By Alice Bardos and Melissa Nguyen
Every year Dalhousie Architecture sends students out for a two-week, intensive, hands-on course called Free Lab. This year, we were two of a group of eleven students who were lucky enough to sign on for a stint at the Deanery Project in Lower Ship Harbour, following in the footsteps of 6 previous Free Lab groups.
The Deanery’s executive director, Kim Thompson, was our instructor for the term. She showed us around, pointing out some of the Free Lab projects from previous years. We were especially taken with “The Tiny,” a small house built with straw bales, hempcrete, cob, and light straw clay walls. It serves as a teaching tool for permaculture-based construction while also characterizing the Deanery’s values of community outreach, education and environmental innovation.
Our goal was to design and build a firewood and tool shed beside the Deanery’s main hall. We wanted our project to reflect the principles of sustainability, to use local natural resources, and to utilize our growing understanding of permaculture practices to build a structure that would additionally offer up teaching opportunities.
Only a few of us had much building experience, so our initial design was something familiar to us—a conventional post and beam building. But we didn’t stay there long. On our drive out to the Deanery from Halifax, we had visited several environmentally responsible homes and projects along the Eastern Shore: a straw bale house, some off-grid dwellings, a community café, a wood mill, timber frame structures, and walls made from cob or bottles. And through Thompson’s contacts, we got generous advice from local engineers, architects, foresters, builders, and wood artisans
In the end our design evolved into a structure based on the simplicity and strength of an A-frame structure, a system that taps into the strength of triangles. With a design in hand, we headed out into the Deanery’s 25 acres of woods, identified the small trees we needed, hauled them back to the construction site, peeled off the bark with draw knives, and carefully bolted the whole structure together.
We came away from this experience with a strong appreciation of the power of permaculture, and of the power of the communities of the Eastern Shore, particularly their connections to nature. Looking back, it is difficult to imagine having been encouraged to develop a structure as explorative as our woodshed anywhere except at the Deanery’s Free Lab session.
[Note: Alice Bardos and Melissa Nguyen are two students with Dalhousie School of Architecture, who for 14 days in July participated in a Free Lab design and build project at The Deanery Project.]