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Building with a Light Touch: My Off-Grid Straw Bale Home
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Building with a Light Touch: My Off-Grid Straw Bale Home

This post was written by BC-based guest blogger Sharon Bamber (www.sharonbamber.com). I live in a straw bale off-grid home. My husband Simon and I designed it and built it together from the ground up, with no special tools, no help from paid contractors (except for the final roofing) and no prior construction experience. It was a challenging, frustrating, exciting, demoralizing, enlightening, joyous and exhausting endeavour. I thoroughly recommend it! I was introduced to natural building 20 years ago when I lived in Cornwall, UK, and learned about the traditional cob buildings. Cob is a traditional building technique using hand-formed lumps of clay earth mixed with sand and straw which is laid wet. In England, there are tens of thousands of comfortable cob homes, many of which have been continuously inhabited for over 500 years. Building in this manner made sense to me as this ancient technology is aesthetically beautiful and doesn't contribute to environmental degradation, dwindling natural resources or chemical contamination. When I came to Canada, I wasn't sure if cob would provide the necessary insulation for the winter months. I still wanted that beautiful, unique, hand-built home that I'd dreamed of for so long, but didn't want to hurt the environment in the process. Conventional building materials are non-renewable, difficult and intimidating for novices to work with and the environmental cost is high. I needed an alternative solution. [caption id="attachment_34430" align="aligncenter" width="940"]Sharon and Simon building their straw bale house. Sharon and Simon building their straw bale house in British Columbia.[/caption] I asked myself a number of questions: Where do the materials come from, are they sustainable and how much damage is done to the land when they are extracted? The straw: I was able to source straw bales from a farm 148 kilometres away - further than I would have liked, but much closer than those conventional materials! The nearest oriented strand board (OSB) manufacturing plant is 650 kilometres away and the nearest fibreglass insulation manufacturing plant is 830 kilometres away. In comparison with other building materials, timber/lumber seems like a sustainable material, but it takes a long time to grow compared to straw. Straw is a renewable material, taking just one season before it is harvested. The earth plaster: The soil that we were going to extract as we dug the foundations contained enough clay to make a good plaster. So one of the major plaster ingredients was there on site. Using the soil extracted for the foundation as the basis of our plaster was much less damaging to the land than using cement or lime plaster and we minimised the physical footprint of our house as best we could. The other ingredients were chopped straw (sustainable), fresh horse manure (sustainable) and fresh cow manure (sustainable), both of which we collected daily from our neighbour's horses and cows, and sand (not sustainable). The sand came from a local quarry 26 kilometres away. All very local! What is the embodied energy of the materials?Image of Embodied energy graphic Embodied energy is a common measure used in comparing the environmental impact of different materials, products or services. In this case, it is the energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of a building, from the mining and processing of natural resources to manufacturing, transport and product delivery. Straw bale construction has extremely low measures of embodied energy when compared with conventional building materials. What are the costs of heating and cooling the completed house? Our house is extremely cool during the summer and very warm in the winter. Straw, when encased in earth plaster has a very high R-value. Other buildings can achieve the same R-value, but only by using more expensive materials and a more material-extensive system. It has been estimated that straw bale buildings are on average 20% more efficient than standard stick-built construction. What happens to the building materials eventually, when the home is no longer needed? At the end of its life, when the building is no longer needed, the walls can just compost into the ground. The walls and plaster are 100% biodegradable when the time comes. As an interesting side note, during the whole of the construction we only had to take two standard-sized black garbage bags to the dump. None of that came from the wall construction. [caption id="attachment_34425" align="alignright" width="409"]Baling with our family and friends. Baling with our family and friends.[/caption] I love that I know that the materials are natural, that I know where they come from and how they are made, that there are no glues, chemicals, toxins or off-gassing. I love that I collected, sieved and mixed the plaster with my own hands. I love that I built every inch of the house and that I felt safe and comfortable doing it. I adore the really thick, solid walls with their gentle undulations, soft curves, rounded edges and deep window seats at each window. Those characteristics add a special warm, welcoming feeling that is impossible to describe until you experience it for yourself. My home is powered by solar and has a composting toilet (a rather nice porcelain toilet with the nasty “working box” hidden away), and I have plans for a greywater system now that this is allowed under BC wastewater regulations. It is by no means the perfect environmentally friendly house. Except for the walls themselves, there were areas where we had to compromise because of budget, and I really hope that alternative sustainable green products eventually become more affordable and mainstream. It is however, the best that we could possibly do and we love it.

