Robert L. Peters

18 June 2010

A place under the sun, naturally…




The woods of Eastern Manitoba, Canada

In December 1973, at the age of 19, I stepped off a plane into the bitterly cold darkness in Winnipeg, Canada—the temperature was below -30 degrees, cold enough to freeze your breath. While driving across the flat, frozen prairie the next day I experienced the incredible power of the sun beating down from an impossibly clear blue sky—this seeming contradiction between hot and cold made an unforgettable impression on me.

In the following months, I was amazed to discover that almost no-one was building solar-heated structures in this part of the world, seemingly missing the obvious connection between predictable need (for warmth every winter) and ongoing opportunity (a sustainable, clean, endless source of free energy). An AOPEC oil embargo and “energy crisis” was in full swing, the price of fossil fuels was soaring, and futurists were predicting dire consequences for our planet if wasteful consumer attitudes and habits were not curbed. Having been exposed to recent eco-activism in Germany by the precursor to today’s Greens (their efforts to mitigate acid rain and pollution in particular) and seeing how environmental consciousness was gathering momentum in North America as well, it was clear to me that new solutions were called for.

I had been raised and schooled in densely populated urban environments in Germany in Switzerland (accustomed to overcast grey winter skies and smog), followed by a rain-soaked year of college in the U.K.—where I had met my future wife (a small-town girl from the Canadian prairies), ultimately the reason for my leaving Europe.

I had always loved the outdoors and nature, though growing up in cities, this mostly meant visiting groomed parks, weekend bike rides along paved trails, and family camping in summertime (albeit in crowded campgrounds only meters away from the next vacationers). Arriving in the Canadian west, I had landed in a vast frontier, on the very doorstep of untrammeled natural wilderness. Manitoba (a province seven times the size of Portugal but with a human population of just over a million) offered endless virgin forestland and more than 100,000 unspoiled freshwater lakes.

Nature quickly became a dominant force in my life. My wife’s brother, an avid outdoorsman, bow-hunter, and professional taxidermist, taught me survival skills and how to hunt and fish. I bought a canoe, and began “living for the weekends,” spending every available opportunity exploring what Nature had to offer and immersing myself in the compelling quietude that lay beyond where the roads ended. I photographed the four seasons, painted landscapes, illustrated wildlife, and soaked in whatever literature on natural history and ecology I could lay my hands on.

During the next few years, a clear plan took shape. I was passionate about conservation and environmental ethics, and committed to living as simply and sustainably as possible. I dreamed of living in the woods and in close harmony with nature. Having observed how poorly conventional Canadian housing performed given the dramatic seasonal temperature changes (with minimal insulation, therefore requiring constant heating in winter and air-conditioning in summer) I was convinced that low-energy solutions were critical. And of course, the ongoing opportunity of a free solar heat source was just too compelling to pass up.

My own limited financial means, in concert with discouraging conversations with local architects and builders (who mostly expressed resistance to new ideas) made it clear to me that designing and building a sustainable home would become a “do-it-yourself” project. The fact that I was insomniac at the time offered the opportunity for night-time reading, research, and planning. I undertook an extensive literature search of solar and “vernacular” architecture (this was 20 years before Google searches), and I attended meetings of the Solar Energy Society (mostly nerdy engineers enamored with active solar collection and distribution systems). I hungrily absorbed research results from whatever experimental housing was taking place (e.g. the Saskatchewan Conservation House built in 1977 had achieved a 90% energy-use reduction, which I found particularly inspiring). I volunteered my time to help build a few barns, and through this hands-on process, learned basic construction techniques.

In 1979, the opportunity to buy 40 acres (approximately 20 mid-sized soccer fields) of virgin woodland just off the edge of the prairie presented itself—heavily forested sand and gravel ridges that had once comprised the shores of ancient Lake Agassiz, a massive body of water that covered much of western Canada after the glaciers of the last ice age receded. During the first fall and winter, my wife and I carefully cut trees for a road and small clearing. At sunny noon on 21 December (the winter solstice) I sat in the snow in the exact spot where Solace House would later be built, and observed with joy that the sun-angles (over the tops of the deciduous trees) were exactly as predicted. (I should note here that this is not “rocket science.” Thanks to the 23.5 ° tilt of the earth’s axis, the total difference in sun angle for any location on earth during a one-year period is 47 °—a fact taken into account by humans designing solar-power-enhanced shelter for thousands of years).

Building materials were delivered to the wooded site when the snow melted in late April 1980, and thanks to Herculean efforts, my wife and I (often aided on weekends by enthusiastic friends and extended family members) had completed the enclosed structure by July—though putting in windows, building staircases, installing plumbing and electrical, and finishing the interior would stretch out for more than another year.

I have now spent nearly 30 years living here in the woods in the low-energy, passive solar house I designed and built. The energy-saving efforts invested paid off very quickly, as the well-sealed and heavily insulated home is comfortable year-round and requires only about 15% of the annual energy needs of a conventional Canadian home—in fact, the home is so efficient, that no natural gas, oil-powered, or electrical furnace is required for space heating!

I still derive great joy sitting on the warm concrete lower-level floor in the bright sunshine of a clear, -35-degree day. Living here has gone a long way to fulfilling my goals of being close to nature, living simply, acting wisely, and sharing with others—and I’m pleased to say that many other conservation homes and passive-solar-heated homes have been inspired by my little housing/living experiment.

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I recently wrote and illustrated this article for EASI magazine (published by Escola das Artes | Som e Imagem, Universidade Católica Portuguesa in Porto). I’m sharing the piece here in the interest of promoting sustainable living and the use of passive solar architectural practices.

View or download an enlarged PDF (2.8 MB) of the three illustrated pages above (with much clearer callouts and annotations) by clicking on any one of the images, or here.

I welcome comments and feedback—please contact me here.

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