News / Toronto

This Toronto man is living almost entirely off the grid

Relying on rainwater, sunshine and recycled waste, Rolf Paloheimo’s home is as close to self-sufficient as you can get.

Rolf Paloheimo's house in Riverdale is almost entirely self-sufficient.

Bernard Weil / Torstar News Service Order this photo

Rolf Paloheimo's house in Riverdale is almost entirely self-sufficient.

It’s hard to go off the grid on a residential Riverdale street, but Rolf Paloheimo has managed for two decades.

With no hookup to municipal water or sewage and only minimal use of Toronto Hydro electricity, Paloheimo’s three-bedroom home has been making green tech livable since 1996.

“This is the most comfortable house I’ve ever lived in,” Paloheimo said. “Absolutely, bar none.”

Paloheimo, 63, pays only one utility bill a month, for electricity. Thanks to the solar panels covering the front of his home, that bill can be as little as nothing to $10 during summer months. He’s not connected to, and doesn’t pay for, water or gas.

His home, dubbed the Healthy House, was the result of a February 1992 competition held by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Two winners emerged — one each in Vancouver and Toronto. The winning designs promoted resident health and environmental sustainability, while remaining affordable and accessible to the general public.

Toronto-based architect Martin Liefhebber was behind Toronto’s winning bid, but couldn’t find a builder until Paloheimo, a builder and project manager, volunteered.

Rolf Paloheimo stands beside an air-to- water heat pump he recently acquired. The unit provides heat in the winter and cooling in the summer.

Bernard Weil

Rolf Paloheimo stands beside an air-to- water heat pump he recently acquired. The unit provides heat in the winter and cooling in the summer.

He and Liefhebber built the duplex, near Withrow Park, from the ground up, and Paloheimo agreed to move his young family into one of the two units.

“We promised to make the house self-sufficient and not use any non-renewable fuel,” Paloheimo said.

The other unit in Paloheimo and Liefhubber’s creation became an environmentally-friendly attraction with thousands of people touring through. Today, it’s a private residential home.

“Despite the home’s high-tech appearance, most of the products and systems are simple and straightforward,” said Chris Ives, CMHC project manager, said in a Toronto Healthy House report published after the house was built.

“Off-grid houses do not necessarily require hours of labour for upkeep. In fact, everything in the house is easy to maintain and available in today’s marketplace.”

Duncan Hill, manager of housing needs policy research at CMHC, said an off-the-grid approach appeals to some — but not all.

“To be off the grid is to be independent and to be independent means you have to install, operate, maintain and look after systems that you otherwise wouldn’t have to do,” Hill said, adding that most homeowners don’t want to deal with sewage.

Hill said the Healthy House wasn’t so much about being independent as it was about showing what was possible.

“It was more demonstrating that you could take a house to such low energy needs, water needs, produce so little sewage that it doesn’t need those connections,” Hill said. “So if anything, you’re trying to make a point.”

Much of the Healthy House remains true to how it was built and later featured on a 1998 stamp.

But those years haven’t passed without some “failed ideas,” Paloheimo said.

Two fridges with outdoor compressors couldn’t keep food frozen in the summer and were replaced. There was also a short-lived “drying closet:” a small room with circulating air to dry clothes.

Now living alone for most of the year, Paloheimo’s energy needs have decreased.

Toronto Hydro supplements power collected by solar panels — the only aspect of his house that remains on the grid.

Paloheimo recently installed an above-ground air to water heat pump that provides heat in the winter and cooling in the summer, and the steel corrugated ceilings help keep the house temperate.

Heating the house is a lot like buying the right sleeping bag for the weather, Paloheimo explained.

“You design the house so that you don’t really need to heat it too much.”

Under the back patio, a water tank the size of a small truck collects rainwater from the slanted roof. The water is purified by a slow sand filter.

“One of the reasons for using the rainwater is it tastes better,” Paloheimo said. “Also, it cleans your dishes better. It’s just way better.”

Rolf Paloheimo's house, built in 1996 in Riverdale, is almost entirely self-sufficient.

Bernard Weil

Rolf Paloheimo's house, built in 1996 in Riverdale, is almost entirely self-sufficient.

The house can use approximately 120 litres of water a day, based on the size of the tank and Toronto’s 25-year rainfall pattern. The average Canadian household uses about 250 litres per person daily.

“That was the reason we had to concentrate on water saving features and on recycling,” Paloheimo said.

The house isn’t connected to municipal sewers, either. Waste and waste water is filtered and biologically treated in a self-contained system. Purified water is recycled back into the home’s toilets and washing machine. Sand, grit and indigestible waste needs to be pumped out every several years.

The Healthy House is an anomaly on the quiet Riverdale street, but the popularity of the CMHC homes demonstrated the real-world viability of environmentally-friendly homes.

“Nobody’s talking about this being something from outer space or quirky or technically complicated,” Hill said. “It’s more just a matter of when the market is ready now, to pick it up.”

The CMHC’s Healthy House initiative was succeeded by an Equilibrium Sustainable Housing Demonstration Initiative. Much like the Healthy Houses, Equilibrium homes are energy-efficient and reduce environmental impacts.

Ten demonstration housing projects have been constructed in Quebec, Alberta, Ontario, Manitoba, B.C. and New Brunswick.

The Equilibrium initiative ended a few years back, Hill said, adding that demonstration projects are always in the CMHC’s toolbox.

Paloheimo said Toronto’s Healthy House is becoming too big for him now, but he’s sold on environment-friendly living.

“I actually wouldn’t mind building another house,” he said.

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