When the Glaciers last came through Singhampton, they churned up the Earth something fierce. We built our house in rough country -full of displaced limestone boulders from an ancient ocean, each of them full of the fossils of little creatures long extinct. Singhampton is known for its wild beauty, constant breeze, severe winters and rocky soil. When I started this house, I was full of optimism, hubris and ignorance. I started this house to finish it. I wanted to build something permanent, perfect. I wanted to prove that I was tough enough to do this. I wanted to build us a home and a life in a new place.
Ambitious Plans and the Call to Adventure
In 2017, my wife Maria and I left The Big City after 5 years of searching and planning our exit. We left our jobs, sold our little bungalow, put all of our stuff into storage and moved into a 15 foot “Shasta Airflyte” trailer with our three dogs. Maria started a new business and a Masters Degree, while I laced up my new pair of work boots and I began to plan and build our house.
I retained the services of Andy Thomson, Architect and mad genius. “SolarQ”, as he calls our place, is part of a long chain of R and D that started in Germany decades ago. It is the product of careful research and hard earned lessons in resilience, Passivhaus principles, and Net Zero design. We began with a thorough survey of our land, and then built the entire project in a digital model. Both the house and shop were oriented facing exactly South for maximum solar gains.
The 14 gauge galvalume steel “Quonset” shell structure was chosen for its resilience (it can withstand hurricane winds and even bomb blasts) and free span strength. The house is built upon a deep reinforced concrete foundation, filled with dense material that functions as a “heat battery” retaining energy using mass. The concrete floors are heated by a small boiler as well as by the 28 ft x 12 ft window wall on our south end. Windows are triple pane, thermally-broken, and over 3 inches thick. There is obsessive attention to detail in insulation, air sealing and thermal breaks. We designed and built this house to endure for hundreds of years, to consume low energy and require little maintenance.
Humility and Endurance
The first time I stuck a shovel into the ground, I hit a big rock. In fact, by the end of the build, we ended up moving so much earth that my sister-in-law literally married our excavator. Nothing was easy in the construction of our place. The winter came early that year, so to keep on schedule, I had to erect the buildings in January. Having laid our life’s savings on the line, I was plenty motivated to get things done, and thus had to face the Singhampton winter head on. The snow was deep, it was -26 degrees, and my tractor was frozen solid. Each day I would get to site at 6am to thaw out the baseplates with a propane torch so that my crew of 4 steel erectors and I could continue the installation of thousands of nuts and bolts with the help of a scissor lift and a crane truck. Each panel weighs 100 pounds, and when assembled, amount to a structure 20 feet tall. It took nearly 2 months, but we did it.
Carpentry and mechanicals continued throughout the spring and summer. Working with the best trades I could find, we worked nearly every day from morning to night. Nothing was easy -it seems that everything that would thrive in Singhampton must endure difficulty in order to be beautiful. Although much remained to be done, we moved in one year after we first broke ground.
Regrowth and the Path of Energy
Following the path of The Great Glacier, The Qi on our land flows from South West to the North East -I can feel it with a sense that I can’t quite understand. Once our house was built, that same sense told me that the house didn’t quite integrate, that it had to grow into the surroundings -to be resorbed by the land. After all of the creative destruction, we had to allow the house, the land and ourselves to heal together.
We moved more boulders and shipped in topsoil. We carefully shaped and reshaped the land. Maria cultivated the wildflower meadow around us. Carefully, we pulled out the thistles and brambles, and let the native flowers reclaim their beauty. The sumacs and dogwoods and raspberries grew in strong. Maria planted vegetable gardens and learned how to forage -slowly but surely, with her hands in reverence to the land she brought forth beauty and nourishment.
We integrated the feeling of the surrounding nature into our house by evoking its patterns and elements. The cedar forest is echoed in the cedar plank siding of our gable walls, in the spacing of the rough sawn fir pillars at our entrance, the protruding gables on our cabinetry, the vertical rough sawn pine boards on our sliding doors and in the spacing of the spruce window mullions on the south end. Little patterns appear and reappear throughout the house like leaves on a tree, bringing a subliminal calmness: glazed tiles in predictable grids from floor to ceiling in the washrooms and kitchen, stampings in the exposed metal panels, radii and circles on countertops, plumbing fixtures and mirrors.
The exposed limestone aggregate in our concrete floor keeps us grounded, and the light from the South end is the same light outside. We share our home with found objects (we have collected our furniture from Kijiji and from the curb) and have carefully placed totems and talismans from our travels on our shelves and walls. This is our home now, it resonates with our energy and continues to grow and evolve.
Solidity, Peace and Acceptance
Our house is solid, it feels like a temple. Because of the acoustic qualities, you can whisper and have your voice travel 50 feet across the place. In the most severe winter weather, it’s warm, calm and safe. The sound of the rain is so soothing that it lulls us to sleep. Our house is scarcely visible from the gravel road, and I love that its location doesn’t appear correctly on Google Maps. In fact, it doesn’t look like a house at all. And that makes sense -after all, we didn’t build a house, we built a life. We built a community. We integrated. This land is not as it was, nor am I. Things continue to grow. Nothing is ever finished, it all keeps going. Perfection doesn’t exist. The only thing permanent is change.
Words by Rob Iantorno