Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Best. Weekend. Ever.

On Friday, I drove down (over?) to Fredericton to see Lynda, who kindly offered her couch to me for the weekend. I was in New Brunswick for a much-anticipated Strawbale Construction Workshop. That night, she and I drove to Quispamsis that night for an opening information session which was free and open to the public. There were a lot of people there, and Kim Thompson, the instructor (who teaches a sustainable building course at Dalhousie) had a slide show and Q&A.
(This is very similar to what the house I helped build looked like - timber frame with load-bearing strawbale walls. I'll post pictures from the weekend when they are available.)

The next morning, participants in the workshop gathered at 7:30 for breakfast. Most of the participants camped on-site, but I was driving back and forth to Fredericton, so I didn't get to breakfast until around 8:15am on Saturday and Sunday. (The homeowners provided the workers with three meals a day, which were fantastic. Salads, turkey, quiche, meatballs, chili, muffins, cookies and trailmix abounded. I thought it would be all nuts and berries, gluten-free vegan twigs, but it wasn't. More on this later.)

I thought the workshop was going to be classroom stuff in the mornings and then going to a site to build a shed or a greenhouse or something, but no. Lynda and I rocked up to the site of a soon-to-be two-bedroom strawbale house. There was no classroom time. We dove right in. We would circle bales to sit on while Kim lectured for short times, and then the rest was all practical and hands-on.

Who was there? There was Kim, her three assistants and an apprentice assistant, the two homeowners, and ten participants. What's that... 17 people? Yeah. In two days, we had raised all the exterior walls. At the end of the second day, we learned how to make the first (and fourth) layer of plaster, which was a very soothing experience. On the third day, we learned how to make the second (and third) type of plaster, which was anything but soothing. It was very very labour intensive.

Almost everything about building the strawbale house was labour instensive, but it was so satisfying. The waste materials were a stack of loose straw and some scraps from the timber frame. (When you build with toxic materials, you get toxic waste.) It was a great community effort, where lots of different people came together and within a day knew how to build a strawbale house.

I thought everyone would be granola crunchy, and there was a certain amount of that element, but mostly, everyone was like me. Normal, environmentally-conscious people. No BO. Meat-eaters. Educated. I was afraid that I wouldn't fit in, but I was just like everyone else.

I'd love to talk in more detail about my weekend, and if you have any questions, feel free to ask. Allergies, pests, fire, insulative properties, so on and so on. I'll do my best to answer anything. I learned so much and can't wait to share.


Laura said...

Umm, so when are we opening our Island strawbale house commune?

Seriously: it would be an amazing summer job, grab some high school students and hire yourselves out to build houses! What's the cost?

marilyn said...

Please don't make the assumption that you can be called 'normal', it's just not appropriate. I think you are awesome and this could really be your path...Mine includes the 6/49 lotto ticket I purchased today! Perhaps with my bounty I will buy you some straw bales encrusted in gold.
Talk to you soon love,

Lynda said...

Me likey strawbale houses! However, as seats, the bales leave a little to be desired. I suggest furnishing the interior of the house with real furniture. Or at least put some cushions on the bales.

Catherine said...

Laura: The cost is the same as a conventional home, with variations, of course, depending on how much you pimp out the interior and where the labour comes from. The energy savings over the lifetime of the home are enormous, though.

I'm not so interested in a commune. That's a bit too extreme for me. I'd love to see a strawbale house go up in downtown Charlottetown. There's one in Montreal, you know.

Catherine said...

Pooh on you, Marilyn.

(love you!)

Catherine said...

Yeah, Lynda, I'm buyin' what you're sellin' when it comes to using strawbales as a bench. At first it's novel and down-homey, but after about 15 minutes - not so fun.

Holly said...

"I was just like everyone else"

That must have been a novel experience...

And I protest against your caricature of hippies. If you don't eat meat, BO is not a great problem, anyway.

Catherine said...

