Wednesday, November 18, 2009

NBCO 2009 Highlights 2

Wood brigade from Georgie Donais on Vimeo.

A few more highlights:

Open Space
: Colloquium means "to talk together", and we natural builders had a lot to talk about. To make sure everyone got a chance during the afternoon sessions to have the conversations they were craving, James applied a process called Open Space. Anyone who had a topic they wanted to cover/presentation to make/question to ask, wrote it down on paper and posted it on a board. Then we were all invited to come read the postings, and put a dot beside the events that we wanted to attend. Then, all events were arranged by venue according to the number of dots; lot of dots meant a bigger venue, fewer meant a more intimate space. I've never seen a process work so smoothly or include everyone so readily. Very impressive.

The Law of Two Feet: Directly related to Open Space, this law states that, if you are no longer getting out of a presentation/lecture/conversation that which you would like, then it is your prerogative to (respectfully) remove yourself – with your two feet – and take yourself where you would rather be. No insult implied nor inferred. This reminder to take responsibility for our own fulfillment at the colloquium made sure that attendees were enjoying themselves, finding challenges that were appropriate and interesting to them, and avoided a whole load of potential bellyaching by participants that wished for something different than what they were getting but imagined they were obligated to stick it out.

Silks: I struck up a friendship with a couple of attendees who also study aerial silks, and they were only too happy to join me in silking most afternoons. They've been taking classes for much longer than I and so had much to teach me. I had a couple of moves for them too, but mostly they just kicked my butt. Four years older than my own kids, and also unschooled, they were a blast to hang around with and learn from.

Conversations: At one point, organizer and natural builder James asked us, "How many people's most memorable conversations here at the colloquium so far have involved just one or two people?" Many of us raised our hands. Indeed, casual conversation during unprogrammed time is where much of the down-and-dirty sharing of information happens. It's also a chance to connect in with old friends who, like me, have been attending these events for years and count on moments like these to maintain those friendships.

Monday, November 2, 2009

NBCO 2009 Highlights

Music at Camp Latgawa from Georgie Donais on Vimeo.

A few of the many highlights of NBCO 2009:

Fleming College: I never get to see Chris Magwood and Jen Feigen except in the far reaches of the US, even though they are practically neighbours (well, at least spiritually; I think it would be a five hour drive from where I am to where they are, but at least we're in the same province). They presented on the Sustainable Building Program that they run out of Fleming College at or around Peterborough, Ontario. They have so far built something like five public buildings using every natural building technique I have ever heard of and even inventing several while they're at it. Their website is well worth a look, and you can also check out the pictures I took of the building they created in 2008, the Madoc Performing Arts Centre.

Natural building tip
: Looking for a place to relieve yourself on your natural building job site? Consider designating one of those straw bales as the "pee bale". Apparently, it will never smell no matter how much it's peed on. Just make sure that its purpose is clearly indicated; you wouldn't want that particular bale making it into the wall.

Authentic living: In front of the fire in the mess hall, Bill Copperthwaite fielded questions about woodworking techniques, yurt-building and simple living. He also had plenty to say about education and, though he was not familiar with some of the terms that we unschoolers/life learners use, he was plenty familiar with the concepts. He also spoke about the evolution of his carving style, going from mallet and chisel to, eventually, a crooked knife with a toggle on it. And he demonstrated his technique throughout the talk, getting pretty far into creating a bowl by the end of the afternoon.

Code writing in Portland: There are a couple of kick-ass things going on in Portland in relation to building codes and natural building. Joshua Klyber presented on an organization called Recode that is working with the city of Portland to to help it support building practices that are sustainable but not necessarily, at the moment, legal. He is also a member of a city committee called the Alternative Technique Advisory Committee which "reviews sustainable technologies against building code requirements, to help applicants utilize innovative products and construction methods", which includes natural building.

Earthen floors: Sukita Crimmel talked about her experiences as a professional earthen floor installer. Her gorgeous work has been featured in both residential and commercial applications and range in size from a couple hundred square feet, to a couple thousand. Sukita shared with us images of her many successes as well as one or two learning experiences, including a floor where grains in the straw sprouted to such an extent that the room looked like a spring field planted to wheat. That one was a do-over.

The Elegant Collapse: The subtitle to Rob Boleman's presentation was "toward a complete bottom-to-top restructuring of human civilization". These types of presentations can be so depressing, but Rob gave us lots of hope amid the assertion that there isn't much time left for us to carry on the way we are. And then I hopped in a truck to take me to the plane that dropped me off by my car which I drove the rest of the way home. No cognitive dissonance there.

