Stepping up to green
House Good planning, clever technologies behind energy-smart River
When Jennifer Heagle set out 11 years ago to build a house in the Gatineau Hills, her goal was unequivocal: She wanted a place that was attractive, environmentally responsible and comfortable, but that didn’t require technological extremes to get there.
Heagle, a successful Ottawa businesswoman, isn’t easily thwarted. Researching and designing most of the three-bedroom home herself and serving as general contractor, she broke ground in 2005 and saw the River House, as she fondly calls it, completed last spring just as she’d envisioned it.
Set on three acres by the Gatineau River and close to Mont Cascades Golf Club, the 1,800-square-foot weekend home — Heagle, her partner and two boys aged nine and 15 have a permanent house in Old Ottawa South — sits along a twisting dirt road and down a long, steep laneway.
The home’s south-facing A-frame front blends massive windows, rustic cedar shakes and neutral-coloured, industrial-themed cement board cladding. It’s the kind of place — it’s two-and-ahalf storeys plunked on a concrete slab amid snow-covered granite slopes and trees — that looks as though it’s always been there.
The argon-filled, low-emission windows capture bundles of solar heat on sunny winter days, says Heagle. A two-foot roof overhang, along with ash, oak and other deciduous trees, keeps the summer sun at bay.
Inside, natural light floods the stunning common room, where a cathedral ceiling soars 30 feet. The 12-foot-long window seat calls out for books and a cuddle, and a plump sofa and armchairs beckon to enjoy the restful view of the river.
“I didn’t want any feeling of separation between the interior of the house and the outside,” says Heagle, who hired St-Pierre-de-Wakefield builder Bernard Lachaine for the project.
The home’s timber-frame-with-a-twist construction helps carry the outdoors inside.
Determined to use as many recycled or sustainable materials as possible, Heagle came across a pine post-and-beam frame built from locally harvested wood by a Carleton Place company for a home in Hawaii. The customer had begged off and Heagle immediately spotted its potential.
Working with Ottawa-based CSV Architects’ eco-conscious architect Anthony Leaning, who assisted her with the design and green technology, Heagle used the chunky, wood-pegged frame as an exposed interior structure. Gyprock, painted off-white with a low-volatile organic compound (VOC) finish, makes up the walls and ceilings. Attached to the outside of the pine frame is the building’s envelope — a second, conventional two-by-four-foot frame that Lachaine and his crew stuffed with formaldehyde-free fibreglass insulation and covered with building wrap and rigid Styrofoam insulation.
“We paid a lot of attention to air-tightness,” says Leaning, adding that the home’s modest size, southerly exposure and use of long-lasting materials do as much as a whole whack of technologies to achieve Heagle’s green goals.
Leaning also gives full credit to Heagle for incorporating the mammoth, glass-door fireplace that sits opposite the common room windows, just about dead centre in the house. Ultra-effi- cient and boasting a built-in baking oven, the 10-ton mass is made of heat-retaining, concretefilled cinder blocks parged with dark grey cement. It was designed by Shawville masonry heater expert Norbert Senf (www.heatkit.com).
“We designed the house around it,” says Heagle. “If you burn a really hot fire twice a day, the house stays at 20 degrees. We were here for five days over Christmas and we never drew on the radiant floor heating. It burns very hot, so there are almost no emissions, and the wood comes from our own property.”
The glycol-based radiant heat system Heagle mentions is used mostly to keep the house from freezing when unoccupied. Before being pushed through in-floor pipes by a small, energy-efficient pump, the glycol is heated in a compact tank, where four burners also provide virtually on-demand hot water for the household, thus eliminating the need for an energy-sucking hot water tank. A first-floor mechanical-cum-laundry room houses the setup.
The radiant-heat pipes are encased in the glowing dark grey concrete floor on the home’s first storey. Painted with a low-VOC acrylic sealer, the floor continues the industrial/rustic theme of the home’s exterior while offering an almost-indestructible surface.
“One of my son’s friends brought a pogo stick to a birthday here and started bouncing on the floor,” laughs Heagle. “I started to say, ‘What are you doing?’ and then thought, ‘Oh yeah, it’s concrete.’ ”
The concrete also soaks up solar heat and cools the structure during the summer, explains Heagle.
And while my feet and back were sore after walking shoeless on the floor for a couple of hours, Heagle, who is a partner in Ottawa’s Red Apron catering company, says she’s accustomed to standing on hard surfaces for hours at a stretch while cooking.
An eco-conscious cook’s mind is clearly behind the River House’s L-shaped kitchen. Separated from the common room by the fireplace and a granite feature wall, it glows with Energy Star-rated stainless-steel appliances and Shakerstyle cabinets that Lachaine, a veteran cabinetmaker, built of black cherry harvested from the property. To avoid potential off-gassing, he used plywood with a non-toxic glue rather than particle board for the drawers and cabinet interiors, and sealed the exteriors with low-VOC, waterbased polyurethane.
The kitchen’s built-in butcher block, set in a granite countertop, comes from an ice-stormtoppled maple tree from Heagle’s father’s farm in Osgoode. Granite rocks, culled from Heagle’s own property and hand-split by Lachaine to reveal their gleaming pink, grey and silver interiors, form the feature wall that wraps from the common room into the kitchen.
Recycling, local sourcing and cost-consciousness predominate the rest of the home. Stair treads are made from that same Osgoode maple tree, while tongue-and-groove knotty pine from a local supplier covers the bright, airy second and loft floors. The three bathrooms boast cabinets of ash, again from the property, while the walls combine inexpensive, off-white ceramic tiles with larger, mottledgreen agglomerated marble tiles made of recycled materials.
Low- and dual-flush toilets, along with a 1930s cast-iron bathtub from Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore on Walkley Road, empty into a state-ofthe-art septic system that impacts minimally on the environment. Heagle, who has completed several in-town home renovations and knows better than to limit resale potential, wisely took a pass on compost toilets.
She also nixed solar and wind-based power generation. “There was a hydro line already on the property, so we decided to go with that and reduce consumption instead.”
With no rumbling furnace, no whine of traffic, no cacophony of television or beep of computer (both off-limits), the River House is blissfully quiet. No wonder her family’s fallen in love with the place, which Heagle actually built to sell but has also fallen in love with and will probably now keep.
With construction costs under $175 a square foot, the home meets Heagle’s other, original goal: “I wanted to prove there are better ways to build a home and that it’s no more expensive than conventional construction.”
Patrick Langston is an Ottawa writer.
With its see-through staircase and massive low-e windows, Jennifer Heagle’s sun-filled home on the Gatineau River remains bright and toasty on even the coldest winter days.
The ensuite combines an oversized glass shower and shelving for clothing needed on weekend excursions to Jennifer Heagle’s Mont Cascades retreat. Heagle set the stove and stainless-steel range hood against the back of the efficient stone fireplace.
Wood beams run across the vaulted ceilings in the combined master bedroom and bathroom.