Sustainable builder Andrew Heneghan on the impacts of global economy politics in rural China, the realities of Western medicine in Haiti, and what anarchism has to do with gardening.
Tracy: Tell me a bit about your interest in Passive Housing and what it means for you to be a part of.
Andrew: I've been involved with construction, architecture, building, trades, and farming since I was in my teens. I stumbled into [building] as a teenager looking for work and I ended up working on construction sites which I didn't particularly enjoy, but the work was there, it was laborious, it paid, and it was reliable at that time. As soon as I could finish with that, I did. I worked in various other fields, but throughout my degree at SFU [Simon Fraser University] two major themes that came up were the state of our food systems, and the state of our built environment. These two major systems that are so important as human necessities - food and shelter - use energy or produce products that aren't necessarily the best for humanity, or the best for the world. So after finishing University, I actually returned to construction and agriculture.
You studied Environmental Geography at Simon Fraser University. What did that incorporate?
Yes, it was exciting: a globally-minded degree with an emphasis on the local impacts of globalization. I worked with excellent profs among which was Janet Sturgeon who focused on China. She had done a lot of research examining the politics of China and their impact on the micro scale in small communities in rural China. Looking at Chinese history, China's government has been famous for coming up with cure-all solutions and applying them across the board to a whole nation. She really showed me the effect of big political motions on smaller regions. In the valley she was studying in, at the border of Cambodia, China, Vietnam, Thailand (far removed from big political centres or big economic centres like Beijing or Shanghai), the people would be really transformed by those types of large decisions.
For example, at a certain point China realized that rubber was of great value to big markets, i.e. North America and Europe, and so the Chinese government would go anywhere in Southern China where the rubber trees are capable of growing, and say "Let's cut down every other tree and plant rubber." So all of a sudden, that transforms the whole ecology of a region, which sure, provides money and some jobs, but it transforms it - people then must start harvesting rubber in regions where they'd always practised agriculture.
In her region specifically, the forest to those people was a place you left alone. The hillsides were forests and you left them alone because that's where the spirits resided. In the valleys where it was very fertile, that's where they practised agriculture to sustain their farms and their livelihoods. But these big political and economic motions by the government would all of a sudden transform and completely override that local connection to nature, and that local economy with: "This is your new role in society and you're going to be running rubber plantations for us."
What's a rubber tree? Standard, household rubber products start from a plant?
Yes, they're actually common houseplants, even Ikea sells them. They're those big, waxy looking ones with dark, almost a red hue in the stem, and a deep, dark green leaf, and really thick. They're interesting.
The government would come in and say, "You have to start producing rubber for us."?
Yes, "Now you have to produce rubber. And now you have to transform your whole ecology to what our government thinks is most valuable for the country," which at that time is basically North American and European demand. What they want from the landscape, from the natural environment. And rubber is a widely used commodity - tires, shoe soles, and who knows what other products we use. So all of this just became fascinating to me: the impact on distant economies whether that be our rubber products or whatever else we might not often think of.
[Janet Sturgeon] also spoke of the "grain to green" movement in China which was a similar political-economic movement. The idea was that in order for China to rise to power, and in order for them to fuel their economy, they would cut down every forest to plant grain. In fact they would even take earth from mountain tops and hillsides, and bring it down to fill lakes with, and then plant grain. And people just have to agree because it's building the Chinese economy. We are so linked in this globe, and oftentimes people call China crazy for doing this, but there's a darn good chance that they do it because we are the ones demanding these products - and still are to this day. Most of the manufacturing of our shoes, of our shirts, almost everything is made is South-East Asia.
Her research transformed your scope of the geo-political world. Did it then impacted a lot of your future decisions?
Yes, Janet was a particularly important professor because she really brought the power of economics and government to the forefront. She shook the foundations of a lot of the innocent assumptions that myself and many North Americans have about our economic impact. I remember receiving a D on a paper that I had written about whether or not to allow locals to return to the Szechuan region after the massive earthquake. This is some of the last remaining giant panda habitat, and I jumped to the conclusion, that no, this is a good time for the locals to leave and allow the bamboo forests and pandas to recover.
Janet pointed to a very real flaw in my response to this question: these local people have been coexisting with the giant panda for centuries and, of any people on the planet, these locals most likely have the most symbiotic relationship with these creatures; they have in fact coexisted for centuries or even thousands of years with the pandas. Instead I was reminded to look at the bigger picture, ie. Deforestation caused by global consumption or Chinese political movements. The 'D' grade was deserved and has kept me on my toes ever since.
