Anna Von Mertens and Chris Anderson built their solar home in the New Hampshire woods with the help of family and friends.
Photo By Eric Roth
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.
Although it was hot, sweaty work, Anna says everyone was rewarded with a daily afternoon swim in the nearby pond. “By the time we had to fly back to California, we had a weather-tight house: All of the walls were up, the windows were in, and a layer of tar paper was on the roof. It was very satisfying,” Anna says.
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.”
By January of 2007, Anna was pregnant with the couple’s first child, and she and Chris were eager to move into their new home before the baby was born. Anna had always had a close relationship with her brother, Tod, who had lived in Seattle for many years with his wife, Jaylon. When Tod and Jaylon saw Anna and Chris moving back home so their children could grow up surrounded by family, they were inspired. Not only did they choose to follow suit, they even showed up at the same time. “We didn’t get our occupancy permit until June, and Tod and Jaylon had to bump their flight back because they didn’t have the papers to allow their cat to fly, so we ended up moving on the same night,” Anna says with a laugh. “It was a little chaotic, but it actually worked out great.”
Though there are many things Chris and Anna love about being in New Hampshire, family remains the primary appeal. The pair had both of their children—Hayden, now 4, and Rhys, 1—in the new house, and they frequently host get-togethers with extended family and friends. One of Anna’s favorite activities is taking the kids for a walk with her sister-in-law, who has a 9-year-old and a 4-year-old. She says it’s the little things she values most. “It’s great to be near family. It takes the pressure off. Instead of having to rely on one intense week together at the holidays, you can just stop by, drop off milk from the farm, whatever,” she says. “There are a lot more informal hellos and visits. These little details and vignettes are really precious.”
The couple was also determined to raise their children close to nature. “There are advantages to living in the city, such as diversity and endless things to do. But I had this vision of my children’s contact with nature as going to a playground or park, and I just didn’t want that,” Anna says. “Here we feed the chickens every morning. We have our vegetable garden, so we can go plant seeds and water and watch that evolution. Last summer Hayden was obsessed with blackberries. Having that daily, easy experience with nature—versus having it be a special event—that’s really what we were looking for.”
And, while the couple wants to model self-sufficiency and environmental sustainability for their children, they also treasure the emotional value inherent in their family home. “I never had a stable home to live in,” says Chris, the stepson of a state department employee. “While it’s not what I know, it’s what I coveted,” he says. He looks forward to going to Little League and soccer practice with his kids. And, although Anna says she and Chris could one day get restless, this is where their hearts live. “We may travel or even rent elsewhere,” she says, “but this will always be our home. It’s the fixed point we’ll always return to.”
The Good Life
For Anna Von Mertens, a home set amidst the New Hampshire woodlands provides the perfect backdrop for the life she hoped to create for her family. Anna says living in nature has taught her daughter, 4-year-old Hayden, invaluable life lessons. In what she describes as the “grazing garden,” Anna, Chris and Hayden munch on fresh strawberries and raspberries, pop peas out of the pod and pick ripe, warm cherry tomatoes. “We always say Hayden would eat anything she could pick,” Anna says.
Along with the splendor of nature, Hayden also gets lessons in its cycles; the family’s first batch of chickens was eaten by a bobcat, which Hayden witnessed and “took in stride,” Anna says (their new flock is protected by a fence). The farm’s little surprises show her the whimsy in nature, too. A homing pigeon arrived one September and was folded into the chicken flock, pecking corn with the other birds. Every day in summer, Anna and Hayden walk down the long driveway to collect mail, searching for blackberries along the way. And in winter, they still have fun collecting mail—by sled!
A Chat with Anna Von Mertens
What kind of car do you drive?
One is a Toyota Prius and the other is a Subaru Forester. Its four-wheel drive really comes in handy in the winter.
What’s your favorite room?
I guess it would have to be our main room. I love the open floor plan. The kids play in the living room while I’m cooking dinner or hosting people, and just having a large open space is really nice. It’s a warm, cozy, light-filled room.
Aside from being off-grid, how is your New Hampshire house different from where you lived in California?
In California our place was a little claustrophobic in winter. Here we have south-facing, expansive views of the Wapack Range, so even in winter you feel like you can have the outdoors brought in.
Elizabeth Gehrman is a freelance writer who lives in Boston.