This two-storey Toronto home is tricked out with eco-friendly features, but the most interesting one is hidden within the walls.
From the street, you won’t find any indication that this detached two-storey home in the Eglinton and Allen neighbourhood is any different from the ones around it. But if you look inside its walls, you’ll find something very unusual.
Instead of modern fibreglass insulation, the walls of this house are filled with bales of straw that have been soaked in clay, tightly bundled, and bound with twine. It may seem like an ancient construction method, but straw insulation is highly effective, with a two-hour fire rating and insulation rating of up to R-35. (The R rating scale is the measure used by the construction industry to quanitfy thermal resistance). It actually outperforms fibreglass insulation, which has a 45-minute fire rating, emits toxic fumes when on fire, and has a lower R rating per square inch.
The Straw Bale Retrofit house is the only dwelling of its kind in Toronto. “My husband and I were both interested in finding more sustainable ways of building,” says Sherry Johnson, a York University music professor, who owns the home along with her husband Joe Burns, a musician. “We planned to do it in our retirement in the country. Then when we couldn’t find the house we wanted in Toronto, and we needed to move [because] our old home was too small; we decided to just do it now in the city.”
Designed by Soma Earth Architect and built by Fourth Pig Worker Co-op, the house boasts eco-friendly features beyond the straw insulation. Every aspect of it was built with the intention of minimizing environmental impact. Recycled materials (gutted from the interior), super-sealed edges, high-efficiency windows, and repurposed doors all contribute to making this one of the greenest houses in Toronto.
Fourth Pig added the second storey and rear extension on top of the former red brick bungalow. The exterior yellow paint job makes the added sections of the house stand out, but everything blends together seamlessly inside. “That’s how good the builder is—it’s pretty hard to do that well,” says Ingrid Cryns, principal of Soma Earth Architect.
Inside the home, the Straw Bale Retrofit house’s earthy and organic vibe is immediately apparent. The rough, brown walls are covered with an inch of clay plaster that’s curved around the edges, rather than cutting a hard 90 degree angle. LED bulbs are used in every light fixture, and the extra-wide windows allow ample sunlight to filter in. A high priority has also been placed on materials that lack chemical additives. FSC-certified wood and NAUF plywood form the beams, railings, countertops, stairs, and front porch. The wood used for the porch roof was rescued from the kitchen’s hardwood flooring, and it still bears scratches and scuffs from years of use.
In the middle of the house between the kitchen and living room, the builders added a masonry-heater fireplace. “[It’s] a special fireplace that works with thermal mass. It has the brick, and it has a bit of extra plaster on the top, and it has on the [kitchen] side a little pizza oven,” says Cryns. “Essentially, you should only need a couple logs in the day and a couple at night and it should heat the entire house.”
The interior of the stone and cement structure contains refractory brick—special bricks with high heat resistance. The fireplace is surrounded by several flue baffles, which adjust air flows as needed. In the backyard, rows of chopped logs are piled high against the garage for the coming winter. Johnson believes they should have enough fuel to last the season.
In the basement, a high-efficiency HVAC system recovers heat, and a propane water heater sits on the wall. The basement toilet, which sits in a closet-sized room, has small sink on top of the reservoir. The water that you use to wash your hands ends up being the water you use to flush the toilet.
The roof contains cellulose insulation with an R-100 rating, well above the minimum requirement of R-40, keeping the house warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Rooftop solar panels are another eco-friendly feature Johnson and Burns intend to add in the future.
“We have the wiring in there to do that when we can afford to buy the solar panels—basically we’re just waiting for excess cash,” said Johnson.
A few other finishes are still in the works: things like turning the backyard into a garden and painting the clay walls, both of which were put on hold with the arrival of the couple’s son, Marshall. Johnson and Burns will make these changes eventually, because this house isn’t one they intend to flip.