Experiences in Sustainable Living – Country Connection

By Rosaleen Egan Garneau

Had the first little pig of the children’s nursery tale attended the straw bale construction workshop at Everdale Environmental Learning Centre before attempting to build his house of straw, the house would still be standing today.

Had he then gone on to participate in other hands-on workshops at Everdale, he would have been able to keep the wolves from the door.

The Everdale Environmental Learning Centre (EELC) in Hillsburgh, Ontario is dedicated to demonstrating the enormous promise of sustainable agriculture, renewable energy and alternative building materials. It offers seminars and workshops taught by experts in various fields for people of all ages and backgrounds. The hands-on learning experiences range in length from a few hours to a couple of days. Everdale also accepts a small group of students into its six-month organic farming apprenticeship.

Learning through experience is integral to Everdale’s philosophy of education and is well-appreciated by those who visit. Once participant in the straw b ale construction workshop, who had laid the foundation for his own building, commented that working with the materials at the workshop gave him and invaluable opportunity to assess his plans. He was able to see the results of certain design decisions before attempting to build his own structure.

The EELC property sits on 55 acres of Beautiful, rolling hills in the Headwaters Country area of Niagara Escarpment Region, about an hour northwest of Toronto and a half an hour east of Guelph. It includes a working organic farm, a hardwood bush,  a low-lying wetland forest and meadows. Its roundhouse educational centre dou­bles as a community centre that can be rented for special events. Camping is also available.

Everdale has two operating photo vol­taic water-heating systems in place, utilizes a minimum-water irrigation system in its fields, maintains a seed-saving garden to preserve organic and heritage seed stock, and has two solar-powered straw bale constructed cabins for overnight use.

If one is deterred by the pig’s experience with straw, or would prefer to recycle man- made materials, the centre offers an “earth-ship” construction workshop where participants learn how to combine such things as discarded tires and pop cans with earth to build energy efficient homes.

The learning centre offers the opportu­nity to review solar theory and learn the best uses and applications for solar photo voltaic systems, how to harness wind en­ergy, how grey water systems work and how to make one for home use. It presents an ecological and healthy renovations seminar with emphases on roofing, floor­ing, paints, heating and lighting.

Sustainable living not only involves liv­ing space, heating and water systems, but also the cultivation of food. The learning centre has evolved during the past five years as a result of experience with Food Share’s Field to Table, a non-profit group based in Toronto.

A group of urban youth was offered the opportunity to grow garlic on the farm. It was such a rewarding experience for eve­ryone that Everdale has continued and expanded the urban youth program, while adding curriculum-based studies for el­ementary and secondary school groups.

Organic farming techniques are studied in the Food Alive! workshop. Students learn about renewable energy and energy conservation through Energy Alive! . Wa­ter Alive! allows students to explore the property’s wetlands and to learn about local watershed issues, while the beauty of natural objects is emphasized in Art Alive!

An important part of Everdale’s outreach is the growing number of local people who participate in its Community Shared Agri­cultural Project.

In the spring, each participant pays for a share in the upcoming harvest. On a des­ignated day each week for about 18 weeks, each shareholder brings home enough fresh produce to feed four or five. In an effort to bring the shareholder a little closer to the farming experience, peas and beans are left for them to pick for themselves. They are also welcome to bring home a bouquet from the cut flower garden.

Work bees are another way to involve the community. Volunteers come together to help with projects such as tree planting and garden preparation. Everdale hosts an autumn harvest potluck picnic free of charge, providing music, activities for chil­dren and the opportunity to explore.

These opportunities will grow with de­velopment of the site expected in 2003 that includes the installation of a 1.5-kilo­watt wind turbine, an interpretative signage addition along the “Seeing is Believing” walking trail, a swimming pond and the addition of Home Alive! – The House that Thinks, Drinks and Breathes.

Ben Polley of Harvest House in nearby Guelph, who leads Everdale’s workshops on straw bale construction, is building Home Alive! for the National Home Show in April at Exhibition Place in Toronto. The house will be made of straw bale coated in hempcrete plaster and will in­clude grey and black water systems, solar and wind power. It will be open to the public at the show, then dis-assembled and rebuilt at Everdale.

Polley and his partner, Laura Taylor, will live in the house, but it will be open to the public through scheduled tours, work­shops, and open houses. The water and energy systems will be monitored by com­puter and accessible over the internet so that they can be studied from anywhere in the world.

The house will be a unique example of the viability of alternative building, heat­ing and water systems. Certainly, it’s a house even the cleverest little pig could not have envisioned.

Everdale Environmental Learning Cen­tre is not-for-profit, registered under the Ontario Corporations Act. Three full-time employees live on site and draw their financial support from the Community Shared Agricultural Project and the sale of vegetables to wholesale customers in To­ronto, Orange ville and Guelph. Donations to the learning centre, therefore, go di­rectly to the development of the site and to programs offered. □

For more information visit: or call 519-855-4859.

Straw Bale Construction – Notes From the Reid

1. Straw is on agricultural waste product. Grain stalks that remain in the field after harvest are baled and used primarily as bedding for animals.

2. Unlike hay, straw is friendly to allergy and asthma sufferers. It is largely made of cellulose and contains no seeds or flowers.

3. Twenty-five to forty-five pound bales are stacked in similar style to brick construction to form walls on standard foundations such as full basement, pier foundation or slab-on-grade.

4. Stucco is usually applied over the wire- enforced interior and exterior walls. Siding and drywall are possible but not often used.

5. Straw bale buildings can be more than one storey. Beyond the practicality of lifting the bales, they hove no height or weight limit. They are approximately four times stronger than standard 2-by-6 wood-framed buildings in vertical-load capacity.

6. Straw bale buildings meet or exceed building code requirements.

7. Conventional heating and electrical systems can be used in these buildings. Air-conditioning is rarely installed because it is not needed. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CAAHC) rates a bale wall between R35 and R40, which is too to three times better than the highest conventional standard.

8. Fire is not a concern. CMHC rates a bale wall the same as cement block. Straw bales are so compact they don’t allow for combustion and are effectively considered fire-retardant. In commer­cial applications, o straw bale wall can be used as a fire-dividing wall.

9. Besides being environmentally friendly, straw bale construction allows for more design options and the opportunity to create a unique living space. Walls can be curved: Display nooks and shelves can be carved into them. Exterior walls can be moulded with windowsills and benches.

10. Because straw bale construction can be a do- it-yourself project, of the 1,000 or so buildings constructed of straw bales in Canada last year, contractors built about 50.

11. With thanks to Ben Polley, Harvest Homes — Creating People and Planet Friendly Places Toll Free 1-866-231-1100 Buy/sell straw; advertise/seek volunteer oppor­tunities; post questions, all at