From the beginning, they had a plan. “Almost from when we met, the plan was always, we’ll move back to Peterborough when we want to start a family, and we’ll build a house with my dad,” says Anna Von Mertens.
Anna, a textile artist, and her husband, Chris Anderson, had both moved to San Francisco in the summer of 1995, shortly after graduating from separate East Coast colleges. They met in the Bay Area playing ultimate Frisbee and started dating two years later.
“Six years went by,” Anna continues. Though they both knew they wanted to return to the East Coast, they weren’t in a rush to make the move back to Anna’s hometown of Peterborough, New Hampshire. “We had a lot of friends in California, so it was hard to tear ourselves away. It wasn’t until we said, ‘OK, we really are ready for kids. We really are ready for a change,’ that we finally decided to do it.”
Once they made the decision, they went all out, creating a family home that would provide their future children a sense of place and a connection with nature. The couple wanted to complete the house before they relocated, so they traveled to New Hampshire and chose a lot with a view on 187 acres Anna’s mother owns in southern New Hampshire. Then they got started on their off-the-grid dream house.
An Inside Job
Designing and building the home was a project that eventually involved Chris and Anna’s entire family, plus a lot of good friends. First, Chris and Anna spent two years planning their future home in collaboration with Chris’ longtime best friend, architect Peter Larsen. Next, Anna’s father, Carl Von Mertens, a high school teacher with building experience, oversaw the pouring of the foundation and preparation of the site. A family-owned Peterborough company felled and milled about two dozen pine trees on site, which were dried for a year before construction. The home is constructed using those pines, which make up the stairs, the upstairs flooring and much of the furniture, most of which Anna’s father and brother made.
In July 2006, Chris and Anna took a month off work and flew to New Hampshire to frame the house with Anna’s dad. “I didn’t know if I could do it having no construction experience,” Anna says, “but with my dad leading the way, we each found our role. My job was ‘the chopper’—I manned the chop saw and cut all the boards. It actually wasn’t that far from quilting. The measuring and cutting were the same; the tools were just different!”
On weekends, friends made themselves available to help, too. “It was a blast,” Anna says. “Everyone was put to work, no matter their skill level. And if a friend had a special talent, we would quickly incorporate that into the project.” A few of their friends from California and New York even flew in to take part in the fun.
As the home came together, the decision to build off the grid was a no-brainer. “One big reason we built off-grid is because we’re far from the road, and power lines aren’t even on the road anyway,” Anna says. “We would have had to build an access road for the utility company, so it actually cost us less to go off-grid than it would have to bring power to our front door.”
It also didn’t hurt that Chris is chief technology officer of Borrego Solar, a commercial photovoltaic system design and installation firm. “I wanted to walk the talk,” he says, “and show that you can rely on solar as a primary source of power, even in New England.”
Chris and Anna’s triple-pane windows collect passive solar heat while seven solar thermal panels on the roof heat the water, and 42 photovoltaics provide electricity. For backup, they have 24 solar-energy-storing batteries, which can run for up to three days without a recharge, as well as a wood-pellet boiler and a propane generator. They figure they’re saving about $1,700 a year in avoided fuel costs, but the satisfaction they get from the home’s efficiency is worth much more than that. “Green living used to be associated with sacrifice,” Anna says, “but modern green living actually improves the quality of life. Living in a well-insulated home during cold and snowy New Hampshire winters couldn’t be nicer. I love how comfortable and cozy our house feels.”
Chris agrees. “We didn’t have to make sacrifices at all,” he says. “It is just a matter of sizing your solar array and energy storage system to meet with your lifestyle. I guess we could have chosen to live by candlelight, but we are a pretty average family of four and we like our modern electronics and appliances. The difference is that we made an investment up front in a renewable energy power plant that has essentially fixed our costs for electricity and given us peace of mind about our energy consumption.”
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