Facing code officials in Oakland, CA: Massey Burke shared with us her adventures in renovating an old stick frame home using natural building methods, and how she is working with code officials to make it happen. Seems like it's a combination of friendly persistence and obvious competence on the part of Massey and her friends, combined with some genuine curiosity on the part of the attending officials. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that her group is also building a collection of little nat-bild sleeping pods in the backyard at the time; not strictly code- and zoning-sanctioned.

Building a strawbale accessory dwelling in Portland, OR: Oh, the things you can do in Portland. Lydia Doleman and her crew have been building a small strawbale home in behind another house adjacent to hers in her Foster/Powell neighbourhood. Conforming to the look of the main house, the accessory dwelling is designed in the same Arts & Crafts style, and is sided instead of plastered. It is a full-on strawbale building, with earthen interior plaster, earthen floors, straw/clay dividing walls, recycled wood ceilings, and whatever other alternative building technique they could squeeze into this little place. Code officials come and go, finding very little to comment on, showing mostly curiosity and an interest in helping get this project done. As in the California project mentioned above, there is a little building referred to as a "napping facility" in Lydia's backyard that could attract unwanted official attention but, magically, does not.

Contrast these experiences with the ongoing tug of war in Toronto over granny suites as evidenced in this piece written by Rohan Walters, a Toronto architect who is doing his part in moving our city towards a more sustainable and more humane future.

NBCO 2009

I was very pleased to be able to attend the natural building colloquium held outside of Medford, Oregon this fall. A peer-only gathering, it was attended by working professionals in the field of natural building who congregated to share information and new developments in the field, as well as to give and get support to and from colleagues who have become old friends over the years.

Camp Latgawa hosted this gathering, having also been the site of several colloquiums in previous years and boasting the earthen building projects to show for it. Our hosts, Eva and Greg, welcomed us to the camp with open arms and delicious meals, and in return we were to do some new building and fix up some previous projects that required maintenance. However, outside of the three hours a day set aside for building, our main task was to talk to each other and most days were spent discussing, strategizing, laughing, conversating and even, occasionally, crying.

I'll talk about the highlights later, but meanwhile, here are descriptions of the various projects as pictured above.

SITE 1: Rumford fireplace
We were to create an outdoor fireplace and sitting area in a clearing near the river. This project was led by Ianto Evans, Linda Smiley and Leslie Jackson. After thoroughly examining all the possibilities for fireplace placement, we got to work on the fireplace, creating it out of old bricks, river rocks and cob. The fireplace will eventually have a removable cap over it to protect it between uses. Project status: completed, except for the cap.

SITE 2: Children's play area
The task here was to remove the children's sandbox (used only by cats), fix up the bench, repair the roof and re-do the pole shelter-thingy. Legions of people worked on this one, but I think the leads were Joshua Klyber, Massey Burke, Sukita Crimmel and Tony Novelli, among others (corrections welcome). Status: dragon bench removed, other bench repaired and replastered, roof fixed. Still to do: wattle infill on the pole shelter-thingy.

SITE 3: Rumford insert for dining hall fireplace
Kiko Denzer noted the inefficiency of the the deep and wide fireplace in the dining hall, and took on the task to create a proof-of-concept Rumford insert. Using forms, window screen, gypsum and earthen plaster, he created a fire-resistant form which he assembled inside the fireplace and then plastered. The value of his work became clear immediately as the fire crackled merrily in front of the new fireback, radiating substantial amounts of heat into the room for probably the first time ever.

SITE 4: Bamboo roof
Darrel De Boer headed up the creation of a bamboo roof intended to shelter the Rumford fireplace. In the end, the roof was, although beautiful, entirely too large for the purpose, so it will find a home at House Alive instead. Status: Deconstructed and on its way to its new home.

SITE 5: Traffic re-directing
Camp Latgawa is a car-free space, so visitors park their vehicles at the entrance and bring their stuff in using convenient little carts. Greg and Eva wanted this set up to be made even more apparent to people driving in, and wanted them to be clearly directed to the parking lot. The crew made changes to the road itself with a clever combination of big rocks and hempcrete, and added a big yellow arrow to direct traffic. It also shored a spot of crumbling road with a rock retaining wall. Status: Looks like it's done.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

More plastering in Washington, DC

Here are some more pics from Washington. In these, Eric and I are concentrating on plastering the interior lathe wall on the west side, and giving the other plastered walls another coat of clay paint. Eric had been experimenting with the paint, finding it interesting but having a hard time getting it on without joints appearing. Once it's painted on, it seems as though the window to work it in is quite small, and it was tricky to achieve with just one person. Adding another person (me) meant that we could get all the steps done in a timely manner, resulting in a luminous finish of depth and shine. Little bits of mica added another level of shimmer.

