When we began our adventure into sustainable building 27 years ago, we were not set on constructing a log house. Our first priority was to find a property that could supply much of our building needs. Yes, log construction was right up there, but so was the possibility of building a stone house. Both of these methods are owner/builder friendly and are suited to locally available materials. A third method I should mention, which was not on our radar at the time, is straw bale construction. These three building forms epitomize the self-sufficient, sustainable, debt-free movement. When it is your plan to use a given piece of land to supply your building supplies, your priorities shift from just locating a great building site, to taking an inventory of the properties resources. This inventory will dictate to what extent the land will be able to supply your needs, or if the property is even suitable to build using log, stone, or straw.
In our case, we eventually found a property that supplied the needed logs to build our house, but not before we had almost settled on a very different landscape, one that was much more open and rocky. There were definite advantages to this property from a building site perspective, it had great potential for a garden and a small creek for irrigation. It had been the site of an old homestead, so much of the area had been cleared of rocks which were conveniently left in accessible mounds. We were prepared to buy and build that stone house, when the property sold and our search to find land that would supply our building needs continued. We finally settled on Log construction, using the piece sur piece method, the abundance of cedar trees on our property dictating our decision.
Our home combines log piece sur piece construction with stone slipforming (Nearing method). Many years later,we constructed our straw bale studio/workshop. These three methods of construction (and there are others, like rammed earth) are great for the amateur builder that wants to utilize local materials. All of our log material came off of this property, as well as much of the stone for the foundation (the rest was collected from nearby farmers fields). The straw for our studio/workshop was sourced locally and the clay we used to plaster the walls came from a pond we dug on the property.
In the developed world we are used to having few constraints on what we want to build for housing and where, as long as we follow building codes, comply with local laws, and we have the ability to pay. Yet in much of the less developed world, building with locally sourced material, using the like of wood/bamboo, straw/grasses, clay, and stone, is the norm. For indigenous peoples, fabricating shelters from locally sourced materials was just an extension of their intimate relationship with the land and the natural world, based on surviving successfully in a given environment. Inuit build igloos out of snow blocks, natives of the plains used Buffalo hides pulled over wooden frames, while west coast aboriginals built plank houses using local trees and woodland peoples in eastern North America built wigwams and long houses constructed from wooden pole frames covered with bark. It was not too long ago that European settlers followed this same pattern. Piece sur Piece log construction, combining post and beam joinery with log infill, paired a known building method with an abundantly available timber resource, making it a logical choice for shelter. Straw bale construction originated in Nebraska over 100 years ago, driven by the lack of more commonly available materials. Before we moved up to the Bruce Peninsula, we lived outside the hamlet of Kenilworth Ontario. The century home we lived in at the time was built by James O'Donnel, who cleared the land for farming in the 1880's with the promise of ownership. He build a splendid stone house using the hard heads gathered from those fields. This in fact has been a great inspiration for us on our own path to homesteading.
In the next few entries of my Homesteader Blog, I will be discussing how a do-it-yourselfer can construct a home using these three outstanding building materials (wood, stone, and straw) . I hope that I can inspire others to follow the owner/builder path to sustainable local construction.
I find it very satisfying to go into our fifty acre woodlot and harvest material for building projects here at Rhythmwood. This little piece of land has given us many of our construction needs for the last twenty five years, beginning with the cedar logs used to build our piece sur piece house. I love the process of selecting a tree and turning it into something like boards for the house or shingles for the roof, or walls for a log house. It gives me a feeling of independence which the homesteaders of old must have felt.
For me, this has developed into an intimate relationship with the land. I am very cautious when I harvest trees for a project, because I know this relationship works both ways - if I don't take care of you, you won't take care of my needs. If I am to continue to get benefits from this land base, I know I must act respectfully towards it. I believe it to be an environmentally responsible approach to building - it is local, small scale, and low impact. I know how those trees were cut to produce those shingles that are now on my roof - something I just can't claim if I go to the building centre.
I am all about local, as far as is possible. You may not have access to your own woodlot, but when you choose to build with materials close at hand, you are able to connect personally with your supplier. It is no different than eating locally - you connect with a grower and decide whether the way he/she produces food is compatible with what you want to eat. For instance, I may choose only to purchase timber from a logger that uses horses, or another low impact harvesting method. I will be writing more in the coming months about low impact building and living, that is both empowering and sustainable.