This interview, with Mr. Larry Wiebe, is a follow-up to a posting I made a couple of months ago and is for the September 2013 issue of our eMag.
I first met Mr. Wiebe at a year-end shindig for his school that was hosted by him and his wife. Not only was this the end of the school year but a recognition of his retirement. At the picnic, I eavesdropped on a conversation he was having about the design of his picnic table that allowed it to be set on uneven ground and still be stable. This had my attention and, thus, my first blog.
My daughter arranged a visit during the summer and I had the pleasure of touring the “off the grid” home that he and his wife, Karen, had built together.
Larry, with a degree in physics, took up woodworking as a hobby not too many years ago. This cedar chest was his first project.
Nine years ago Larry and Karen started designing the off-the-grid house. In the summer of 2008 they started building and the next spring they had moved in. By “they”, I mean 4 people including Larry and Karen. By doing it themselves they kept the costs down and they were in control of doing the job “right”.
During the design/build stage of this “first in the region straw-bale house”, they were highly involved with the inspectors to not only ensure that everything was done right, right from the start, but also to educate the inspectors about the how and why of such a structure.
The bales, which are a great insulator (and, thus, no need for air conditioning in the summer), are attached to a steel frame and were cut to fit precisely, even with the rounded walls and curved windows. The walls are 20 inches thick, with one inch stucco on each side.
Here, is their window of proof, showing the bales inside the walls.
This wall, as with most things in the house, is made from recycled, reclaimed materials. The salvaged cherry was cut for the imitation tongue and groove design and the cut-off strips from the edges were used for splines.
I asked Larry what his favourite tool was, as I ask all my interviewees. His response was that he uses the table saw the most but his favourites are the unique tools displayed on the wall above. He uses the tools and puts them back on the wall when done. He also loves the tools that he made himself for specific purposes – the sander/can crusher, the sander that he made specifically for curved railings, and so on. Karen’s favourite is the chop saw.
The main floor’s ceiling, made from wood left over from another project, was placed on a 45 degree angle. This, according to Larry, is easier than making straight lines. “How so,” I ask. Well, there is more forgiveness as you aren’t looking at “straight” but at angles. The imperfections are less noticeable. All individual pieces of the ceiling are made so that they can be lifted out if needed.
The kitchen, which was maybe my most favourite part of the house, was filled with oohs and ahhhs. The cabinet cupboards were all (except a shelf on the corner) made from one tree. The doorknobs are stones. Larry said that he put the stones in a bucket of water, stood on the edges of the stones and then drilled the holes. When dry, they were attached to the doors with screws and epoxy.
The counter has a little bit of history to it. My daughter, who first saw the home a year or two ago, said that, when she saw it, it was plywood covered with mactac. ... and she said it was beautiful. When I told this story, Karen and Larry laughed. Apparently the mactac, on the temporary counter, had to be replaced several times due to wear and tear and to allow for colour sampling. But, it served a purpose as they decided on the colour that they wanted.
The final counter is made from cherry—and that’s another story: Larry saw some rotting cherry boards at someone’s house and asked what they were for. He got them, of course, sorted through them, cleaned them up and then put boat varnish on top. (oops.. no picture. Sorry)
The other part of the kitchen that I adore are the free-standing antique cupboards – specially chosen for the house. Oh how I wish I had one of these …
Behind this cupboard are the stairs leading to the second floor. .. but, as you might guess, the railing is unique and handmade. Driftwood and buoys found along the shore.
One of the MANY spectacular elements of their home is the sumac floor upstairs. The “riverbed” section of floor took three weeks to design and complete. Each slice of sumac was place in a way that highlighted the grain and any other peculiarity of the wood. On the floor are faces and animals. To lay the pieces out he started at one end, went to the opposite end, into the middle and, well, whatever needed to be done to create the masterpiece.
(A picture from their photo album)
When I heard of the sumac floor I was extremely curious. The only sumac I had ever seen were spindly little branches in the ground. But, that isn’t what Larry is working with! He told me that if you go to an undisturbed piece of land the sumac at the centre, the grandfathers of all the off-shoots, are rather huge trees! Check out his supply that is waiting to make a captain’s bed and the first handmade canoe that will remain “theirs”.
One of the rooms in the upstairs is the bathroom.
Now, you wouldn’t think there would be much to say about a bathroom—but this isn’t just any house, it’s the Wiebe’s! Check out the mirror—beautiful, right? Larry found it rotting away in the woods somewhere. He took it home, cleaned it up, replaced a piece here and there and voila: magnificence!
