Tamped and Off the Grid


Thank you to “The Cottager” magazine for featuring an edited version of this called “House with a View – An Off-Grid Dream”. To have a look, please visit https://www.facebook.com/The-Cottager-137410736323877/

And a HUGE Thank You to SHELDON DYCK for suggesting the idea for this story and then making it come together! Because, as David Neufeld says, it really became a “love project” for me … because it’s interesting, but even more because it’s amazing what people can do with a dream and inspiration!

“I’m always tempted to come up here for the sunrise, open a book and just stay till it sets again!” Maggie Andres laughs.

And standing in this breathtaking room next to her makes that an easy temptation to understand!

An octagonal mini replica of the main floor with 8 gorgeous timbers detailing the arc of a domed ceiling, this cupola is spectacular.

And as if the room itself isn’t awesome enough, a circle of windows overlooks glistening water and a beautifully treed property.

Tucked away in Manitoba’s picturesque southwest corner, amid lakes and majestic oaks, a dream, 25 years in the making, has come true.

And it has come true off-grid, in the side of a hill!

Tamped or rammed earth houses aren’t a common Canadian sight, although they’re becoming more talked about as the desire for environmentally friendly living grows.

The building technique itself is ancient, actually dating back to Neolithic times and has been used throughout history in every continent on the globe with the exception of Antarctica. Existing as early as 5000 BC in China it made its way into Europe and from Europe was brought to North America.

Many southern plantations of the 1700s including Thomas Jefferson’s home “Monticello” are tamped earth construction. Here in Canada, St.Thomas Anglican Church in Shanty, Ontario, built in the 1800s is a charming example of tamped or rammed earth.

And The Great Wall of China certainly attests to durability!

Along with durability, though there are many more advantages to tamped earth housing.

Earthen walls are a high thermal mass. The walls absorb heat during the day, hold that warmth and then release it throughout the night as temperatures drop. And since heat naturally transfers from hot to cold they’re able to provide warmth in winter and coolness in summer.

In addition to this important feature, tamped earth walls are fire-resistant, very sound-proof and surprisingly enough, virtually impervious to insects and rodents.

In ancient times these qualities along with the availability of materials probably played the biggest roles in tamped earth’s popularity.

Add to these benefits, modern-day desirability of being low maintenance, eco-friendly, energy-efficient and cost-effective and it’s easy to understand the renewed interest in this building style.

Living off-grid is intriguing to ecologists and concerned citizens everywhere.

And living off-grid is a very important component of the environmentally responsible lifestyle Maggie Andres and David Neufeld strongly value.

“In as many ways as possible we try to live compatibly with the earth”, David explains.

“It’s a lifestyle concept that took shape during 8 years we spent volunteering in South Africa, living among the community and experiencing the very basic, simple lifestyles of the people there,” Maggie adds. “When you see how other cultures do things and begin to understand that there are just so many different ways to look at everything, it really opens your eyes to questions about what you value and what’s important in your own lifestyle.”

It was in South Africa they were first introduced to the technique of tamped or rammed earth.

Although most of their time was spent helping with education, healthcare, farming, and water purification, the mandate of the organization they were with was to live side by side with the community, helping in areas that mattered most to its citizens, rather than introducing Canadian ways.

“So we were really living with them and doing things their way. And when you see how other people live it makes you realize just how many choices we could be making that we never even think about.” Maggie explains.

Halfway through their 8 years in South Africa they came home for 2 years and fell in love with property near Lake Max in Manitoba’s Turtle Mountain.

It was Maggie’s dream then to someday build a tamped earth home here. They were in their twenties at the time, she laughs as she teases David that he took a little longer to get on board with the vision.

Walking the property with them now, taking in the beauty of the oaks and the gentle allure of the water, it’s easy to understand why they knew then that this pretty piece of land had to someday be theirs.

Even with the urban community of Boissevain a quick 15 minutes north and The International Peace Garden a stone’s throw south, it feels as though you’ve completely stepped outside civilization.

When Maggie and David moved back from South Africa and home to stay, their dream of a tamped earth house was exchanged for one of starting a family and put on hold until a time when it better suited their lifestyle.

Needing a temporary place to live they moved a little church onto the property and renovated it. Now, adult children, grandkids and many adventures later, Maggie laughs “It just wasn’t as temporary as we thought it was going to be!”

“What was the biggest challenge? Having nothing around to learn from! Building always goes better the second time, right? We could do all the reading we wanted but at the end of the day, we were really forging into the unknown and experimenting! It always felt like working with a bit of a song and a prayer!” Maggie explains.

One disadvantage of building a tamped earth home in Canada is that although there are companies around with the necessary expertise and equipment required, there aren’t very many of them. The knowledge and skill needed for this type of building are quite different from traditional construction methods. And the construction itself is time-consuming and very labor-intensive.

With proper design, a tamped earth house is ideal for living off-grid, though and living in harmony with nature is important to Maggie and David.

