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Builders answering the call of nature

On an unseasonably hot and muggy September day, Ben Polley’s Guelph home was a welcomingly cool, dry place to visit.

The straw bale house where the natural light reflects off polished concrete floors and a one-of-a-kind outdoor cob oven was one of the stops on annual Ontario Natural Homes Tour last weekend.

The self-guided tour, which opens the doors to inspiring and innovative natural homes and buildings in Ontario equipped with unique green technologies, was a perfect fit for Polley, founder of Evolve Builders Group. He’s a full-service general contractor and homebuilder that specializes in green construction and eco-friendly renovations.

His home, the Carter House, is a straw bale structure with heritage designation, exposed wood finishes, recycled wine cork flooring in new bath and backup space heating by antique wood cook stove, among other things.

Although still fairly rare, a straw bale home is constructed with a post-and-beam frame that is in filled with bales placed with the straws running vertically, then purged or plastered on the inside and outside before being painted and sealed.

Some three dozen buildings opened their doors to the public during last weekend’s tour.

Using locally obtained and renewable materials, natural building construction produces homes and buildings that are visually unique and healthy to live in, while striving to keep energy consumption and its’ associated emissions as low as possible. The tour was a way of promoting natural building, showcasing examples of straw bale, rammed earth, cob, timber frame, off grid, passive solar and many other natural building methods and alternative technologies.

Ben Polley in the kitchen of the Carter House, his Guelph home that was showcased on the annual Ontario Natural Homes Tour. [Ali Wilson / The Observer]
Facilitated by the Ontario Natural Building Coalition, a grassroots organization dedicated to the promotion of natural building, coordinator Cheryl Keetch says the tour is in both parts an educational, and entertaining avenue to showcase the work the coalition does.

“It is an entertaining means of providing education to the general public and we have found that people who go on these tours are sometimes just curious, but often they are people who are interested in building a natural home themselves,” she explained. “Often they will find ideas about who to contact to have one of these homes built, so there is some spin off business for builders of these homes although that is really not the intent of the tour, but rather it is to educate general public on the benefits of natural building.”

For Polley, that rang true of this year’s tour. He had about 16 visitors roll through his home during the open house. Although attendance was lower than has been in prior years, he was pleasantly surprised by the intent of each.

“In past years we have had a larger quantity of people, mostly consisting of people who are vaguely interested. This year, each of the visitors had travelled from out of town, all looking for real-life examples with a specific short- to medium-term plan to build a natural home, or a specific green project,” he said, noting they were committed individuals who mostly came to his open house to be able to walk into the working home of a professional builder, an invaluable experience.

There have been over 500 natural homes, offices, additions and even institutional buildings constructed in Ontario over the last several years. Considering building or renovating your home with green technology is a push for environmental change, says Keetch.

“There are so many different reasons to build a natural home, but environmental reasons would be the one that is the top of the list for most people. Most people are very conscious of climate change and hoping to somehow not add to that by building a home that is using natural materials; there is not a lot of energy that is typically used in the production of these materials,” she said. “And then, of course, when people are thinking about alternative technologies they are often more environmentally friendly than conventional technologies.”

Although the tour has come and gone for this year, the coalition’s website houses information from  board members contacts to a full business directory of professionals in the industry who are available to answer questions.

Included in the directory is Polley’s Evolve Builders Group. Not all of the of their work is focused on straw bale homes, but other natural formats as well, now being put to work at a project in Wellesley, for instance.

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