Old meets new in experiential learning
By Darren Lum
Aug. 30, 2016
Close to two weeks before an event to celebrate students’ efforts, Dave Belsey, the instructor for the Fleming College’s sustainable building design and construction program, stood surrounded by the building’s walls of rammed earth and straw bale, an example of old meeting new.
Straw bale construction dates back more than a 100 years and has been used all over the world.
Rammed earth walls date back to ancient China, thousands of years ago. These methods are highlights of the new home for Haliburton Solar and Wind’s alternative energy presentation building located beside the new Haliburton Highlands Brewery on the Abbey Gardens property.
Belsey spoke confidently about the experience for his 18 students, who learned everything related to the process of constructing the building owned by Abbey Gardens. It’s the second building the students of this program have constructed on that property since 2012 when they built the 1,800 square foot food hub building visible from Highway 118 near West Guilford, including several others in the county such as Wilberforce’s award winning library.
Belsey, who was the sustainable building technician last year, said he calls himself an advocate for sustainable building and sees this program as an opportunity to teach skills to others, who can carry forward the practices.
“We give them the justifications for it, but we don't have to beat them over the head with it. It's a matter of giving them the skill to do it with the best practices in mind, the best materials in mind and try to lower the cost the best possible,” he said.
The students ranged in age from 18 to close to 50 with the majority in their 20s. A few were skilled in the trades, while others were not.
“We run the gamut with the students. It's great. They come from all sorts of backgrounds. Some don't even know how to read tape measures when they came while others know what they're doing,” he said.
Belsey said the program allows for this diversity by teaching things relevant to each individual.
“We're trying to get the students into a position where we give you the basic skills and find your expertise and then find your spot in life,” he said.
The building, which will use an alternative energy system paid for by Haliburton Solar and Wind, as earlier reported in the Echo, is made with conventional and sustainable practices.
This building has the east and west walls made with the straw bale technique while the rammed earth (with a little bit of straw bale) was used for the south wall and the double stud wall is at the north.
It is easily apparent which wall is was made using the rammed earth technique because of the wavy lines of a soil profile.
Having the different wall types gave the students valuable learning opportunities.
“It makes it a more complex structure because you have different points that you have to tie together and connect,” he said.
Besides the technical advantages of using these methods, green building materials and energy-saving techniques help preserve the environment.
The straw bales are the insulation blocks that were installed inside a modified post and beam structure.
He said the rammed earth is also known as the “foot a day” technique when one foot of wall is constructed for the perimeter.
There are many advantages of straw bale and rammed earth techniques when compared to conventional building practices such as using ICF (insulated concrete form that is essentially a concrete and polystyrene sandwich that is put together like Lego) for a foundation for a building.
Belsey said a straw bale constructed wall is cheaper, possesses a higher R-value (measuring insulating power) and is not just five times more fire resistant and five times more earthquake resistant, but also has greater longevity. If done properly, he said, a straw bale home can last forever compared to conventional home that will need repairs or a complete rebuild in 100 years. He cited the Arthur Pilgrim Holiness Church built located in Nebraska in 1928.
Once the students built a post and beam structure then they placed the bales in-between. He described it “like a course of bricks.”
The specific wall in the students' straw bale build was covered by natural hydraulic lime plaster, which “sequestered 104.5 pounds of carbon dioxide from the environment.”
The straw bales, which are a byproduct of the food industry, were also locally sourced close to a year ago and then stored to dry.
The rammed earth wall in the building used site sourced material and Roxul insulation, which is made from mineral wool that is not just fire and water resistant, but is also 90 per cent recycled material. He points out the Roxul is used to insulate the wall from “thermal bridging” to prevent the cold air from meeting the warm air.
When compared to the popular use of ICF, rammed earth walls are very strong, have a greater R-value and need little energy to heat or cool. These types of walls do require Portland cement, but the local project needs far less because of the use of Metapor, a product from Poravor – byproduct of recycled glass. These characteristics result in a strong wall that allows a structure to be more efficient for heating and cooling.
The students mixed all the materials into a large bucket, stirred it and poured it into form work and then tamped it down.
Like anything the disadvantages of both techniques are related to execution and adherence to proper practices.
With just two weeks of in-class lessons, the remaining 18 weeks were spent on site, learning and working on the project.
“It's a good program because the students get that chance to learn about different techniques in the building. They get a chance to learn as a group dynamic ... they also get to find their space specific to the industry. Do I want to plaster? Do I want to do this? They get a chance to try it all out,” he said.
Advertised as the first Canadian college to offer a sustainable building design and construction program, the program based in Haliburton started in 2005.
Twenty-one-year-old American student Donald Musler of Connecticut, who was raised on a farm, found the environmentally conscientious mindset a continuation of the life he had growing up.
“Anything I can do to be a bit more sustainable and to waste a little less that would be the best,” he said.
He had originally come up here for blacksmithing, but chose to take integrated design at Fleming's Haliburton campus, which followed with encouragement by faculty to subsequently study sustainable building.
Musler appreciated the natural surroundings and the openness of the people so much he would welcome getting a job to stay. If that doesn't pan out he will return home to Connecticut and take sustainable building practices with him to share his knowledge with others.
Belsey's tanned skin is a giveaway of his two decades of experience in the construction industry.
His belief in sustainable building started when he saw three transport trucks hauling the waste left from a worksite he was working at following the completion of an 18,000-square-foot building in Unionville.
After an unfulfilling career in sales, he went to university to earn his master's in environmental studies. When a third child was born he left university and made a living as a bartender and worked in the construction industry. He took a workshop in the U.S. on straw bale construction when it all changed for him.
“It was a matter of, wow, this is just a different way of insulating a building,” he said.
The main focus for the program and what the lectures and lessons work towards is being able to construct a building that is natural. There are three main concepts taught: green building, sustainable building and natural building.
Generally, Belsey said using the earth at the site and avoiding the use of a timber structure for an adobe structure is the concept of a natural building.
Sustainable building involves lowering the impact on the environment while reducing or eliminating concrete and cement use and decreasing carbon dioxide emissions. Examples include geothermal heating systems, solar power generation and the retrofits applied to a building for better efficiency.
Belsey said the building possesses the green, sustainable and natural building aspects. At the heart of the project is the sourcing of the material, which was either local or certified and, as a result, less harmful to the environment. Some of the lumber came from the Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve, and was Forest Stewardship Council certified lumber, ensuring it was sustainably harvested.
The building is expected to use solar panels and radiant in-floor heating.
“It tends to be the case when you're talking about natural building, 'Oh you bunch of hippies you're building a bunch of grass huts.' No, we are hippies, but we're just trying to do things for best practices,” he said. Belsey said as far as he is concerned the main idea is to make it so this type of construction is common.
With the location being an old quarry, which is part of a reclamation effort by Abbey Gardens, it gives Belsey additional satisfaction to know he is part of a positive transformation.
“This site being an old gravel pit the fact someone has come in with the philosophy we want to regenerate. It’s incredible for me because now I know I'm doing something right. Hopefully this building will be here another 150 years at least,” he said.
The public is welcome to attensd the near completion event for this building at 2 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1 at Abbey Gardens. It will celebrate the efforts and work of the students before their final day of classes the day after. An official opening ceremony has yet to be scheduled.