Our intention was to take a little R & R this past winter, and the previous year had been a busy year of projects and workshops, but when our friend and collaborator, Bonnie (see story here) asked us to oversee the restoration and renovation of her house, though tempting as it was to say no, we just couldn’t. We weren’t super keen on taking on a conventional build, but we knew Bonnie’s desire to do it with integrity, healthy materials, and to use as many natural building techniques as possible would make it a really great project. It would be a great opportunity to get to work with the local trades (and as it turns out, spend a lot of time educating them about alternatives), begin a dialogue with local permitting officials (RDOS and slowly start introducing the idea of building a straw bale structure in the area), and to serve as a demonstration on how the two worlds of natural and conventional building can be bridged.
First step: manually remove fifty cubic yards of feline fecal and urine saturated silt from the crawl space. This is where we also discovered that the Okanagan is home to black widows.
The next few months were tasked with identifying and removing any material that had even the slightest hint of cat urine. Including floor joists, subfloor, baseboards, drywall, and insulation. In laying out the new floor plan, we discovered that half the house, an original panabode kit cabin had no more than R5 insulation in the walls, and in some cases no insulation at all. Oh, and did we mention that the insulation was rigid foam board and that large swaths of it had been hollowed out by colonies of odorous ants.
A decision was made to remove all interior drywall on exterior walls to expose the remainder of the ants, and properly insulate the panabode walls with a combination of Roxul’s Comfort Board and Comfort Batt insulation. Easy to work with, high R values and no more foam. While much of the renovation was fairly conventional we purchased as much sustainably sourced wood as possible, drywall with a high recycled content, drywall compound free of neurotoxins (which was not easy, and required special order!). We specified low VOC adhesives, reused electrical and fixtures where we could. One beautiful highlight for sure is the feature wall that was constructed with the four inch cedar panabode sections reused from torn out interior walls. We had the electricians install kill switches in both bedrooms giving the option to nullify any of the EMF’s that would be present even when all lights and appliances are turned off (if this intrigues you, and you’d like more information, we highly recommend the services of our friend and colleague Mitch from Healthy Homes Calgary)
The operable vinyl windows which had been installed just 15 years prior had warped so badly that they failed to open and close properly. We made the decision to go with the more expensive, but less toxic and much more durable, fibreglass windows and doors from Winnipeg based Duxton Windows.
We’re now just completing the finishing work. In the original part of the the house, the wooden ceiling were sanded and then oiled with a great product called Osmo Oil, and all of the drywall clad walls were finished with either clay paints or clay plasters coloured with mineral pigments. The plastic covered particle board counters have been replaced with an earthen counter top. And for flooring, where we couldn’t save the tile, earthen floors will grace the feet and modulate the temperature swings, especially in the heat of the Okanagan summer.
Though the bones of this house are a fair distance from the types of homes we prefer building, it is true that most of the homes that exist today are the homes that we’ll be living in fifty years from now. It is unreasonable and unsustainable to just do away with these homes and replace them with what we deem as ‘better’ buildings. Instead, we’ll have to use what we have, and for us that will mean integrating natural material with a more conventional structure that already exists. A compromise, it may seem, but when it comes to earthen floors and clay finishes, these are actually the more sensual elements of a home, and what better place to have materials that are healthier and more vibrant at the surface anyway. That it can be economical to push over a house and put it in a landfill shows just how deluded our economic environment has become. Ultimately, by re-using and re-purposing materials, we are showing a greater respect for those things that have already been made. This is not a sentiment that should be reserved for natural builders, but is the responsibility of anybody that is doing any building, really.