The Carillon Here and There #78

Carillon Column # 78

Here & There by Abe Warkentin

Paying for the California dream.

            Whenever I go to the Sandilands Forest Reserve – and it isn’t nearly often enough – I take the picturesque PR 210 at La Broquerie and meander southeast.

Somewhere in-between La Broquerie and Marchand, on a property on the south side of the road, across the highway from the big bison ranch, I can make out what I am certain is a stackwall building.

            Stackwall refers to the construction. It’s a neat woodpile mortared on both ends with insulation between the logs. It costs next to nothing to build except labor, has a decent R-value and can last close to forever. So, nearly everyone in Manitoba has one, right? Well, no, actually you’d be hard-pressed to find half a dozen stackwall buildings in all of southeastern Manitoba.

            My neighbor has a straw bale house. Straw is local and cheap. The house, with lovely, huge  beams – some from the old Steinbach Flour Mills building --give it a stunning, European look. You’d think everyone would want one, right? Well, no, actually you’d be hardpressed to find half a dozen in all of southeastern Manitoba.

People around the world utilize local building material for their homes but not  Canadians.

As of this moment we have thousands of trees lying around and going to waste in the Sandilands Forest Reserve and straw is being burned off farmer’s fields and choking our children and elderly citizens. So why are we still buying spruce from B.C. to build expensive houses designed for Florida or California climates after all those years when we nearly froze to death in them?

Where we first went wrong, I think, was buying into the California ‘dream’ bungalows in the 1950’s. When we crawled down from our traditional and very practical, 1½ storey houses, we left a better house behind. Those old houses – the kind you can still see if you look really hard on streets like Friesen in Steinbach—had charm, elegance and room. The Victorian highlights, especially the porch, practically invited passers-by to drop in.

The follow-up, the standard, 975- square foot, three-bedroom California bungalow with four-by-four foot entrances had its pros. Less stairs but also much less room. At Christmas time, visitors coming over in groups of more than two had a choice: freeze their feet hard outside in their black, buckle-up rubbers waiting for earlier arrivals to undress three layers of clothes or desperately push their way in and send someone flying into the basement which loomed dead-centre off the entrance.

The bungalow basement was generally “finished” by the owner with depressing, dark paneling or badly-taped gyproc patched with leftover paint. Usually green. Sometimes there was a velvet Elvis painting for ambience.

            Since then, the evolution has proceeded to larger bungalows, bi-levels and into what the market charmingly refers to as the “snout-house” – an expensive production with all the bells and whistles you can imagine inside but really a house attached to a huge garage to save on street frontage tax.

I know of one street where every house has exactly the same design and faux-stone front. I haven’t looked in the windows but I would imagine the occupants all look alike, eat the same kind of cereal for breakfast and vote for the same political party.

Vinyl and plastic has its place but there is simply too much. It’s rubbing off on the people. Is there no pine, no cedar, no attractive granite on the whole vast Canadian Shield worth using?

            And one other thing: why is Steinbach growing north and south? We are paving over the best productive farm land. Ideally, Steinbach should long have grown east, where the land is sandier, less suited for agriculture. The potato fields south of town are nearly covered with houses and the city is now advancing determinedly on the dump. I expect to live to see mansions high on top of the dump heated with methane gas produced from previous generations’ waste.

But one day we will process the straw for its insulating properties, the lowly poplar for the strong hardwood it is and the jack pine for its beauty. And we will harness energy from the sun and wind, even locally, and not just at the Mennonite Heritage Village windmill under the tutelage of Dutch millwrights.

Our governments should have led us in that direction decades ago with tax incentives for homes with local material and solar and wind energy but they didn’t. Instead, they bought our votes with criminally-cheap hydro electric power (we consume 10 times the world average) that bred us into the hardened energy gluttons we are today.