We visit the first earthship of Quebec over a weekend workshop regarding permaculture and other subjects linked to resilience at Hélène and Alain’s. In 2004, when they decide to build an Earthship, the norms of their county do not allow it. They engage into a relatively long conversation with the administration but that eventually pans out as the regulation is modified to authorize fondations made out of tires without cement. Finally this long conversation has also enabled the time to observe the land and perfect the design. The construction begins in 2005 and receives a lot of volunteers during the first year. During the second year, about 50 % of the building remains to be done and they do it together with one additional person. We get in the Earthship through the kitchen, Hélène who draws houses since she is a child explains us how certain thoughts have guided the design of this space. She wanted to be able to do dishes while looking out and also empty the dish water into planted containers located just behind a huge south oriented glass veranda. During the design of the house, Hélène explains that both insulation and condensation need to be well thought about. For example, if water goes under the building, the heat can escape through convection, a well thought drainage is thus important. The nature of the soil under the house needs to be observed in order to define its potential to retain humidity or its thermal mass. The position of the drain that takes away cold water far from the house has to be thought about in order « not to steal » heat either. The guiding principle for Hélène and Alain isn’t autonomy but resilience. There is a propane based stove but also the possibility to cook with wood fire, there is a veggie garden that could be producing more but there are subscribing to a family farmer not far from them, everything is thought about in order to become autonomous while benefiting as long as it is possible of non autonomous solutions but leading to either more comfort or more relationships.
Some fundamentals that Hélène mentions to build her house :
« When you build your house, you first deal with the essentials, sleeping, making food and water, in order to be done in autumn before the snow. Then comes the nausea, finishing what bothers you the most. »
« To inhabit the place the fastest possible, plan for the smallest possible. »
She also recommends to live onsite during the building, living in your own house while it is being built enables economies but also to see quickly what could be wrong as well as learning how to live with less.
The kitchen is equiped with a Rocket Stove Mass Heater, a concept developed notably by Ianto Evans, of Cob Cottage Company, following his own work regarding the rocket stove itself. The RSMH is a rocket stove offering a very efficient combustion and associated with a big thermal mass in order to store and distribute the heat during a longer time. We advise you the read of the RSMH book in order to create one. Seating on the bench which is the thermal mass of the RSMH is an incredibly comfortable sensation !
In order to plan the walls thickness, plan about 1,5 feet / month for the transfer of heat through the cob walls. It is thus possible to store heat during summertime that will be given back during winter. At ES-Cargo the colder times are in spring when the heat has all been delivered and it isn’t warm enough yet for charging the thermal batteries. Adding stone increases the storage capacity and slows down the heat distribution.
It is important to pay attention to windows that are heat sinks and to plan for good curtains to keep the heat as much as possible, even a good insulated window does not replace the insulation capacity of a wall or a ceiling.
Planning an entry-lock that enables to add even more insulation of the house. Plan a veranda with an angle adapted to catch mainly the winter sun rays.
A bit further away from the main house, there is an ice cellar, also built with tires and dug into the slope. Hélène and Alain store there ice during winter and keep it across spring time and a good part of summer in order to keep their food cold, either directly in the cellar or taking the ice into a fridge in the house. This way they save on electricity wasted by a fridge running continuously.
The conservation of food be it through lacto-fermentation or through dehydration within a homemade dehydrator is an important part of eating and resilience creation.
At ES-Cargo, the electricity is produced by solar pannels. The installation is the following : pannels to controler to batteries to inverters to devices. The advice of Alain to set up the photovoltaïc system :
You need to calibrate your system on your Christmas consumption and identify your needs then,
You need cut circuits between each element,
The continuous current is slower and requires bigger cables but if the distance is short, then it is more efficient to use directly the 12V to feed the lights for example avoiding the inverter.
The batteries with gel are more expensive but do not produce toxic gases, the whole system delivers 700 A.h. To prolong battery life, you need to ensure that they do not discharge too much in order to limit the number of complete cycles of charge and discharge. This means that in case of missing sun, it is sometimes necessary in winter to recharge the batteries with a generator in order to avoid that they discharge too much.
Alain uses several different inverters of varied power in order to ensure various needs and thereby reduce the noise of the inverters which are increasing with their power.
We learn also how to build a dry rock wall which requires a few tips in order to be made correctly to last long. First, the wall width has to be half of the planned height. The wall is actually two walls that fall on each other and then they are linked on top with a cap (a big rock) and the middle is filled with little rocks. The rocks need to be staggered as much as possible. Each rock needs three points of contact, round river rocks can be used to fill in the middle. If you find a corner rock, keep it preciously so it can be kept preciously to build up the corners next.
We also assist to a small demo to make cob. It is a mix of sand, clay and fiber such as straw used to plaster the tire walls in the Earthship. The sand needs to screech under your hands and have edges. The granulometry depends on the final usage of the cob. For clay, your soil needs to be tested, 15 % of clay is the minimum to make use if it. Make bricks with different recipees. Once dried up, rub the brick and if it falls apart, there is too little clay ; measure the brick and if it is smaller there has been too much water or too much clay ; if it cracked, there isn’t enough clay. The brick should hold well and not shrink. If you make the mix with a machine, use a cement mixer with soldered plates on the wall of it to avoid jamming. A compaction sand can be used to fill the tires or for non structural cob otherwise for cob prefer a mortar sand. The proportions used here are 1 clay to 5 sand. To know if the clay is sufficiently hydrated, it must be soft enough but not too much that when the auger is out, the whole needs to stay in place but be about to crumble down. Make the mux on a tarp rolling it or dancing on it, pressing with your heels. Test the mix by letting go of a ball of the mix from shoulder height and it needs to hold. For structrual parts, the long straw is preferable, it may be shorter when the usage is non structural.
Alain is also an artist sculpting wood and makes beautiful wooden spoons. He uses notably nomadic tools that enable to work the wood without a bench dog. We also try ourselves to cut wood, an essential activity to prepare for winter especially when the house is mainly heated with wood. The place to store correctly the wood is fundamental. Then you need to use the ax. Alain teaches us to hold it properly to not hurt ourselves and to decrease the energy used. The axe has to open the wood by breaking it, it thus doesn’t need to be sharp, it needs a little angle so it doesn’t stay stuck in the wodd and to hit it so that the axe end isn’t in the wood. During summer, he uses aspen which burns fast and does not heat up too much, the hardwood is used for the bread oven and taken from a dense deciduous tree such as birch or beech, for winter a resinous wood is used for more energy and embers and more heat. A very instructive weekend and a place that really is worth a visit when you are looking to build outside of the beaten tracks !
VIDEOS MADE ON-SITE - Soon