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Who are the Women for Nature? A conversation between Dr. Dawn Bazely and Maggie Romuld
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Who are the Women for Nature? A conversation between Dr. Dawn Bazely and Maggie Romuld

[caption id="attachment_22309" align="alignleft" width="150"]image of Maggie Romuld Maggie Romuld, Women for Nature member[/caption] Featuring Women for Nature member Dr. Dawn Bazely, Professor, York University. Written by fellow Women for Nature member Maggie Romuld.  Though Dawn Bazely and I have “known” each other on Twitter for several years, it wasn’t until I interviewed her about her involvement in Women for Nature that I felt as if I’d made a new friend. Animated and enthusiastic, she made me laugh as we chatted about all things Nature Canada – with conversational asides that ranged from growing Brussel sprouts, to rodents, to the Gunning-Fog readability index. [caption id="attachment_33096" align="alignright" width="150"]Image of Dawn Bazely Dawn Bazely, Women for Nature member[/caption] Dawn joined the Biology Department of York University as an Assistant Professor in 1990, and became a Full Professor in 2012. She is an ecologist by training, studying grassland and forest management, climate change impacts on ecosystems, invasive species and science policy. Widely published, she is also active on social media as she attempts to inspire her students and the public to become more aware of the natural world. Dawn truly believes that scientists must work hard at being excellent communicators and she practices what she preaches. Her excitement was infectious when she discussed joining the Adventure Canada Resource Team as a naturalist on an Adventure Canada expedition cruise in 2016. She and other expert resource team members shared their knowledge about regional biodiversity, history, and culture along the route of the “Mighty St. Lawrence” cruise from Quebec City to St. John’s, NL. Dawn doesn’t have enough time to pursue her many hobbies, but she is passionate about making time for gardening and canning, a skill she said she picked up because of a personal and professional interest in sustainability. An aspiring locavore, she started preserving food as a natural extension of using local, seasonal bounty. For seven years, one of Dawn’s roles at York was directing the University’s Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability. On Earth Day this year, her commitment was recognized when she was awarded the York University President’s Sustainability Council Leadership Award. When asked to choose her favourite garden food, Dawn replied “rhubarb” with no hesitation whatsoever. Sweet desserts, savoury dishes, you name it, she loves it. And Dawn is crazy about guinea pigs. Allergies in the family prevented them from having more traditional pets, so she said she has become “ridiculously attached” to rodents. Her oldest daughter obviously shares that love, fostering three guinea pigs from the Kitchener Guinea Pig Sanctuary, this past academic year, and bringing them to the family home for Christmas vacation. (The guinea pigs even had their own Instagram account!) [caption id="attachment_32797" align="aligncenter" width="400"]Image of Guinea pigs Photo of fostered three Guinea Pigs.[/caption] What inspired you to become a Woman for Nature? Dawn first heard about Women for Nature from fellow York biology faculty member, Distinguished Research Professor, Bridget Stutchbury. After talking with Bridget, she became a founding member of Women for Nature in 2014, because she feels it is important to support a national approach to nature advocacy.  