In The Beginning…. (4 minute read)

2003. The ‘Strawberry Hill’ fire is raging just on the edge of Kamloops BC. The air was so hot it felt like it was searing my lungs while I worked outside in the heat and smoke. I was working feverishly to get renovation waste wood out of my yard, in case the fire spread to town. And I was thinking and planning. I was planning on studying and training to promote and be involved in building as much grid-tied renewable energy possible. I was frustrated by the lack of local and national action on climate change. I was also tired of being sensitive to all the toxins and crap in my conventional home and realizing it would be very difficult to rebuild it ‘clean’.

Women designers and builders

In the back of my mind I had always thought I might one day build a log home or cabin, like the log home my father built that I grew up in and like another solo woman before me, Chris Czajkowski had built in the Chilcotin wilderness of BC. Her independence and strength in building her own remote log home by hand in the wilderness had been inspiring me since my youth when I read an article in a magazine about her work.

But logs burn. Locally, the symptoms of climate change were erupting rapidly. The Ponderosa pine trees that were a significant part of our local landscape were dying in large numbers, attacked by beetles that were no longer restricted by cold winters. The fires and the changes in the forest and grassland ecosystem that I loved so much was driving me to do more. This fire made me remember the straw bale homes I’d also read about over the years. Perhaps, I thought, they would be more fire resilient due to their plastered surfaces?

Fast forward a year. I am studying renewable energy and sustainable building in Colorado and I learned even more reasons to build with straw and clay: in addition to fire resiliency and being toxin free, I learned more about total embodied energy and carbon footprint; the values of reduced use of cement and building for longevity so that the high energy cost of construction is spread over as many years as possible. We sequester the carbon of the wood and straw in the building as well, another plus.

Ideally, building one less new building at all would be best for the planet. For me, my health concerns and desire to be farming, were driving a plan that I could justify my creation of the home of my dreams on a larger piece of land than my small city lot. A low-embodied energy, clean and fire resilient, truly sustainable home. You don’t need plastics, synthetic materials and expensive materials to build a healthy, cosy home. In addition, it turns out, a natural home, does not have to be a rough, simple hut as many people imagine, they can be quite luxurious and beautiful. The downside: A lot of labour.

I grew up on a farm and have always been physically strong, familiar with hard physical work and good with handling tools, with experience in construction, engineering and landscape construction, as well as having learned some basic building science from my older architect brother. I thought I could do it. If Chris could do what she did far in the wilderness, I could do this near a major city like Kamloops.

Natural Builders

In my studies looking for what sustainable systems really worked, I also had learned of and later had the privilege to meet some of the strong, industrious women and men working in natural building and natural plasters, like Athena Swentzell-Steen, Bill Steen, Craig Hillman, Sukita Crimmel and Tracy Theriot. I visited many straw bale homes while traveling to study renewables and natural building in both Colorado and BC and worked on several as well.

Living Buildings

The Living Building Challenge (LBC) had recently begun its program to encourage truly sustainable building; they had established a system that was the highest certification system in the world to guide more sustainable construction. I pored over the requirements and studied the materials Redlist. I visited the Eco-sense home, the first LBC-certified residential home and conveniently a few hours from me on Vancouver Island. I was duly impressed by the innovative seismic design of their home done by engineer Tim Krahn, which supplied a crucial missing link for me as I discovered I needed a structural engineer with natural materials experience. Turns out, most engineers have no idea how these materials work.

In my work as an Energy Advisor, I had heard stories of some straw bale and alternative built homes that were built poorly, with problems like mould and excessive air leakage. I wanted to ensure I didn’t make any mistakes, as that leads to slower adoption of alternatives, giving building professionals a poor impression of these homes. I wanted to create a healthy and sound home that building inspectors would be happy with, to aid in the understanding and acceptance of these materials.

My property search took a couple of years. I was looking for arable land, good water and a site with a quite wide-open solar resource. If one is installing solar electricity, you need a ‘good’ solar resource, with at least several hours of sun per day for at least a good part of the year (depending on your needs or investment requirement). For using solar for heat as I was planning, ideally I needed the most solar I could get: the most hours for as much of the year as I could find. Oh, and it needed to be reasonably near to town (ideally reasonable cycling distance), have roads maintenance – and be very affordable (alot of asks!).

Once I had a property, I got to work on many hours of research on materials and the search for suppliers and contractors who either were familiar with what I needed or at least were willing to learn and work with them (not as easy as you might think). I began my basic design and started sourcing materials and contractors.…

One of the most essential things about sustainable and natural building is to ensure that the overall design from the very beginning, is based on its sustainability. Many problems in buildings happen when green items are simply added to a conventional design. Many of these materials behave differently than standard materials, so many of the systems used to create both sustainable and natural buildings may not follow convention. The building needs to function as a system with all its parts integrated according to their properties and functions.

More about living buildings, sustainable and natural building materials and design soon.~