Thursday, November 6, 2008

home renos

Like most people's houses in the old part of Toronto, ours is about ninety years old. Plaster is failing, trim is coated with layers of flaking lead paint, the roof has leaked, and the legacy of questionable updates abounds. Renovating this place has so far meant stripping back layers of interventions to reveal the original materials, which so far seem to be more interesting than anything added subsequently.

After seven years of contemplation, we were finally ready for action this spring. Our basement neighbours moved out, and in went a set of stairs to the lower level. Reorganization freed up an upstairs bedroom, and gave me a place to start earthen plastering.

But first, baseboards. Stripping the trim in that room to reveal the delicate and shapely curves of century old wood has been rewarding, though time consuming. The product that I am using, SoyGel ("made from 100% US-grown soybeans"), apparently binds with the lead in the paint, enabling me to scrape it off without launching the toxin into the house's atmosphere. Apparently.

Sophie and Alan crowbarred off the layers of tile and subfloors to reveal a rustic but beautiful subfloor that we've decided we will refinish and retain as the final flooring surface.

Once the trim in that room is completely stripped, I'll plaster the remaining walls, we'll finish the floors, and (as Sophie says) "Wa-la!".

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


I've been teaching myself how to earthen plaster, and have been applying this finish over drywall in parts of our house. Here I am in our former-basement-apartment-kitchen-soon-to-be-laundry-room, standing in front of newly finished plaster. Although I'm not particularly good at it, wielding that beautiful Japanese trowel feels like something I was made to do. I'm going to do more.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Cob oven process pics

Came across these pictures of our 2004 backyard oven build. It was a transformative experience, leading to, among other things, me figuring out how to drive a car again.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Research trip

We headed off in the middle of June, with our (new to us) PT Cruiser and our trusty 20 year old Combi-Camp, on a driving adventure of grand proportions. Our first stop was Deanne Bednar's, near Oxford, Michigan. Deanne is a cobber, thatcher, illustrator, singer, and all-round delightful human being. She gave us the tour of her amazing space: gardens, natural buildings of various sorts, foundation and posts for a children's playhouse, and the famous strawbale cottage. Its beauty took Alan's breath away. And we sang and played together; bliss.

On our way through the outskirts of Detroit, we stopped at the Strawbale Children's Playhouse that Deanne had been involved in the creation of. It's built on park land with the full support and backing of the Detroit parks department. It is an apparently well-loved addition to an already popular green space.

Next we drove a couple of days south and west, crossing the swollen Mississippi after a few detours, and made our way to Red Earth Farms. Friends Mark and Allyson are homesteading on some property in north east Missouri, a stone's throw away from Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, and Sandhill Farm, two other intentional communities. Mark and Allyson welcomed us into their space, and showed us some of the amazing work they've done so far: composting toilet (Sophia had the honour of inaugurating the structure), wind turbine, barn foundation, permaculture garden. Another night of singing and playing, this time by the fire.

The next day, it was off to town for freshly made doughnuts, and then a tour of both DR and Sandhill. I've been receiving DR newsletters for a couple of years, so to give that information some context was enlightening indeed.

A couple more days driving took us to Custer, Wisconsin, where we attended the Mid-West Renewable Energy Fair, and met up with my friend Pete Fust, of Black Range Lodge in Kingston, New Mexico. He was at the fair with his book-selling operation, so we spent some time chatting, and playing music around the fire, of course. The fair was interesting, the food was great, but the best was the incredible diversity of lefty bumper stickers.

We arrived in Saskatchewan tired, sore, and more than a little fed up with hotdogs and chips. While there, I had the good fortune to be able to check out a local house that had been built with passive solar in mind, about twenty years ago. In the pictures, you can see that the reflective curtain is no longer functional, hanging at an odd angle and partially obscuring the sun. I never got the chance to chat with the owners to see what they like/don't like about the house, and whether they can feel the difference in winter warmth, having a home that faces the sun.

After a three-week stay in the geometric province, we hit the road again, this time stopping in Winnipeg to meet with Kris, Tim and Stephanie at the University of Manitoba. Kris' engineering firm has been involved with the permitting of cob buildings in British Columbia, and were interested to hear about the earthen work we have done in Toronto.

Then it was off to home, where I stopped only briefly before heading off to New York state (description below). Ah, the life.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Natural Building Colloquium New York State 2008

This is my second year attending the colloquium. I will continue going each year until there's no more oil to get me there. And then maybe I'll ride a horse. Or something.