Janet brought geographical examination to a very tangible, specific realm. Down from theory (so much of University can be theory). But hers was research and stories from the front-lines of China. And then after that Sam [Benesh] and I spent a summer together working on a really interesting geographical analysis of Dominica - so Haiti and the Dominican Republic. We were both looking at very different issues. I was looking at water scarcity in Port-au-Prince and urban Haiti, and Sam was looking at sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic and seeing how basic modern slavery was still taking place.
Today Haiti is starkly different from the Dominican Republic. It seems that the entire circumference of The Dominican is pocked with five-star resorts and golf courses, while Haiti is strikingly barren.
It's an incredible dichotomy. Do you know of Jared Diamond? He wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel? He did a brief but interesting article on the vast difference between the two nations. You can even see from an aerial photograph between Haiti and the Dominican Republic that the ecology on the mountainous border is so vividly contrasting. The Haitian side is barren and arid, and the Dominican is lush and forested - all green. It is a stark contrast representing the different economies and the different histories.
I remember the headlines a few years back: the children of Haiti having to eat mud patties for even the slightest form of food in order to sustain themselves. You travelled to Haiti during university?
I did. The hospital that my mother works for in New Hampshire had a nurse who moved to Haiti. She opened a clinic to help people with water-born illnesses, or to help with dental work - general practise medicine. The nurse had set up a clinic there and over the next few years, Dartmouth Hitchcock would send a group of doctors, nurses, and sometimes volunteers to go down and perform a bigger scale clinic over the course of two weeks or so. My mom invited me to come and I said yes, of course. January of that year there was the 7.0 Haitian earthquake, so we weren't sure if we were going to be able to go or not, but we ended up being able to. It was a really incredible time.
I went down a little skeptical at first though. I went with a group when I was just finishing my degree in Environmental Geography, so I'd spent much time looking at health and wellness from the perspective of cultural diet, exercise, and community planning. I also had a lot of my own politicized thoughts: the university mind thinking, "Western medicine is bullshit with all these prescription drugs." And then of course, "Why aren't we focusing on the root causes of these problems?" But obviously there's so much more to the picture than telling [a medical professional] "You're wrong." And I know now that without medical professionals, Haitians could be languishing with severe ailments and injuries that would otherwise go untreated. I suppose my perspective evolved on this trip realizing the importance of western medicine in helping cure individuals who are injured and sick, but also acknowledging that a major void exists in the developed world's response to Haiti's crippling social, political, ecological, and economic problems.
There is value in looking at the "why". Why the problem; not just focusing on the symptoms of the problem. If we put all our energy into preventing the problem, then you can come to a solution. A lot of Western medicine isn't addressing what leads people to be sick in the first place. Of course, it's effective in sudden circumstances like injuries requiring surgery and so forth.
Yes, and that's important; it has its place. I've come to realize that Western medicine can be really important in some ways: with trauma for example. If something happens on a worksite while building houses, I couldn't go in and say: "Hey have a turmeric juice to heal the steel rebar that just punctured your leg" you know? [laughter]. So I've prepared myself for Haiti while working with Janet and Sam, with all three of us attacking our own issues. We would come together every week and discuss the "Why" - Janet had provided a really great framework for that analysis. I was learning a lot about the history of Haiti which was the first black nation, and the only black republic, to actually overthrow their colonizers - in this case France. However, the repercussions of this uprise, including French military invasions and global trade embargoes, fueled a chain of poverty in the liberated nation. Haiti went from a nation of self-sufficient first nations people to a deeply impoverished post-colonial republic in a very short period of time.
Explain more how this played out. The history on that action.
Initially the Spanish came in and enslaved the first nation people while seeking gold and minerals, so the entire resident First Nations population dies because they go from a life of living from the sea and living off the land, to working around the clock for Spanish overlords for minerals that previously were of no use to them once extracted. France then takes over and shifts the economic focus to sugar plantations. This is interesting because it's when that addiction to sugar really rises in the West. It fuels France into so much wealth and abundance, and it came from Haiti. So they started importing slaves from West Africa because all of the First Nations people had died. One of the big things that stood out to me was that these people were taken from all over Western Africa which represents so many different tribes, nations, and peoples, that when they're on a boat they can't communicate - they don't speak the same language whatsoever. So much is taken away from them.
