Thursday, October 28, 2010

Compost toilet feasibility study public consultations

Click on the picture to enlarge the image

The project
to build a community-created earthen building and composting toilet facility in Dufferin Grove Park has been on ice since we completed the earthbag foundation in 2006. The City has recently contracted local architect Rohan Walters, along with me, some engineers and other professionals, with CELOS giving guidance, to go through the design and approvals process for the biotoilet project.

Next week, there will be information about the feasibility study and design proposals posted at the park in the rink house, the playground, and by the toilet foundation (aka Gossip Rock). Come to the meeting and make your voice heard; whether you are for or against, we want to hear what you think. In case you have forgotten the details, you can read background about the project here.

Monday, September 27, 2010


When I first learned about cobbing, I thought, "Aha, I'll never need to face my fear of wood or measuring again! I'll just cob it until it's right." However, I have found my lack of knowledge and proficiency in this area to be more and more limiting as time goes on. I first faced up to my fear this summer by building a solar chimney dehydrator.

With that under my belt, I was lucky enough to get the chance to return to the Thunder Mountain Retreat Sanctuary, this time to attend a timberframing workshop. Led by Sarah Highland, assisted by Liz Johndrow, and hosted by the PeaceWeavers, this was a week of intense learning, hysterical fun, and blossoming friendships. Sarah's gentle and precise teaching helped all of us (six women and two men or so) gain an appreciation for the wood and a beginning understanding of timberframing. I learned how to see increments of 1/16 of an inch, and how to split a knife line with a (very sharp) saw. Seeing how Sarah ran the workshop, and how PeaceWeavers ran their lives with us in their midst, I am ever more grateful for my natural building family and all they have to teach me.

Yet more plastering in Washington

I say Washington, but it's really Maryland. This was my third trip down, and this time Eric and I did some lime plastering over earthen base coats, on the back side of the strawbale studio he's been building there for the last couple years.

We used Red Top Gauging Plaster to speed up the lime set, along with some Set Retarder to slow down the set up of the Red Top. This gave us about half an hour of working time before the material became too firm to spread. I'd never worked with these additives before, but the lime seemed well behaved in their company. Cactus juice and rice flour paste rounded out the mix, making the plaster smooth and creamy.

You can read more about this place on Eric's blog, and also in some of my other blog entries below.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Straw/clay toilet wall

Before going full steam ahead on my plan to build a straw/clay partition wall in our house, I thought it prudent to practice somewhere less obtrusive first. Our bucket toilet is due for some renovations, to fix the rather visually permeable partition wall, and to re-do the toilet to make for a more comfortable sit.

Sophie and Kat pulled apart the old set up, and we amended the wall frame to work for straw/clay. Once the rather arduous prep work was finally done (lumber's in the barn, tools are in the house, hammer's nowhere to be found), it took only a few moments to stuff the wall cavity. I learned that, for a wall this thin (4"), I'll want to compact the straw more firmly than I did, and will also be more generous with the slip. I had a fair bit it re-packing and patching to do where things didn't hold together to my liking.

Slip and base coat plaster went on smoothly, though the plaster shrunk more than I figured it might. For the back side of the wall, I added piles of chopped straw; thought it might offer my sometimes squishy wall a bit more support. We'll see. Finish coat is next, and I'm thinking of using some clay that I picked up in Maryland; it's pink as pink can be.

My plaster recipe was:

Sand (32, 56 & 74 mesh) 2, 3 and 1 parts respectively
Clay (EPK) 4 parts
Soaked paper 3 parts
Casien 0.125 parts
Chopped straw less on one side, more on the other

I've been reading Carol Crews' new plaster book, Clay Culture, and I'm finding it to be an excellent resource, full of history, recipes and encouragement. Any questions I had during this process were quickly answered by flipping through her book. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

NBCNY 2010

I usually hedge my bets when committing to do something; "I will try to make it" or "I plan to be there", never guaranteeing outright that something won't come up (you parents out there know that something unexpected always does). When it comes to the PeaceWeaver's Natural Building Colloquium however, I am more categorical: "I will see you there, definitely". It has become an important tradition for me, supporting both my practice in building and my practice in being human.

The week starts with an opening ceremony where we all come together and the sacred fire is lit. Supper and evening presentations follow, with lots of conversating whenever possible. Mornings begin with a gong (!) at 5:45a, a sunrise ceremony, and a hearty breakfast. Then we all disburse to get involved in the various projects, stopping for lunch, the occasional nap or presentation (sometimes nap and presentation) and 5 o'clock swim (the pond is longer when you are in the middle of it than what it looks like when you are on shore). A kick-ass vegan supper is followed by more presentations, with a fire circle afterwards for those who can stay awake.

As usual, there was a whole pile of projects to get involved in.

Last year, the straw bale sauna was erected down by the main building. With a tarp-covered roof held up by a gorgeous and complex timberframe, it was just crying out to be completed. The single coat of lime plaster that coated the exterior had not fared well over the winter, so the first task was to knock about half of it off to expose the bales, leaving that which was stable enough to remain. Clay slip was applied to the bales, and then a couple coats of earthen plaster, bolstered with Ed Raduozo's shredded government documents, went on over top. The Thunder Mountain crew will likely finish it off with a finish coat of lime before the weather turns. Jim Luckner oversaw the whole operation.

