My wife and I have had the dream of building our own home for several years. We have been living a somewhat gypsy lifestyle for the past seven years and have been working in Antarctica at McMurdo Station for the past five which requires us to pack up our lives and fly down to the bottom of the planet for six months or more at a time. When we return to the US, we have either stayed with family, friends or lived in a tent or caravan for our time off which after such a long time has worn a bit thin. Additionally we would like to build our home without getting a mortgage and will therefore need to have almost if not all of our capital saved up before we break ground. In order to achieve this we have spent the past Austral summer and winter in Antarctica, took a short break for forty-three days in order to meet program requirements and are back down again for an additional six month summer contract.
At this point we are currently in the project planning phase. So far one of the biggest challenges has been agreeing on the design. The following criteria were things that needed to be factored into the design which took approximately fourteen or so different variations before we were able to come up with something that worked for both of us.
Having studied energy efficient housing in college, I have long had the dream of building a home that used the energy from the sun to heat the home called passive solar design. After drawing up with a basic design and doing the calculations, we laid out the house using a string line. This design principle requires the home to be oriented north-south in order to maximise the amount of solar gain to heat the home. When we laid the house out, Janae brought up the very valid point that while the home would function nicely, the beautiful view that we fell in love with would not be easily viewed from inside the home. After swallowing my pride, I went back to the drawing board and decided that a systems based approach was going to be the next option.
We aren’t sure how long we intend to be living in this house and we figured that there is a definite possibility that we could spend the rest of our lives here. Additionally, the community that we are building in has a large retirement population. Given these factors, we decided that we want to make all doors 914mm (36 inches) wide to accommodate a wheelchair. Another design feature that we decided to go with was to build the home on a single floor concrete slab. Stairs cause problems for older people and those with disabilities and we figured that it would be easier and safer for our future selves, as well as our older family and friends if we built a single floor ranch style home.
Our property is about an hour or so from the nearest grocery store, so having a large walk-in pantry was a major feature that Janae insisted upon. The reason for her insisting this is because in the winter and late spring, the area where we live is subject to large snowfalls in excess of one meter which closes down the roads. Therefore ensuring that we don’t need to rely on running out to the store before a big storm is a wise design feature. Our original design concept was to build a three bedroom, two bathroom home, however we just couldn’t fit everything that we wanted into the design. After quite a bit of thought and over a half dozen designs, we determined that we didn’t need to have two extra bedrooms that would only be used when visitors arrive so we dropped down to two bedrooms which gave us the room we needed for a walk in pantry. Removing that extra bedroom also gave us room for a laundry/mechanical room.
Another concern living at our elevation was environmental. Winters can be brutally cold, summers can be hot and bring the risk of wildfire. With these in mind we wanted to have redundant heating sources as well as a metal roof and fiber cement siding for fire resistance. Being that we are choosing to build off of a concrete slab, we have decided to use radiant floor heating as our primary method of heating the house. Since we live near a National Forest and wood collecting is both inexpensive as well as beneficial for wildfire fuel reduction, adding a wood burning stove will create a second, inexpensive source of heat plus add a nice ambiance to cold winter nights. A third source of heat will be a propane heater which is controlled by a thermostat. This will allow us to keep the home warm should we be gone for extended weekends or if we need to service the radiant floor heater. The obvious concern with radiant floor heating is the cost of heating water that is flowing through the slab, so we are opting to use solar power to heat an electric water heater which will then heat the home. It’s an environmentally friendly option of offsetting the cost of radiant heat that will also help us save money in the future.
Getting water has already become a bit of a challenge for us. Since we live in a remote location, we needed to have a well drilled if we didn’t want to haul water to the property on a regular basis. When we asked around the community, we found that our neighbours were between forty-five and seventy-five meters in depth and that the water quality was very good. We estimated the cost of the well to be around $15,000 U.S. The drilling rig showed up to our property and began to do his thing. Before we knew it, he had drilled to over 120 meters without finding a good fracture. We decided to have him drill to 215 meters before calling it off. We had a bit of water flow estimated at eleven litres per hour, but this is far from the amount that we would need to be comfortable. At this point our only option was to hydro-fracture the bore hole and hope that we were able to create a good flow. We were scheduled to leave for another season in Antarctica in the middle of August of 2015 and the earliest that the hydrogeologist would be able to arrive was the beginning of September. We met with him and scheduled to have him arrive after we had left and notified our neighbours that he would be arriving after we had left. He contacted us by email after the work was complete and said that he was able to create a dynamite fracture but it took a significant amount of pressure. The final cost for the well after it had been drilled, fractured, cased and the pump installed is a little over $30,000 U.S.
Because our well is so deep, it created another issue of overcoming gravity to get the water out. We had the choice of either going with an on-demand pump which requires more horsepower and therefore a higher gauge wire, or using a secondary source of containment and therefore a smaller sized pump and therefore smaller gauge wire. Since we have the laundry/mechanical room and therefore the room to place a cistern inside, we opted for that. This also gives us the opportunity to have water delivered should the well pump ever fail.
Getting power to the house was another issue that needed to be dealt with. The thought of having solar power on the property has always been an interest of ours, however knowing the additional challenges of living completely off the grid created the concern that should we ever sell the house, we would have to give the new owners a complete users guide to the system which could hinder a sale. Also, the initial cost of installing an off grid system at the same time we are building a house made it a bit overwhelming. We therefore decided that we would tie the house to the grid, but wire the home so it could be easily connected to solar and wind should we decide to go with that option in the future. We got the permits to install a temporary panel and moved forward. Janae really enjoys the raw property and was adamant on not having an unsightly power pole installed on the property which could detract from the views, so that meant that we would need to trench 105 meters to put the temporary panel on the side of our storage shed, then we would need to trench an additional 38 meters in the future to get power to the house. We rented a mini-excavator over a weekend and got the digging completed. There are a lot of ground squirrels on the property and there is concern that they might dig into the wires, so we installed 100mm PVC conduit and ran direct burial wire through that to provide a bit of extra protection both for us as well as those little guys. We finally got our temporary power installed the week before we left for the Ice having spent most of the summer working on the install.
While on the Ice we were in communication with a friend of ours who is in the off-grid power business. He asked why our house was tied to the grid and we explained the issue of upfront cost. He balked at this response and said that he would be willing to give us the materials we would need at his cost to help us. This will allow us to use the solar hot water, radiant floor system much sooner than originally anticipated.
As far as the planning is concerned, after settling on a design that works for both Janae and I, we have sent the plans up to our structural engineer who is calculating the loads necessary to meet building codes and will have that part completed before we return. Luckily we have time on our side right now, so the agreement we have worked out is that he will work on our plans when he has a slow period which is typically during the fall and winter when construction tends to slow down. Because of this flexibility, he has given us a discounted rate which is certainly going to help. I expect to get the structural plans back around January and will begin to get cost estimates for concrete, lumber and truss packages at that time.
That’s where we stand right now. We are working through another season in McMurdo Station, Antarctica and anticipate heading back to the states in late February with plans of beginning the build sometime around the middle to end of May 2017. Because we are seasonal contractors, it gives us the flexibility to focus on the project that most owner/builders would not be able to have. We have decided to take a year off of work to commit to building our home and expect to get almost all of it completed in that time frame. We can’t wait.