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What's it like living in a house without water, sewer or natural-gas connections -- one that happens to be a showcase for Canada's most energy-efficient materials and systems?

Well, it took some getting used to, according to its owners, the Paloheimo family. But after eight years, they've come to love many things about their special home in Riverdale, dubbed the "healthy house" by its sponsor, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

The semi-detached dwelling boasts oversized, super-efficient windows, concrete walls that provide high-level insulation, a water recycling and purification system, and roof-top solar panels that create enough energy on sunny days to actually make the hydro meter dials go backward.

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CMHC originally estimated operating costs for the 1,700-square-foot, three-bedroom house at less than $300 a year. Rolf Paloheimo, a carpenter turned home builder, and his wife Diana now pay about $1,000 a year -- the cost of the electricity needed to supplement what the house creates on its own.

That's still roughly a third of what they spent in the conventional house of about same size that they previously owned, Mr. Paloheimo says.

It all started when the couple bought two adjoining 22 by 66 foot lots on Sparkhall Avenue for the bargain price of $90,000. The site was already zoned for semi-detached houses, meaning they could avoid bureaucratic complications.

Mr. Paloheimo's company built the almost identical semi-detached houses for $520,000. (He ultimately rented out and later sold the other side.)

CMHC contributed $70,000 toward the cost of energy-saving systems and environmentally friendly materials.

The commission also contributed to the design fees for Toronto-based Martin Liefhebber Architect Inc., which specializes in building "green homes."

Christopher Ives, a senior researcher with CMHC, says a serviced lot the size of Mr. Paloheimo's would have cost $110,000, and running a sewer main to it would have added another $150,000. (It costs about $16,000 just to connect a house to an existing main.)

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"Healthy houses" built on unserviced lots represent "huge savings in land and utility costs," he says, so they don't have to cost more than conventional houses, since the expense of their special features is offset.

Those features include:

Water: It is collected from the roof, stored in an underground cistern and purified without chemicals. All waste water is treated in-house. The filtered product is then used for laundry, bathing, flushing the toilets and watering the garden.

Heating: The house uses about one-tenth of the amount of energy needed to heat a conventional dwelling, CMHC says. Sunlight provides most of the energy; trees shade the house in the summer. Supplemental heat comes from a radiant-heating system -- water warmed by sunlight flows through tubes in the concrete floor.

Power: Energy storage and conversion systems make it possible to use solar energy the entire year. A co-generation unit powers appliances and provides heat if additional energy is required.

What surprises or difficulties did the Paloheimo family encounter?

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"We didn't expect to like the passive solar energy that comes through the windows, facing south as much as we do. It lights up the house quite a bit in the winter and together with the radiant-floor heating, the house is much cozier than we expected," Mr. Paloheimo says. (The house has an electric, forced-air furnace.)

A "drying closet," which was supposed to dry laundry using heat accumulated in the house, wasn't effective enough, Ms. Paloheimo says, notwithstanding the "super space-age insulation" in the house. With the laundry two babies create every day, the family wound up buying a conventional clothes dryer.

They also purchased an energy-efficient refrigerator made in Europe because the freezer of the one they had didn't work well in the summer on less power.

The house is built with materials that give off fewer harmful vapours. But Mr. Paloheimo says that while the finishes are generally harder, something that is good for indoor air quality, "the finish on the stairs is wearing off earlier than we thought."

He also notes that the family had some difficulties with water supply during the first year or two. "We even ran out a few times, so we had to fill our water tank with a hose from a neighbour's house." But now they "generally have too much water." Ms. Paloheimo says she "didn't like the house at first because it was complicated, but I have grown to love it, especially the coziness and warmth on cold days. I also like it structurally and architecturally, with its little balconies and other features." But while the concrete floors and walls are great for insulation and radiant heating, she adds, they were initially concerned about their daughters falling on the hard floors while learning to walk. Fortunately, they didn't.

There is no central air-conditioning because it would have cost too much, Mr. Paloheimo says. On really hot and humid days, they keep the windows and curtains closed, unless there is a breeze.

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Many of the materials in the house are readily available at home-improvement stores. One example is the engineered wood used inside the house, a product that is produced from ground-up scrub trees. It is stronger than natural wood and much less wasteful since it doesn't require the more-valuable wood from trees, Mr. Paloheimo says.

Other examples are the triple-glazed windows, durable bamboo flooring, the floor-heating system, and a type of wall board that is more like plaster than drywall, and is easier to install and less dusty than the conventional product. But the green design hasn't caught on with home or condo builders, architect Martin Liefhebber says, because the emphasis in such a market-driven industry is on quick sales and competitive prices.

Conversely, the healthy house principles are being incorporated in university and hospital structures because public institutions "have a stake in making buildings less expensive," he says.

Mr. Ives of CMHC says the "[Toronto]healthy house was a showcase of things people never had the chance to put together. Some of it was new and some people considered it too innovative, but it was accepted as a way to raise the bar."

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