Solar panels at home

The solar panels on the property, which help provide energy to the home. (Mike Forsyth)

Living life off the grid

Living off the grid is a dream for some, but for one Canadian couple it’s a reality. Thanks to a Monolithic Dome, they have been living a sustainable life for a decade.

Their journey to a sustainable lifestyle started in 1997. Mike Forsyth and Lynn Cain bought 80 acres of land in Lacombe County, Canada. At the time it was nothing but alfalfa, but they had big plans for the space. Their goal was to build an energy-efficient home, grow their own food, and live off the grid. “In other words, to be as self-sufficient as possible,” Mike said. The reason for these goals, Mike states, is because “my wife and I both have science backgrounds and were raised in the ‘hippie era.’”

They looked at many styles of homes, but eventually settled on two because of their energy efficiency: straw bale and Monolithic Dome. They did their research and found that a straw bale home has an R value of 55, and a Monolithic Dome a value of 60. “Straw bale was very labor intensive and required specific types of bales which had to be kept dry until they were covered with stucco,” Mike explained. “So in the end we rejected that.” A Monolithic Dome seemed the best choice. There was only one problem: Mike did not want to build the shell for the dome, only finish the inside. That was remedied by the discovery of Canadian Dome Industries, who agreed to build the shell.

Mike designed the dome and sent his designs to Canadian Dome Industries. They made some minor adjustments and eventually settled on a 55-foot diameter dome. Construction started in the fall of 2005.

Apart from the shell of the dome, Mike and Lynn did the rest of the work themselves. First they prepared the area for construction by digging and laying the rough plumbing. Mike also made the window bucks. They placed electric boxes and pipes for the electrical, plumbing, and air vents.

Mike and Lynn were committed to the project they started. During the construction of the dome, the Airform needed to stay constantly inflated. Since they did not have electricity on the land, they rented a generator that had to be kept running at all times. During this time, Mike and Lynn stayed in a 13 foot trailer so Mike could check on the generator during the night.

When Mike designed the home he incorporated the concept of a passive solar home. He used four parts of the concept: good insulation, south-facing windows, a passive solar floor, and thermal shutters. Underneath the concrete floor of the dome are 1,800 cinder blocks laying sideways, running north and south. As the sun comes in the south-facing windows, it heats up the floor and the air in the cinder blocks. Warm air rises, and thus gives the home a natural circulation of air. All the doors and windows have thermal shutters, which Mike built. These shutters are filled with two inches of foam insulation and a layer of air foil. They are designed to help keep the heat in. “On cold nights we close our thermal shutters and you can feel the difference immediately,” Mike explained.

They wanted to live off the grid, and they got their wish. “We are completely off the grid,” Mike said, “the electric grid, natural gas grid, water grid, and the telephone grid.” Electricity to the home is supplied by a 3 kW wind turbine that sits atop a 70 foot tower. There are also 12 solar panels, which also help generate electricity. “This is a good combination, because when you don’t have sun, you often have wind and vice versa,” Mike stated. There are 32 batteries which store the generated electricity. If there is surplus electricity it is diverted into an electric water tank. That takes the burden off the propane supply, which is used for the stove, hot water heater, and backup generator.

Other parts of the property are sustainable as well. Water is supplied through a well on the property. All the appliances in the home are energy efficient. The heating of the home is done through a wood-burning stove, and a wood-burning boiler for the in-floor heating. A garden on the property allows them to grow their own food.

Although they’ve lived in this home for a decade, there are still improvements to be made as the years go on. Mike recently removed the stairway to the loft and added a staircase. He also plans to build a 32×48’ shop. Their property keeps them busy, with animals to care for, a garden to tend, and canning to do. All of which comes with the sustainable lifestyle.

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Garden and home

A view of the garden with the home in the background. (Mike Forsyth)

Door front door

The front door to the home. (Mike Forsyth)