She thinks that Canadian conservation groups are more fragmented than those in the UK and USA, with less of a central national voice, and impact. Dawn believes that by coming together under national umbrella and backbone organizations, the reach of local groups will expand, and the cumulative impact will lead to greater awareness of environmental benefits and issues, better funding and measurable outcomes. [caption id="attachment_30094" align="aligncenter" width="402"]Image of Dawn Bazely and guest at Nature Canada's Nature Ball Dave Reid, Heidi Langille (with whom Dawn worked on the Adventure Canada Arctic Explorers trip), Dawn Bazely, Darwin the Owl and his handler.[/caption] Who were your mentors and what books have inspired you? Dawn said she was lucky to have had many influential mentors in her life, both men and women. She singled out Kathy Martin, Professor in the Faculty of Forestry at UBC, who gave her excellent career advice during her undergrad and graduate student years at Toronto; and Judy Myers, Professor Emerita in the Department of Zoology, UBC, whom she met while pursuing her doctorate at the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology, with Professor Lord John Krebs. According to her Wikipedia bio, Myers was at the “forefront of Canadian post-secondary education's efforts to recruit more women in STEM fields during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when she was Associate Dean of Science at the University of British Columbia.” In 2003, Myers and Dawn co-authored “Ecology and Control of Introduced Plants” (Cambridge University Press), which was selected as an American Library Association CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title in 2005. Dawn confesses to being a “big reader,” but with all the essays she has to read, she has developed a fondness for audio books. Right now, she is reading “The Invention of Nature” by Andrea Wulf. Calling it inspiring, she said that “everyone should read it.” After such a spirited endorsement, I felt compelled to learn more. This award-winning book “reveals the extraordinary life of the visionary German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and how he created the way we understand nature today. Though almost forgotten today, his name lingers everywhere from the Humboldt Current to the Humboldt penguin. Humboldt was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age.” Inspiring indeed! What advice would you give to future Women for Nature leaders?  Dawn’s first piece of advice to future Women for Nature leaders is to build networks and seek out many mentors. Ask them about their lives and careers; ask them to pass on the knowledge they have gained and the experiences they have had. Dawn also emphasized that young leaders should understand that leadership is a set of skills that can be learned and developed, adding that women still tend to think they shouldn’t be taking the lead. According to Dawn, the best leaders are “able to be coaches who find people’s strengths and create a platform for others to succeed.” Young women should embrace opportunities to learn about leading, and then get out there and do it. “Everyone has something to teach and contribute,” she said. Wiser words were never spoken. [caption id="attachment_32804" align="aligncenter" width="402"]Image of Dawn R. Bazely Dawn on Beechey Island, Nunavut, when she was the resident Botanist on the Adventure Canada Arctic Safari trip 2016. (photo Andre Gallant).[/caption]

