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Wiersma builds house from local, innovative products

TED AMSDEN NORTHUMBERLAND TODAY

HAMILTON TOWNSHIP-- There are strange things done 'neath the midday sun by the men who toil for change.

Henry Wiersma is one such toiler.

A local contractor, he has been putting his heart and soul into an unusual project that is situated high on a hill near the family home in Hamilton Township. His wife Joanna, an energy therapist who enthusiastically supports his work, talks the ecotalk as easily as he does.

The focus of Wiersma's work has been a small two-storey building. It's a cottage, really. Its size and look suggesting a struct u re that wouldn't be out of place in a Harry Potter movie.

During the months he has been working on it single-handedly, tarps and scaffolding have evolved in various dimensions to protect the evolution of this unique creation and the eccentr icities of demands of Wiersma's workflow.

A former builder of traditional homes, Wiersma decided to set out on his own path. He is propelled by a 100 Mile Diet building habit. Or, put another way, he believes in using resources close at hand. No trucking long distances, no exotic materials sourced from the other side of the planet, as much as possible, all organic material used must be found on site.

This has led to making it up as he goes, moving slowly and unabashedly enjoying whatever it takes to get the job done.

His little two-storey building whose design replicates Egyptian Pyramid proportions in the roofline and squares the circle in the layout of the walls, demonstrates a bold bow to classical geometry with a side bend of the body to the spiritual concept of constructing the outer world in accordance with the harmonies of the inner.

He calls it Sacred Geometry, references Da Vinci, and explains that the perimeter of the square is equal to the circumference of the circle, and adds that the radius of the circle determined the height of the roof.

Wiersma started his project five years ago. He was surfing the Internet when he read about adobe construction, or the building of houses out of clay.

Northumberland has a lot of clay underneath its rich soil and so he was compelled to think, why not?

In southern climates where there is strong sunlight to dry the bricks, getting a good supply of blocks is not a problem. In Canada, where there is not enough sun and lots of cold weather, a new approach had to be created.

After some initial failure, equipment losses due to a serious barn fire, and other setbacks characteristic of those figuring out as they go, Wiersma developed a brick for all seasons. Compressed by machine and holding 5% cement, it is solid enough for northern installation.

To deal with the cold, he hybridized his building plans by adding an outer wall of 200 hay bales that will be covered with a natural earth plaster consisting of clay, straw and manure as a binding agent.

He believes the walls of his house will breath allowing for the passage of air both ways. The extreme thickness of the walls -- 30 inches -- built of clay and straw will supply an R factor of 50. The roof supplies a three-foot overhang to protect the walls.

Because air can carry moisture and the walls are partially made of hay -- a novel concept in this century -- Wiersma has linked up with Queen's University, which is supplying many little thermocouplers that will be placed inside and outside the walls to track moisture and its movement for two years. He received a grant from Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation to finance this part of the project.

"There is a drying potential in the wall," he says. "We have to see if there is a dew point in the walls where the cold meets the warm and it condensates."

Entrances fashioned in lathe will be covered with the plaster, as will the interior walls.

Thick doors grace opposite walls downstairs. They are beautifully finished reclaimed barn wood.

The ground floor will have a kitchen and a small utility room, but will be left open concept.

In-floor heating will come from an oil-fired hot water boiler situated in the family home.

A big cedar tree that fell in a storm has been stripped of its bark and, with branch stubs intact, brings a feeling of the outdoors in as well as supporting the second floor.

Ship portals will finish the small windows.

Upstairs is the bedroom area. The floor consists of increasingly smaller strips of pine laid in a concentric pattern with inlays of walnut planned to bridge the seams.

According to Joanna, "The proportions are lovely. It's a good feeling."

Henry claims he is not a Luddite. He has used blown-in foam for the curved dormers, saying it is best solution given the design. Above, in the double roof ceiling, he has installed structural insulated panels constructed of reused foam board.

While it's only been a year in the actual making, a lot of intense labour and preliminary investment of time has gone into the project.

"The next house won't be as labour intensive," Wiersma says. "I want to demonstrate you can build a conventional building."

He is planning a 1,200-square-foot structure with a conventional design.

He admits this first building has not been cheap.

The next home will be built quickly, with strict cost accounting in place.

What is the reason? What is the value in building a house so seemingly low-tech?

"Living in an organic house has a different feel about it," Joanna says. "There are no environmental issues living in earth. Just the resonance of the material, feels natural. It has some sort of energetic resonance that people pick up on. And environmentally, the footprint of a house, people are picking up that it costs and so the lower the foot print of the house the better you feel about building."

"We have to work toward a local economy," Henry says. "We have to start building houses produced in the local economy as well, not relying on products shipped all over the world.

"This is really the renaissance of natural construction. It's nothing new. It's old techniques that worked for thousands of years."

And so, under the midday sun of winter, Henry toils on, certain that he will complete his work by the spring. His inspired house, so inspiring to visit, is little but it embodies much big dreaming.

To find out more, visit http://fifthwindfarm. blogspot. co m/p/about. html.

tamsden@northumberland today.com

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