Inside, Deanne Bednar led a crew of enthusiastic plasterers in laying on two coats of tawney earthen finish plaster over a base coat of lime. Ready for benches and a fire in the stove!

Eric Hempstead and Jim Luckner devised a clever canopy to shade the roof, and then installed battens over the roof substrate. Then crews went to work installing white pine shingles, getting the whole roof done by the colloquium's end. In spite of my intense fear of working with wood, I did succeed in spending a whole entire day nailing shingles onto the roof (and sneezing), and I ended up having a blast. Thanks, John, for your patient teaching.

Ceremonial building
Frank Meyer and David Eisenberg were among those leading the charge to spruce up the plaster on the ceremonial building. Flaky lime plaster was scraped off and new cement stucco applied and coloured. The building's exterior wall plaster also got a face lift in parts, covering over the mottled green exterior with a smooth and sophisticated plaster/fresco combination. Can't wait to try that at home.

Inside, Steve Paisley and Kevin Connors went to work, cutting out a hole in the strawbale wall to make room for a Rumford fireplace. Now at last the building will have a heat source and be usable year round.

Birdhouses and tree people
Ed Raduozo mixed up his sumptuous clay plaster which owes much of its richness to the high paper content: shredded government documents procured from the US patent office. Wattle and daub birdhouses and tree people ensued, much to the delight of children and adults alike.

Ger making
Kylie Baker, fresh off the plane from Mongolia, spent the week leading up to the NBC, and the entire week of the colloquium engaged in building a "ger" (the Mongolian word for "yurt"). She made it all, from the lattice walls and rafters, to the door frame and the smoke hole. Dedicated helpers kept the ger going and it was finished in time to raffle it off on the colloquium's last day. At the same time as she was constructing the frame, Kylie was also leading felting workshops and managed to create several large pieces of felt that will form the door of the ger when they're stitched together.

Timberframe barn
Sarah Highland designed another treat for NBC-goers: a timberframe barn. I spent a couple sessions using Sarah's ancient drills and chisels to form mortises in a post. At the end of the week, we had a barn raising, installing two of the five bents that will make up the form of the barn. This work requires many hands and lots of focus, and Sarah led the raising with clear instructions, calm demeanour and a sense of humour.

In addition to all that work, we enjoyed a number of sessions and conversations including:

  • The high art and subtle science of scrounging: Jim Jutzak
  • Zero energy housing in Buffalo: Kevin Connors and Dave Lanfear
  • Green Maps: Deanne Bednar
  • Process-oriented worksites: Erin Condo
  • Codes update: David Eisenberg
  • Building and travelling: Sarah Highland
  • Desperately searching for gers in Mongolia: Kylie Baker
  • Music and open mike: Frank Meyer

I am so grateful to the PeaceWeavers for creating this space that I where I can be every summer, and to my family for supporting me in having this time away.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bronx Zoo

I recently came across this video about The Bronx Zoo's composting toilet facility. As you can see by the video, the opportunities to educate around water use, sanitation and sustainability and are immense. If only Toronto would follow suit and get behind (no pun intended) the earthen building/composting toilet project at Dufferin Grove Park, it could benefit from the kind of extensive publicity and goodwill that New York City generates at its facility. I have hope that Toronto will see its way clear to taking advantage of this opportunity in its own back yard.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dufferin Grove Park

In 2008, I wrote a piece about an exceptional project I was involved in about five years ago that involved kids, dirt, and and the approval and support of Toronto's (then named) Parks and Recreation Department. I wrote:

"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?"

Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR) is currently in the process of making sure that something this creative and inclusive never happens again. By shuffling Recreation supervisor Tino DeCastro and many other supervisors to new jobs and away from the communities within which they have worked, sometimes for decades, PFR is effectively severing the connection that allowed the kind of collaboration between people and parks that made the cob wall project possible.

You can read my original post here, and you can read more about the current PFR situation here. If you'd like to add your voice to the chorus of those concerned about these developments, click on that second link for more information.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Rumford fireplace visit

I am fascinated by the concept of a Rumford fireplace; an open hearth that sends more heat into the room than it loses to combustion air, and one that charges the thermal mass around it to store and release heat radiantly (and conductively, depending on the design) long after the fire is out. I have built an outdoor Rumford, and have helped with another outdoor model and an indoor proof-of-concept retrofit, but I have not yet had the pleasure of enjoying a fire in a full-blown masonry fireplace of this type.

Last weekend, my family and I had the chance to visit some folks not far from where we live who have a Rumford fireplace in their off-grid strawbale home. They lit it up for us and, wow, it was a revelation. The room, already comfortably warm on that chilly night, became instantly cozy, with a handsome and robust fire blazing in the hearth. The fire hugged the back of the fireplace, and smoke was whisked up the chimney without straying from the amazingly shallow firebox.

Monday, January 25, 2010

In the paper

Photo by Bill Henry

Reporter Bill Henry
came by the other day to interview my family about our new "low impact" lifestyle. The resulting article was published today in the Owen Sound Sun Times. Can it be that my arms are really that long?