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

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

This post was written by BC-based guest blogger Sharon Bamber ( 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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The Healthy Houseplant: Ten Feline-Friendly Selections

The Healthy Houseplant: Ten Feline-Friendly Selections

[caption id="attachment_33210" align="alignleft" width="150"]becka-tulips Guest blogger Rebecca Kennedy[/caption] This post was written by guest blogger and cat mom of two Rebecca Kennedy. It’s no secret that plants are a lovely and valuable addition to the home. They can liven up a sterile room and elevate our mood. As natural air purifiers, plants also remove harmful pollutants from the air, notably gases emitted by common volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene and formaldehyde. VOCs are found in many household and hobby products, and exposure to them can cause health problems such as headaches, nausea, and irritation to the eyes, nose, or throat. Some VOCs are known to cause cancer in both animals and humans. By filtering out these noxious fumes, plants help us and our animal companions breathe easier and be healthier. Before introducing a plant to your home, consider the safety, health, and habits of your indoor feline friend. Some plants, while harmless to humans, are poisonous to cats if bitten or consumed, causing minor to devastating adverse reactions. These can range from mild symptoms like drooling and lethargy to worse like vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, bloody stools, kidney and liver failure, heart problems, and death. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) maintains a large database of common toxic and non-toxic plants, both indoor and outdoor varieties. This resource, although not comprehensive, is an excellent place to check which plants are safe for cats, as well as for dogs and horses. We selected some of our favorite nontoxic houseplants below—check them out! [caption id="attachment_34238" align="aligncenter" width="700"]L to R: Hens and chicks, gerbera daisy, spider plant L to R: Hens and chicks, gerbera daisy, spider plant[/caption]

Ten Indoor Plants That Are Safe for Cats:

  1. African Violet
  2. Aluminum Plant
  3. Calathea
  4. Candle Plant
  5. Gerbera Daisy
  6. Hens and Chicks
  7. King and Queen Fern
  8. Parlour Palm
  9. Spider Plant (also known as Spider Ivy)
  10. Variegated Wax Plant
For more information on household toxins, ways to make your home safer, and how to create a pet first aid kit, read the Pet Poison Hotline’s Guide to Pet Safety. [caption id="attachment_33853" align="alignleft" width="300"]aluminum plant The aluminum plant is safe for cats. Image courtesy of ASPCA.[/caption] If your cat is a biter, you may want to take measures to protect your houseplants, even if they’re not poisonous. One of mine enjoys biting leaves and stems and has shown great interest in my potted king and queen fern. I have encircled the plant with chicken wire, which while unattractive, has kept him mostly at bay, although he does try to stick his paw through the wire. Other methods suggested to me have included employing spray-bottle discipline, placing citrus peels in the pots, and cultivating distracting (sacrificial?) plants that he is allowed to eat, such as catnip and cat grass. It turns out he doesn't like fresh catnip, but cat grass is a definite winner (and distraction). What plants do you keep in your home? How do you keep your cats away from them? Acknowledgements: ASPCA Toxic and Non-Toxic Plants List, Banfield Pet Hospital, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
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Spring Tips to Green Your Home

Spring Tips to Green Your Home

[caption id="attachment_22916" align="alignleft" width="150"]Samantha Nurse, Web and Social Media Coordinator Samantha Nurse, Web and Social Media Coordinator[/caption] Living an environmentally friendly lifestyle can be much simpler than you think. Often, it is the small decisions we make in our day-to-day lives that can have the largest impact on the environment. Want to help promote a clean and healthy environment? Here are a few simple yet effective tips on things you can do at home to live a more sustainable lifestyle. 1. Try larger packs with recyclable packaging. Did you know that the average person uses about 100 rolls of toilet paper each year? That's nearly five kilometres worth of paper! From your bathroom to your kitchen and even your office, you can greatly reduce your impact on the environment by purchasing larger pack sizes with recyclable packaging. 2. Use energy-efficient lightbulbs. A great way to reduce your household energy consumption and save money while you're at it is to switch to compact fluorescent lightbulbs or LED bulbs on all of your lighting fixtures. These bulbs typically last longer than standard incandescent bulbs, and can use as little as one-fifth the amount of energy to emit the same amount of light. vegetable basket3. Plant the garden you have always wanted! A great way to get fresh vegetables in your home and be kinder to the environment is by planting your own garden. Foodstuffs often travel extremely long distances from their production site to the grocery shelf, and their processing and transport contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Check out our tips for growing flowers and vegetables here - Connect With Nature: Start Planning Your Spring Garden. If you live in an urban environment, consider growing some of your plants indoors or producing your own balcony garden. 4. Give your clothes a fresh smell by hanging them outside to dry. Hang a clothesline in your backyard or on your balcony, or invest in a foldable clothes rack that you can set up indoors. Doing this will reduce pollution, cut your energy bill and even extend the life of your clothes. clothespins5. Use eco-friendly cleaning products. The harsh chemicals found in most household cleaning supplies get washed down the drain and end up polluting our lakes, rivers, oceans and streams. Organic, all-natural and biodegradable cleaning products are just as effective as most chemical cleaners, and are much friendlier to the environment. Or simply make your own cleaning supplies - check out our 5 Nature-Friendly Products for Spring Cleaning! 6. Adjust your thermostat. Now as the weather is slightly warmer, you can reduce the heat at your home. Let the spring sun warm up your home and by doing so you will save considerable amount of energy and thus money. Cool down by opening your windows for a cool, refreshing breeze. At bedtime, set your bedroom temperature to 18°C, which is ideal for sleep, as your body temperature will drop slightly to prepare for slumber. Turn down the thermostat a bit more if you tend to use a lot of blankets. Sleeping in cooler temperatures may reduce insomnia. For many more ways to save energy in and around your home, visit the US Department of Energy's Spring and Summer Energy Saving Tips. As you can see, there are plenty of ways this spring that you can make your home more green. A lot of these changes are minor and can also save you money while helping the environment. Let us know if you have any other ways to make your home green! Guest blogger Rebecca Kennedy contributed to this post.