For the the lathe wall, Eric mounted screed strips at regular intervals, and then we used them as our guides for the plaster. I put the plaster on as absolutely flat as I could imagine, and then rubbed a leveling board across the plaster, resting it on the screed guides on either side. I found that what I thought was flat, and what was flat, were two very different things. We opened up the surface of the plaster with a wood float afterwards so that it would dry more quickly; adding cellulose to a mix, no matter how little, seems to substantially change the feel of the plaster (smoother, creamier) but also makes it quite a bit slower drying. A finish plaster will go over this layer when it dries, and then I think that cabinets will cover most of it.

As we worked, I could really feel the energetic transition of the studio from a worksite to a being-in space. I can imagine the bench seats, deep enough to snuggle up on and have a nap in the winter sunshine; I can imagine art on the walls and beautiful objects and candles in the niches. It's going to be a place that nurtures and supports creativity, of that I'm sure.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Saw mill

Wood Mizer from Georgie Donais on Vimeo.

Even though I was a little scared of the thing, Eric insisted I give the Wood Mizer portable saw mill a try. Sam gamely showed me the ropes, and Eric was kind enough to catch it all on video. What an elegant and efficient machine.

Monday, October 5, 2009


When I was in Maryland, Eric gave me a gift: a spoon he had made from the wood of a sycamore tree from Sam & Kappy's back yard. Here are some images of others he has made; I am struck by the beauty of their shape and their shine.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Oven reno completed

I'll post process pictures here when I get them, but meanwhile, here are some images of the finished wall. Jenny did a fantastic job! And the sweet little commemorative mosaic of the fireplace melts my heart.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Plaster day at NEO

Plaster day finally arrived at Niagara Escarpment Organics this last Saturday. Farmer Ryan had chopped up some straw with the chain saw, we had sufficient clay screened, and we now understood that organic spelt flour does not a good wheat paste make.

The day dawned bright and sunny, with a dead battery. Once Alan showed me the intricacies of boosting a car, I was on my way, a bag of Five Roses flour under my arm. Several interested volunteers showed up and we got going on the plastering and the roof decking. My big old drill didn't enjoy mixing such a thick and straw-rich mix, quitting several times. We pulled out the wheel barrow and mixed by hand too, which turned out to be just as quick, and probably more efficient.

By the end of the day, the interior of the cabin was almost completely plastered! We'll be back over the fall to finish off the interior and exterior basecoat plaster, and then we'll scheme over the winter about finishing plaster options. I'm already excited to get on that.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Chinking with straw/clay

I got out my old whole hog drill and made up some quality clay slip using some of the clay I'd screened earlier. It mixed up very nicely and quickly, so I think the screened clay subsoil is going to work just fine, in spite of my wish that I had screened the clay a little finer.

I tossed the slip with some straw, and spent the afternoon chinking. In some places, the straw/clay had shrunk away from the tops of the roof rafter, and in others there were gaps where the material hadn't been completely tamped down as intended. It was cold in the shade, so every once and a while, I'd pop out into the sunshine and and screen some clay. I'm kinda getting to like that job.

Meanwhile, Ryan continued on the stone work, while Farmer Ryan prepared wood for decking the roof. I expect we'll be ready to plaster by the time Saturday comes!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Working on the bunky

Yesterday and today we got lots of work done on the bunkhouse at Niagara Escarpment Organics, in preparation for Plaster Saturday this weekend. I spent a chunk of the day putting tar paper and onion bag strips on the wall to bridge the wood and straw/clay so that the plaster has a consistent and toothy surface to grab onto. Then I got a chance to build my first screen ever; how I've mostly managed to avoid screening materials in the five years that I've been involved in natural building is a mystery to be sure. Nonetheless, I think this screen works pretty well at separating the finer clay (and attendant aggregate) from the big clumps and chunks. It's got a 1/8" screen on it, which is still pretty course, but I think the clay will be plenty useable.

Ryan and friends worked hard on the stone stemwall, making substantial progress today. All the stones came from the farm, and were handpicked by farmers and interns over the last couple of weeks. I am amazed by the beauty of the rockwork; I would say that it is well worth the effort.

