I love living in Canada, wouldn’t trade it for anything. Oh I enjoy traveling, for sure, and could spend months on end in Mexico alone but I always look forward to coming home. At least now that we’ve abandoned city life. It does, however, present its share of problems for natural and conventional builders alike- namely climate.
Here on the prairies our temperature ranges from as low as -50 C to as high as +38 C or so. The heat I can handle, and a few well-placed vents and windows with overhangs will go a long way towards keeping a house comfortable on those long summer nights. Cold on the other hand- now that can be a problem. Having said that, a good plan and some common sense go a long way.
Currently, we live in what (by conventional standards) is considered a quite comfortable home. We have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, large kitchen, living and laundry areas, a sunroom, and a full basement with attached garage. There are lots of large windows for light and expansive views. Sounds wonderful, right? Well, in summer it’s not too bad (save for those ridiculously hot days when it’s clear no one was thinking of a cross breeze during design). In winter, it’s an entirely different story.
There are entirely too many windows in this home. The windows on the north and west sides do nothing to contribute to comfort, they are an aesthetic addition. We lose a tremendous amount of heat through our windows in winter, which brings us to heating… Forced air heating has got to be one of the most impractical inventions ever conceived. Not only does it make me sick, gasping for air after a ‘good’ night’s sleep, it’s so temporary it has to run all the time to maintain a steady temperature. And still I’m not warm. Traditional heating is inefficient, unhealthy and irresponsible. Add to which it keeps us tied to the grid, so tied to traditional work to pay for the ‘luxury’.
So what does a natural builder do to combat these issues? Well, for starters, we build small. I’m far from the view that a person can live comfortably in a single room home like some natural builders would suggest- at least not this person. But I do believe a large amount of space is wasted. Our demonstration home will be small relative to traditional housing and maximize the use the space with storage built into the structure itself, underneath and behind furniture, and overhead. Additionally, we will simply have to adjust to the fact that we can no longer house the junk that we’ve accumulated over the years, nor can we afford to continue to collect it. (Stay tuned for my “Lament for Shoe Storage”; I’m a work in progress.)
Secondly, we will orient our building solar south and strategically place our windows. By orienting our building south, we maximize our solar gain. Windows will be expansive on the south side only, with smaller windows to the east, a much smaller window to the west (where the only solar gain would be in the summer, when heat is already at times unbearable), and none on the north side. The main living area, which all of the additional rooms will connect to, will be partitioned to include a small south facing greenhouse. The greenhouse will provide not only additional food, but (because it is double glassed) provide considerable heat (in the form of solar gain) to the living area.
Thirdly, we will build heavy. There’s no sense in planning around solar gain if there’s nothing to absorb the heat. Heavy clay-sand walls and thick earthen floors and plasters absorb heat quite nicely, and are slow to release it. And this is where heat matters most, in the areas that a person has contact with, not the air as it drifts by. I’m reminded of this now, as I sit next to the heating vent and warm air is hitting the side of my body but I don’t dare yet put my feet on the floor.
On the subject of mass, we’ll build “rocket mass heaters” into the design. If you haven’t yet heard of these, see the pictorial below, or get a copy of the book from Ianto Evans if you intend to build your own. They borrow on the efficiency of rocket stoves and take it to the next level. Basically, it is an extremely efficient wood burning ‘stove’ with a long run of venting built right into the (cob) furniture. It requires ridiculously little fuel and (because mass retains heat so nicely) provides an exceedingly cozy sitting area. And, because of the genius design, it burns clean. I don’t blame you if you’re hesitant to believe these claims (I was) but build yourself a very basic rocket stove for all the proof you’ll need.
Finally- we’ll insulate the heck out our building. As our intention is to build as naturally and cheaply as possible- and use recycled materials wherever we can- we’re going with papercrete. The entire building will receive a papercrete plaster about 8” thick, topped with lime. Additionally, the sub-floor will be made of papercrete. (*Note: there are some problems associated with papercrete and mold in humid conditions but we happen to live in a drought area. I wouldn’t suggest papercrete as a sub-floor in damp environments.) The R value of papercrete is cited ~2.5 per inch, dependant on the mix (the higher the paper content, the higher the R value), so at 8” thick will more than provide for our needs.
So that’s the plan for surviving the Canadian winter, and I dare say we’ll do so more comfortably (efficiently and cheaply) than we currently do.