A House Made of Straw?

The more I delve into the why and how of natural building, the more important it becomes to make it a defining characteristic of any physical development by the Housing for Wellbeing initiative. So will it be a literal house of straw? Well, no...and yes.

I first came across the use of straw in building materials while reading about the LILAC (Low Impact Living Affordable Community) housing development in Leeds, England, where prefabricated panels of timber and straw-bale developed by the company ModCell were used in the development of low-rise buildings. Turns out straw-bale is a great insulating material, is fire-retardant, is strong enough for multi-storey structures, and unlike use of conventional construction materials that add to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, straw-bale and timber panels store and sequester carbon away, allowing for carbon-negative buildings. Straw is one option; builders also use hemp, clay and other low-waste, high-performance, renewable materials in natural building.

 LILAC eco-village

LILAC eco-village

 Prefabricated ModCell timber and straw bale panels  (Photos: http://www.modcell.co.uk)

Prefabricated ModCell timber and straw bale panels

(Photos: http://www.modcell.co.uk)

This can seem so far from accepted building practices that some will immediately relegate it to the realm of outlandish or unsafe. Others may be attracted to it but still view it as a fringe methodology. In reality, natural building is a field that has grown through dedicated research, testing, iterative improvements, knowledge drawn from generations of practice by indigenous cultures, common-sense, and of course, a care for the environment and quality of living for people.

Chris Magwood, a sustainable builder and teacher in Ontario, in his book Essential Sustainable Home Design, points out the folly in assuming that mainstream building practices are better than the alternatives:

“One of the first questions I am often asked when discussing new approaches to building is: ‘Does [insert name of material or system] really work?’ This is an entirely appropriate and important question to ask... The ‘new solution paradox’ is that we typically only ask it of new solutions, and completely fail to question existing, accepted solutions. There is an assumption that the ideas, materials, and systems we use commonly have somehow been ‘proven’ to work... In the realm of building materials and systems, however, development, testing, and establishment of industry standards have been far from rational and well-proven processes... most of our accepted solutions have not been developed with any coherent ecological principles or human health ideals in mind. We tend to expect new ideas or technologies to live up to unrealistically high standards, while at the same time normalizing existing ideas or technologies that are inherently, deeply flawed.”

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Above: Canada's Greenest Home built by Chris Magwood and his team in Peterborough, Ontario, featuring prefabricated straw bale wall panels, earthen plasters, solar hot water, rainwater harvesting, natural finishes and much more. (Source: chrismagwood.ca, endeavourcentre.org)

 

Use of natural materials is one facet of green or sustainable building. There are, of course, other important considerations such as ecological impact to the building site, better water management, greening and habitat restoration, durability and easy repair of building components, etc. A passive solar strategy, where window orientation and size, shading, thermal mass and insulation are used together to passively keep a house cool in summer and heated by the sun in the winter, can also dramatically reduce its external energy demand. 

To get local and regional governments to update and improve their housing codes more quickly, the Resilient Design Institute is using the persuasive angle that it is becoming increasingly necessary for homes to be resilient to natural and manmade disasters. Climate change has already wreaked havoc on thousands of homes, made worse by poor human design and construction of the built environment, and economic shocks have similarly forced many people out of their homes. Green building strategies is one way to soften the effect of these disasters. Straw-bale and cob (a mix of clay, sand, straw and earth) structures, for example, are earthquake resistant and much more affordable than reinforced concrete. Passive solar use can drastically reduce reliance on the grid for heating and cooling, and rainwater harvesting can provide backup water supply. 

There is still a ways to go before natural and green building strategies become mainstream, especially in North America. Any ambitious project is likely to face a housing code battle with the local municipality, but more and more builders are taking on these battles and creating a steady shift towards awareness and embracing of practices that do better justice to our environment and ourselves.

Grass Is Not Access to Nature

More specifically, we’re talking about the non-native turf grasses that cover vast amounts of ground in North America. The suburban lawn never filled the nature void for me. I would go for walks in the neighbourhood of my parents’ house, find mostly monotonous short-cut grass with a few trees here and there and some manicured flower beds, and come back rather bored from lack of meaningful natural stimulation. Living or working in high-rise buildings with similar monotonous grassy lawns below produced the same kind of nature deficit. I now know this effect is consciously or unconsciously felt by most people, that a varied natural landscape with diversity and intricacy in its colours, composition and uses packs a much bigger psychological benefit than sterile lawns.

Apart from being boring, the other cons of the lawn tradition have been well documented: high water and pesticide use, the destruction of animal habitats and biodiversity, not to mention the number of people-hours spent on maintenance. Environmentalist Michael Branch quips, “while [lawns] are sometimes referred to as 'ecological deserts', this characterization is an insult to deserts, which are remarkably biodiverse ecosystems”.