Our test patches are crackier than I'd expected, so we will amend our mix to include a more diverse range of sand particles, and we'll also plan to include wheat paste.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

More NBCNY photos

I left the New York colloquium a couple days after it finished (I stuck around to get some more plastering in), but others stayed on for the next week and finished off the walls of the retreat cabin. The plaster work looks absolutely stunning, as you can see in the pictures. Thanks, Eric, for sharing your photos with me.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Working on a straw/clay bunkhouse

Ryan Horning and I are co-leading the plastering of a lovely little timberframe and straw/clay bunk house at my local CSA. Niagara Escarpment Organics is farmed by Ryan and Laura and a whole pile of hard-working interns. Earlier this summer, the straw/clay portion of the building was completed, and it's now dry enough to plaster.

We started by pulling together a list of possible materials we might need, and then crossing them off as we found them, or their analogue, somewhere around the farm. Note to self: do a walk around the site before sending people to the store, in order to avoid sending them back to return stuff that you already had but didn't know about.

Today we assessed clay and straw and began processing, and we also got some test patches done. Next we'll prepare for door and window detailing, and get the roof on, as well as the stone veneer around the foundation. I'm looking forward to learning more about these aspects of building!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Invading Washington, DC

I was invited (or I may have invited myself, I can't quite remember) to visit Eric Hempstead, where he is working at building a strawbale studio in a family's backyard. He was just about at the stage of putting on the finish plaster, and I decided to go down to help him with it.

That idea was enticing enough, but when I heard that I'd also get a chance to experience the Eco-House, I couldn't resist. The Eco-House was a project of Builders Without Borders, whose members organized, designed and created a tiny, perfect strawbale structure on the grounds of the Botanic Gardens in Washington, DC, last summer. It stood right through the fall and winter, and was present for the inauguration of President Barak Obama earlier this year. It was then picked up by crane (another story, see more about that here) and delivered by flatbed to Sam and Kappy's place, outside of DC and south of Bowie, Maryland. Eric was building a companion structure to the Eco-House, and the Eco-House had become his pied à terre while he was there working. You can watch a video about the Eco-House here, which tells the story about the building and who built it, including an exciting sub-plot involving emergency preparedness and torrential downpours.

So, back to the strawbale studio. Eric began working on it last winter, and I breezed in after all the heavy lifting had been done. The studio was ready for its interior finish plaster, and Eric had almost all the materials needed already on site, including processed native clays and screened sand. We made an expedition to the countryside where we harvested some prickly pear cactus (emphasis on "prickly"), then brought them back, chopped them up and let them sit in water overnight to create an incredibly viscous liquid that would help with binding. The next day, we made up a batch of wheat paste, burning it in an attempt to make it "slightly translucent". That didn't seem to bother the dog, who ate the rest of the paste while we weren't looking. I also pounded up chunks of mica – Eric and our mutual friend Sarah Halley had found them during a walk in Philadelphia – into little sparkly flecks that would give the finish plaster sheen and depth.

For fibre, Eric has been experimenting with using blow-in cellulose. It's recycled, natural-ish, treated with natural fire and bug retardants, and very easy to procure. We soaked some in water, but for later batches used a pear juice/wheat paste combo to keep the liquid to a manageable level. The plaster whipped up smooth and creamy, and was a pleasure to apply. We spent the rest of the week applying plaster, hard troweling it, fixing mistakes, and watching the colour change from a deep browny red to a very light pink. Unlike some of the other plasters I've done, this one does not seem to be dusting at all, thanks probably to the pear juice and wheat paste. The nichos took a tremendous amount of time to get looking smooth and integrated with the rest of the wall, but they look so cool that it was well worth it to do. Tools included flexible trowels, both plastic and metal; sponges; and plastic container lids.

I learned tons about possible mix ingredients, and got lots more practice in applying and finessing plaster. And I got almost as much practice driving, as the trip entailed fourteen hours in the car on the way down, and sixteen on the way back. Next time, if I time it right, I may be able to make it in ten. As long as Samantha the GPS and I stop squabbling.

Clarification: I named this post "Invading Washington", because originally the whole fam damily was going to come on the trip, and the kids were excited to encounter all the extraterrestrial aliens that, as we know, populate Washington, since that is where they always seem to land in the movies. And movies don't lie.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Fireplace renovations

As earlier reported, the cob wall in Dufferin Grove Park was scheduled for renovation this summer. Over a couple days in August, Jenny and I pulled apart and reassembled the urbanite foundation to fit the new shape, and then took the old cob, added fresh straw, and returned it to the wall, with the help – as always – of many volunteers.

