Pickering The cloud of smoke that hung over the Uher family's burning home four years ago actually had a silver lining.
Jason Uher is quick to point out that no one was hurt. But rebuilding from scratch meant they could have their dream green home in which to raise their two young sons.
"My goal was to build a great house at an affordable price that would be healthy and contemporary," said Uher, 40, who researched planet-friendly features, materials and technology.
The house that rose from the ashes is a custom-built, 2,800-square-foot structure designed to snare the sun's energy and reduce the family's ecological footprint. With "three-quarters of the house coming from a farmer's field," it's an example of local sustainability, says general contractor Scott Vanular, referring to the modular straw walls.
The City of Pickering was impressed enough to give them a civic award for sustainability in 2011. And the stunning showplace even hosted a delegation from China eager to learn about green building practices.
The house's eco-friendliness is a far cry from that of its predecessor where Uher, a Toronto police officer, and his wife Michelle Boodhoo lived with their sons Alex, now 7, and Tye, 5.
Originally built in the 1930s, the poorly insulated cabin-plus-addition in north Pickering devoured $4,000 worth of heating oil a year, said Uher.
"The oil tanks had caught on fire and the house was pretty much done," he recalled. "But the shock was realizing what could have happened" if anyone had been home.
Despite its shortcomings, the house's three hectares of wooded conservation land is a "pretty cool" space, said Uher, who had been looking at ways to heat it more efficiently.
While he didn't know a lot about sustainable building methods, he wanted a house that would partner well with nature. A pretty stream running through the back yard, for example, was an important consideration in landscaping and positioning the house.
Uher, whose wife gave input on the planning and design, wanted to play a bigger role in the project than simply handing a wish list to the builder.
Vanular, a specialist in green building and sustainable development, called Uher an "open-minded" client who was fully engaged every step of the way.
"It's definitely one of the greenest homes we've built," said Vanular, president of Construct and Conserve Building in Aurora.
Just how green can be measured in several ways. For starters, the family's heating bills have been cut 75 per cent to $1,000 a year.
The passive solar design incorporates south-facing, high-efficiency windows that allow the sun's warmth to infuse a five-centimetre-thick concrete slab floor. The heat absorbed by the floor and interior brick walls makes a huge difference in winter, said Uher. In summer, a roof overhang blocks the sun's hottest rays.
A 98-per-cent efficiency furnace and masonry wood-burning heater provide supplementary heating, but a built-in bake oven has generated more conversation than pizza.
Ceiling fans on timers in every room keep the air circulating, says Uher, who's not keen on man-made cooling systems.
Three exterior walls are built of straw. The home boasts an updated version in which prefabricated wall panels are put together like a sandwich, with concrete for bread and straw for the filling.
Created by NatureBuilt Wall Systems in Welland, the airtight, highly insulating panels are sealed and built offsite before being installed.
To boost insulation value, all the closets were built on the north side. Ceilings are filled with EcoBatt R-50 insulation and the non-straw wall has high-insulating spray foam.
"We sealed the whole house up supertight," said Vanular, who educates clients about what technologies and practices are good for the environment.
The roof is designed and engineered to support a green roof, which hasn't been done yet.
A 600-square-foot, wrap-around deck delivers a multi-sensory experience that draws from the natural setting.
The interior's open-concept design has ceilings that soar 16 feet at the highest point — even the basement is a minimum nine feet — and a colour scheme of cream, black and earth tones.
Floors are concrete or renewable bamboo, a family favourite for its durability and easy maintenance. Surfaces were covered with eco-friendly, non-toxic finishes such as a soy-based stain.
He doesn't disclose the final price tag, saying only that it cost no more than a conventional residence — a fact that keeps the shine on that silver lining.