On Limekiln Line near Blyth, amid acres of trees and crops, lies a house unlike any in the area. It isn’t made of brick or siding and is not a traditional shape. It looks more like a barn than a house, and has an extraordinary long deck that reaches out across a field. This house, the home of Ontarian Maggie Treanor, is an off-the-grid home designed and built by Lisa Moffitt. We were so curious about this unique home in our own county that we contacted Lisa to ask her how it came about:
Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?
I teach Architecture at the University of Edinburgh and I run a small independent design practice, Studio Moffitt. At the moment, I am teaching third year design, second year Technology and Environment, and a design course for an Advanced Sustainable Design Masters degree.
In teaching and practice, I explore the relationship between buildings, site and weather/environment. During the summers of 2009-2011, I completed a design-build off-grid home in Huron County between Blyth and Auburn, the house on Limekiln Line for Maggie Treanor.
You have a cross-continental existence. What is that like?
Living across two continents is exciting and allows for a fresh perspective on projects in unfamiliar places. I have lived in many places in my life, so I think I am able to both see a place with fresh eyes while also being able to root myself quite quickly. My work is heavily rooted in the context in which it is built and I like to know as much as I can about a place before designing a project there.
I think familiarity comes best through exposure over time. To complete the house on Limekiln Line, I moved from Toronto (where I had been living until 2008) to live in a farmhouse near Blyth to oversee construction. By living on site, I gained a much better sense of the physical and cultural landscape than I would have been able to had I completed the project from abroad.
What inspired you to build in Huron County?
I didn’t find Huron County; it found me through the client, Maggie. Maggie grew up in Woodstock, Ontario and had been looking for a property to build in southwestern Ontario for her retirement. When she found a lot, she approached me to design a house for her on it.
My first experience of her 25 acre property was of navigating the cornfields in October. Being subsumed by the crops, the heightened awareness of the rustling of the stalks, the smell of the earth all left a strong impression of the expansiveness of the Huron County landscape. I tried to design the house to be as respectful of the land as possible. I sometimes call the house an ‘observation shed,’ because all of the views into and through it encourage daily observation and appreciation of the landscape.
Why an off-the-grid home?
Maggie and I shared similar sensibilities about building as lightly on the land as possible, which involved minimizing energy consumption using a number of environmental design features: the house has a very small 85m2 footprint, is oriented to maximize solar gain for heating in the winter and for cross-ventilation in the summer, and uses locally available materials, etc. All electricity is provided through a 1.4 kilowatt photovoltaic array.
There are obvious environmental benefits of going off-grid, but there was the added benefit of preserving the expansive views by not installing hydro poles to the house.
For the uninitiated, can you explain what “off-the-grid” means and give us a glimpse of everyday life in such a home?
In this case, “off-the-grid” refers to the house not being connected to the municipal electricity system and generating electricity via solar panels instead. When sunlight hits the photovoltaics, electricity is produced and this electricity is stored in a battery bank in Maggie’s garage; an electrical line carries electricity from the garage to supply the house.
In Maggie’s case, the house does use propane for heating, so only the energy for electricity is renewable. Renewable technologies are advanced now, so the daily life of living in an off-grid house isn’t much different from the daily life of living on the grid except that the source of the electricity differs, the amount used in the house is minimized, and energy generation and consumption needs to be monitored.
The first rule for going off-grid is to minimize energy consumption all together. The house has low energy consuming appliances and doesn’t require artificial lighting during daylight hours because there are so many evenly distributed windows in the house. Maggie’s lifestyle (not her personality!) is ‘low energy’; she doesn’t own a TV, for example, so she doesn’t really require a lot of electricity on a daily basis.
In the winter, living off grid requires more attention because there are fewer hours of sunlight to power the batteries. In November and December, Maggie has to occasionally top up the batteries by running a generator for a few hours.
What are your favourite aspects of the Limekiln Line house and why?
I am pleased with the relationship of the house to the site. The house sits on a slight shift in the topography and there is a long western walk that extends into and creates a datum within the landscape; walking along the walk starts by being within the crops and ends by hovering over them. There is something unexpectedly lovely about hovering over the site at that moment looking to the farmland beyond.
I am happy that the house minimized disruption to farming activity on the lot; crops grow right up to the house. And I like that the house is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. The shape and materials of the house borrow from those of agricultural buildings in the area (galvanized steel and stained wood), but the interior configuration is very unexpected. Most people who enter the house are surprised at how big it feels, despite its compactness. I am also happy that construction of the house involved so many people in the area. I felt that through working directly with those involved in building the house, I came to understand and respect a particular kind of sensibility that is rooted in Huron County.
Can you tell us 5 things you love about rural Ontario?
The five things that I love most about rural Ontario are tied to daily experiences of living in it:
1. The down-to-earth people, their warmth, work ethic, and honesty.
2. The stunning landscape, expansive views, rolling hills and big skies.
3. Driving in the pickup truck at the end of a summer’s day to Goderich for a swim in Lake Huron.
4. The fact that every season is stunning in its own way and that you are aware of the seasonal shifts due to the vastness of the landscape.
5. Everything that Alice Munro writes about it.
And one last question: what inspires you?
I’m inspired by all the things listed in the previous question and would also add the intricate beauty of the natural world, long walks in the Scottish hills with my dog, Mabel, and the joy that comes through making things.
Want to know more about the Limekiln Line house, off-the-grid design, or Lisa’s work? She welcomes your questions. Send her an email: lisa.moffitt(at)ed.ac.uk.
You can also see more photos of the Limekiln Line house on Lisa’s website.