Building the Pink House

The Pink House house is made of rammed earth, and heated by geothermal energy – through in-floor water pipes. The floor is concrete, which is the best conductor for in-floor. The heating is supplemented by a Tempcast masonry stove, the latter the greenest cheapest way to heat a house, its radiant heat used in pre-electricity Europe. For the first year, we only used the masonry stove, and it kept us warm, despite the 12 foot walls, and massive central hall.

The cost savings of geo-thermal were substantially less than advertised. However, it probably saves us between 25% and 30% of heating the house by conventional means. I tried to build something carbon neutral, and came close. Our electricity comes from run-of-the-river, which is environmentally sound. The house has on-demand hot water and a green roof over 40% of it. 75% of the materials we used are ultra-virtuous, sourced locally, non-toxic, and worthy of a ‘healthy house’ certification. There is no dry wall, no paints, few solvents. Everything in the house was crafted by local artisans, except the IKEA cabinetry. The house sits on 16 forested acres. Half the land is covenanted in perpetuity – that part therefore, 60% property tax exempt.

We used a combination of ancient technologies, the newest energy-efficient and environmentally-sound design and engineering, and pre-industrial revolution architectural patterns – patterns that were based on forms found in nature.

The walls are two feet thick, which means substantial thermal mass, if it is 100 degrees outside, the house doesn’t creep up to more than 80. This despite my insistence on 9 sets of French doors, the windows of which are triple glazed and argon filled, as are the clerestory windows.

The form of the house is that of an 18thC Orangerie. All architecture on the coast is drawn either from suburban patterns of the early 20th century or hyper-modern. I grew up among the shining grace of Jacobean and Georgian architecture of Montreal – I wanted to live in a house made of rock, with patterns used before engineering made the geometry of houses soulless.

Most valuable is a vast riparian zone, a ravine with an arch-typical rushing creek and waterfalls. Families of owls breed in the forest – as I write this, we have had four weeks of mating Owl house-party in the ravine – it’s not for nothing that the Covenant is named ‘Owl’s Call’.

One year, I went into the forest in August with one terrier, sat on the trail, and within 15 minutes, five owls flew in, perched in the canopy and stared at us, swiveling their heads, hopping closer. Ecstatic moments. There are two blue-listed species happily breeding in that forest. We built a salmon enhancement project – an ongoing task – at the intersection of the creeks. Jamie and I restored the lower  meadow which was once a gravel pit, which simply means hours of nasty hard physical labour. I removed a dump truck load of aggressive, invasive species – broom, Canadian and Russian thistle by hand. Better than the gym for conditioning.

I fried five crews. The trades loved working on the house at first – it was innovative and you could see how beautiful it could be, even at the beginning, but there was too much that was new, and too much was not-standardized for them to be comfortable. We got used to them packing up and vanishing without a word -to be fair to myself, we built during the building boom, so there were other, easier jobs around.

I may have been tricky to work for. Our next-door neighbour – a stone mason – pitched in during the last months and he said once, “you know I go home and try to puzzle out what it is that you want, and then I get this gigantic headache.” It was a joke. Sort of. I contracted it myself, which terrified my family and Jamie, and I did things like rent a 36’ long truck and drive it up island to get a 5% savings on materials, 50% on all the window glass. I did have an architect, Everest Reynolds, and a designer, Jesse Gebhard, who did the rammed earth section, but Everest was 32 and Jesse 29. I wanted them not only for their significant talent but also so that they wouldn’t be so entrenched in their profession as to threaten to quit if I insisted on something. This in fact, was smart.

We had some heart-stopping moments wherein we looked deep into the pit of bankruptcy: a stretch of months where the problems of matching rammed earth to conventional 2×6 framing the roof required almost defeated our engineer, and the framing crew who subsequently tried to carry out his instructions. But we’re solid. Barring the creek that runs in front of the house exploding in an earthquake, this house will last 1000 years. Not so unlikely either. There is a 3500 year old rammed earth house in Iran, still in use. 

Jamie magiked a garden on the upper meadow where the house sits. It is as beautiful as the house, and coming onto the property is like entering another world. I lived in a trailer and teepee during the rammed earth section, which was … interesting. The house stole two years of my life and I needed two years to recover, but it was worth it.

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