Living in a hug

I remember traveling around the green north of the United Kingdom as a teenager, and braving a damp German winter some years later, afflicted with an eternal chill. “Doesn’t anybody heat their houses here?” I groused. But it was always tea and a blanket around the shoulders instead.

In our Energy Systems class a couple of months ago we talked about transitioning away from an oil-centric economy, to a future where there’s likely to be less conventional energy sources available. Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren has written about his indebtedness to American systems theorist Howard Odum, who pioneered thinking about embodied energy (he called it eMergy) – a way of accounting for the amount of energy it takes to make something.

In the context of something like house construction, embodied energy is the energy used by all the systems associated with the building’s production: from the mining and processing of natural resources used in the building materials; to their manufacture and transport; to the industrial processes that ultimately see the building erected.

The Eco-Sense nursery, situated in a former rock quarry on the property. The line seen running down the hill brings gravity fed grey water from the house through a vermicompost and to the nursery for watering. A hot compost, visible at centre, receives organic material from the nursery.

My chilly evenings in the U.K. and Germany probably had something to do with old, thinly-insulated housing stock and a reliance on electric heat (and even here in Victoria I sometimes think wistfully of winters spent in Winnipeg apartments, lulled to sleep by the knocking water hammer of the hot-water radiators that kept the place toasty warm and dried a wet pair of socks laid on top in two minutes flat).  

It was accepted wisdom until recently that the embodied energy content of a building is minute when compared with the energy required to operate that building over its life. And so efforts have focused on reducing operating energy by improving the energy efficiency of the building envelope. But this isn’t necessarily the case – and a recent field trip for our Natural Building class shed some light on a trailblazing alternative.

Arriving at Ann and Gord Baird’s Eco-Sense homestead in the highlands just north of Victoria, we were met in a gravelled clearing abutting a hill by the couple themselves: spry and eager-looking, clad in matching t-shirts. I noticed at once that the air felt much warmer here than it had in the city.

“We live in a mud house and shit in a bucket,” said Gord, by way of greeting.

(L-R): Copper tubing wrapped around the stovepipe and attached to a hot water tank for heating water when the wood stove is burning; flowers in a sculpted nook in a cob wall; a cairn next to some meadow flowers adjacent to the nursery.

They explained that they had met each other thirteen and a half years earlier, in their mid-30s, both newly at the end of prior marriages. “We wanted to recreate our lives, challenge building codes, and grow food,” explained Ann. “A reasonable life.”

Sounds good to me.

Except that to hear them tell it, neither one had any experience working with the earth, or with architecture and design. With help from Ann’s parents they were able to purchase the parcel of land we were standing on – eight acres draped over a forbiddingly rocky hill – and the four of them moved into a 27-foot trailer on the site along with Gord’s two kids.

A cob oven and benches set against the “flip and chip” rear wall of the greenhouse where Gord and Ann grow hot-weather starts, peppers, and tomatoes.

The previous landowner had been a junk dealer, and amid the swaths of invasive Himalayan blackberry that sprouted from the badly compacted soil were various odds and ends: the detritus that would soon come to be so creatively repurposed in their building projects.

But this was still early days. “We had to figure out how to grow food on a rock,” said Gord. Their first Christmas together, the couple bought each other books about cob building, with the dream of building a home and garden that were regenerative to the land. Gord explained that his background wasn’t in permaculture, but rather in integrated systems. His decision-making is guided by considering different forms of capital – financial, social, cultural, intellectual – and thinking about how a change in one form of capital effects the “currency” of the others.

This approach seems to have yielded permaculture-like design strategies: in figuring out how best to grow food on their rocky new outpost, he and Ann tried to observe and imitate what nature was already doing there. Their planting focused on edible native perennials, with an eye to an edible food forest emerging in the future. Chickens were set to graze the hillside to improve soil fertility and munch on undesirable weeds.

A sign pointing passers-by to the Eco-Sense food forest; a rotated square window set into the exterior cob wall at the Eco Hut; a view of the Eco Hut and its living roof from across the pond.

