Orangeville, Ont., the Ketchum house relies on solar power, a wind turbine and a wood-burning masonry heater, and it is far from primitive. In fact, if the future is about conservation, then the Ketchum house might more correctly be described as “advanced.”

Power collected and transferred from solar panels on the roof and a wind turbine on a hill behind the house is stored in large batteries that provide enough power to run appliances such as a refrigerator. The Ketchums wanted to reduce their energy consumption even further, so they imported an energy efficient (Sun Frost) refrigerator-more expensive than a conventional type-but it uses only 55 watts of power, the equivalent of a bedside lamp.

The house takes advantage of all available light. And because it is built into a hillside it also takes advantage of the earth’s temperature below the frost line-a constant 10 degrees Celsius. This means that in winter, the house is kept warmer than the outside temperature even without firing up the wood-burning masonry heater in the centre of the house. (In summer, the 10-degree underground temperature provides cooling.)

The seven-ton brick masonry heater acts as a heat sink that radiates heat for many hours, even after the fire has gone out. The windows are designed to let the sun’s warmth enter but not escape.

The heater, which faces the kitchen, contains an oven, where Mary Ketchum cooks in the winter. She has even roasted a turkey in it.

Water comes from two sources: a well, which is used for drinking water, and rain water, which is collected from the rooftop and stored in a 9,000 litre cistern buried outside. “That is the water we use for almost everything,” says Anthony.

The water gets heated two ways as well: via a stainless steel pipe inside the heater, and by solar power when the sun heats up metal fins that feed into a hot water tank.

Used or “gray” water that goes down the drain is filtered to water an indoor garden planted underneath the south-facing windows in the living room. The garden hosts tropical plants such as lilies, chosen for their ability to absorb toxins and clean the water before any surplus runs outside into a small marsh where reeds and rushes also purify the water. The house has composting toilets and not surprisingly, the couple doesn’t own large electronic equipment such as a big-screen TV, which Anthony says would not only use a large amount of electricity but would draw power even when turned off.

What motivated the Ketchums to live such an eco-conscious lifestyle? Anthony, a retired English teacher who had a second career as a renovations project manager, grew up loving nature and has always been a conservationist. “When he started his teaching career way back when, he had the students recycling…before it was in the heads of anybody else,” says Mary. At another school, she adds, Anthony “was instrumental in getting [solar] panels put on the roof. It looked after heating 20 per cent of the water used in the school.”

Since their family had a home in Toronto and a cabin in Georgian Bay, Anthony says he “couldn’t possibly justify having another building when there are all these homeless people….Goodness knows how many other things I could be helping to alleviate.” But after talking with Greg Allen, a design engineer who builds sustainable dwellings, they started to imagine a house that could demonstrate what is possible.

With the help of family and friends, the Ketchums did much of the work themselves to reduce costs to about $145 per square foot for the 1,600 square foot house. And every year since they first moved in, they have invited the public to come on the Saturday afternoon during the week of Earth Day (April 22) to see what greener living can look like. Over the years, about 1,700 people, including school groups, have chosen to learn more and be inspired. Anthony says these visitors often exclaim, “You hear people talking about it, but you’ve done it.”

Their neighbours are less impressed, perhaps. “We’re still referred to as the people on the concession road with that funny house,” says Mary with a laugh.

The Ketchums’ next open house will be held on the afternoon of April 24. The house (#2713) is on Concession Road 3 of Adjala Township, 40 minutes northwest of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, 8.5 kms north of Highway 9. Ω


  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

Keep on reading

Skip to content