They weren't all omnivoires.

And I think you're playing fast and loose with the causes of BO. Camping for three days without a shower and hoisting strawbales in the sun, for example, can cause it.

Laura said...

As for cost and labour, what does Habitat for Humantity think of all of this?

And YES, a strawbale house would be great downtown- now the only question is on what street?

Catherine said...

I haven't heard any statesments from Habitat for Humanity, but it's not like I hear all their other statements, either. As a low-cost housing alternative, though, that a community of people can help build, it's a great option.

Strawbale is used a lot in southern climates where wood is not available (therefore $$$) and a strawbale home's high thermal mass keeps out the heat of the day but doesn't cool down very much at night.

Educating people that there's something other than stick-frame/gyproc/(toxic and ugly)vinyl siding is another mountion to climb.

Oh, what street downtown? I'd love to see some go in where there are all those townhouses in the area behind City Cinema. Even one down in there would be great. It might be difficult to plaster in the narrow alleys, but we could rent scaffolding - no big deal.

Jeremy said...

How compatible are these alternative/low-footprint building techniques? I'm looking at a WikiPedia article about cob, and wondering whether this could be effectively combined with rammed-earth construction and earth-packed tires. (This is all grist for the mental mills working on my Dream House.)

Jeremy said...

Oh, and another question (which comes to me as the son of a landlord): Just how BIG can buildings be made (safely, comfortably) with these techniques? Could you have cob/thermal mass apt. buildings?

Catherine said...

Jem: I know you were always talking about an Earthship, which is a fantastic method of low-impact housing. There are some great books on living roofs out there.

I think cob would be great combined with rammed earth. If not cob (the combination of sand, clay, and straw), then just straw, which would add tensile strength and take up space that might be otherwise occupied by concrete (which has a lot a lot a lot of embodied energy), if you were thinking of having an exposed rammed-earth wall.

Using cob/straw in rammed-earth tire construction might not be beneficial because of the pre-exisiting strength and protection of the rubber, but if you were thinking about having an exposed rammed-earth wall (which I might reconsider for the East Coast's climate), add a little lime to the mixture, which acts as a great waterproofer, and it would cut down on future repairs.

What about a rammed-earth wall with a cob plaster finish? That would save on lime (why have it throughout when you can have it on the outer inch-and-a-half?).

Rammed earth, be forewarned, has a TON of embodied energy. The cob we were making was incredibly labour-intensive, but we only had to make enough to cover one-and-a-half inches of interior and exterior walls. You can use a cement mixer to make cob, though, and that's a lot easier. If you're thinking of using machines to ram the earth (pneumatics), you'll cut down on a lot of time and blisters, but then you're using energy to run the machines. It's a fine balance that we have to strike.

Catherine said...

Jem: For your second question:
In Canada, there are no three-storey strawbale homes. There is a yoga camp in Quebec ( that is strawbale and is three levels. I don't know much about its construction.

Really, strawbale construction can be as high as desired, as long as the bales are not load-bearing. If they are used as infill for conventional stick-frame construction, there's no limit. I would be concerned about wind sheer on high buildings, and, more importantly, the driving rain that could accompany those strong winds. The outer skin would have to be very resiliant.

Cob has been used for centuries in more arid climates, and there are many many many multi-levels buildings made of cob or plastered in cob. Cob essentially dries into a sheet of stone, and as long as it mixed mindfully, is very very strong.

There have been a lot of obscenely large homes built with strawbale, but I like the idea of a modest home. I think that is more aligned with the intentions of low-impact construction.

I like the mantra "We don't need everything we want."

I think a low-rise (3-4 level) apartment complex would be ok, and certainly townhouses/condo would be great - think of the super sound insulation between units!

As a side note, Jem: I had a little smiley memory the other day about how we were such awesome high-5 partners. Loud and accurate, we were. Arr.

Catherine said...

Oops! Spelled "wind shear" wrong above.