After 9 months in Asian we are carrying on our investigation in Canada. Change of climate, culture and scale… there are woods stretching as far as we can see and distances are also stretching out. The roads in perfect condition and empty… What a difference with Asia! Landing in North America is also an experience of disrupting town planning, driving through towns, on a horizontal level. In the residential districts, the new houses look like the ones in a catalogue : perfect facades, aseptic lawns, garages and big cars. Here there is space and people living on credit ! Muko’s remark – a militant involved in the conservation of troglodyte houses in Capadoccia, whom we met in Turkey – comes back to us « For me, today’s standardised houses are a limit to imagination… I think it is more difficult to design another world when living in such a formatted, even sterilised, environment.»
But North America remains the land where everything is possible ! The continent hosts so many pioneers who are looking for other living ways. We are out to meet some of them in Quebec. Starting with the inhabitants of the eco-village of « la Baie », who invented a straw building technique which is heard of in Europe event and beyond, too: the GREB technique. Behind those initials there is the « Bay Ecological Research Group » which, for 25 years now, has been experimenting a post-petrol way of life !
To reach the small eco-village, we are driving along the magnificent Saguenay fjord which flows into the St Laurent river before climbing up the small path to the ‘tiny village’. Pierre and Marie-Thérèse, who have been leading the projects since its beginnings, welcome us in their cosy straw house.
Pierre tells us that it all started : « In 1972, The Club of Rome stressed the limits of our society based on an infinite growth in a world with finite resources. I was not known whether the resources would die out in 20 or 300 years… But it was totally unacceptable for us to have built a non-viable system over the long term, relying moreover on the exploitation of the countries lying in the south. It was our duty to find solutions to build a different world.»
This is the philosophy which, a few years earlier, pushed them into travelling to the USA, the Middle East, Europe and India to visit the ecological projects. Pierre remembers « Indeed we toyed with the idea of settling in communities in the south of France. But I could not stand the idea that one day I would be told « t is all very well to build an ecological house there… but in Quebec, temperatures go down below 30° in winter and dreaming of other ways of life, is a luxury which is just not imaginable here !».
An experimental eco-village
With a taste for challenges, Pierre and Marie-Thé return to Quebec in 1988. Together with five other families, they purchase a piece of land of several hectares and decide to create an eco-village on waste agricultural and wooden lands. A key stage, prior to settling down, it was necessary to analyse the resources available and to observe the territory, so as to consider the possibilities and limits of this eco-system. So for most inhabitants, building with straw balls and a wooden framework proved to be the most relevant choice !
Beyond the construction, the project was also to meet other fundamental needs such as finding food, or getting energy. From the very beginning, the eco-village of « la Baie » is much more than a simple ecological district or a self-sufficient community. Pierre says : « Our intention was not to be survivors, quite the opposite. We did not want to save ourselves from such a catastrophe. We wanted to create a life laboratory and the successes and failures of that life laboratory would be made public. That is why at the same time at the eco-village, we founded the GREB, the Bay ecological Research Group. »
And year after year, some inhabitants left (Pierre and Marie-Thérèse are the only founders left) and others have arrived, attracted by the project. It is the case, for instance of Patrick Déry, who decided to settle here with his wife in 1994. Jokingly he remembers « as far as I am concerned, I would never have come in a community of pals. I was convinced by the idea of participating in the development of a broad scale viable society project.» A teacher-researcher, Patrick heads a research centre on renewable energies, and from time to time he offers his students to come and experiment on the village land. A tireless researcher, he also performs all sorts of studies on agriculture through the experimental farm he has set up. But the GREB became famous through another of his researches.
But the GREB became famous through another of his researches…
The invention of an efficient straw building technique
Using straw to build ? Despite prejudices which are still going strong, the idea is gradually becoming accepted.
It is quite cheap, there is plenty of straw everywhere, it has very good thermal and sound insulation qualities as well as many other properties – this is why straw is used more and more by the self-builders and some professionals, too. But in 1996, when Patrick Déry and martin Simard build one of the first straw houses in the village, the slow process leads them to find another more efficient technique. Then they come up with the idea of erecting a wooden double framework, compress the straw balls inside, and pour mortar with a formwork. After several attempts, the better adapted mortar finally consists in 3 volumes of sand, 4 volumes of sawdust, 1 volume of air lime and 1 volume of cement. The GREB technique was born !
Which are the advantages of this technique compared to other straw buildings ?
It is fast and simple (it may easily be chosen by self-builders) and so the costs are considerably lower. For instance, one of the houses of the small village, some 150m2, was built in 9 months and 3 weeks of that time were necessary to fill the framework with the straw balls. Its total cost amounted to euro 100,000.
Did you say « ecological » ?
