The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Fecalphobia Not Allowed

by Tricia Dower

Colin and I toured what will be “the first code-approved, load bearing, high-occupancy two-story cob home in North America.” Located on eight acres in the Highlands area of greater Victoria, it will be 1550 square feet when done and house three generations of Ann and Gord Baird’s family. You can read more about them and their philosophy here. Although a cob house is sculpted of earth, sand and straw, the one they’re building doesn’t look too Hobbit-like and you can’t huff and puff and blow the place down.

Ann is 40 and Gord, 37. When I was forty I was living the upward mobility life in a four-bedroom, two-story, energy-gobbling house. A few years later, I moved to an even bigger place. Recycling, composting, reusing grey water and cobbing were not in my vocabulary. Sustainability? That meant working hard to keep the money coming in.

Oh, years before, when the kids were little, I had fantasies of raising them in the woods where I’d label the flora (pine, spruce, fern, foxglove, wild garlic, poisonous mushroom) as part of their home schooling and deer would come for the salt lick we set out. To dry-run the dream, I rented a rustic cabin for a long weekend and nearly killed us all lighting the propane stove. In truth, I’m not that into roughing it.

Ann and Gord’s home will be powered by the sun and wind and use a grid inter-tie net metering system with BC Hydro. Solar water heating tubes will provide domestic hot water and hydronic in-floor heat. The home will also feature a rain water catchment system and composting toilets and re-use all of its grey water (from bathing, laundry and dishwashing) for irrigation of fruit trees. Organic vegetable gardens are planned for the future. Chickens roamed free the day we visited. A particularly nervy rooster named Mr. Doo pecked at the decorative buttons at the bottom of my three-quarter length pants. I’m not that into roosters either.

Part of the tour was a presentation about waste water by eco-consultant Angela Evans. There is no such place as “away” when it comes to waste, she told us, yet we treat our oceans and rivers as though their health has little to do with ours. For example, medications make their way into the sea through the human waste our treatment plants (and cruise ships) dump into them. Designed to break down in fat, not water, meds retain their properties and get into the fish we eat. Tuna on steroids? Along with your salmon, halibut and cod, you may be getting somebody’s hypertension pills or worse.

According to Angela, the average human produces only one cup of “poo” (her word) and two cups of urine each day, yet we use five gallons of water to flush it away. She encouraged us to test out Ann and Gord’s outdoor flushless, composting toilet. (They’ll have one or more inside the house). Constructed according to the Joseph Jenkins method described in the Humanure Handbook, this type of toilet uses wood chips, evaporation, the addition of carbon and a process for recycling waste into compost. I can tell you honestly that it didn’t smell. But it calls for more responsibility than most of us are prepared to take on as well as a willingness to deal with what Ann and Gord call “fecalphobia.”

Ironically, although a composting toilet costs only about $150 to construct, Ann and Gord had to spend $30,000 to install a septic field they’ll never use so they could pass the housing inspection. What’s more, because they required a lot of land, they ended up in an area in which you’re dependent on a car. I like our city home from which we can walk to nearly everything we need, but I also admire this family. They may be the only ones with power and operational toilets when the environmental reckoning comes.

Photo credits: Ann and Gord Baird (Deddeda Stemmler); model of cob house (from Ann and Gord’s site); Mr. Doo and part of his harem (me); how the house looked a few weeks ago (Caspar Davis) .

9 Comments:

Blogger tamara said...

This is so fascinating, Tricia. Thank you for this. I've been thinking a lot about sustainable housing lately. Not to this extent, I am a true-blue fecalphobic, but I am in love with the new sustainable modular homes out of Germany. They're not 'approved' for Canada yet, though. Maybe in the next millennium...

Thu Sep 06, 02:37:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I'm not familiar with the German homes, Tamara. Will check them out. Angela did say that Germany was way ahead of us in its handling of waste water, so I'm not surprised.

Thu Sep 06, 11:35:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

This is a great post, Tricia. We are one of the few LEED certified firms in Hawaii, so we do most of our design with green solutions in mind. Codes are a bit behind the times on the islands though, so I don't know if we could ever get a cob house pushed through, but it's great to have all this info.

Fri Sep 07, 10:44:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Sat Sep 08, 01:04:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

At first I thought you were saying that this house was made of dung. You know, like dung huts. But, it appears not. Now, I've heard that dung huts don't actually smell like dung. So maybe it's the way to go.

But anyway, in the meantime, there's this wonderful example for us. Thanks, Tricia for sharing this with us. A couple times a year I wind up looking through the architecture books in Chapters. (I used to want to be an architect. When I was a kid. Somewhere between 'mad scientist' and 'lawyer'.) The books that most inspire me are the eco-friendly architecture books. There are so many wonderful ideas. But they end up in these isolated spots in the world. Sharing these ideas on the internet will do a lot towards promoting diffusion of these superb approaches.

Who wants to help build an off-the-grid CWC summer retreat? I promise not to lobby too hard for ‘dunghut’. (But honestly we could collect the dung of great living Canadian writers! Think about it.)

Sat Sep 08, 01:07:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Steve. Cob houses would probably work well in Hawaii. Apparently, they stay cool in hot weather and you don't have cold enough temperatures on the islands to need more insulation than they provide.

What a concept, Andrew. A house of litmanure! We don't just write crap, we could say; we build houses with it.

Sat Sep 08, 01:24:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

People like me eat way more than is needed. I'm ashamed by the number of garbage bags I bring to the curb every week. We recycle, of course, but that just takes care of the paper and plastic, mostly. Composting sounds like a real chore, and I'm ashamed of saying that as well. One great step we've taken recently is to use those material bags for packing away the groceries at the store. The plastic is being phased out, but still, it's nice knowing we've got a head start.

Sun Sep 09, 11:52:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Hey, Tony, anything you can do to recycle and reuse is a good thing.

Mon Sep 10, 03:01:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi guys, my mum and I are really interested in your Cob house! The design is cool and everything. The toilets are no surprise, because when I went to Australia, I visited a nature park and the toilets were just holes that you sit on then throw woodchips over. Same thing, I think. Its too bad you had to pay for the septic field, that sucks.. Anyways, we were wondering how much it cost to build your cob house? Materials, extra rooms, solar panels and whatnot. Besides the septic field, what was the approximate cost of building the house?

Sat Jan 05, 04:17:00 pm GMT-5  

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