Jenny has since been cleaning up the shape of the wall, adding overhangs, and plastering. I'm hoping the warm fall weather holds!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

NBCNY 2009

I spent another fabulous week in New York state this summer, attending the sixth annual Natural Building & Living Colloquium. This year I took the plunge and tried timberframing, which scares the bejesus out of me, what with its required accuracy and all. I have never attended a gentler, sweeter worksite than that presided over by Sarah Highland. My pathological fear of measuring pulled me away from the site eventually, but I'm feeling pretty pleased that I finally allowed myself to get introduced to timberframing. Thank you, Sarah.

The rest of the week found me working on the retreat cabin: making plaster test patches, learning how to use the hammer mill, pushing sodden horse poop through a screen (oh, wait, that was Eric, not me), prepping walls, and plastering. For the interior finish plaster, we used marble dust instead of sand; a smoother, more yummy plaster I have never worked with.

Other projects included:
  • A round strawbale/cob sauna, on the spot most recently occupied by a strawbale dome;
  • Taking another shot at building a green roof on the steep rake of the ceremonial building;
  • Cladding the guest cabin with century-0ld wooden siding reclaimed from a house in Buffalo;
  • Adding colourful plasters to the turtle oven and the kids' playhouse;
  • Wattle and daub birdhouses;
  • Lots of interesting workshops and talks;
  • Naps, music, and fire-tending.

There was so much rain throughout the week that when the last day dawned bright and sunny, we decided to work on that day too. After a productive morning, the entire group went for a dip in the lake, then we made our way to the arbour for the closing ceremony.

About a dozen of us stuck around to help wrap up projects and start cleaning up. As fun as the week had been, this was even more fulfilling, as we really got to concentrate on getting stuff done, as well as taking advantage of the extra time to play more music, take more naps, and eat more food. And visit.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Oven tear-down

Built in 2004 as a how-the-heck-do-you-build-with-cob project, this oven was used for cooking, but never very much. The logistics of finding and storing wood in the cramped environs of the city (being careful to keep it away from the neighbouring fence, less we be accused of hastening the fence's demise), and of planning a roster of food to make good use of the eight hours or so of hot oven, were often overwhelming, so we usually opted for the peace and ease of our indoor oven.

We did have a couple of great parties with pizzas and pies hot from the oven, and I have fond memories of sitting mesmerized in front of the fire, watching the flames swoop across the top of the interior and flick tongues of fire right up the chimney.

My mom and I broke apart the oven in June of 2009, with extra help from a friend. I then took most of the resulting soil, dragged it down two steps, through a gate (don't let the gate bang on John's house!), and around to the front, and used it to create a sheet mulch garden at our neighbour's house. It took me most of three days to move all that material by bucket and dolly; a pile still remains. It is astonishing to me that I moved much of the clay and some of the foundation stones for the project using my bicycle and bike trailer. No wonder the oven took four months to build.

Women at work

The cob wall at Dufferin Grove Park is entering its fourth summer. Each year, we (me at first, and now mostly staff) assess the wall's condition in the spring, making plans to repair damage caused by weather and vandalism. This year, it was decided that repairs to the fireplace portion of the wall were proving too onerous to be sustainable. It has now been deconstructed, and in its place will go a continuation of the wall on either side.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Only in PDX

A friend of mine sent me this picture of a poster he saw up on a bulletin board; someone looking for their errant backyard chicken. Imagine that poor creature, out wandering the streets of Portland, Oregon, trying desperately to get home but, I imagine, not having the best sense of direction. The odds are stacked against it, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cob, chickens & community

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk as part of the Dufferin Grove Speakers' Series about my visit to the fine city of Portland last year. I was there to attend the Village Building Convergence, now in its ninth year. You can read more about it and see my pictures here. Generally, I was struck by how many things were allowed there: small cob buildings, benches, community gardens... It seemed like every backyard had its own resident chickens. Coming from Toronto, where I routinely chafe against the yoke of regulation, I found myself asking, "Is this really allowed? What about liability concerns?" I am afraid I came off as a bit of a prude.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

International Strawbale Conference Proceedings

The good folks over at the Ontario Straw Bale Building Coalition are making available the proceedings of the International Straw Bale Building Conference, held in Lakefield, Ontario in 2006. So far they've posted an audio link to the Welcome and Keynote Address, by Matts Mhyrman and Judy Knox, two pioneers in the strawbale building revival in the United States. It is well worth a listen (skip over the first eight minutes or so of introductions, if you are in a hurry).

The OSBBC also has a list of some of the upcoming natural building opportunities taking place in Ontario, running down the left side of their web site.