Eco-Homes Tour and Symposium

A comment that we hear regularly from those visiting our strawbale house is that not everyone who wants to have a naturally built house is capable of doing it themselves.  Indeed, it takes a lot of hard work, research, material searching, building skills, tools, and time to go through the process as a home builder of any type of project.  Anyone without such prerequisites but with a desire and willingness to learn certainly can go for it, but there are many out there for whom it is more realistic to hire someone else to build them a home.  This is prevalent within the conventional building industry, but where does one look to find a straw bale crew?  A natural plaster expert to source materials and use their knowledge of crafting healthy walls?  What about an architect who will consider the natural light and water conditions of your chosen spot?  All of these job positions are readily available for the standard house, but difficult to find for alternatives.

On Pender Island, a group of people wanting to promote various aspects of natural building have formed the Eco-Homes Network, in hopes of being able to provide services and information for anyone seeking to build a healthy home, as well as networking with other builders in the community to create a greater awareness of alternative materials and systems.  Education for clients as well as builders is a large step towards integrating healthier building practices into any house or project, whether it is classified as “eco-friendly” or not.  Why limit ourselves with labels and categories?  Any system that takes pressure off the resources of the earth and saves money in the long term is just a good idea to consider.  The Eco-Homes Network consists of Rob Zuk – a solar systems consultant, Ken Rempel – an architectural designer, Garrett McLeod – a traditional timber framer and carpenter, Colin Hamilton – artistic woodworker and natural builder, Tracy Calvert – an extensive natural builder and master of earthen plastering, and Jude Farmer –  a woodworker and man of many skills.  In fact, everyone in the group has many crossover skills and knowledge spanning many years of different experiences within the building industry, including roofing, tiling, stonework, workshop leadership, landscaping, flooring, and planning.

For two years, the Eco-Homes Network has set up a demonstration zone at the Pender Fall Fair and has hosted an eco-homes tour as part of an effort to educate people about natural building practices, and to showcase the many beautiful homes around us that incorporate different aspects of the industry.  At the Fall Fair, everyone has been invited to squish their toes in cob and plaster mixes, and try their hands at spreading the mix over a demonstration wall of bales in a timber frame.  There also has been many books to gaze through, knowledgeable people to talk to, and a photo board of projects to look over.  Many people get a good sense of the simplicity, creativity, and beauty that encompasses the building of a natural house.  The Eco-Homes tour, which takes place a week later on Labour Day, is a self directed tour of up to 10 houses around the island, and has showcased houses made with chip-slip walls, strawbale, cob, cordwood and Faswall blocks (compressed recycled wood chip blocks), and including features such as earthen floors, living roofs, natural plaster, rain water catchment systems, hydronic in-floor heating, solar hot water, passive solar, composting toilets, and countless other details and creative touches that make up a complete picture of a natural house.  Some of the houses have been in the construction phase, allowing visitors to see the layers of some of the processes.  There have been over 150 people from the locals to travellers from the mainland and Vancouver Island each year, asking many questions and hopefully taking some ideas back to their own homes.  All proceeds from the previous tours have gone to the Pender Community Hall and to the Pender Island Farmland Acquisition Project.  This year, proceeds will help the growing Pender Community Transition movement, to build a more sustainable island.