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I’ll fess up, I have a small patch of grass in the back I like to lay a picnic blanket on when it's a sunny day and read or doze off, and it’s fun to have an area where my toddler can run around unhindered. Lawns are treasured by many who would be alarmed at being forced to give it all up. The feel of grass under your feet, an area for kids to play, just somewhere to lay... It is nice. The issue is the scale at which lawns cover available land. More and more people for a variety of reasons are switching some or all of their lawn space over to alternative uses. Some just want more colour and variety. Some prefer productive use of their land by growing herbs, vegetables and fruits. Others want the ecologically friendly and low-maintenance option offered by a garden comprised entirely of native plant species that have evolved to adapt to the local conditions (in addition to providing an ideal habitat for small native wildlife, such a garden will require no ongoing watering or weeding, once established). At our house, we’ve replaced our front-yard with perennial plants and part of the back will go towards a vegetable garden as well. We also don’t use any herbicides or pesticides and keep the watering to a minimum. Of course, this means our grassy patch is sometimes weedy and browning, but we always knew we weren’t perfect-lawn people.

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Unfortunately, new suburban housing developments are still popping up complete with the requisite front and backs lawns, along with by-laws to regulate their look, something that seems to be carried more by momentum than anything else. The situation is very well expressed in this article by the Permaculture Research Institute:

"...with new developments...forests are felled, natural prairies degraded, and animal habitats dismantled. While all this destructiveness can’t entirely be blamed on the lawn, our insistence on having them over productive gardens or revitalized natural landscapes widens the footprint we make. Instead of filling in the gaps of our development with swaths of nature, we bend the entire world to our will, which seems to be grass road medians, grass parks, grass embankments and on it goes, with rarely any of it being used for grazing or food production. For all the resources we waste, we match with it entirely misappropriated land use."

It's time to ditch the dominance of the lawn. There is so much good - for us, for the land, for many little creatures - that could come from all of that space instead.

Is This Some Kind of New-Age Commune?

Talk of strong community bonds and emphasis on nature have you thinking “commune!”? Housing for Wellbeing is not about creating communes. Nor is it an attempt to return the population to a shared agricultural existence. It is simply a desire for neighbours to have the opportunity to come together more often, to get to know each other, and in the course of doing so, form friendships, reduce isolation and be a source of support for each other. It has the aim of creating more access to nature in urban housing because viewing concrete, asphalt or general dullness all day is terrible for psychological wellbeing. And yes, part of access to nature means providing the opportunity for small scale urban farming to those who want it, as there are many health benefits from working directly with nature in this way, and from the hyper-local and organic food it provides.

 Communal garden, yes. Agricultural commune, no.

Communal garden, yes. Agricultural commune, no.

This project takes a lot of inspiration from the co-housing model, another term that sometimes arouses low-level anxiety in people. Co-housing is not co-living. In co-living, several people or families share one house. In co-housing, residents have private units or houses forming a cluster of homes, which then share a large part of the outdoor spaces and usually also share a common house with additional amenities. They come in many varieties, from low-rise apartments in dense cities, to mix of apartments and single family homes in smaller towns, some focused heavily on being environmentally sustainable, other catering to a specific demographic such as seniors. Co-housing has the spirit of a co-op in that residents usually maintain the shared spaces, but they typically own their private homes under a condo or strata framework (in co-ops, residents do not own their units; they have shares of the corporation that owns the whole building). Architect Grace Kim recently gave a fabulous Ted Talk describing co-housing and how it can make you happier.

Including co-housing under its umbrella is the term “pocket neighborhood”, popularized by architect Ross Chapin (who also wrote a great book on it). A pocket neighborhood is as it sounds - a small pocket of homes within a larger neighbourhood incorporating the same principles of central, shared outdoor spaces. Pocket neighbourhoods come in even more varieties than co-housing, clustering as few as 4 homes around a central garden. While the co-housing model is adamant about its success being dependent on each housing development being resident led, Chapin demonstrates examples of the same benefits being brought forth through careful designs by the architects and developers. A space designed for greater social interactions and shared effort naturally also draws people who can see its benefits, leading to its success.

 Third Street Cottages designed by Ross Chapin (in Washington).

Third Street Cottages designed by Ross Chapin (in Washington).

A common misconception is that these concepts are geared towards those reasonably well-off. Interestingly, I also come across the opinion that only those with fewer economic choices will be drawn to these concepts. In reality, pocket neighbourhoods and co-housing developments cover a wide range of housing options, from affordable housing developed with help from local governments (and also without), to mixed-income housing offering a variety of dwelling types, to market rate units. What sets them apart from other housing is how the space is used and the desire of the residents to know their community.

The Cost of Isolation

Social isolation is simply unnatural to us as human beings, yet in most cities, more and more people find themselves in this situation. By now you may have come across one or more articles talking about the cost to a person’s health and wellbeing that results from isolation and loneliness. There have been many studies in recent years showing the adverse effects, from depression to a weakened immune system to early death. It is not only the physical risk of not having someone to look out for you in case of an accident or ill health, but the psychological toll - and its affect on the body in turn - of not having a support network and people to share your experiences with.