Pipes from a half-built, disused septic system abandoned by a previous owner were repurposed to send grey water from the house down to feed the chickens and water the fruit trees, comprising one of four different grey water systems that service the house. The living roof on the chicken coop has a solar panel that powers an LED light in winter and a fan in summer, which makes the birds more productive (“we’re ‘conscientious opportunivores’”, says Gord). A hazelnut tree in the food forest has started to bear nuts in recent years; the chickens chase off skulking squirrels and rats, and Ann and Gord watch for migrating jays as an indicator that it’s time for harvest.

Further into the food forest, we examine a walnut guild, planted thick with elderberry, plum, rhubarb, peas, and comfrey. The hillside has been terraced here, the swales packed with inoculated woodchips to provide mushroom growth among the plants.

Winding further up the hillside, we arrive at an “Eco-hut” which serves as an office for the plant business. Built as a tiny home, it’s comprised of a stick frame covered in burlap and stucco wire, and insulated with blown cellulose. Gord tells us that the entirety of the construction materials are recycled. The building is off-grid solar with a power inverter, and a copper tube that snakes around the wood stove chimney services the hot water heater during the winter.

A truth window showing the aircraft cables embedded in the cob wall at Eco-Sense; a keyhole garden at the side of the house; the front door of the main house, made entirely from reclaimed and repurposed materials.

The Eco-hut is built to code: one sticking point during construction was the provincially mandated number of “air changes per hour” required inside the structure – this was achieved by way of a small fan which is set into the composting toilet, itself cleverly hidden in a bench in the living room. Gord tells us that the total labour and material costs for the building were around $38 000.

I’m struck by the careful attention paid to the finishing details – the earthen countertops and floors smooth and precise, curving gently beneath a coat of boiled linseed oil – but we have to keep moving. Sounding like a permaculturist again, Gord expounds: “nature isn’t predominantly efficient, it’s resilient and redundant.”

We pass the woodworking shop, built entirely with foot-mixed cob. The living roof on top is populated by rescued plants from a nearby Garry oak meadow that was lost to a new development; in addition to serving as a biological footprint replacement, it slows down storm water flows, is fireproof, and increases the efficiency of the building’s solar panels by reducing its “heat island effect”. Resilience and redundancy well-achieved.

Front yard gardens with the Eco-Sense house in the background.

Nearer the house, we pass a solar dehydrator and come into the main vegetable gardens. After some deliberation, Ann and Gord guess that there are probably around sixty-five nut trees, ninety-five fruit trees, and some three hundred different kinds of plants in these gardens. I gravitate towards a keyhole garden that looks to be planted with sea kale, Good-King-Henry, and walking onion.

Arriving to the house itself, Gord tells us that help was hired to mix the cob with a rototiller and to perform other construction tasks, predominantly with reclaimed material – bad for the consumption economy, but good for the local skills economy. According to his calculations, a total of thirty-six litres of gas was used for the entire build. The house is built to high seismic standards: geotextile material runs horizontally through the cob walls, knitted together with aircraft cable. Gord jokes that after its first major earthquake, the house will be transformed into adobe construction.

The house has “net zero” electricity consumption – excess solar produced in the sunny summer months is sold back onto the grid, offsetting any winter use (the couple uses ninety percent less electricity than the average British Columbian). Overlapping systems are in evidence everywhere: excess hot water generated in the summer is used for the dehydrator; well water is run through pipes in the upstairs floor during the summer to cool the house before emerging, now pre-warmed, to water the outside gardens without shocking them. Evacuated solar tubes on the roof make hot water and run into a wood gasifier, warming the floors and acting as a space heater in the cooler months.

From left to right: Gord, Ann, and Stephanie, our instructor, in the living room at Eco-Sense.

The finishings inside here are equally impressive. Light tubes in the ceiling allow soft natural light to fill the kitchen, reflecting off cabinets made from reclaimed wood from a nearby school and bits of the packing crate one of the heaters arrived in. The bathroom sink and shower are finished in tadelakt, with sand sourced from nearby Gabriola Island. Ann, who has done most of this finishing work herself, talks about how it has allowed her to discover her artistic creativity, and says that being in the house is like “living in a hug”.

At the end of the tour, we stop outside the root cellar, now mostly empty after providing a winter’s worth of eating. Gord points to a tree frog sculpted into the cob above the door. Tree frogs are an indicator species, among the first to disappear when there’s environmental disturbance in an area. Its placement above the door to the food is symbolic: “we want to live in a way that it can continue to live here,” he says. It seems to me that they’re succeeding.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.