All of a sudden this big nation is created where these black people of such huge variety of culture and language are forced into slavery on this island to grow sugarcane and tobacco. And it's fascinating because somehow over time the slaves managed to organize and overthrow those French colonizers as the only slave colony in the world that has ever been able to. But then France sent its people over and burnt the whole nation down: all the infrastructure was burnt down, all the fields burnt down, everything. The Western world created a debilitating trade embargo where it was enforced that nothing could be traded with Haiti until they paid France 'X' amount of dollars. I think it was even in the billions after inflation. So this nation was not only created with slaves, burnt to the ground, forced into a trade embargo, but then it had to pay a huge tab to France for basically taking back their own lives. So ever since then, Haiti has just been experiencing paralyzing impoverishment in trying to get past all of that.
Every government that has come into power since that point has had to keep paying back this debt to France?
Exactly, but I believe it may have finally been paid. However the poverty still exists because of all these things I mentioned - but also because people were so downtrodden after this. Imagine everything being taken away from you and your ancestors repeatedly. The land is destroyed and you have to blindly depend on any leader that arises to do the best thing. But there's been so much corruption with every single political leader - most of which are largely puppets of one country or another, largely the United States. So the leaders of Haiti are being funded with all of this foreign cash, which is intended to go into the country. But as we know in a country where there are no appropriate guidelines for spending that money, it gets put into these presidential palaces and these lavish lifestyles while the rest of the country flounders.
Huge inequalities in wealth distribution.
Yeah massive. And with ecological impacts. One of the first things I noticed when I was getting off the plane is the thick smell of smoke in the city because the country still relies on burning wood - for cooking and such things. Of course you rarely have to heat your home there, but it's still a charcoal economy.
Where does all the wood come from? Clearly it's not imported, so it comes from their own land?
They cut down anything that grows. So that's why the forests are all entirely depleted. Because it's a tropical region, things grow quickly, but the soil eventually suffers. The trees were first burnt down [by colonizers], then the people had to cut down the remaining trees for charcoal, and then the barrage of rain strips the soil of any last morsel of nutrient. So it's a really desperate place for them and you notice it. Landing in Port-au-Prince -- we flew there from New York City, so from New York City to Port-au-Prince, you notice a stark contrast from opulence to destitution. Almost immediately after leaving the airport you see children, dogs, goats, and most people existing in settings that could not be imagined in the US which is so nearby. However, in the airport there was gorgeous music playing inside and such beautiful people. People seemingly proud to share their country and making the best of every day.
Your comment leads me to something I notice often but which rarely gets attention in any discourse. In these so-called 'developing' countries that are, yes, completely impoverished, people still seem so much more connected, so much more resourceful, and so much more focused on the health and happiness of others than we are in the West. Did you find this to be true at all?
Oh yeah. It was shocking. I remember all of us would ride around in a pickup truck. We'd be sitting in the back - in a cage basically - on these inner city roads that were far worse than any logging road I've ever been on in BC. And we all noticed how the smiles of people were just incredible. They were literally living in tents because so many structures had fallen from the earthquake; they were living in really, really desperate places. I've never seen anything like it. Golf courses had been transformed into hillsides of tents where the toilet was a hole in the ground. But they still spent a lot of time preparing themselves for the day together to be presentable to one another. There were so many beautiful children with very full, big, smiles who were so playful and caring. And those walking down the street to school or to their other engagements would smile and wave to us as we went by. This is when there's still some animosity there towards white people there, which is entirely understandable.
But there was a lot of just general polite, beautiful humanity happening. There is definitely a more affectionate nature there. The clinic that we were initially supposed to go work at had collapsed, so we actually did a clinic each day in different parts of the city - anywhere from up in the hillsides to down in the poorest ghettos where there were still gunshots holes in the walls. I can picture it now: we did one clinic in a church in this super poor area that was recently made into a 'no go' zone - especially for foreigners. And hanging out in this big church were at least 200 Haitians waiting to see the doctors. Everyone was climbing all over each other, trampling around, playing with each other, talking to each other. It was almost -- there's a feeling of real oneness there, thinking back. So yes there was a lot of camaraderie between the people. Everywhere we went to do these clinics there would be hundreds of people standing together, but they were playing and hanging out with each other. So I think that's definitely true.
What again were they waiting for at these clinics?
