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Saskatchewan's new eco-community

You can huff and puff, but these straw houses won't fall down

Candis McLean - February 14, 2005

One of Saskatchewan's first straw houses was actually a straw castle. Built in 1931 on Long Lake, northwest of Regina, "Madam Morency's Castle," as the locals called it, even had turrets and battlements. When it was torn down 43 years later, the demolition team was amazed at the excellent condition of the bricks of straw plastered in stucco. In fact, contrary to the fable of the little pigs, houses of straw are so durable that bush pilot and biologist Cory Gordon is looking to revive the craft in Canada, and in the process turn Craik, Sask., into what may be the most environmentally obsessive town on the Prairies.

The town's centrepiece--a 6,000-square-foot eco-centre built by Gordon's company, Sow's Ear Natural Builders--is made of straw, with wood beams from disassembled grain elevators. It gets its heat from a pump that draws warmth from under the earth's surface. The restaurant even boasts composting toilets, providing a nearby golf course with an unlimited supply of fertilizer. Gordon is looking for 10 families, willing to sustain at least half their lifestyle from natural or recycled resources, to help him settle a surrounding eco-village in the town.

While it may sound like some kind of harsh frontier lifestyle, straw bale construction isn't all that uncommon in the southwestern U.S. When the straw bales are covered with stucco on all sides, they're odourless and flame-resistant and impenetrable to mould and mice. Lynn Oliphant, founder of the Prairie Institute for Human Ecology, an environmental group, has lived in a straw house outside Saskatoon for nine years and insists the 14-inch-thick walls and roof are quiet and, although draft-free, do permit the house to breathe. "It's a very forgiving building material for people with no carpentry skills," he says.

But Gordon's got bigger plans for Craik--which is located between Saskatoon and Regina--than earth-friendly homes. With the help of Rod Haugerud, mayor of the town of 400, he's negotiating with a bio-diesel plant to set up shop in Craik to process ethanol from oil seeds. Meanwhile, a Vancouver-based hemp clothing maker is planning to plant cannabis crops and build a factory there in the spring. Boosters are hoping that Craik will soon be able to call itself the most self-sustaining eco-town in North America. "Saskatchewan has everything it needs to lead the sustainability charge, but we're lagging so far behind European countries it's sickening," says Oliphant. "We have the solar power, we have the wind power, now all we need is the will power."

More articles by Candis McLean