The Eco-Homes Network is adding a new element to the tour this year.  On Sunday, September 4th, The Building Around Water Symposium will be a day  focusing on water systems and living roofs as well as a mini tour featuring houses with such systems for viewing.  The six houses on the tour will be open for visitors in the morning, then symposium events will be commencing at the community hall in the afternoon.  All the homes are located along Port Washington road, within a few kilometers of the hall, and would make a beautiful morning walk, jog, bike ride, or car stop!  Lunch will be available for purchase at the hall at noon, with speakers beginning at one o’clock.  Water on the gulf islands, as well as in many other climates world wide, is a concern needing immediate addressing and rethinking in terms of efficient usage and collection systems.  Droughts and shortages have become more widespread as our climates shift, reminding us of the valuable place that water holds in our lives.  Adam Scheuer, president of Water Tiger Rainwater Harvesting, will give a talk and answer questions regarding rainwater collection systems.  Living roofs are a great way to incorporate water catchment, as well as maximize water absorption and minimize water evaporation while providing more habitat for birds and bees.  Living roofs are gaining lots of attention as features of large commercial scale developments, but they are also beneficial for residential homes, and so there will be a presentation on the installing and maintenance of green roof systems.  In our marine climate zone, there is much concern around the use of vapour barriers.  Many alternative wall systems, such as strawbale, cob or chip slip, provide a breathable wall which does not require a vapour barrier but does now require an envelope engineer such as Ben Martin, who will talk about designing and building with thermal mass wall assemblies, vapour barriers and codes.  Starting at 6:30, there will be a show and tell slideshow by our local builders demonstrating their own creative, recycled, sustainable, and artistic projects.  Anyone wishing to add their 5 minute, 10 photo presentation to the line-up can contact Colin Hamilton at 250-629-6608.  This part of the day will be free to all.  The rest of the days’ events are $20 per adult, children under 18 are free.  The Eco-Homes Network has a new website to help promote the vision of building healthy homes.   www.ecohomesnetwork.com

The Living Roof- One Year Later

I like to imagine the view of my house from all the places in which any living thing may be gazing.  Before the population explosion of humans and the development of the shelters we build for ourselves, the view from the sky would have been quite a different scene.  With uninterrupted tracts of habitats absorbing the sun and the rain and providing possibilities of nesting places and food, birds and insects had much more to choose from.  Roofs, of course, aren’t the only dead spots in bird and plant habitat, but they are thankfully gaining recognition as an important factor in green building design for homes as well as for commercial and industrial scale buildings for many reasons.  Despite their centuries old history in Scandanavian countries, green roofs are just coming into modern construction as cutting edge eco-design around the world.  In 2008, the Vancouver Convention Centre installed a six-acre living roof of indigenous plants and grasses on its West building, making it the largest green roof in Canada.  Combating the urban heat island effect is one reason for creating a green roof –  traditional building materials soak up the sun’s radiation and re-emit it as heat, making cities at least 4 degrees Celsius (7 °F) hotter than surrounding areas. On Chicago’s City Hall, which features a green roof, roof temperatures on a hot day are typically 1.4–4.4 degrees Celsius (2.5–8.0 °F) cooler than they are on traditionally roofed buildings nearby.  As well as adding insulation value, green roofs decrease the total amount of runoff and slow the rate of runoff from the roof, retaining up to 75% of rainwater and gradually releasing it back into the atmosphere via condensation and transpiration. 

Our little 900 square feet of living roof is certainly small scale compared to the big picture of global sprawl, but it falls into our value of every little drop creates the ocean.  We still have two more roof sections when the rest of the house is built, and we plan on planting those up as well.  For a description of how we constructed our green roof, please see the older post in the Natural Building category called The Living Roof.  We planted the plants one year ago and I have been pleased with the growth of the many varieties, which have spread considerably and seem to be greatly enjoying the view as they take turns flowering.  We used many clumps of stonecrop which were growing on the rocks where the foundation was to be built, as well as hens and chicks, sedums of varying colourations, ice plants, and a few other varieties of winter hardy succulents that I am not sure what they are.  All the plants were propagated from friends’ gardens, given as gifts, or collected from the property.  I haven’t done any watering and I figure that whatever doesn’t survive in the natural climate just won’t have a place on the roof.   Along the center spine of the roof, I set the stonecrop in a large infinity symbol, with the hens and chicks filling in the circles.  Most of the stonecrop flowered, creating a lovely yellow outline, and I hope that in the next few years this symbol will become more defined as an offering to the element of the ethers, and to the winged creatures that I hope will stop for a rest during their journeys across the skies.      


The Living Roof

The gently curving south side of the roof was designed to be covered in a carpet of succulents.  We had  the size and structure of the timber frame approved by our engineer to hold the weight of six inches of soil, plus a calculated weight for snow and water.  We were inspired by other green roofs we had seen, and by numerous pictures in natural building books, and by the relative easiness of the construction of layers required.  We also liked the idea of our roof being an absorbing entity, making use of the sun and rain that tumbles down from the sky onto every surface area.  The decision to use succulents came from the idea that we wanted the coverage to be drought tolerant and spreading easily to avoid too many weeding sessions.  We also saw that the rocks upon which our house was going to be built were covered already with the native stonecrop, so I lifted them in their clumps and put them aside until I could finally plant them into the soil of the roof.