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A conversation between Women for Nature members, Professor Ann Dale and Candice Batista
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A conversation between Women for Nature members, Professor Ann Dale and Candice Batista

[caption id="attachment_32495" align="alignleft" width="150"]Image of Candice Batista Candice Batista, Women for Nature Member[/caption] Featuring Women for Nature member Professor Ann Dale. Written by fellow Women for Nature member Candice Batista.  I had the opportunity to interview fellow Woman for Nature, Professor Ann Dale (who is also the co-chair for Women for Nature) about her love of nature and what led her to become a leader in environmental stewardship in Canada. When I read her resume I was blown away, I mean this woman is impressive; she’s received national and international recognition for her research in the field of sustainable community development. Her research on governance, innovation and community vitality is designed to provide useful knowledge to Canadian decision-makers. [caption id="attachment_26965" align="alignright" width="150"]Image of Ann Dale Professor Ann Dale, co-chair for Women for Nature[/caption] She is deeply committed to online conversations on critical public policy issues and novel research dissemination tools, such as her YouTube channel (yep she has her own channel) HEADTalks. As well, she is an active researcher leading MC3, a climate change adaptation and mitigation research program studying best practices and community innovations in throughout British Columbia. Wow right? Our conversation was so inspiring, she, like me, has loved animals her whole life. Here’s a closer look at this inspiring lady. Candice Batista: Why did you get involved with women for nature?  Ann Dale: Let me start at the beginning, I was a tomboy, I was always outside, in fact when my parents made me come inside, they were punishing me.  So it’s kind of ironic that I ended up in academics. If I had become a wildlife biologist, I would be able to be outside most of the time. I have always loved animals.  I’ve had dogs since I was six years old and I would not be the person I am today if those animals had not been in my life. I never really had a definitive a career path, like all the guys I grew up with that wanted to be doctors and lawyers, I did not know what I wanted to be. But there were two criteria that I used for my jobs; first, it is going to make a difference and the second was I was going to learn something, learn something to improve myself and that guided my career choices. I followed my heart and never lost my love for being outside. I am an avid swimmer and in my late 30’s I became a part-time gardener, so anything I could do to be outside would work. With Women for Nature, I saw a way to empower younger women to make a difference through this group in many different ways.  Biodiversity conservation is the social imperative for this decade and the next decade.  There is no second chance. CB: We really need to get our acts together when it comes to the loss of biodiversity and conservation. AD: I don’t think it’s going to take as long for people to get our act together as it did with climate change because people can now see and feel climate change, I mean everyone is talking about this past winter in Canada. So people can see even more loss of biodiversity and once they start making critical connections between biodiversity, climate change and sustainability, I think we will start moving fast. What would Canada be like without any polar bears or the call of the common loon in the spring? CB: What advice do you have for future Women of Nature? Image of Professor Ann DaleAD: Learn as much as you can about your neighbourhood, get outside, walk it, live it, breathe it. One of the things I have learned in my travelling is you need to walk, to get to really know a place. Get as much education as you can in so many different areas, be as ecologically literate as you are professionally literate. We have so much to learn from nature, there is so much wisdom if you just keep your eyes, your ears and your heart open to what is out there. CB: What does nature really mean to you?  AD: Nature to me is everything outside. That even means bringing nature back into our cities, nature makes cities more livable. The other day there were two raccoons stuck in a garbage can near our condo and nobody knew what to do with them. So I just put a stick in and they crawled out, We need to share our space with the ‘others’, if you see a live worm on the pavement following a rain storm, take a moment and move it back onto the grass. I would like to add that I will be leading a series of on-line virtual conversations on why biodiversity conversation is the human imperative of this century, with other women from Women for Nature, starting this September. You can listen in to these e-conversations at here.


"There is nothing more important to me than the conservation and sustainability of Nature. Working with Nature Canada to ensure that future generations have the opportunity to enjoy nature, like I did when I was a child, is simply imperative to me. We only have one planet. We have a responsibility to take care of it. In the same way it takes care of us.” Candice Batista, Eco-Journalist, Women for Nature member
 
“Nature’s future, our future, requires us to collaborate, innovate, and lead.  We are working together to sustain biodiversity and heart-felt connection to nature across this great country.” Prof. Ann Dale and Dr. Brenda Kenny, Co-chairs, Women for Nature
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Environmental law experts are calling for a next-generation law
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Environmental law experts are calling for a next-generation law

[caption id="attachment_22697" align="alignleft" width="150"]Image of Stephen Hazell Stephen Hazell
Director of Conservation
and General Counsel[/caption] Environmental law experts were in Ottawa on Tuesday calling for a next-generation law to assess the sustainability of proposed pipelines, hydroelectric projects and industrial facilities. An independent panel appointed by the federal government is reporting to Catherine McKenna, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change on March 31st on its proposals for an environmental assessment law after spending several months hearing from Canadians across the country. The environmental law experts (including Stephen Hazell from Nature Canada) are saying that a next-generation assessment law must:

  1. Account for the economic, ecological, and social aspects of sustainability;
  2. Respect Indigenous authority and governance;
  3. Connect assessment, decision-making, and action by different levels of government;
  4. Provide for full public participation, transparency, accountability, and rights to challenge decisions in court;
  5. Address the causes and effects of climate change;
  6. Include strategic and regional assessment as fundamental components;
  7. Require appropriate assessment of the thousands of smaller projects currently not being studied; and
  8. Promote evidence-based decision-making.
Below is a video of their March 21st media conference:
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