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A vacation home that's off-grid and outta sight

Altius Architecture Inc.

Building any house or cottage comes with its share of hurdles. But when Trevor McIvor was hired to design a sustainable, cliff-top family retreat with 360-degree views of the surrounding lake and forest from every room, he knew he was in for a challenge.

"It's obviously impossible," says the partner of Toronto-based Altius Architecture Inc., "unless you build a tower where every floor is one room."

The combined task of designing a 3,000-square-foot, four-season cottage to be totally off the electricity grid, while possible, is seldom done.

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Incorporating solar technology into non-winterized cottages is one thing. But for year-round residences that endure long, cold Canadian winters, the financial investment is typically too large and the return too small.

The owner of the aptly named Cliff House would not disclose his building budget, saying only that the return on investment for going green "was too high for me to count in years based on economics."

However, he says the cost to run electricity to the secluded Muskoka property would also have been very high - as much as six figures.

In the end, his family's decision to go green wasn't financially motivated. "It's cultural. It's a value statement," he says.

Several years ago, they built a few smaller solar-powered cabins by the lake some 20 metres below the granite peak. And though the Cliff House is luxurious to be sure, it does not have a landline telephone, television, dishwasher, microwave or other modern conveniences.

"For us, luxury is a comfortable chair, good reading light, a great book, solitude … being able to look out the window and be surprised that an eagle flies below you."

The size of the retreat and its year-round use means it must leverage not one - but many - green strategies and technologies.

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Architecturally, the building, which was completed last fall, is designed to take advantage of the sun's movement and seasonal air flow - incorporating elements like cantilevered flying roofs that overhang to block the sun, green roofs that mediate temperatures inside, and venting skylights and super-insulated operable glass windows that release hot air above while drawing-in fresh air below.

Mechanically, the Cliff House is equipped with a solar system designed to keep the cottage operating at a "healthy temperature" during the winter and prevent the pipes from freezing.

The evacuated tube solar collectors on the roof are connected to 10 hot-water tanks in the basement that heat the cement floors and water supply. When fully charged, they can store enough heat for four overcast days in the winter.

Electricity is generated through photovoltaic arrays (solar cells) on the property and a bank of batteries hidden in a storage shed, which make up 50 per cent of the solar system cost, according to Architect Tony Round, another partner at the firm.

But it's the masonry heaters in the Cliff House's two fireplaces that are designed to "bump up the temperature to something comfortable" when the owners are there, explains Mr. McIvor. There is also a propane-fired boiler as a backup energy source.

"We burned more propane than we ever intended," says the owner of the family's first winter. He's committed to improving the solar efficiency before next winter hits, however he concedes managing that process can be difficult when there's less sun than expected. Altius and the owners are tweaking the systems so that they can reduce their reliance on the back-up propane generators in winter.

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Mr. McIvor says that the project is an experimental work-in-progress and an opportunity most architects don't get. "When I was young and energetic, going to university 15 years ago, this was the stuff that got me all excited, but no one was ever interested in doing it. We're finally getting to implement it full on," he says gratefully.

The chance to build on the cliff was "a once in a lifetime thing," Mr. Round adds. "It's an amazing site. There are a lot of cues that you can take from it."

As a result, the design of the interior was kept simple and natural. Materials like authentic Muskoka granite, slate, polished concrete, Douglas fir, birch and walnut complement the exterior. And, custom floor-to-ceiling, frameless glass windows with glazed corners, made by a local manufacturer, bring the outside in.

The rooms don't have 360-degree views but both the owners and architects agree they come close. Except for the basement and utility room, each has three walls of windows, granting spectacular panoramic vistas of the grounds and wildlife.

"We didn't let the architecture get away from us and overpower what the natural beauty of the site is," says Mr. McIvor. "The real showpiece is always the view. It's always what's drawing you in."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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