On top of the rafters, we put  down plywood and building paper as in the construction of a regular roof, but on that we rolled out a rubber pond liner out to a built up lip that went all the way around the outside.  Then, we put out a call for old carpets, to act as a drain mat and protector from roots wiggling down.  It was important to use the kind of carpets that had a burlap or jute backing, instead of the rubber backing, as we wanted to make sure that water could drain through it and towards the edges.  We lay down some drain rock around perforated pipes along the side lengths to allow water to collect and flow into the down spouts.

We did a final layer of landscape cloth before we began to bring up the soil.  With a pile of local pit run sand, a pile of soil that was excavated earlier when we dug out our pond, and the help of many many friends who came out for a work party on a fine June day, we managed to fill the roof with 4 inches of soil one bucket at a time.

It was a fabulous day, we had lots of enthusiastic shovellers, diggers, bucket haulers, pulley operators, dumpers, and rakers.  Families came and took turns relaxing and swimming in the pond.  We had lunch for everyone, and cake later on to celebrate Cedar’s 5th birthday.  (Last year we had a plastering party for his birthday- imagine a bunch of kids with buckets of clay plaster and a green light for slopping it all over a bunch of bales…)

Workparties are a definite for natural building, providing the task at hand is fairly easy to monitor.  It would have taken Colin and I a month of hauling buckets up there… and we did it in one day and provided lots of community members the chance to participate in an aspect of natural building which is fun, positive, and an example of creating healthy environments.  We are so glad that we have such a supportive community of people who share our values and visions of a vibrant earth, and who in turn have skills for us to learn from.

So then we started putting the plants in, some that I had began propagating over 2 years ago.  Hens and chicks, sedums, and echverias, plus all the stonecrop from the rocks that are now buried under the house.  Taeven and Cedar were excited to help, and we came up with the idea to plant the stonecrop in a big infinity symbol along the center spine of the roof, with the darker green hens and chicks inside the loops, and the burgundy sedums around the outside.  It will be interesting to see the shapes that we created with the different colours of the plants as they get established and fill out, sending their tall stalks of flowers out at various times of the year.

Right now, it is a weedy mess.  It is yet another task on my list of fall jobs- weed roof.  I am sure that a few weeding sessions will be needed until the seeds that were in the soil will have all sprouted, and until the carpet of succulents fills in the spaces.  So far it is functioning well, and catches my eyes softly as I move around the property.  There is beginning to be lots of information out there on the construction of living roofs as well as their benefits, and I encourage anyone to try it out as a retro fit or as an option for a new building.  One thing we did discover… there is lots of ready made, manufactured products being offered and promoted, usually at very high prices.  Our research indicated that all we really need is already around us in the form of recycling!  (Pond liner exempted, you really don’t want any leaks in a living roof).  The creative possibilities are endless, and open to any situation.

Our Strawbale Home

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.  A few weeks ago 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.  It’s been 2 and a half years since we began the foundation, and 2 and a half years of 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 small levels descending down the rock slope in front of the part we are currently building, which will be a level of bedrooms and a level with an open kitchen and living room for our growing family.  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).  There is a small storage loft above the mudroom that will serve as a bedroom for the kids while we are building the other half of the house in the future.  We chose to build the house in sections due to the fact that we are living in a 23 foot trailer, and Nana is paying rent down the street, and getting one section done faster so that we can move into it together is much more appealing than waiting even longer and stretching our finances further before getting something comfortable to live in.  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 are covering 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 will seal 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, the final layer being yet to happen.  This past summer we had a fabulous work party to get all the soil up onto our living roof, and it is now planted with native succulents and other sedums that I have been propagating over the last 2 years.  I hope to be able to post our continuing developments as we work this winter, as well as describing in more detail of any of the steps we have already completed.

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