Adventures in Green Building: Our Strawbale Cooling Shed Build (Day 1)

Getting vegetables from our farm to your table, as fresh as if they were just picked, is our goal. But how do you do that without refrigeration? And, if you’re running a sustainable organic farm, how on earth do you refrigerate your harvest without costly refrigeration systems?

On many farms, a walk-in cooler is a major investment and involves the use of toxic chemicals for insulation and large amounts of electricity to power. Because Common Ground is committed to reducing our environmental impact in every way we can, we wanted to blend traditional, low-impact construction techniques with the power of the sun. Instead of using plastics, wood, and polystyrene insulation, we looked instead to traditional strawbale construction techniques to build a 12×10 shed that is both highly insulated (R50+), and extremely low impact because it utilizes a locally available agricultural by-product. Thanks to the generous support of the Carrot Cache, a Toronto-based, local food-focused not-for-profit, we were able to fund this crucial piece of infrastructure which will enable us to scale up our operations in an environmentally responsible manner.

Strawbale building is not only sustainable, it’s a darned fun way to spend a day. With the help of a local natural builder, Chuck Bell, Justin of Coffeecology, and our industrious intern Duncan, the Common Ground team spent this past Saturday building up the walls of our strawbale cooling shed. The first step was setting up the thread rods, which would provide structural reinforcement for the bales by holding them in place, and would be extended as the structure grew taller.

strawbale foundation

With the rods in place, we could start laying down the bales. But before that, there was something very important to do: an old Irish building tradition, in which you write down a prayer and lay it at the corner of your building. Well, as Chuck tells it, the tradition is a bottle of whiskey (so that when you have to tear down the building thirty years later, there’s a bottle waiting for you), but we went with the prayer.

strawbale prayer

Then we laid down the first bale!

strawbale first bale

The process of building a strawbale structure is inherently forgiving: straw is not an exact material and, building with straw, you aren’t bound to the same exacting standards as with “traditional” building techniques. Thus did Chuck remind us many times as we agonized over clean lines and perfect fill density: “it can be better, or not, it doesn’t really matter.” Building with straw, you can trim off excess later on if you really want that clean line; finishing work like that, he said, you could spend as much time on as you cared to. Moreover, if you didn’t quite get a tight seam in between those two bales of straw you just laid down, you could simply stuff loose straw into that crack, or, if there was a bit of a larger gap, you could fashion a smaller bale, wrap it yourself, and wedge it in.

strawbale shed cram it

As the day wore on, one layer of strawbales became two, two became three, three became four…

strawbale shed three

 

strawbale taking a break

…and so it went until it stood seven bales high!

strawbale shed seven high

Of course, if you live in southwestern Ontario, you know that this past Saturday almost everywhere was under a severe threat of thunderstorm. Needless to say, this encouraged us to keep up our pace on the building! Thankfully, we managed to finish covering the entire structure with tarps just ten minutes before we were hit with rain.

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Next week, we will talk more about the next stage of the strawbale building: plastering!