It was a rugged, uninhabited piece of real estate on the shore of isolated Drag Lake in northern Ontario, far from the nearest road, house, or store and 120 miles northeast of Toronto. Yet when they found the 7-acre plot through a real estate agent in 1999, Dan Molenaar and his wife, Diane, knew they’d finally located an affordable site for an off-the-grid cottage. “We wanted a place where we could retreat from our busy schedule,” says Dan, who, with Diane, owns Boomer, a clothing boutique on Toronto’s trendy Queen Street West. Barerock, which was completed in 2001, is named for the smooth slabs of granite surrounding Drag Lake, which ripples 100 feet downslope to the west. The 900-square-foot cabin is accessible only by boat — that is, when the lake isn’t frozen over.
The Molenaars have always been recyclers, composters and city gardeners; Dan also worked as a carpenter, and took classes on renewable energy and architectural drafting at Ryerson University in Toronto. These interests and skills converged when the couple conceived Barerock. Though another buyer had shied away from building on the steep, rugged terrain, Dan teamed up with a structural engineer to design the house and obtain the necessary permits. He devised an innovative post-and-beam framing system for the site that anchors 14 cement pylons to the bedrock; it follows the contours of the hill and lets snowmelt and runoff flow underneath the house. The Molenaars also used many well-known green design principles: Rather than chopping down trees, for instance, they built around and between them so that the leaves could shade the house in summertime. And orienting Barerock toward the southwest allows the sun to warm the house — even in winter, when the sun sits lower in the sky.
Building Barerock took two years off and on, with the help of family and friends. The couple used a barge to transport 11,000 pounds of concrete mix, dozens of fir beams and columns, and two woodstoves as well as other materials and furnishings. They also salvaged wood from the set of the Steven Seagal flick Exit Wounds (shot in Toronto) and brought in African paduak, a decay-resistant hardwood, to make a kitchen island, dining table and benches.
In the end, their 15-foot–by–60–foot cabin was built for less than $200,000 (U.S.). It has one bedroom, a pantry, a bathroom with a sink and shower (the composting outhouse is 60 feet away), an open kitchen/dining room and a living room. Solar chargers generate electricity; artificial heat, when needed, is provided by woodstoves rigged with warmth-propelled fans. For Barerock’s water needs, a submersible pump in Drag Lake fills a 60-gallon pressurized tank once a day, which can be heated on demand using propane; the Molenaars use a packaged system that filters out sediment and uses ultraviolet treatment to kill pathogens, making the lake water drinkable. The refrigerator and stove also run on propane, which costs around $135 every six months — about the same price as electricity (propane vaporizes rapidly, so it won’t contaminate soil or groundwater). They also cook with a propane-powered barbecue and a wood-burning Dutch–style kettle stove. The house has been wired for electricity, but for now, sunlight and candles serve as its only light sources.
Barerock’s most notable feature is its unique exterior, made of 30 mirrored window panels reclaimed from a Toronto office building that had been reglazed. The façade offers privacy, as well as camouflage from nature’s inhabitants. “We see deer, bald eagles, all kinds of birds,” Dan says. During mating season, the couple is often awakened in the morning by chickadees and finches preening themselves in the mirrored glass.
In 2004, the Molenaars used the green appeal of Barerock to launch Mafco House (mafcohouse.com), a design firm with a simple credo: to build earth-friendly modular homes at a modest cost. “There is a lot of hype around prefab homes, but they’re still expensive,” Dan says. For now, they run the business out of their Toronto studio apartment — Dan designs the homes on his drafting table, while Diane creates perspective drawings using 3-D modeling software. They team up with registered architects and engineers to submit their designs for building permits. Besides Barerock, a second Mafco cabin has been built on Drag Lake, and their designs are also being considered for homes being built in larger developments. For the Molenaars, an off-the-grid getaway may be just the start of an entirely new lifestyle.
Story by Hans Feuersinger. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.