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Briony Penn, front, with Daniel Goodall, Adrien Kaiser, and Michael Dragland.
Briony Penn, front, with Daniel Goodall, Adrien Kaiser, and Michael Dragland.

In B.C., a locavore's 100-mile dream home Add to ...

Imagine a 100-mile house

The 100-mile diet showed how difficult, yet rewarding, it can be to eat locally produced food. Now the Architecture Foundation of B.C. is trying to do the same thing – and start a movement toward local sourcing for home building – through a design contest that is sparking interest around the world.

The goal? To “explore, rethink, question and experiment” with home-construction ideas, and find new ways to build houses from manufactured or recycled material from within 100 miles of Vancouver.

In a way it’s a return to an old idea, because in the past all homes were locally sourced. Log cabins and sod house were built by pioneers with materials found nearby. And natives lived in homes built from wood, bark, animals skins and, in the Arctic, snow.

“People worldwide used whatever available materials were at hand,” states the AFBC in its contest briefing. “But is this possible in a modern 21st century city like Vancouver?”

Foundation chair David Hewitt is sure that it is, with creative thinking. “We are going to see some very exciting ideas come forward,” he says.

The idea emerged when foundation members were trying to come up with ways to promote sustainability. “The 100-mile diet originated in Vancouver,” Mr. Hewitt says, “so I threw out the idea, ‘What if we did a 100-mile house?”

The foundation is offering $10,000 in prize money for the best three designs, as well for technical innovation and student merit. Since it began to advertise the contest, which accepts entries until April 19, Mr. Hewitt says he has been flooded with e-mails from architects, designers, artists, students “and other environmentally conscious creators” around the world.

The requirements are pretty basic. The house has to accommodate four people, can be no bigger than 1,200 square feet, and must fit a standard 33-by-120-foot corner lot in a typical Vancouver inner-city neighbourhood. Water, sewer, storm drain, natural gas and electricity are all available to the property line, should the designer choose to use them, but extra points will be awarded for innovation.

While affordability is important, cost was thrown out the window as a criteria, so there are no budget constraints limiting the use of materials and competitors are encouraged to consider luxury finishes and products.

“We wanted to focus on locally based materials, which are not necessarily the cheapest thing on the market,” Mr. Hewitt says.

Entrants are directed to web sites that have information about local sources of building material, but other than that, they are on their own to find the components for their designs. Entrants will be asked to identify any materials they use from outside the 100-mile radius, and their scores will be weighted accordingly.

“We are hoping most things will be sourced locally. Now we have to add a level of reasonableness here,” Mr. Hewitt explains. “If you are buying one particular mechanical component, for example, it doesn’t mean every washer in it has to be made within 100 miles.”

The winners will be announced on May 19, and the AFBC hopes to raise enough money to have a prototype built of the first-place design. “Our goal is to have people, and particularly young people, understand a little more about the architecture, about the places they live, and about the impact of construction decisions on the environment,” Mr. Hewitt says.

And if this Vancouver design initiative inspires a home-building version of the locavore movement in other cities, he will be thrilled. “We don’t have any copyright on this idea. We are encouraging other jurisdictions to get in touch with us and we’ll provide them with all the information so they can hold their own 100-mile house competition.”

Or actually build one

Several years before David Hewitt and his colleagues at the Architecture Foundation of B.C. began brainstorming ideas to promote local consumption, Briony Penn, a Salt Spring Island writer and artist, was thinking along the same lines.

Inspired by The 100 Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, the 2007 book written by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, Ms. Penn thought to apply the same principles to a house she was then dreaming about.

“It was just my little thing,” she says of the concept.

She didn’t have to look far for help.

Several of her neighbours were carpenters, and one had a woodlot and mill. The lumber used to build her house was cut on her land, or collected nearby.

Her ground floor was recycled from a demolished church in Victoria, and a sawmill on Vancouver Island provided an upper floor with a unique stipple pattern left by logger’s caulked boots.

Other materials were salvaged closer to home. Ms. Penn reused 150-year-old slate roof tiles from her grandfather’s home in Victoria, while the kitchen sink had belonged to her great grandfather.

“Every inch of my house has a story to it,” she says.

But there were limits to her resourcefulness. PVC piping for the plumbing had to come “outside,” as did the electrical wiring.

Finding cement proved troublesome – the fly ash, as she put it, comes from “god knows where” – but she used local sand (one of the benefits of living on an island).

“You cannot build a house very easily under the existing building code without using concrete,” Ms. Penn explains. “I didn’t use lots and I used eco-friendly. That, in itself, was epic. I had to go back maybe 10 times to the local concrete guy and figure out the recipe for local, eco-friendly concrete.”

But Ms. Penn, who drafted plans with the help of builder Michael Dragland, says finding the right material was difficult, but enjoyable. “The challenge was the fun part of it.”

One of the unexpected benefits has been the social connections she developed.

“When you decide to do a 100-mile house, what it really means is that you start this conversation with everybody in your community that has something to contribute – whether it’s the person next door that’s going to build it, the other fellow that’s going to make your door, or the salvage guy that’s going to provide the logs off the beach,” she says. “It’s an excuse to go out and meet your community,”

Yes, sourcing locally is a more expensive way to build a dream house, but she dealt with the surcharges by sticking to a firm budget of $300,000 and downsizing to 1,000 square feet.

“It costs you to recycle. It costs you to take time to find alternatives to cheap, nasty stuff,” Ms. Penn says.

“It costs you to do it the right way.”

Mark Hume is a member of The Globe and Mail’s B.C. bureau.

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