Tag Archives: construction

Strawng and Effishient

31 Jul

Toronto is difficult to escape. It’s like an enormous sea creature, its tentacles reaching far beyond official city limits and pulling you back. For three days after we officially left Toronto, we were cottage-hopping, first staying at Anya’s parents’ cottage, and then with Anya’s family friends at a cottage they were renting. We took another rest day and went fishing.

Of course it had to be perfect cycling weather on our rest day and when we actually started going it had to rain all day. Our cycle computer got so wet that it stopped working after 75km. Our grandiose plans for making good progress crumbled. When we reached Bancroft, Anya suggested that we should do everything in our power to find a couchsurf. And that we did! We found an awesome Warm Showers host, Ed, who also has a hot tub at his house.

As usual, we had trouble leaving, and only reached the town bakery around noon. By 1:30pm we were ready to get back on the road, but the lady at the bakery heard about our project and decided to introduce us to Pat and Sherri, who run a natural building design business, Haven Craft. They just happened to be eating brunch at the table beside ours.

We started talking and before we knew it, Sherri offered us a tour of their straw bale home, which they built themselves in 1999.

The roof is made of recycled car tires, the beams and posts are trees from the backyard and the walls are straw bale and plaster. But the big bad wolf won’t be blowing this house down: some straw bale buildings are 600 years old!

Back in the day, Pat and Sherri decided to design and build their own home, and were looking for inspiration. They came across a book on straw bale construction, and the pictures captured their imaginations. Straw bale offers advantages such as excellent heat retention, moisture control, and soundproofing. It’s also a non-toxic building material, healthier for the inhabitants. Visually it can be striking, because it is easy to create rounded surfaces and curvilinear walls.

This is the shed, designed especially for the solar panels. The roof faces south and is large enough to provide most of the electricity for the house, on average. For example, last year the panels produced 110% of the annual electricity usage. The output varies with the season: more in the summer, less in the winter. It is part of the microFIT program that we mentioned previously: electricity generated by the panels feeds back into the grid.

For Pat and Sherri the learning curve was steep, but the result was a sound and very liveable structure. Since then, they’ve been sharing their knowledge with others, both through their business and through a hands-on course that Pat teaches for the Sustainable Building Design and Construction Program at Fleming College. They’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge about materials: which ones are non-toxic, which ones work well in certain situations, and so on. Each project, Pat says, has its trade-offs, prioritizing the needs and desires of the client while staying on budget.

Financing a natural builiding project is a challenge, but not for the reason you might think. Although it doesn’t cost any more than a conventional custom-built house, the banks are hesitant to give loans. Admittedly, these houses can sometimes be hard to sell as well, but there have been exceptions to this rule.

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The Fickle Heart of Canada

5 Jul

After biking 100km, what better way to spend the evening than to get a tour of Winnipeg – on bikes?! Yep! That’s what we did and we loved it. Our host, Aaron, told us he’d been a cycling tour guide in a past life. We got to see the architecture downtown, Assiniboine Park, the Flaming Trolleys band practicing in a square, a lone guy practicing banjo on his front porch, to name a few.

Aaron loves cooking so we fired up the BBQ and had an amazing dinner at his place. We talked about green construction, city planning, and green campuses. Since he is studying at the University of Manitoba, Aaron was angry that he was studying in a place that was doing so little in terms of sustainability compared to other universities. He started several initiatives, in particular a campus composting program and the Sustainable Campus Student Group, that provides students with learning and networking opportunities in the Green Building industry.

Initially, Aaron said, some people were reluctant to change and his initiatives were met with a lot of resistance. However, he saw things through until his goals were met, and those same people are now seeing that these initiatives were a good thing for everyone involved. He has also recently been recognized with an award from Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) for his strategic plan to green the University of Manitoba campus.

As if that were not enough work, Aaron also coordinates a weekly farmer’s market in Winnipeg. He said his strategy was to make the market hip and connect it to the local community. He invited local bands to come and play and said that the number of people coming to the market almost doubled from one year to the next.

It was difficult to leave Winnipeg with its hipster cafes and music scene, but we had to move on. Before we knew it, we were officially halfway through the country.

On our way to Falcon Lake we came across a fruit stand. Ah, fruit! Perhaps it is from Ontario? Nope… it’s from California and sometimes from BC. Money is no object for most of the customers, so it makes it worthwhile to truck in fruit from distant parts of the globe and pose as a peddler of local produce. The only local thing we found was the honey, and the Saskatoon jam. We purchased both items.

With a strong wind blowing at our backs, the 158km to Falcon Lake was a breeze. Our Falcon Lake host, Eric, welcomed us with tasty smoothies, a dip in the lake and yummy vegetarian dinner: quinoa buckwheat salad with broccoli, cheese, fresh basil, and an olive-balsamic dressing.

We got to spend the night in a spacious screened porch. The porch is constructed using trees from the backyard, but the most notable part is the ceiling: an intricate tangle of tree roots forms an integral part of its structure. The roots are from a huge tree from Eric’s yard, uprooted during a storm. Eric’s brother designed the porch to showcase the impressive stump.

Eric’s dad asked Maria whether she wears a bicycle helmet. Bike helmet laws are a hot topic in Manitoba: there is talk of making helmets mandatory. In BC, this is already the case, but bike helmet laws are also a hot topic there, because Vancouver is setting up a bike share program, and some people are concerned about how the current helmet laws will affect its success. Bicycle helmet laws are not a clear-cut issue: there is much controversy about it.

Of course, some people will still choose to wear a helmet even if they are not legally bound to do so. As for Maria, she’s decided to try the helmet-free lifestyle in the provinces where it’s legal.

Spirited Randomness

30 Jun

Recently, Manitoba spent $5 million to change their old slogan — “Friendly Manitoba” — to something more stylish and modern. They came up with “Manitoba. Spirited energy.” From what we heard, people would not have been angry if they had an appreciation for the absurd. Anyway, we interpret the slogan thus:

When you’re on a long trip you often forget the day of the week. The next day was Sunday, and we remembered this only when we were unable to obtain any breakfast because everything was closed. We thought we’d just get to the next town, but were confronted with a strong headwind. So we cooked our leftovers on the side of the highway: red lentils with little pieces of ginger. Anya ate some of the remainders of our granola as well, sans yogurt. Oh, if only we could find an omelette:

That same day we met two westbound cyclists, Peter and Sara. They were very happy about the tailwind, but nevertheless they stopped to chat. They were interested to hear about our project. Peter told us about his interest in natural buildings. He hopes to build his own house one day and is looking into earthbag construction as a potential technique. To learn more, he had built an earthbag structure during his travels in Thailand. On their cycle tour, he planned to see some buildings constructed in this fashion in Alberta, and find out whether they are suitable for a more northern climate.

The demoralizing headwind continued all day, but we kept going. We stopped in Wawanesa, where we found The Schnitzel House, possibly the best schnitzel (and also cheesecake!) outside of Germany. The campground had been flooded last year, so it was still ‘closed’ but we camped there anyway.

Further on, there was more spirited randomness offered up by the province of Manitoba. The town of Holland, for example, is named after a postman who is of English descent but had the last name Holland.

And then there was the 10+ km of surplus train cars stretching on the way from Holland to St Claude. Besides blocking the vicious cross-wind, it made for some fun graffiti viewing.

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