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A lot of the focus has been on the elderly and understandably so, as this is an especially vulnerable population, but isolation is a growing condition across all demographic groups including single parents, young adults, older adults, people from minority groups, people with disability and low-income households.

In Vancouver, a survey of nearly 4000 residents placed isolation and disconnection at the top of pressing issues facing quality of life in the city. Across Canada and the US, more than a quarter of the population lives alone (and mostly in cities). Almost one-quarter of people in Canada describe themselves as lonely. In the US, 42.6 million adults over age 45 are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness.

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Granted that living alone is a choice for many, that lack of social connections doesn’t always imply feeling lonely, and the quality rather than quantity of person’s social connections is what matters. Nevertheless, being socially isolated usually results in the lack of helping hands, is often at the root of loneliness, and it’s often not a choice. The conditions for it have been weaved into the design of most modern cities - suburban dispersal, the dominance of cars in public spaces, high-rise boxes in the sky designed without thought given to neighbourly interaction being some of the offending choices. In many cities, strict separation between residential and commercial zones has eroded walkability to everyday conveniences like grocery stores. There are many issues to be tackled in the design of public, semi-public and private spaces, and solving for them requires going against the momentum of city planning codes of more than half a century, but not tackling them doesn’t bode well for us.

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To give it context, the focus of Housing for Wellbeing is on the redesign of semi-public spaces - shared green spaces and other common areas between a cluster of houses or within a building - to allow for easier and more frequent social interactions. Key to the semi-public spaces are pedestrianized inner grounds (parking is around the perimeter), comfortable and casual places to sit (especially in groups of many), natural beauty, accessibility and centrally located common facilities such that everyone is sure to encounter them in the course of daily coming and going. The focus is also on the private homes, in that they are oriented to overlook the shared green spaces wherever possible, enticing people to participate in any communal activities, and the separation between any detached homes is small enough to create the density of a cohesive cluster.

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Advocating for better design choices in the public realm is long and worthy fight that is being undertaken by many brave souls. It’s a fight for more parks, community centres, bike lanes, public transit, pedestrian-friendly streets, accessibility and mixed-use zoning, It means designing cities for people instead of cars and designing streets according to a human scale. All of it factors into reducing isolation. I highly recommend the book Happy City and the documentary The Human Scale if you want to know more about these topics.

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References: 

https://www.vancouverfoundation.ca/our-work/initiatives/connections-and-engagement 

http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/rt-td/fam-eng.cfm

American Psychological Association. "Social isolation, loneliness could be greater threat to public health than obesity." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 August 2017

https://theglobeandmail.com/life/life-of-solitude-a-loneliness-crisis-is-looming/article15573187

Christie Walk

Architect Paul Downtown wanted to set an example for sustainable development in his home city of Adelaide, so he turned an old recycling depot on .5 acre of seriously degraded land into an urban oasis with 27 homes. Lush gardens cover the grounds, climb up the walls and go across the rooftop. The development, named Christie Walk, was clear on its objectives from the start: recycled, non-toxic materials were used in construction, power generated from solar panels is used for hot water, storm water is collected for use on the gardens and to flush toilets, buildings are designed for passive heating during the winter and cooling during the summer, and food is produced on-site in the community gardens. Despite all of these achievements, Christie Walk is an affordable housing development built without any supporting funds from the government. 

The site is T-shaped, featuring a combination of detached houses, row townhouses and 2 low-rise apartment buildings. 

 Site plan

Site plan

The residents living here produce only a third as much waste as their surrounding neighbours because of their composting system. In the summer heat, green roofs and natural ventilation can keep the temperature inside the buildings 11° C lower than the surrounding area,. The buildings are designed to let cooler air from the gardens flow up through the homes. Similarly, in the winter lows of 6-8° C, the homes are at a more comfortable 16° C due to the use of highly insulating materials. 

 The vines climbing up to the balconies are not only meant to beautify, but also provide shade

The vines climbing up to the balconies are not only meant to beautify, but also provide shade

But sustainability was only one of Paul Downtown's goals. The other was community.  The shared outdoor spaces are designed to feel like extensions of the private homes. The pathways narrow and then expand to circular sitting areas that become little informal gathering hubs.

As one resident says, she has 12 neighbours who can babysit her daughter. Not everyone was comfortable with the idea of a close community - some residents came for the environmental aspect - but all have come to appreciate the fun, diversity and support it brings.

With all of its features put together, Christie Walk is an extremely resilient urban ecosystem. As one of its founding members, Cherie Hoyle says, it can be done over and over again, in cities anywhere in the world; what is needed is for developers to take up the challenge that has been put out to them - they can never say they don’t know. 

(Photos and ref: Urban Ecology Australia, Pocket Neighborhoods by Ross Chapin, profile on Christie Walk at youtu.be/T4N0XeMadjc)