Many feet make light work

Many feet make light work

Earthen Built by Kata Polano

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Apr 9, 2010

Fireproofing a home

After a long, beautiful summer on Vancouver Island, a place where wildfires are not a common threat to homeowners, I headed south along the coast into California. There this threat is one that has become the hot topic of concern for many a homeowner.

I came from a place associated with rainy, moist summers, and harsh, snowed-in winters. I was not naive to the powerful force a wildfire has as it charges across landscapes, consuming almost anything in its infernal path. I had witnessed a few impressionable forest fires while living in Jasper AB, in the Canadian Rockies. The largest of these was the Syncline Ridge Fire that amounted to 28,000 hectares. The one that really showed me just how fast a fire spreads was a relatively small fire that I spotted from my tour boat. It started as a skinny little coil of flames and smoke, probably only consuming one tree, and by the time I called it in, docked the boat, and started asking people to clear the trails, it had grown exponentially to seven hectares.

I was given a tour of the home that was to become mine for the next several months. My job was to make it a safer place, more protected from these fires that wreak havoc every year along the coast. It is said that the burn season has gone from April till September (5 months) to FEBRUARY TILL OCTOBER (9 months). Not a very comforting thought, especially when most houses in the area are built of wood. Even the new "green" houses don't stand much of a chance against a 400 Meter high wall of flames.

There were a handful of us from the colloquium that came down to check out the project and lend a hand. The house was in a pretty ugly state. This was going to be a lot of work. I was ready for it, actually, I was excited for it.
We started by cleaning off anything that would get in our way. Concrete came off, bark, and other loose materials. It was already looking better.

We made samples, and crudely tested them against fire and water. Heavy clay straw seemed to give us what we were looking protection, and some insulation. Picking the most promising mix we started slapping it up on the walls. Our clay came from down the street. The straw came in donations. One bale came from a child's birthday party, and as we mixed it up we were rewarded with little trinkets and toys that may have once been a part of a pinata perhaps.
The work went surprisingly fast. Our clay was nice and sticky, making the straw-clay mix stay up on the walls with some nails as key. To strengthen the whole thing, we nailed up some 2"x4" wire fencing over the first layer. It got a little trickier when we got to the top, the overhanging eaves to be exact. Its added challenge made it that much more rewarding to see it go up.

The scratch coat was next. This brought in a little bit of sculpting, as we created some pillars coming up off of rock bases. We also created some arches over the half circle windows to the basement. The wall was starting to come together.

I just love the part when I can start to see the more refined shapes and softer lines as a project gets closer to the final plastering. Edges are more defined, straw gets tucked and trimmed, and curves glide smoothly under my hand. This is where I can both step back and see the fruit of my labour, as well as step in and really feel and smell it too.

Finally, the finish plaster goes on! Sometimes we are fortunate enough to have a naturally beautifully coloured clay that we can just use straight out of the ground without adding pigments to. The clay we had here was pretty close to this, and was just slightly enhanced with a touch of red pigment to make it stand out just enough.
The most demanding part of this whole process was, without doubt, the plastering of the eaves. I tell you though, it is great conditioning for the shoulders!

We researched it, discussed it, tested it, and in the end we decided on a full clay-based plaster for the entire wall. Below you can see the wall when we started, and then the finished wall still drying.


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