My cob is my castle
By Meagan Dyer
Out with the old, in with the alternative.
That’s the sentiment of many Vancouver Islanders who have opted to build out-of-the-ordinary homes that suit their lifestyles and values.
Alternative housing projects are growing in popularity across the West Coast. In an era of soaring real estate costs, exorbitant energy prices, and environmentally-conscious home owners, these projects are instigated from both desire and necessity.
Whether it’s an individual earthen cottage or a dynamic eco-community, housing ventures that challenge the ordinary are increasingly common on the Island.
One chief advantage to alternative building methods is a decreased carbon footprint during construction. Many of the building materials are recycled products, or come directly from the earth. Cobworks, an earthen house construction company located on Mayne Island in BC’s southern Gulf Islands, builds homes and provides workshops using natural, recycled, and local materials, known as “deconsumer” products.
Built primarily from a mixture of water, sand, clay, and straw, creating a compound firm enough to build without frames yet soft enough to mould as creatively as each owner wishes. A “cob community” has sprung up world-wide, with the goal of not only creating homes but forging friendships in the process.
A step beyond cob houses, in terms of elegance and comfort, are “rammed earth” homes, which use a similar construction process, but add steel for strength, and additional materials for style.
Meror Krayenhoff, founder of Sirewall Inc. on Salt Spring Island, says clients come to his business for a variety of reasons, from economical to environmental. “Some approach us for health. Beauty is a big one. [Also] wanting to make an environment statement, and durability.
“You’re not subject to all the [issues] that wood-frame structures are: Termites, carpenter ants, mice, rats, spiders . . . ask a pest control person, we take away their business.”
As with cob homes, the walls are monolithic — formed without seams — making the house much stronger and less prone to earthquake damage. “We have engineers that say they would rather be in one of our homes than a wood-frame construction in the event of an earthquake.”
Still, myths surrounding green homes keep many prospective homeowners away. “I think a lot of people have a notion that [the house] is going to wash away in the rain, or it’s no good in an earthquake, or it’s dark and gloomy . . . What we’re doing is certainly not that.”
Another alternative building module gaining popularity is “cargotecture” — houses constructed from the many shipping containers that sit dormant and unused in ports all over the world. Keith Dewey of Victoria built his family home from eight such containers, which would otherwise have undergone a lengthy (and energy-consuming) recycling process. Cargotechture provides an affordable housing option, and the finished design can be surprisingly sophisticated.
Some earth-friendly homes have a reputation for being expensive to build. However, like any other construction, they can be as simple or extravagant as the owner wishes.
Many alternative home owners around Vancouver Island are builders as well, which keeps the labour costs down. A small cob house can be built for as little as $3,000, while more sizable versions generally cost under $10,000, and a dream home can still be had for an affordable sum. If the builder has access to a lot of sand and gravel, the costs decrease further.
Some home builders put the cash saved towards additional earth-friendly features. Containers, for example, cost between $2,800 and $3,200 depending on size, which means Dewey’s starting cost was around $24,000. He added heated concrete floors, sunroofs, and sun-lit rooms to make his home even more ecologically sensitive.
Container, cob, and other alternative homes are often small structures, allowing for decreased building costs in general and a lower price for land. The small homes also require less energy to light, heat, and cool.
Forests as an ecosystem, not lumber
Qualicum Bay’s Tom and Rosie Chudleigh had several reasons for building “Free Spirit Spheres” in the thick Vancouver Island forest — hanging spherical tree houses furnished and ready for guests. One was a desire to use old-growth forests for something greater than just building materials.
The Spheres are looked after by caretaker (also the Chudleighs’ nephew) Jamie Cowan. Although the family does not advertise, Cowan says the Spheres are rarely vacant during the peak season. “We have three spheres, and for close to six months of the year they’re all booked every night.”
Guests from all over the world, and right here on Vancouver Island, stay in the Free Spirit Spheres for their tranquility and uniqueness. Cowan says visitors hear about the Spheres and are overcome by the “wow factor” of the destination.
“People either hear by word of mouth or stumble upon it in a publication or online, and they just say, ‘Whoa, I’ve never seen anything like that, I have to stay there,’ or, ‘Oh my God, my boyfriend would just die to live out that childhood fantasy of an exquisite tree house, I’m taking him there as a surprise for his birthday.’”
The Spheres feature luxurious interiors, the largest complete with a double bed, loft, kitchenette, five windows, and full electricity. Cowan says Tom and Rosie are interested in expanding to a larger mature forest that would allow for more pods.
More and more of these unusual and eco-friendly buildings are cropping up in rural Vancouver Island communities, as homeowners choose to escape the busy city life. Alternative housing is not a new phenomenon, but today’s economic factors make these projects a lucrative and realistic option when building a home.