I followed Laura Bartels around like a little puppy while she shared her vast plastering knowledge with us. Working mostly on the guest cabin, I earthen plastered over lathe, did second coat plaster over first coat, and did a very strawy exterior plaster over which cladding will be installed. I also paid close attention while Joshua Klyber led us through the basics of clay- and lime-based paints. I think I'm ready to get plastering at my own house, if I can find a proper source of sand here in the big city.

Highlights of the trip included:
  • Blowing a tire on the trailer and learning how to replace it with my new friend Kylie
  • The lighting of the sacred fire that burned for the week
  • Sunrise ceremonies and drumming circles
  • The strawbale/sod surround muffling the noise of the generator (thank you, Frank)
  • Spending lots of time making and applying plaster, and watching how it changed the look and feel of the guest cabin
  • Ed Raduazo's bamboo basket playhouse for kids
  • Watching Sarah Highland gently and expertly guide participants into the heretofore rarified world of timberframing
  • Checking out the ceremonial building and watching it get a new green roof
  • Walking around the Peaceweaver farm, marvelling at the land and the things growing on it
  • How the dragon oven was replaced, first with a boob, and then with a sea turtle, through the whimsical talents of Sunray Kelly
  • The creation of a strawbale spiral structure, meant to house a solar shower
  • Singing with Deanne Bednar, whose excellent harmonies belie her expertise as thatcher, cobber and illustrator
  • Watching Joe Jenkins and his son Orion lead attendees in transforming the roof of the oven into a slate masterpiece
  • Meeting and working with people of such generosity and curiosity, spending time with friends new and old
  • Singing with Frank, especially contributing harmonies to his signature tune "I like to pee outside"
  • Knitting, dancing, wrestling, eating, exploring hug technology, swimming in the pond, singing singing singing
  • Playing guitar while Janice played banjo and Kevin played more guitar
  • Participating in the timberframe raising
  • A double-ended hug circle; innovation!
I consider this event to be an essential part of my year, in how it enhances my knowledge and experience, how it nurtures my optimism, and how it reliably connects me to people of like mind and understanding. And how it allows me to not cook for an entire week.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Portland Building Convergence 8

I spent an amazing, inspiring, confusing, overwhelming and exciting twelve days in Portland recently, attending the Village Building Convergence, put on by Portland City Repair. I have so much to say about it, but for now would like to simply quote one of my friends that I met there, Joel Catchlove, who summed up so succinctly his experience at VBC8.

"The Convergence is one of the key annual events coordinated by City Repair, a grassroots community group dedicated to building community through natural building, permaculture, and repairing the dehumanising impacts of our urban design. One of the icons of their work is "Intersection Repair", where local communities claim an intersection as a public square, painting the road with bright and vibrant images that represent the uniqueness of their neighbourhood, and in some cases, build accompanying structures around the intersection - for example, seating, information boards for community news and events, 24hr self-service tea stations, book exchanges or free boxes. What's exciting is that a number of studies have now confirmed the astonishing impact of these repairs: at places where the community has banded together to repair their neighbourhoods, crime drops, conflicts are resolved, property ownership stabilises, gentrification is halted; and the annual repainting and maintenance of the intersection - now a public piazza - becomes a ritual for renewing and strengthening the neighbourhood itself. As a result, the concept has spread throughout Portland and North America.

So it's against this backdrop that the Village Building Convergence happens, attracting participants from across North America (and with us, Australia) to work on community projects around the city, participate in workshops (on everything from permaculture to mycology (mushrooms) to appropriate technology like rocket stoves or greywater) and listen to a bunch of fine speakers, followed by exhausting amounts of square-dancing and music.

Throughout the week we worked on a number of projects, including participating in the annual repainting of an intersection in the form of a giant sunflower, and helping with the building of a sauna (out of cob) sculpted as a giant raven's head. As part of City Repair's ethic of building community, many of their structures of built out of cob (essentially clay, sand and a little straw). Cob is a wonderful thing: it's easy to learn how to make and use (and therefore accessible to everyone from kids to grandparents - it's rare that you find a building site where chickens and babies are roaming free), it's completely non-toxic and it can be sculpted to the limits of your imagination.

Among the highlights of the Convergence were: Starhawk, who discussed earth-based spirituality with characteristic wit and wisdom and then led the entire convergence in a mass spiral dance; Art Ludwig, on living simply and the nature of water; and Nulla Walla, who led an amazing workshop combining improvisational dance with permaculture (some of her writings are available online at The Convergence has left us both hugely inspired and eager to bring what we've learned back home to share in Adelaide.

