When Matt Gilgan says he's a "fish swimming upstream," he's referring to having a super-green, passive-solar, straw-bale home built among the traditional Tudors of Oakville. But he may as well be talking about his experiences with the family business.
Mr. Gilgan is the eldest son of billionaire home builder Peter Gilgan – according to Forbes magazine, Peter Gilgan is the 27th richest man in Canada – who started Mattamy Homes in 1978. In fact, "Mattamy" is a blend of "Matthew" and "Amy," the two oldest of Mr. Gilgan's eight children.
But, after starting out as a general summer labourer at the age of 15 – something the younger Mr. Gilgan says he very much enjoyed – and moving up the ladder to hold positions as varied as site supervisor, sales and marketing director, head of land acquisitions for a new Arizona arm of the company, and "this very strange, made-up position called director of strategic improvement," the gregarious, artistically-inclined 37-year-old developed a distaste for corporate culture.
"I came to decide that my values are different than the company," he says, without a trace of malice.
So, six years ago, Mr. Gilgan left Mattamy. Shortly after that, he purchased an 1870 stucco-clad worker's cottage on Oakville's Chisholm Street, a designated heritage building associated with a tannery that was once the town's largest employer.
While maintaining the heritage elements, Mr. Gilgan set out to explore cutting-edge sustainable ideas he wasn't able to pursue during his time with Mattamy: "I wanted to see all these things I'd heard about and read about and evaluate them for myself," he says.
After finding Milton-based architect Tom Kolbasenko of Our Cool Blue, Mr. Gilgan set to work on "deconstructing" the non-heritage elements of the house to prepare it for its green reawakening. Unfortunately, the old foundation proved to be so poor, extra time and money was spent re-supporting the home on steel beams, which he sarcastically calls "a minor setback." New parts of the home would have walls made of straw bale sealed with earthen plaster, which, he says, most people associate with hobbit-like structures in the country (a myth he wants to disprove), so Camel's Back Construction near Peterborough was brought on board as well. The home would have a large passive-solar element, a geothermal system, radiant floors and plenty of recycled material.
Three years in the making and pretty much complete now, the home has all of those things, plus much more. In addition to recycled wood, some parts of the concrete floors are clad with a half-inch of local clay mixed with straw bits and sand that came, literally, from a big hole at a construction site. While it took three weeks to air-dry, Mr. Gilgan says it's "quite durable" and "very repairable."
The massive soapstone fireplace, he says, was a joy to watch go together. Plates of stone were "stacked to make this weaving, three-dimensional maze" that directs heat on a long journey before delivering it to the chimney; this, he explains, traps most of the heat within the stone (to radiate for hours and warm the house) rather than wasting it. "Fireplaces are getting a bad rap in some circles," he adds. "Usually, they're wide open and you're not capturing much of the heat – but this, it burns very efficiently and we've been using it on the cold, cold days and it's amazing."
It's so amazing the home doesn't need a conventional furnace. In addition, free solar energy is captured in the stone-clad walls of the tall, south-facing solarium. Standing on the home's second floor floating bridge, Mr. Gilgan points to a series of air intakes that can, if needed, direct that free heat via fans to the middle of the home or, if that's too warm, all the way down to the basement, or, in summer, eject it outside. Beneath the solarium underground is a large cistern that collects rainwater.
And speaking of rainwater, Mr. Gilgan says the town of Oakville rained on his green parade, a little: Despite many parts of Europe allowing rainwater to be a home's sole source of water, even potable, Oakville was "basically lumping in rainwater with grey water, which it's not." With a preference for the low-tech side of things, he complains also that he was "forced into more mechanization and more mechanized backups [by the town] than we would have liked." In future, he hopes to deliver documentation to get some bylaws changed.
As for green roof technology, which he's incorporated into a few small areas, he's unsure: "Aesthetically, it's beautiful but there are a lot of layers of membrane and there [is] always the concern of technical failure."
Thankfully, there are touches of whimsy to counter all the gee-whiz technology. His stairwell wall is a three-dimensional work of art – bits of lath, chain, barn board, copper pipe and old grills all jumble together – that came about because he'd been itching to use all the bits he'd been collecting over the years (some salvaged from dad's construction sites, some from this house). There is an earthen plaster sink upstairs that was built on-site and sealed by a Moroccan process known as "tadelakt." An old claw-foot tub has been repurposed as a dog-washing station in the basement. And, finally, there is a "truth window" in the master bathroom upstairs (most straw bale homes leave one small square of wall open to show the bales behind the plaster).
Equal parts serious sustainable experiment, rustic cottage, and modern family space, Mr. Gilgan is putting the home on the market in the next few weeks. His next adventure, he says, is to try and enroll his two children into Bali's The Green School while he and his wife learn even more about sustainable practices.
At a cool $4.5-million, however, it remains to be seen if denizens of Oakville are ready. "I've been very encouraged by the way people react in here," he finishes. "I think they feel a kind of authenticity to it."