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Dream built brick by brick


On top of a hill with a panoramic view of Hamilton Township and Lake Ontario, Henry Wiersma is working hard to build, in bricks and mortar, the equivalent of the 100-mile diet.

The 100-mile diet is a concept that promotes individual connections with local farmers and their food in a sustainable and seasonally sensitive manner. The concept is an informal one that allows for personal interpretation, and encourages innovation.

Wiersma's interpretation of this consumer response to excessive energy usage and the perceived unsustainable nature of industrial farming and the globalization of food delivery, is seen in the materials he uses and how he uses them.

At present, he is building a house with unfired clay bricks -- bricks made of the sticky Northumberland clay that sits just under the surface around most new home foundations. Think of it as adobe brick technology Canuck-style. Wiersma claims he is the only one in Canada attempting to build a home with unfired clay bricks.

The clay has been dug up, pulverized and screened on location. With a bit of cement added, the clay has been compacted into 10x14x4-inch bricks. Wiersma uses a clay and water mixture as a mortar between the blocks.

Most transportation costs and the use of highly engineered and processed raw materials have been greatly reduced, he says. The floor, to be heated by radiant heating, will be covered by the clay bricks.

Local woods will be used for the roof and second floor structure.

Four years in the making, this Compressed Earth Block project has had its share of setbacks. About two years ago, a fire on the property destroyed more than $200,000 worth of unique equipment Wiersma had gathered to make the bricks.

However, he has persevered. The project is being assisted with a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation research grant that is connected to Queen's and Waterloo universities.

"When you are dealing with your passion it's hard to turn your back on it and leave it," Wiersma says.

Surrounding the 10-inch clay brick walls will be an 18-inch straw bale wall. A plaster finish will cover the home's exterior and a surrounding porch will provide further protection from the elements. Wiersma estimates that his vapour barrierless home (it will breathe) will have an R factor of 40.

Electricity and heating will be supplied by a modern replica of a turn-of- the-last century stationary one-cylinder engine running on biodiesel (used vegetable oil from local restaurants that will be refined on location to supply the energy).

A home builder for the past 20 years, Wiersma is familiar with the R- 2000 energy-efficiency and environmentally- responsible practices. The reason for this change of direction, he says, is that he needed a challenge.

"I've never done any of this before," he says.

Wiersma believes a building can induce a state of harmony or disharmony with its design and he sees typical rectangular rooms as featureless display rooms for a consumerist society. As a result, he says he has created a design to ensure harmony and a living space that would itself be the focus.

Based on sacred geometry, meaning is encoded in the layout according to ancient principles of squaring the circle and using proportions similar to the Egyptian pyramids.

Speaking of wife Joanna's reaction to his ambitious project, Wiersma says, "I have come up with a lot of crazy ideas in the past, but she said, 'I can support you in this.'"

And so since late last year, he has been spending most of his time putting his dream house together brick by brick.

It's a house he feels points the way toward a more sustainable way of living that is a response to local conditions, minimizes its use of resources and reduces the carbon load on the environment.

Hamilton Township chief building inspector Scott Jibb has been very fair and supportive of the project, Wiersma says. Jibb and the township have not stood in his way.

The house is slated for completion near the beginning of summer with occupants already signed up.

Until then, Wiersma says, "I am just in my Zen moment when I am here."