So, after extensive research they decided to go ahead with their dream house, doing as much of the actual building themselves as possible … Extra hands, opinions, and advice welcome!

“And we really did have help from all over,” Maggie says, “Our kids made time to come work with us whenever they could and so many people from everywhere contributed their time and ideas. In a lot of ways it really feels like an art project, you know, made up of what each person has brought to it. I think to me that makes it even more special.”

For example, while the main structure of the house itself is offset slightly on the property to maximize the benefit of sunlight, at a friend’s suggestion the cupola is aligned with cardinal directions, providing a perfect view of summer and winter solstices.

Very fittingly, they moved into their home on the winter solstice … December 21, 2018.

And so, taking a centuries-old technique, blending it with research, hard work and no shortage of creativity, imagination, and insight, Maggie and David have incorporated their own personal style and preferences and successfully made their vision a reality.

And the results are stunning.

Their home is 16 sided. The back wall of the main floor is solid earth. Approximately 12” thick it’s curved, arcing with the hillside, providing both heat and insulation. The home’s warmth is absorbed by the earthen wall and then released as the temperature drops.

When first building the wall, temporary forms were put in place. Soil from the excavation site was carefully sieved through a heavy mesh screen and mixed with approximately 5% concrete, adding strength and stability.

The final product was then packed by hand, using a pneumatic tamper between the forms until completely compacted.

For this very important part of the procedure, David enlisted the help of an experienced tamper and invited anyone interested in learning the process to come join in and share the experience.

Because of the nature of the tamping procedure, an interesting wave design emerged in the earth wall as layer upon layer was firmed into place, creating a beautiful and very distinctive effect that’s now a permanent backdrop to the décor.

Next a waterproof shield was secured. Styrofoam sheeting between the earthen wall and the shield prevents heat being drawn off and lost into the surrounding hillside.

Directly opposite the rounded earth wall is a curved wall of windows, creating a circle effect. Overlooking the water, these windows not only showcase the beauty of the property but also welcome much-desired sunshine into the home’s interior.

South-facing, this wall aids with warming in two ways: first by letting in sunlight and secondly by being ‘envelope construction’ (2 parallel wooden walls, approximately 2 inches apart), minimizing heat loss and allowing for a variety of insulating methods at the same time. Maggie and David chose fiberglass pink.

The 12’ high walls stand on a concrete foundation that wraps around an earthen floor.

“It took David a long time to convince me to go with an earth floor,” Maggie admits. “My idea of what a mud floor would be like was just not anything I wanted any part of,” she says with a shudder. “But David was determined. He managed to find a family who had one and then he got us invited over to take a look at it.” She laughs, “When I actually saw an earth floor in a home and was able to talk to the homeowners about how much they love it I was sold. It’s really beautiful and even more importantly, really clean, too.”

In keeping with their desire to ‘shop local,’ rocks used for fill beneath the floor come from a nearby quarry.

Finished with linseed oil, the floor looks like glossy concrete but feels softer and is much warmer. It can be polished or waxed making it easy to clean and maintain. Colour can be added but Maggie and David preferred its natural look.

And since it’s earthen like the walls, the floor is also a thermal mass, absorbing and releasing heat as temperature changes; warm in the winter, cool in the summer.

Radiant heat using water lines acts as a backup to warm the floor. Water for the lines, used in place of glycol or other toxic liquids is collected from rainwater and an in-house well, stored in a 40-gallon hot water tank, heated by 36 solar panels.

The banks of solar panels, specialy situated for maximum solar gain at the water’s edge, gather direct sunlight all year, as well as reflected sunlight from the ice in winter, providing 8.1 KW of power.

A central Swedish masonry heater/stove provides additional heat. The stove’s unique design uses air passages along with bricks to absorb heat from the fire, enabling heating to continue long after the fire has burned down.

The home is beautifully fabricated post and beam construction. Timbers making up the interior have been garnered almost entirely from trees on the property. Almost all materials in the house, actually are crafted either from what nature has made available on their property or whenever possible, purchased in Manitoba.

Because poplar is abundant, grows fast, and is surprisingly hard when dried most of the wood in the home is poplar. Some oak, however, has been used throughout for artistic appeal.

And artistic appeal is something this home certainly has!

The main floor ceiling alone is a masterpiece. 16 hand-cut timbers showcase individually cut measured and painstakingly placed tongue and groove poplar planks.

The interior is open-concept, rooms following the circular flow of the curved walls.

A second-floor loft provides a guest room, TV room and play area for grandkids without blocking very important air circulation.

There’s a cold room for backyard garden produce. And if sunshine flooding the house from the magnificent wall of windows isn’t enough there’s a bright and cheerful 3 season room as well.

And of course, a stunning cupola completes the picture!

No doubt there will be many amazing sunrises and sunsets seen from this beautifully unique and very environmentally respectful home.

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