The last(ing) straw

The Globe and Mail, September 9 2000 – Janice Lindsay

It used to be that things were built to last. What broke could be fixed. People felt useful, capable. And that's the way it seems to be around the Warburtons' straw-bale house in the Hockley Valley, north of Toronto. "Man's infatuation with the machine is over," says David Warburton. "We want to be more self-sufficient. More responsible."

When he isn't designing gardens that cover up to 65 acres for neighbours and clients, Warburton helps organize workshops at the nearby Ecology Conservation Centre. Willow weaving and roof thatching are among the subjects, along with growing organic gardens that are full of fruits and vegetables as well as flowers. Helping to revive old crafts is Warburton's way of helping people lead a less disposable lifestyle. "We have to stop throwing away, polluting, fouling our own nest. Make something with your own hands and it will last. You will pass it on.

The Warburton home sits like a huge hobbit house in the middle of a forest surrounded by flowers. Crossing the small wooden bridge to the garden path is a transition to another world. Even the three dogs greet visitors with surprising civility. Under the low slope of the big storybook roof is the porch cum outdoor Dining room, a friendly jumble of chairs, tables and activities. The latest Harry Potter book lies next to a half-finished glass of fruit cordial. On another table there are indications that an experiment with Play-Doh and sparkly turquoise nail polish has been interrupted. Nearby, Warburton tours a potential client, a film producer from down the road, through the wildly beautiful gardens.

Inside, Anne-Marie Warburton has a small office where she works for Bell Canada. But in the dining room her sewing is spread across the large old table. The sight of brown tissue-paper pattern pieces pinned to printed Cotton beside the sewing machine brings a wave of nostalgia. It seems to say that here, in this place, we can slow down, take the time to do things, make things. Be.

The Warburtons had planned to buy an existing home in the Hockley Valley, but they fell in love with 3 1/2 acres of woodland instead. Then they had to decide what to build on it. Ottawa-based architect Linda Chapman was the one who suggested and later designed the straw-bale home. She and Warburton met when he attended her workshop on permaculture, "the harmonious integration of individuals into the landscape." She shared his interest in being environmentally responsible, in using materials that are created without pollution or the squandering of unsustainable resources. She cared about things like framing interesting vistas and views of the garden through strategically placed doors and windows.

The house's post-and-beam construction used wood harvested on or near the property, and 9OO bales of local hay. Friends, neighbours and keeners from a straw-bale workshop helped to stack the bales like Lego blocks. The bales became a unit of measurement: "The door should be six bales high and two bales over.'' These organic building blocks were covered in a skin of chicken wire that was stapled to the wooden frame at the top and bottom using three-foot-long baling needles and heavy twine. The walls were then quilted tight. The final layers were three coats of cement stucco - not the new kind made with acrylic, but the old kind that lets the walls breathe so moisture in the hay can escape. Mixed into the stucco was a 150-pound bag of natural pigment from Durock Woodbridge, Ont. Iron oxide was chosen because it is the colour of the setting sun and the colour of a stack of straw bales.

Although the Warburtons were very hands-on, they brought in two Contractors, Michael Ash and Collin Cherry - good tree names. They got on so well they have since set up a partnership Because the couple wanted an Adirondack feel to the house, they took Ash and Cherry down to the Lake Placid area where David Warburton grew up. They studied Adirondack homes and visited the Blue Mountain Museum's fine collection of Adirondak furniture.

The wood used in the house is recycled or found on the land. Sixty year-old tamarat trees from next door that were in failing health became the upstairs floor, much to the delight of the neighbour whose father had planted them. The living-room floor is from a demolished Planter's Peanut factory. Ash and Cherry gathered interesting pieces from the property for a banister, a picket or a post. Often the bark was left on.

The house is centred on a huge cockle oven built by Tempcast. The fireplace does not suck the warm air out of the house but channels heat through small chambers in the masonry. Lighting a fire once in the morning and again in the evening radiates enough heat for the entire winter day. This 5,000-year-old German technology handles the 2,500 square feet of house, although it doesn't hurt that the walls have an insulation rating of R40 or R50, four times that of standard insulation. Above the mantel a piece of timber Warburton found, hang nailers from a black buck that Anne-Marie shot in South Texas.

The house is so rich with the tones, textures and grains of the wood, and the wonderful views of the gardens, that not much else is needed. The Warburtons love the look of the furniture in the the old Adirondack mansions, where the likes of the Rockefellers might bring in a rather grand but worn sofa from the city and place it among twig tables and chairs made by local craftsmen. The current American vogue for the lodge look or high mountain style keeps pushing up the price of furniture by Adirondack artisans past and present. In the meantime, the Warburtons have a twig secretary bought at the annual artisan show and sale at the Blue Mountain Museum. Warburton himself is going to build a sofa into the living-room bay window. A leather sofa, an antique blanket box and a large kilim take care of creature comforts. Hammered bronze lamps from En Provence in Toronto are elegant and timeless.

It took four years for the house to go from design to completion. When it was finished, their 11 year-old son Kris remarked, "Our house should always belong to a Warburton." Such pride and sense of attachment seems fitting. A home that is built with care, patience and a respect for life inside and out should be there to pass on for a long time to come.

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