Portland is a great town - it's famous of course for its flourishing bike culture, but it is also characterised by a strong permaculture movement and flourishing community spirit: characterised both by the work of City Repair and also by the amount of front yards and "nature strips" planted out with vegetables. It is also bursting with farmers' markets, boasts the best public transport system in the US (which, to be honest, is probably about the same as Adelaide), and is consistently rated America's "greenest" city, in fact, it's the only city in the US where car use is actually declining. All this with a population about the same as Adelaide. While there we stayed with a great household, the owner of the house being one of the founders of "Depave" another organisation linked to City Repair and dedicated to encouraging and supporting people to pull up their concrete yards and plant vegetables."

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

It's gotta be free

Cob Courtyard Wall, Dufferin Grove Park
  • The time: summer 2005;
  • The concept: create an earthen sculpture in a downtown Toronto park that would serve as a gathering place and summer kitchen;
  • The method: offer free, ongoing, no sign-up fee, no commitment, earthen building workshops to volunteers all summer long, providing training to the participants and helpers for the structure;
  • The partners: Toronto's department of recreation, me, and a group of core volunteers.

"Come get muddy" was the cry, an invitation to any and all who wanted to try their hand at earthen building. And people did. They wandered by, asked "What's this all about?", and we said, "Come try it out and see!"

Shoes and socks came off, and feet jumped into the mud, mixing sand, straw, clay and water together to form a building material known as "cob". Then they picked up the mud, slapped it on the wall, and started sculpting.

Some stayed for a few minutes, a couple hours, contributing a little bit of labour and getting to play in the mud. Others were so beguiled by the project that they came back daily or for the whole summer. Many took on leadership roles, leading different aspects of creation, like cupboards, arched windows, the fireplace.

By summer's end, approximately 500 people worked on the creation of the cob wall in Dufferin Grove Park. By any measure, the project was a resounding success. First of all, it was completed on time and on a shoestring budget.

The measure by which it was most successful though, is in the quantity of attendees, and in the quality of their connection to the project and to their fellow attendees. This, in my opinion, was directly attributable to the following aspects of the program:
  • Free: no sign-up fee means participating without having to prioritize attending this vs buying food or clothes or having spending money. Free means not having to identify yourself as someone who cannot afford to attend. Free equalizes the playing field;
  • Drop-in: no commitment to attendance means showing up when you really want to be there, ready to learn and contribute. People who are forced to attend because they signed up are not enjoyable to be around and do not contribute positively to the project. Not having to give your name allows the participation of people who need anonymity in order to stay safe;
  • Ongoing: knowing that a program is on offer for a period of time allows potential attendees to "get there when they get there"; it allows for life to intervene without compromising their chance to be involved;
  • Creative input: whoever was there that day had a hand in making creative decisions about the sculpture, and then they were able to make their ideas reality right then and there.
These measures allowed people who would normally shy away from community classes or projects to participate to their satisfaction in this one. There were moms with babies in slings, newly arrived immigrants, refugees, people who did not speak English, retirees who live around the corner, dads, kids on a break from the playground, people from across town, and men transitioning into civilian life after serving time, and their attendance can be directly attributed to these four aspects of the project.

That all of this could happen was the result of a fruitful partnership between the City of Toronto Recreation staff and me, the project organizer. The recreation staff took this to be part of their mandate to provide free, drop-in activities. They expanded the boundaries of "recreation" to include activities that draw in many more newcomers, across cultural lines. That made the park so much livelier, and this drop-in activity resulted in a permanent, useful and much-loved addition to the park.

Forming a project around these principles requires something very important from the organizers/administrators: trust. They need trust that people are able to decide for themselves what is best for them, trust that people can be counted on to do good work, trust that people will come and take advantage of an opportunity presented to them.

A program free of coercion is one that truly honours the participants, and one that will reap benefits well beyond the original expectations of the organizers. Do we have the enough trust in each other to offer this of ourselves and our city?

To see more pictures of community participation at the Cob in the Park website, click here.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sourcing materials

Doing the final fabrication of something can give a person the impression that they are making something locally. However, assembling materials from China, Turkey or some other far-flung location here in Toronto hardly makes it local, if I think about it.

At the City of Craft fair late last year, I saw astonishing wools that had been hand-processed and dyed, and in some cases, sheared by women from outside the city, not too far away. Even though I had not even started knitting, I was so beguiled by some of these yarns that I returned to their tables again and again, not having the confidence to actually buy, but knowing that I was looking at something of quality and worth.

Now that I'm knitting, I am looking for local yarns to make my creations with. Any tips would be appreciated.