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The House That Hemp Built


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Scarcity of straw bales leads Saltspring couple to use tough cannabis fibres to fill their walls.

Drew and Jaime Rokeby-Thomas had the property, builder, designer and finances lined up for construction of their straw-bale home on Saltspring Island.

They had everything they needed -- except straw.

Construction on the 1,760-square-foot house was to start in 2003, the same year Alberta's drought made headlines across the country. The couple found that Alberta farmers, unable to grow their own bedding for their livestock, had gone shopping in B.C. That meant regular straw-bale sources were sold out.

"We started calling family and friends in the Kootenays," says Drew, an inventor, "looking everywhere and anywhere for straw."

They never found it, but they did find a rancher with 2,000 hemp bales -- and snapped them up.

Building an alternative-style house can be a large-scale experiment. Each house built of alternative materials, such as earth and straw, needs to be certified by an engineer to pass building inspection. The last-minute switch made by the Rokeby-Thomases threw new variables into their plans.

"Hemp was much harder to build with," says Drew. The difficulty was due to hemp's tougher fibre, making it harder to cut the bales. "I would never do a hemp house again."

But that minus has been compensated for by a big plus. While straw-bale homes can sometimes run into trouble with moisture when not properly designed, the in-wall moisture reader on the Rokeby-Thomas house showed the hemp dropped its moisture content faster than straw-bale homes.

Everest Reynolds of Elevation Design Studio provided the basic house design. Builder Nick Langford, a building technology and design graduate from B.C. Institute of Technology, worked with the couple to fashion the two-level low-energy home.

Timber-frame construction bears the load of the house, while the hemp bale walls on the main floor provide an insulating value of R30. Large windows run along the south side of the house, helping it to gain solar heat throughout the day.

The house is well-sealed, not only against the climate, but also against sound. Jaime is a professional musician whose stage name is jaime rt. Her music studio occupies the north side of the house. There, the walls were built with double-offset studs and gasketed doors so that Jaime's creative output wouldn't resonate through the house and neighbourhood.

The exterior stucco is a porous mixture of sand, cement and lime -- porosity is a traditional element of natural homes, which are said to "breathe," but here Drew drew the proverbial line in the sand, or, in this case, in the stucco.

"Vapour barriers are controversial in natural-building circles," explains Drew. "But after some research, I decided I wanted a vapour barrier. We're living in a fairly wet climate."

The interior stucco was mixed with an acrylic filler that seals the interior wall. As added protection against the elements, the house features three-foot-deep eaves and a large covered porch.

Jaime and Drew favour the rustic look, so they eliminated the finishing polish on their acid-etched cement floors to preserve an uneven texture that resembles the circular marks of old milled wood.

The kitchen cabinetry is simple, with open cupboards in a batten-board style. Open, pull-out shelves accommodate woven baskets instead of closed-in drawers.

Local art adorns the home, including some of Drew's wrought-iron work from his blacksmithing days. A botanical weave of iron twists up the staircase, depicting flower petals and seaweed in the same frame.

"I don't pay much attention to the rules when I'm creating something," Drew says of the seabed and garden mix. "I just decide on the form as I go."

The artistry extends outside, with garden borders fashioned from bent rebar. A spring-fed pond, rose vines and iris gardens surround the house.

A bohemian atmosphere pervades the home in stained-glass frames, felt tapestries and vivid wall colourings in contrasting purple and yellow tones, chosen by Jaime.

"A lot of people are tired by the time they're finished building a home, and they end up with beige or white walls," says Drew. "I told Jaime to go wild, be daring."

Looking at the brilliant walls in his wife's studio, Drew laughs and says, "Perhaps I shouldn't have said that."

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What: Saltspring Island Conservancy Eco-Home Tour

Where: Ten Saltspring-Island homes, which highlight strategies for reducing energy consumption. Solar power, hemp- and straw-bale construction, masonry heating, energy-efficient appliances, water-catchment and grey-water systems are featured on the tour.

When: Sunday, June 17, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Admission: $25; carpool tickets for groups of four are $90. Discounts are also available at the Conservancy office for drivers of hybrid, biodiesel and Smart cars, and for cyclists.

Tickets: Saltspring Books and the Saltspring Island Conservancy office, room 201, 338 Lower Ganges Rd. On the day of the tour, tickets will be available at Gulf Islands Secondary School, 252 Rainbow Rd., from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Bonus: The Eco-Home Tour runs in conjunction with the Eco-Weekend, which includes a Getting Around Saltspring Fair in Ganges on June 16 from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. -- as well as a transportation forum at 7 p.m. -- at Meaden Hall (The Legion).

Information: Call 250-538-0318 or e-mail ssiconservancy@saltspring.com
Website: www.saltspringenergystrategy.org

Newshawk: CoZmO - 420Magazine.com
Author: Joanne Hatherly
Contact: feedback@tc.canwest.com
Copyright: 2007 CanWest Interactive
Website: The house that hemp built
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