Oh, and the rest of the wood in the bathroom? Boards from a pig barn. Now, I grew up on a farm and we had pigs and I do not remember ANY piece of wood that I would want to bring into my house!! But … check it out
Oh, and here are two of the windows on the second floor …. nothing is ever ordinary!
Another extraordinary feature of the home is the lighthouse. Yes, a lighthouse.
Karen saw the idea in a book at a bookstore and bought the book just so she could show Larry and see if it was do-able. He looked, he thought, and, well, the rest is history. It is 48 feet high and has three floors. They had designed it as four floors, but if they had stayed with four they would have had to hire an architect in order to pass inspection. So three it is!
The inspiration lighthouse was simply a bathroom in the bottom section of the space. The Wiebe’s version is a porch area on the bottom, the winding stairway up the centre and the lookout/hangout area in the top. As I climbed the 48 feet (or there about) and tried not to gasp too hard and show how out of shape I was, I was reminded of climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa back in the day when I was in shape—walking up and around, up and around – all that was missing was the lean.
The look-out area at the top is spectacular. Sitting on the northern edge of Lake Erie, one has a clear view of the lake and Karen said that on some holidays they get to watch the fireworks in Port Rowan, Long Point and across the lake all at the same time.
From the look-out you can also see their garden, which has its own flare of beauty with its pathway from the house. The Wiebe’s, as you might guess, grow and preserve a lot of their food. You can also see, as you look out across the back yard and fields, the wind turbines that produce some of their power.
Here are some more views out of the lighthouse windows
.. and these are “straight down”
The home uses solar and wind power to run almost everything in their home and his shop. They have a generator to charge the batteries when there is no wind/solar power to do the job and also to run his welder and to start the big table saw.
Larry said that solar power is much easier to use and maintain as you have to monitor the wind power somewhat. If you get over the “full mark” you have to shut it down. The solar power moderates its self. The produced 500 watts of power manages pretty much anything a typical home runs.
His students helped with the wind turbine. (I can hear some of you now—finally getting to the students’ projects). The students made the blades for the one turbine (carved in the classroom from marine plywood) as well as helped build the alternator, including winding the coils.
Speaking of the students, what other projects has he included in the shop classes? Three canoes, a couple boats, gazeboes, picnic tables, the house (as I mentioned in the first blog), lockers in the room, benches throughout the school, a circulation area in the library (saving the school $7000), coat racks, for special events, which hold several hundred coats, and stage extensions that set up in a few minutes and, with its unique dovetail system, are also transformed into risers. I’m sure there are many others but I think that gives you an idea of what a great teacher he was. His goal was to teach the youth to conserve energy and materials, that they can make things and solve problems with whatever is available and that they can fix things rather than buying new. I’m guessing that he was very successful with this goal.
Another of the projects: a mirror based on something that was important to them. Larry said that he always created a project to show the students what it would look like (without their personal twists to it of course)
This boat was primarily built by the student identified in the name.
Of course, I’m sure you would like to see his shop. He actually has 2 different buildings plus the “shed” that rather than being demolished was turned into the home of their clay bread oven.
Straw bale insulation
More “Outside” Photos
This little area fooled me—I thought they had some espalier trees on the end of the building that had died. No, it is a piece of art, wood put together to LOOK like trees, vines, etc.
I asked them if there was anything they would do differently and the answer was a very short list. First, the gas fireplace would go (and is actually going), being replaced with wood. The gas doesn’t warm the big room up enough and they love the cutting of wood and the smell of it burning. The second change would be that they would make the house three feet shorter. The 46 foot length has wasted space.
As to their favourite part of the house, Karen quickly pointed to her thinking spot, a chair at the kitchen counter by the recipe books and windows. Larry’s? His wall of tools.
I then asked them where they got the “off the grid” motivation and vision. Well, after telling me that they stayed on the grid for a full year just to sure they could do it before they cut the ties, he wrapped up the interview with this surprise: “We aren’t green”.
I was confused—they collect their water from the roof and store it in a huge tank in the basement, they use solar and wind power to run all their appliances and other energy needs, they build most of their own stuff with salvaged material, and they preserve their own garden produce. How much greener can you get?
And Larry said it started with, “Can I do it”, “how simply can it be done” and “can anyone do this” ... and that is how it all began! He just wanted to know if he could. I guess he can!
A big thank-you to Larry and Karen for showing me their home and sharing their story with us.
(And a thank-you to my daughter for making it happen and my 2-year-old grandson who was ever so patient.)
After I got home I realized that I didn’t get a picture of the front of the house. On my next drive down to the lake I’ll be sure to take a picture or two.
Here are some other interviews that I found online
-- ~ Debbie, Canada (https://www.facebook.com/DebbiePribeleENJOConsultant)