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How to Stay Green in the New Year

How to Stay Green in the New Year

[caption id="attachment_24341" align="alignleft" width="150"]Image of Guest Blogger Eileen Guest Blogger, Eileen Magill[/caption] This blog is written by guest blogger, Eileen Magill.  This new year, why not make a resolution to be kinder to the environment? I have compiled a list of ways that you can make 2018 green, clean, and easy on our earth.


Commuting to work, school, or just travelling anywhere can produce lots of harmful emissions. Here are some ways to reduce your contribution of these emissions:
  • Take public transit instead of driving
  • Carpool with your colleagues or friends
  • If your destination is close enough, bike or walk there
  • If it’s in your budget, buy a hybrid or electric vehicle

WasteImage of a man biking on a path

Many people, myself included, sometimes forget that all of our waste has to end up somewhere. Here are some ways you can reduce your garbage output:
  • Recycle, recycle, recycle!
  • Put all unfinished food in a compost
  • Buy fresh foods instead of packaged food
  • Buy a reusable coffee mug to use instead of plastic cups
  • Use reusable containers instead of plastic wrap or disposable options
  • Avoid using single coffee “pods” that can’t be recycled


Believe it or not, but the food you buy and consume has a huge effect on the environment. Here are some ways you can be a more environmentally friendly grocery shopper and eater:
  • Buy local produce instead of imported goods
  • Shop at farmer’s markets
  • Try to grow your own spices - there are many ways that you can have a small garden in your window sill


Perhaps the biggest impact you can have on the environment is to live greener in your own home. Here are some ways you can be kind to the environment in your home:
  • Keep temperature at 19 degrees Celsius and wear a sweater
  • Turn off your air conditioning sometimes and use fans instead
  • Turn off lights and unplug accessories when you’re not using them
  • Use electricity at off peak times (this is because clean energy sources can often take care of base load needs but when too many people are using electricity at the same time then natural gas needs to be added)
  • Get home energy retrofit
  • Make sure your home is properly insulated so you don’t lose heat and waste energy
With each passing year, our earth is slowly degrading and it is up to us to reverse this trend. Even committing to two or three of these above suggestions can have a huge impact on the future of our earth. Let’s make 2017 a great year for the environment!
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Grass Roots: Small Ideas to Bring the Outside In

Grass Roots: Small Ideas to Bring the Outside In

[caption id="attachment_23392" align="alignleft" width="200"]Laura Strachan, Guest Blogger Laura Strachan, Guest Blogger[/caption] This blog was written by Nature Canada's guest blogger, Laura Strachan. I am willing to bet that most of us see more concrete than grass in the run of a day. Hustling from home to office, to malls, to school and back we tend to lose sight of the immense natural world around us as we travel through our daily routine. But let’s not forget what keeps us alive. There is real dirt under that concrete! Birds and animals are running around in the streets! That tree in the mall is helping to clean the air!

Green and Clean

Mom always said “a room should always have some greenery”. Having plants in your home makes an underestimated contribution to the comfort of the room. They’re alive, fresh and can help clean the air. Houseplants are a decor must that never go out of style.

For the Birds

Birds are amazing creatures, so why not encourage them to visit? Install a feeder near a window so you can get an undisturbed view. This one is inexpensive and attaches right to your window, or DIY with some of these ideas. You might want to sign out a book on local birds from your library so you know what you are looking at! As well, you can check out these 12 different ways to make your whole backyard bird-friendly

basil-932079_1280Grow Food

Double down on the houseplants and grow edible ones! Herbs and microgreens can be grown easily in a windowbox or mini greenhouse. A variety of dwarf fruit trees can also be purchased that can be grown indoors. Check out your local nursery for details and what suits your environment best.

Plant a Tree

You can never have too many trees. Trees clean the air, create privacy, provide food and habitat for small creatures. If you don’t have land, look for Adopt-a-Tree programs in your area, where you can foster the growth and maintenance of trees on public property.

Decorate with Nature

It’s free! Fill a glass bowl or vase with pinecones or acorns. Use those special rocks and shells your kids collected in a centrepiece. Enlarge photos from your favorite canoe trip and frame them on the wall. Put the paddle on the wall too! Use rocks or logs as bookends. Be careful not to disturb any growth or habitats that are in use when collecting your items.

Open a Window

Take an hour a week to open all of the windows and “air out” your home. Freshen up the air and let some natural light in! Sadly we can’t all be on a perpetual camping trip to enjoy the outdoors. But some simple additions may help bring the natural world to you wherever you live.  And take the opportunity to learn about your living environment while you’re at it. It’s right outside your door! Email Signup

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