Natural Building

My husband, Colin, and I spent a few years previous to when we bought our land, checking out a variety of natural building projects- cob, stawbale, rammed earth, cordwood, houses, garden sheds, playhouses- in various states of construction, doing workshops and reading books about land development theories and off-grid possibilities.  I remember walking into peoples’ homes, finished or not, and wondering when I would be the one answering questions in clay dusted work clothes, passing on the vision of a beautiful and healthy living space.  In 2012, after 4 years of building, we hosted our house on the Pender Island Eco-Homes tour, and I was able to see myself in just that light as I greeted over a hundred people throughout the day.  We built on and off for 4 years, with 3 and a half years living in a 23 foot trailer as a family of four in the mean time.  We have worked beside a huge array of friends and community neighbors of all ages, with many of our materials being locally sourced.

Buying into the land with us (and making the reality of the price affordable for us all!) is my mother Margaret, otherwise known as Nana.  Colin and I have always welcomed the idea of shared land buying and building- we researched and looked into the prospect of larger, intentional community style projects here on Pender before this piece of land presented itself in such a way that we could not ignore.  We asked around for anyone else who wanted to join in, but it seems to have worked out for us to get going with Nana and keep our doors open for future co-creators. 

The whole design of the house involves two more levels descending down the rock slope in front of the first section, (which is intended to be an in-law suite for Nana with an art studio.) Since the bedrock slope we are building on is south facing, we designed the levels to be long, 45 feet (east/west) and narrow, 15 feet (north/south) to utilize the passive solar gain. We began construction on these levels in 2017, completing the bedroom level in early 2020 and looking to finish the interior of the lower level (kitchen and living space) in the next year.

The section we started with is a 590 square foot suite for Nana with a 290 square foot shared art studio.  This strawbale house opens into a nice size mud room, with a door leading south to Nana’s kitchen, bedroom, and living room space all in an open format (the front section with the curved, living roof).  A door leading north from the mudroom goes into the art studio and utility room (back section of house with sloping metal roof).  Nana has been a great help with taking time with Taeven and Cedar, baking us bread and treats, making meals when we are working late, and adding her artistic touches when she can, as well as taking on any jobs she can help with.  She also manages to help plant, weed, or harvest in the garden.

Colin designed the floor plan himself with considerations of the passive solar capacities available through the south facing slope that we are building on.  He hired our friend Garrett (McLoed Timber Framing) to design and work with Colin on the traditional wood jointed frame.  We used beams salvaged from old bridge timbers by a company on Vancouver Island.  The bales were bought from a family owned farm in Saanich, and we have covered them with natural plaster- a foot mixed combination of clay, sand and straw which is then spread over the bales by hand, and then covered with another layer smoothed by a trowel.  A final coat of lime plaster seals in the  whole wall system, keeping it breathable, dry and super insulating (Straw bales are reported to have an R value between 35 and 60!)  We have a hydronic in-floor heating system laid beneath an earthen floor and cork flooring.  We have had fabulous work parties for various tasks, such as getting all the soil up onto our living roof, or building the cob components of the project.

We also built a 400 square foot cob workshop for Colin’s business. Cob is a great material for small outbuildings such as workshops or studios- it does not have as much of a high insulation value as strawbale, but it is easy to heat and a small building will go up fairly fast and affordably with creative and sculptural potential.

Now that we are in the middle of our second strawbale build, we are just as excited to be creating our visions despite the patience and expense that house building requires. I believe that the experiences we have accummulated mentally, physically, and informationally have been a significant mountain of challenges and rewards. Living in the incredible comfort of a strawbale home and raising our children in an environment of natural values and a hand made lifestyle has been worth every stressful and anxious moment. We have learned a lot about methods, materials, resourcing, creative problem solving, and most of all about ourselves and the balance between work, play, and expectations.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Longterm
    Jan 08, 2014 @ 00:11:17

    Great post! Would you be able to tell me where you sourced the straw bales? We are on Gabriola and currently designing a straw bale house but I’m having problems finding bales west of the rockies. Your house experience bodes well for what we hope for our modest house on 5.5 acres. Many thanks!


    • inspirationalvillage
      Jan 08, 2014 @ 00:29:15

      Hello! We found our bales at Michell’s – a local family farm on the Saanich Peninsula, beside the Pat Bay Hwy at Island View rd. They had a surplus of barley bales that year. They were very helpful, (and glad for us to take away so many). Tightly baled too, with little seed content. Good luck on your project!


    • westcoasttranscription
      Oct 01, 2019 @ 22:14:53

      hi – saw your post on inspirationalvillage and see you are building a straw bale home on Gabe – am close by and am curious would you be interested in my free labour – so that I can learn how this is done? have been considering a cob/straw bale hybrid myself – have done cob course – but not straw bale/


  2. Longterm
    Jan 08, 2014 @ 07:15:57

    Many thanks for your reply and the good wishes. I’ll have a look for Michell’s. Keep up the inspirational blogging!


  3. Kory
    Jan 24, 2023 @ 18:39:54

    Hello beautiful ppl.
    My wife and I along with our son are looking for ppl to connect with to take a workshop on building small cozy natural homes. Wondering if you guys hold work shops on cob building or strawbail Homes. Any informationd would be great. Warm blessings


    • inspirationalvillage
      Feb 10, 2023 @ 17:34:01

      Hello Kory,
      We don’t have anymore workshops lined up because we are all done our buildings! I am not sure who or where there will be more, but I recommend looking into OUR Ecovillage on Vancouver Island, or the Mud Girls on Salt Spring Island.
      Thanks for inquiring!


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