This house is made out of dirt. And yours could be, too.
Sylvia Cook’s dream was to build her own sustainable, green house. After her career as a high school science teacher, this chance finally presented itself. With many years of DIY building at her family cottage under her belt, she had always held a keen interest in different types of structures and green building. Extensive research led to her discovery of rammed earth, a concept whereby using pneumatic sand tampers, a carefully selected mix of dirt is rammed into place to create an uncannily structurally sound wall. She signed herself up for a rammed earth workshop and fell in love. Luckily, Cook was equipped with an eager, then-university aged son, Graham, who shares her penchant for sustainable building and was ready for a unique home building challenge.
As the project took shape, Cook realized that her original dream for a sustainable home was bigger than her; it had grown to about the size of the province of Ontario. It is now Cook’s mission to bring rammed earth building to Ontario, a province where new residential construction is expected to hover over 60,000 new units per year (CMHC, 2013), with a heavy focus on detached single family homes. The majority of this thriving home building industry utilizes lumber from clear cuts, and the finished products tend to be flimsy with a short lifespan, among a myriad of other issues. With all this is mind, Cook decided to start her own rammed earth building business and to make her own house a show home in Castleton, Ontario.
A show home is never complete without a mastermind architect to inspire the “wow” factor. Sylvia had been seeking out architects to work with on her new project and stumbled across Terrell Wong, an architect whose green credentials include the sustainable archetype houses at the Kortright Centre in Vaughan. The two quickly developed a great working relationship, and have built something quite awe inspiring.
I had the chance to sit down with Sylvia Cook and her son, Graham Cavalier of Aerecura Rammed Earth Builders on their dock on Beaver Lake over Labour Day Weekend. Perhaps the most enchanting quality of Aerecura is its familial nature as a company. Sylvia and Graham’s mother-son work relationship is as endearing as it is efficient. We sip our morning coffee in the midst of a number of DIY cabins and buildings, of which the pair have expanded upon or built from the ground up as a team. Just two years ago Graham finished his own cabin on the property which he aptly named “the Watchtower.” The two shared with me a number of anecdotes from their building sites, as well as gave me the run-down on the benefits and challenges to starting the first rammed earth business in Ontario.
What are the benefits of rammed earth?
Material availability: The building material for rammed earth is quite literally dirt, so it can be sourced from the nearest gravel pit. “I can basically guarantee you that anywhere there is a road, you can find a gravel pit within a few kilometres,” Cook explains. Certainly, the dirt that is utilized is held to a rigid, consistent standard to uphold structural integrity. It must come from at least four feet below ground to achieve this, which is why gravel pits are such an ideal place to source it. The best part? Dirt from local gravel pits is essentially a leftover byproduct, so already rammed earth puts waste to good use.
Temperature control: A rammed earth house requires neither a furnace nor an air conditioner. Rammed earth walls allow for passive solar heating, because the walls can retain heat so effectively. They also remain comfortably cool in the summer time. Sylvia explains this process in one of her video blogs, which can be viewed here. This particular feature is inspiring from a sustainability standpoint, as well as the bank account of the homeowner. I pause to imagine if all new stick-frame subdivisions in Ontario were this energy efficient.
Structural integrity: Ancient rammed or tamped earth walls and buildings continue to stand on various parts of the planet to this day. The Great Wall of China is partially made of rammed earth – take that fact to your next cocktail party.
Beauty: Seeing really is believing and words just aren’t enough. On October 4th visit Aerecura’s show home to see for yourself how amazing a rammed earth home can be. Complete with amazing detail, a 24′ x 24′ “feature wall” that is the largest rammed earth wall in North America and a perfectly sound proof recording studio, it’s worth the drive to meet Sylvia and Graham in Castleton, Ontario.
Aerecura’s challenges moving forward?
Aerecura faces two significant challenges.
First off, working with your mom can be tough at times but also incredible. It is apparent that they share a strong passion for changing the world for the better. “You really can’t grow up in this family without feeling like you have a personal mission to make things better in the world,” Cook explains. Graham and Sylvia’s strong, shared values are what give them such a great working relationship.
Beyond blood ties Aerecura’s biggest challenge like all those at the vanguard of a more sustainable future is helping people envision a new way of doing things. Aerecura is a company of pioneers. Utilizing a building style that is ancient but outside most inspectors understanding made the development of their current build slower than desired. But this was to be expected since most involved in Ontario’s building trades and prospective home owners are only accustomed to brick and stick framed buildings. To convince the prospective home owner of the reliability, savings, increased quality of life and added value of rammed earth housing presents requires showing people rather than telling them that the impossible is possible. Thankfully, Aerecura presents its product with the professionalism, engineering expertise and architectural elegance of any well-established leading home builder.
Economic and structural resilience
Ontario’s single family home builders create 120,000 jobs annually (Ontario Ministry of Finance, 2014). Our builders are an important part of Ontario’s economic prosperity and they could be builders of rammed earth. Unfortunately, Ontario subdivisions are rarely built with sustainability or longevity in mind. Stick framed houses reliant on clear-cut timber and its lack of long-term resilience is a big problem. But not an impossible one to solve as those at Aerecura have proven.
While leaving the Kawarthas, I was struck by the suburban sprawl throughout the region, and imagined how different things will be when more homes are built with the practicality, forethought and longevity of rammed earth.
You can learn more about Aerecura Rammed Earth Builders at www.aerecura.ca and follow Sylvia Cook’s video blog series on their facebook page here. You can also watch their current build in Kemptville, Ontario take shape via their Twitter page @aerecurabuilds.
All photos courtesy of Aerecura Rammed Earth Builders and Julia Stephens.