Today the protection of the environment has the wind in the sails: from McDonald’s which has chosen the green colour to the big multinationals supporting the COP 21, everybody seems to show some interest in what is happening to the planet. Yet Patrick feels sorry that the term « ecological » is being used in a wrong way and too often for absolutely anything, especially in the building sector : « In Quebec today, the consumption of energy becomes a concern when the house is being lived in mainly. But there is no consideration for the energy spent during the building stage or the destruction. Where do the materials come from ? How have they been extracted ? Did they require significant transformations ? How can they be recycled ? All those questions have to be asked… Indeed everyone looks for optimum energy performance, but that is not the end of it: the global ecological balance of the house has to be taken into account, from cradle to grave. »
Unfortunately that abusive use of the word ‘ecological’ does not occur in Quebec only. Jean-Baptiste Thévard, Pierre and Marie-Thé’s French nephew, who was a great contributor to the spreading of the GREB technique states : « In France, the building sector represents 45% of the greenhouse gas effects and it is catastrophic. We are still building energy wrecks: when a new building is being erected, it requires as much energy as a 60-year use of it! So there is a « carbon debt » even before people start living in it! When straw is being is being used in building, it is the opposite: carbon is being stored prior to using the building. As a comparison, a passive house in France means 15 KW per m2 per year. With the GREB technique, we get some 20 kw m2 per year without any mechanical ventilation or other electronic system, since the walls breathe. »
Nevertheless some people in favour of eco-building, 100% natural, claim that the GREB technique uses cement to make mortar. « I can hear this criticism … but for me, those 8% cement considerably reduce the drying and building time and thus enable to democratise this type of ecological houses… » says Jean-Baptiste. Pierre adds : « We are not saying that absolutely everybody must use straw balls to build. Maybe the most ecological would be to build with other materials or even not to build at all, but to increase the occupancy density of the existing housing, to insulate them better…»
Building with straw, an idea which is gradually taking over
This summer the eco-village is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The inhabitants have decided to celebrate this event during a day’s meetings. More than 200 people who wanted to see came to visit the village, took part in conferences…
That is when we met Jean-Baptiste Thévard, back here, in this place which proved a milestone in his personal path and for the GREB. « In 2001, I came to pay a visit to my uncle and my aunt and help them with the building of their house with straw. The easy and efficient GREB technique was an eye opener! Back in France I decided to work on the promotion of this technique ». A few years later, he is the co-author, with Vincent Brossamain, of the book « Building one’s house with straw » which has been translated into several languages. Jean-Baptiste is also the co-founder of the Approche Paille association which has trained some 1,000 people to the GREB technique… thanks to this work, today there are almost 400 such houses in France and others in Belgium, Italy, Spain, Rumania, Ukraine, but also in Chile, Argentina and even in Morocco !
But why is this technique not more developed when it appears as so efficient ? Patrick gives his opinion on that « The current house is a mirror of our society: it has to confer a certain social status to the owner, just like the car. In this consumption world, a straw house does not quite fit in with the trend of the day… » In the collective subconscious mind, a straw house sounds like a reminder of the house of the three little pigs, not strong and very basic. Yet, in the eco-village of « la Baie », just like elsewhere, the houses are just as much worth as the conventional ones. Once the finishing coat has been put on, a visitor would definitely find it very hard to guess which materials have been used to build them !
Beyond the prejudices – which tend to crumble, at least start to – the development of straw building is slowed down because there is no economic potential, industrially speaking at least. Going through the various tests to prove the reliability of the straw is quite expensive … but could contribute a great deal to the general interest. But neither the Government nor the main contractors’ companies seem to be ready to invest in this material which moves away from the traditional economic paths (less needs for factories which would transform and recycle, transport, tools…)
And yet, thanks to a daunting work, often on a voluntary basis, progress has been made. In 2012, « Le Réseau Français de la Construction en Paille » published the « professional rules of straw building ». this work, acknowledged by the building trade professionals, the public authorities and the insurance companies, enables the professionals to make any type of straw building and at the same time to be covered by traditional insurance contracts. The BREG members are very happy with that and they can be pleased with the work done on the over side of the Atlantic Ocean « For us, today’s challenge is to work just as well to spread the technique through Quebec, and to build bridges between the territories to push legislations forward everywhere ! » says Pierre.
It’s Heating on all the floors !
For the inhabitants of the eco-village, the ecological house means much more than just the walls. Each house must meet certain characteristics which have been registered with the town-hall in the local town planning scheme. Especially as regards the south façade with large windows to enable the heat and the sun rays to enter.
As for heating, the inhabitants chose masonry heaters which, together with the GREB mortar, add significant thermal inertia. This choice does enable the house to store the heat emitted and spread it uniformly for several hours. Another advantage of such heaters is the complete combustion of the wood, i.e. the gases are also burnt instead of being rejected in the environment as is the case with the traditional open fires. To get even further benefits from the energy produced, pipes run through the masonry heaters to heat the water of the house in winter.
