Lessons from Alberta Natural Building Workshop Series

The month of June was a busy one for learning and we had a heck of a fun time teaching, working, and meeting so many great new students. We were lucky to be hosted for five workshops in Southern Alberta, covering everything from finish clay plasters to cob ovens to earthen floors to rocket mass heaters. The workshop model is a great way for students, under clear direction, to have a hands-on learning opportunity and our hosts are the grateful recipients of a culmination of everyone’s efforts. And we have an opportunity to contribute to the growing depth of knowledge in the natural building community in a positive and meaningful way. Below are a few highlights from each workshop you can take away for your own projects.

Walls Au Naturel: The Art of Clay Paint & Plaster

Quality Work from a Workshop: In this workshop we cover mixing, recipes, how these materials work, and the benefits of choosing natural materials for your home. We also cover application. Because the plaster is applied with a hawk and trowel, it does require some skill and practice, and so we definitely focus on this element. We always keep our classes size small so that all our students can have access to both teachers. By the end of the weekend, everyone had come very far in developing their skills, and the results were exceptional! The lesson here is that with good guidance, a lot can be accomplished through a workshop, even for something as delicate as finish plasters. In the workshop, we were working over drywall for the interior walls of a log home. Our hosts had chosen to go with clay finishes for a few reasons, including the desire to have healthy, natural finishes inside their home, and also for the beautiful qualities that clay has when paired with wood. You can read their blog about the workshop here.

Host Experience:

After going through the process of preparing for this workshop and seeing how much we accomplished in a very short period of time I’m really happy we did the workshop.

Ashley and Heather are wonderful teachers and were very encouraging in the process. We weren’t building an alternative structure such as a straw bale or an adobe home but we still felt like the project we choose was a valuable learning experience.

– Doug Pritcher, workshop host

Finish clay plaster workshop in log home

Finish clay plaster workshop in log home.

Dirt Craft student practicing with a Japanese trowel

Dirt Craft student practicing with a Japanese trowel.

Youngest Student Award. If he can do it, you can too!

Youngest Student Award. If he can do it, you can too!

Rocket Mass Heater Intensive

Maximizing Efficiency: After we finished up in Glenwood, AB, we headed out to a budding permaculture farm just West of Okotoks, which is just a short drive from Calgary. Over two and a half days we went through the intricacies of rocket mass heaters, and installed a six inch system over a wooden sub floor in a 20 ft yurt. We used a half barrel for a simple solution to the manifold, and included a ‘trip wire’ – an arrow shaped cut in the second burn tunnel brick along the top of it, which creates greater turbulence in the burn chamber, thus further increasing the efficiency of the fire (see photo below).

Student Experience:

I have taken three workshops [Cob Oven, Rocket Mass Heater, Interior Paints & Plasters] with Ashley and heather. They are both very knowledgeable and kind teachers. They are very passionate about their craft and seem to hold strong ethics. For this reason I traveled to Alberta from New Brunswick because their workshops have been very valuable with real life applications.

I feel comfortable and confident enough to continue with my own projects and know they will be available should I have questions. All workshop hosts also have provided excellent meals that where organic or local. I highly recommend Dirt Craft and hope to do more workshops in the future….

– Stephanie Mathews

Laying out the rocket mass heater Dirt Craft Natural Building workshop

Laying out the rocket mass heater.

Installing the half barrel manifold for the rocket mass heater at Dirt Craft Natural Building workshop.

Installing the half barrel manifold for the rocket mass heater.

Dirt Craft Natural Building rocket mass heater group photo.

Rocket mass heater with cob bench filled out and workshop group photo.


'Trip wire' carved into fire brick to increase turbulence and efficiency in rocket mass heater.

‘Trip wire’ carved into fire brick to increase turbulence and efficiency in rocket mass heater.

Learn to Build a Super Efficient Wood Fired Cob Oven

Design Opportunity: We had the opportunity to teach two Cob Oven workshops in the Calgary area in June. We were glad that our hosts both chose to go with our improved double chamber cob oven design. We’ve combined the baking prowess of the more traditional chimney-less cob oven, with the wood burning efficiency of the rocket mass heater. It is not simply a cob oven with a chimney stuck on the front, but rather a carefully calculated design that ensures more complete combustion, without compromising baking performance.

We also want to take a moment to highlight some creative ingenuity on the part of one of our cob oven hosts. In the collage below, the photo in the upper left hand corner is of our hosts’ driveway. He knew that they were planning to take it out as part of a larger project in the future, so he rented a jack hammer, took out a section and used the rubble to build his oven base. Beautiful!

Student Experience:

Thanks so much Heather and Ashley, we really enjoyed your workshop and found it to be very informative and a great hands on learning experience. You both did a terrific job of sharing your wealth of knowledge and experience putting Cob Ovens together. We are hoping to find the spot for our oven and may look to the fall to get it up and baking.

– Melanie & Bill Easton

Newly constructed double chamber cob oven through a workshop in Calgary. Note the volume of space created for the smoke chamber, a new addition to our oven design to maximize efficiency.

Newly constructed yet to be plastered double chamber cob oven through a workshop in Calgary. Note the volume of space created for the smoke chamber, a new addition to our oven design to maximize efficiency. Upper left: driveway turned cob oven base.

The Complete Earthen Floor

After the cob oven workshops wrapped up, we headed back to Okotoks for the earthen floor workshop. We installed an earthen floor in the same yurt in which we’d done the rocket mass heater workshop over the previous workshop. Unlike the weather for the rocket workshop, the weather for the earthen floor was incredibly hot! Luckily, our hosts kept us all well hydrated with watermelon and fresh fruit smoothies.

The Challenge: The wooden subfloor in the yurt was very un-level. Often, when working over wooden subfloors, we’ll find variations between one end of a building and the other. We have certain strategies for dealing with this scenario. But for this instance because we we working all in one room, we came up with a new approach. We call it the ‘Topo Map’. Using our guide stick and laser level, we ran around the floor, drawing with a permanent marker right on the underlayment paper, marking where the high and low spots were. Once all the areas were identified, we drew out a map (like a topographic map!). Working as a team, our students feathered each of the high, medium, and low spots beautiful floor. Well done! The results were that we were able to use the laser level, and the floor ended up being approximately the same thickness everywhere.

Student Experience:

Thanks for this Ashely and Heather.  Although we don’t have an imminent earthen floor project we really enjoyed the workshop as base experience to think back on when we actually do have an earthen floor project.  The notes you included are really wonderful to have to support us when that happens.

We both felt you facilitated a fantastic program.  As it was the first of your workshops we didn’t have particular expectations, but we both left really inspired.  We would definitely participate in another.

-Megan & Ian Odell

Earthen floor Dirt Craft Natural Building workshop, group photo & finished floor with rocket mass heater in yurt.

Earthen floor workshop, group photo & finished floor with rocket mass heater in yurt.



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