Beautiful, functional, and built to last: That’s the design ethos of the buildings that dot the property at Snow Lake. Not only have I found myself in awe of the variety of aesthetic and functional design choices that the folks here have created, but I’ve also witnessed visitors passing through consistently ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ over the stonework, woodwork, and thoughtful amenities that have gone into each structure. It’s easy to feel awed by the deceptively simple construction and ingenious home improvements and facilities. Though they each have their own flavour and style, there are 5 main aspects to every home on the farm that form the basis of these unique living spaces: stone foundations, timber frames, wood stove heating and cooking, rainwater cisterns, and composting toilets.

Foundations: Slipform Stonework

Most of the buildings, and some of the garden beds, have a stonework foundation and often supporting, ground-level walls made from slipform stone masonry. If you want to know more about this method of construction, you can read Paul’s detailed account of building their woodshed.

Slipform masonary walls in mid-constructionSlipform masonry walls in mid-construction

Stone walls cleaned of concrete reveal beautiful patternsStone walls cleaned of concrete reveal beautiful patterns

The walls are beautiful and functional, like many things here; they provide a cooling effect in the summer, especially when they are built into a hillside as in the case of Paul and Laire’s house (aka. Thor’s Den); and they are good insulation in the winter. I have worked a couple of hot days on the current Cheese Cave/‌Workshop/‌Apartment/‌Bar complex currently referred to as The Manhandler Saloon (a working title), and I can testify that the work is slow, demanding, and rewarding. As Deryk said to me while we were pouring concrete and arranging facing stones, the construction may be slow, but it will last forever.

Frames: Timbers and Pegs

Each home boasts large, beautiful wooden timber frames that have been pegged together using age-old building methods. From forest to frame, the trees are felled, logs milled on-site, carved by hand, then hoisted into place, squared and levelled, and finally tied together with hand-carved pegs.

An carving timbersAn carving timbers

Natural elements incorporated into timber-frame designNatural elements incorporated into timber-frame design

The pegs are not only a secure, structurally forgiving, and overall interesting way of joining timbers, but are also often handy extensions for hanging things to dry. During milling the timbers are squared, sometimes a bit roughly, leaving some of the edges slightly bevelled with a “wane” – suggestive of the trees whence they came. The walls, windows, doors, and roofs are then built around and attached to this solid timber frame in personalized variations from home to home: Thor’s Den is quite long and open-concept, while Dragonfly Cottage (which is available to rent out for farm stays) has more modularly constructed rooms stacked beside one another at different vertical levels.

Heating and Cooking: Wood Cookstoves

Heating in winter, hot water, and cooking are all centred around a wood cookstove, a central feature of every home at Snow Lake. You feed firewood into the firebox on one side of the stove, while the other side is used as an oven. The top of both these cavities is a cooking surface, and above that there is often a warming chamber. Laire is especially skilled at knowing where the hottest parts of the stovetop and oven are, and how to use them properly, and he consistently turns out amazing, perfectly cooked dishes, from racks of lamb to cauliflower risotto (I have never eaten so well in all my life!). If you end up renting Dragonfly Cottage for a stay on the farm, he’ll give you a lesson in how to work the stove and some tips and tricks on how to cook and bake with it.

The Amish-designed wood cookstove in Thor’s DenThe Amish-designed wood cookstove in Thor’s Den

The other major function of the wood stove is to heat water via pipes run through the stove, which fill a hot water tank, providing warm and hot water for doing dishes and bathing. When the weather is cooler, hot water is in pretty much continual supply, as it replenishes itself as long as the stove has wood burning in it. During the summer, Paul makes cheese every three days, and to warm all the milk he fires up the stove, and also often bakes bread while the stove is going. So we enjoy warm showers every three days, though this past summer taking a “greenhouse shower” with hose water, which is lake-temperature cool, is usually pleasantly refreshing.

Rainwater Cisterns

Each house collects rainwater for drinking and bathing

Drinking and bathing water is collected in a huge cistern under each home. Metal roofs and gutters collect rainwater, which is filtered and drained into the cistern. The cistern has an overflow pipe to avoid both overflow and the water being too stagnant for too long. An intake pipe at its base is connected to a system of water pipes which feed sinks, showers, bathtubs, and washing machines. The water is either hand-pumped to build up the water pressure, or an electric pump, which draws power from solar panels, keeps a constant pressure in the pressure tank so that running water is available on demand.

Composting Toilets: Flushing with Sawdust

A major personal concern of many people about off-grid living is how to comfortably deal with human waste. Snow Lake has perfected the water-free toilet system, to my mind, and it was one of the more pleasant surprises for me during my first visit just how pleasant doing your business in a privy bucket can be!

A composting toiletA composting toilet

By building up a toilet seat structure that replaces the toilet bowl with a large plastic bucket, and using sawdust or wood shavings to “flush” the toilet, there is virtually no smell and no mess to deal with, except when it comes time to empty the privy. Since not everyone may be comfortable with this aspect of off-grid life, if you’re staying as a guest at Dragonfly Cottage, Laire will offer you privy bucket cleaning services as part of your stay. If, however, you want to engage with all aspects of the self-sufficient, off-grid experience, he’ll explain in detail how to keep your privy clean and odour-free, and how to dispose of your waste in carefully managed “humanure” piles that are left to break down for two years before using the composted soil on fruit trees and other crops that don’t come in direct contact with the soil.

The mix of traditional and modern is part of Snow Lake’s draw for me. The contemporary tools and designs that support the above traditional methods, as well as the modern conveniences – like wifi (which everyone on the farm as access to, so, yes, the Netflix binge happens here… though more during winter months when there’s not so many garden and construction activities), a gas generator backup for when solar isn’t enough, and a freezer as a source of food storage and ice packs for coolers – all contribute to making Snow Lake a place where you can feel comfortably isolated, yet decisively connected, to both the local community and everywhere “down the mountain.”

About Steven Enman-Beech

Steven is a Registered Acupuncturist currently living in Toronto, Ontario. His interest in alternative health has always been linked to his experiences growing up with hippie-inspired, off-grid-aspiring parents in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. Concerns about local environmental and social justice issues, as well as a strong creative drive, have led Steven through careers in independent theatre, adult home-care, yoga teaching, and now the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture. He is currently reflecting and developing with the folks of Snow Lake Keep ideas and methods for providing alternative health options to rural communities in a financially accessible way, as well as incorporating traditional medicinal knowledge as part of a modern, sustainable lifestyle.

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