To get even further benefits from the energy produced, pipes run through the masonry heaters to heat the water of the house in winter. When spring comes around, solar panels take over. Patrick’s idea was to fit photovoltaic panels (converting light into electricity ) rather than thermal panels (converting heat into electricity) : « This is a completely heretic idea in the scientific community and it is certainly true that in the hot countries, thermal panels are more efficient to heat the water. But in Quebec, because of the cold and freezing temperatures, they are far less efficient. Working on simulations, I noticed that using photovoltaic panels in our latitudes would be 3 and 5 times cheaper than thermal sensors. Together with the lower cost of photovoltaic panels, the idea to connect such panels directly onto the boiler brought the return on investment down from 75 years to 20. That is true for the south of Quebec which enjoys a very cheap electricity thanks to hydroelectricity. But if we consider the northern parts where they get their electricity from oil power stations, we are on investment returns between 3 and 4 years ! »
Beyond the houses, the inhabitants of the eco-village and all the people working on it are actually focusing on another project. Benoît Thévenard, Jean-Baptiste’s brother, also understood something when he went through the GREB.
« At the beginning of my career as an engineer in aeronautics, I did not quite understand what was at stake when I heard about the natural resources depletion, more specifically petrol. It is only when I went for a training period with Patrick Déry that I really understood what it all meant. In fact, the problem is not at all that petrol tends to disappear, but that the production is going down while the demand still increases. I thought « so, if there is no petrol any more, we will cycle…. » but I did not realise the global consequences that would impact the economy, the wars for the resources supply… »
Benoît decided to specialise in energy issues and the petrol peak. He has become a conference speaker and decided to make his analyses known to associations, local authorities and even Parliament. In 2012 Yves Cochet (a former French Environment Minister) entrusted him with the drafting of two reports for the European Parliament : « Europe in front of the oil peak » et « Towards resilient territories in 2030 ».
What does resilience mean ? « c’est It is the capacity of a system to live through a shock or disturbing change and adapt to it, re-organise in a different way while retaining one’s identity, one’s main functions and capacity to react » Benoît explains. At the eco-village of « la Baie », as well as in the growing movement of the Transitions Towns, this issue is at the heart of the concerns when it comes to climate changes and the resources depletion.
Patrick tells us a small story about that, which took place in the early days of the village « in 1996, there was a very huge storm in Saguenay. Suddenly the people found themselves cut off the networks and for many of them, it was sheer panic. Just imagine, no light, no heating … and of course in the middle of the winter! The people who lived in Saguenay were evacuated. We were also called, but we did not want to leave because we had everything we needed! Food from the summer, enough water, heating through the masonry heater… For many people that storm proved a real nightmare, and meant anxiety. We managed to consider that event in a serene way since we had already embarked on a resilient approach…»
Something has been said over and over again since we started on our trip: many people tell us that the seasons are not what they used to be and are changing year after year: draughts in Turkey, late monsoons in south east Asia, colder winters in Quebec. The consequences are genuine indeed and are unfortunately going to get worse: painful harvesting, climate refugees, disappearances of biodiversity, wars over resources…
Despite such sad establishments, the governments do not manage to / do not wish to change paths and continue along the same blind alleyway : « Las year in France there was an important debate to think about the means to implement an energy transition » Benoît tells us but we can see he is annoyed with it all « At the end of the day, there was an incoherent text to please everybody, whether electors, industrials… The law provided to cut the country’s energy consumption by half, which is radical, while forecasting a 1.7% growth per year till 2050. That is a fairy tale, no more! Historically no economic growth can take place if energy consumption does not grow as well ! »
Do one’s hummingbird share…
Rather than wait for others to act or for some of those elected stop running after impossible dreams, the eco-village of « la Baie » inhabitants are doing their share. Evidencing their success is the fact that the project increased in 2011 with the purchase of a new site, 3 times bigger than the first one. New families come and settle but the philosophy has remained unchanged, as Pierre states « only » ten additional houses are going to be built gradually. We could have planned 3 times more, it would have been more profitable financially, but we would have gone over what our small ecosystem can bear. » Amongst the new arrivals, Anne (Pierre and Marie-Thé’s daughter) and her husband, Marc-André, built a beautiful straw ball house and are involved in the village life. The lasting of the project is ensured by a new generation of people who intend to carry on building and imagining simplicity as a will and … happiness.
Before leaving, we ask Pierre if he is confident for the future of the planet. He quotes mischievously a line taken from “Lord of the Rings”, when Pippin (the hobbit) asks Gandalf if hope still lives in spite of the Goblin hordes at the fortress’s gates. He takes on a deep voice and just like Gandalf declares « There is no hope, …. but a Mad Man’s hope ! »
This mad man’s hope is being transformed by the village inhabitants and all the builders we have come across for over one year into communicative and renewable energy ad infinitum to build another world…
Thanks to the eco-hameau’s member for their reception and the extra pictures
Click on the picture’s arrow to see the slide show.