Do you have to be a geologist to appreciate a rammed-earth home?
No, but it helps.
Slightly more than five years ago, geologist Wes Hanson and his wife, Julie, resident of the community of Ancaster in Hamilton and parents of three grown boys about to embark on their own lives, started to dream of a suburban escape to some serious acreage. But what to place on their fantasy land? An old farmhouse or a new straw bale, off-the-grid home?
Perhaps the “Natural Homes Tour,” presented each fall by the Ontario Natural Building Coalition, would provide the answer. First up was a rammed-earth home near Colborne, Ont., a two-hour drive east. Owned by Sylvia Cook and Stephen Cavalier, it was built by Ms. Cook’s company, Aerecura, the first rammed-earth builder in the province (profiled here February, 2012).
“I don’t know,” Ms. Hanson begins, searching for words to explain what it was like walking inside. “The massiveness of it, or the strength? The quiet, we noticed the quiet right away; yeah, we were really taken with it,” she decides.
“And the beauty,” Mr. Hanson adds in his baritone voice, “the sustainability.”
Did the couple need to tour the other homes, especially the straw bales?
Not really, but it did solidify their decision.
Next, they had to secure land. Problem was, to get the amount they wanted and leave construction funds, it wasn’t going to be anywhere near Ancaster or Hamilton. Then again, as a geologist, Mr. Hanson, a Cape Bretoner, had been forced into a nomadic lifestyle, moving his family to Flin Flon, Man., the Yukon, Nevada and British Columbia (and a few other places) over the decades.
“So we could’ve moved anywhere in Canada,” Ms. Hanson says, who grew up near Moncton, N.B.
Serendipitously, they found a nice, forested patch not far from Ms. Cook’s place: “So all the building and permitting had already been smoothed over [with the county],” she adds.
Terrell Wong of Stone’s Throw Design (designer of Ms. Cook’s home) came out for a site visit, figured out where the sun’s rays could be harnessed best, was given loose instructions by the Hansons, such as “one level,” “minimal maintenance,” and “aging in place” – “I guess you could say we were vague,” Mr. Hanson says with a laugh – and then sent off to go do what architects do. About four months later, after Ms. Wong had “pretty much nailed” the design, says Mr. Hanson, they began construction on the 2,400 sq. ft. home.
Once the concrete slab was down and the wooden forms up – a mixture of sand, gravel and a small percentage of cement and waterproofing agents is literally shovelled inside and tamped down by pneumatic dampers – the Hansons erected a prospector’s tent, a smaller bug-tent, barbecue and picnic table, since the process of building a rammed-earth home is a lengthy one. While wall construction was left to the pros at Aerecura, was there anything they could do to help?
Yes indeed, says Mr. Hanson, who lent his hands whenever possible. "You can lay down your sill tie-ins for your roofing,” he says.
“You did all the insulation under grade,” Ms. Hanson says, who became a mudding and taping specialist once the couple got to working inside.
“And I laid out all of the conduits in the slab to where they were going to poke up through the rammed-earth walls, so I was busy, I wasn’t just camping,” he finishes.
By the spring of 2016, after they’d sold their house and before they could move inside, they were living full-time in the big tent. “It was great,” Mr. Hanson says, who adds that, with a queen-sized bed and an outdoor shower, it was more “like glamping” for that eight-month period.
“I’d come home from work and Wes would have supper on the barbecue,” Ms. Hanson says. “We’d retire to the bug-tent, a bottle of wine, watch the sun go down, listen to the birds – ”
“ – and watch the rammed-earth walls change colour,” Mr. Hanson interjects.
It’s true: With walls made of nature itself, time-of-day and the sun’s angle can mute colours into muddy greys, or transform them into an explosion of pinks and chocolate browns with moody striations in between.
Today, a walkthrough of the home reveals a similar explosion as sunlight streams from kitchen clerestories to caress (and warm) the layered walls of the dining area. But, wait, what’s that sparkle of blue?
“That’s turquoise,” Mr. Hanson answers. “We go often to the Tucson Rock and Gem Show. … We pick up fossils and turquoise. … So we said: ‘Here, put this in my walls.’” Even more dramatic is the line of ammonite and brachiopod fossils decorating the 20-inch-thick walls of the master bedroom and their placement in the shower floor. “We weren’t quite sure how it was going to work, we just presented them with all the stuff and said: ‘Have some fun,’” Ms. Hanson says.
As with most houses, however, a few things still nag: a small, cold patch of floor that’s a result of how the pipes to the water-to-water heat pump were configured (still, with the radiant floor, the home is 99 per cent toasty and only costs four- to five-dollars per day to heat), and the part of the metal roof over the gently curving exterior wall that likes to dump rainwater right onto the deck.
“We couldn’t be happier,” Mr. Hanson says with a big laugh.
“The whole thing was an adventure,” Ms. Hanson finishes.
And you don’t need to be a geologist to appreciate that.
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