Our initial plan was to go down there because people don't have general healthcare. They may see a doctor once a -- well who knows how long. So often a lot of it is that people get really poor teeth: rotting from lack of dental hygiene and vitamins, incurring severe pain. So we were to be doing general dentistry. One big thing that really tied into what I turned into my research paper was water in the city. It is so scarce. This is one of those places you hear about where women will have to walk a certain amount of miles every single day to get water to bring back to their children. This water is not treated - almost everyone ends up with water-born illnesses and parasites because people shit and piss outside near the water source. So that all goes into the same water stream or winds up in the well which is pulled up to fill buckets, and then brought back to families. And that's the only water they have access to.
For a country struggling with clean water yet surrounded by ocean, has the possibility of turning salt water into drinkable water been discussed at any length?
It's been done, yeah - attempted a lot. I'm sure that's one of the big questions of engineers around the world. There are some ways to do it efficiently, but it is really energy intensive to turn ocean water into consumable water. So unfortunately it's totally out of the question at this point in Haiti. There have been some other interesting endeavours where they capture fog rolling in off the ocean with man-made nets that collect the moisture, and then they use it for fresh water. But at this point desalinization is something that is only reserved for very wealthy, energy-rich countries. I think Saudi Arabia is even doing it. I know there are also some really simple, solar purifiers that I've seen in parts of Africa. They take corrugated metal and put water bottles on the end, and the solar heat from the UV rays--
Ah, they evaporate the water from the salt?
I think in those cases in Africa they actually take existing fresh water that likely has parasites, and the UV heat perhaps - I don't know the exact science on how it works exactly - but I think it's enough to deem the water safe for drinking. So Haiti is definitely in need of further investment in clean drinking water. This is where corruption comes into play again: there's been a lot of foreign investment into water infrastructure in Haiti, but those projects haven't been completed to what they could be doing.
Why is that?
Because it's routinely getting siphoned off by the Haitian government. The UN for example will say, "Here's ten million dollars for a water treatment plant in Port-au-Prince. Get it done." And if you just give money (and only to one political ruler) well then unfortunately they might just go on a big vacation and buy a really nice new house.
So water there is something else. We were staying in the house of the white male nurse who had enough money to purchase city water, which would come from the mountains down a pipe, on two days of the week. So you'd fill a cistern below his house and then you could access the water, which you can't drink because it's not yet treated, and then you boil it and treat it. Otherwise there are water trucks that deliver plastic water vessels like you see in North American offices. And that provides water for people, but then again you had to pay for it. So those without money (which is the majority of the population) are forced to get water from wells that are generally untreated.
Desperately, poor Haitians will figure out which days water flows down from the mountains, dig up the streets to find the pipe, smash the pipe, and then fill their buckets up with water. That screws up the water system obviously, but also it lets all that fresh water out. Once as many people as possible have filled up every last canteen, all the rest of that water is just endlessly flowing out of these pipes. But I fully understand this - you do what you've got to do in order to survive. How is it that a nation that is literally within an hours' flight away from Miami, having such a desperate struggle accessing water? It's something that in Miami you can waste away; you can sit in a shower for as long as you want, or fill up a swimming pool over and over. Everyone has asked these questions and there are no simple answers.
As you noted, it must have to do with destroying a population, destroying the land, and then saying: "Oh here's some money." Given that kind of grim history, of course currency will be desperately hoarded to protect oneself from what might occur under the power that gave it. Anyone can easily be corrupted by money in such gruesomely desperate situations. Just like you said, they're thinking of survival.
And we went at a really interesting time because of the earthquake so there was a hugely traumatic situation. Various NGOs were going down, a big contingency of Christian missionary groups went down, and a lot of doctors went down. We even drove past Sean Penn who was there too - we worked at the medical facilities and encampment he had set up. He was actually doing really good work. There was even a golf course transformed into a huge shelter for these people - the whole course was turned into tents, temporary clinics, and health care facilities. There was an incredible amount work of being done, but the parasites and water borne illnesses that are apparent in the water seemed to be deeply entrenched, so these issues with the supply of water weren't really going anywhere. We were able to provide medication - this sort of 'cure-all' pill called Albendazol which is an anti-parasitic drug. Let's say you get a worm in your system that is draining your nutrition and so could basically kill you by consuming anything you eat, well this pill cures it. You're cured.
By killing the parasite, or the worm?
Yeah! But then you go drink the water again and it has the worm in it again! In my mind I'm thinking: "Is this not what we hear about all the time?" We come up with a cure-all pill, give it until the resistance evolves and this thing becomes a stronger worm, and then we have to develop a new pill to cure the new worm?
Rather than putting all our resources and funds into making sure there is adequate drinking water with no parasitic worms. It seems to be only a temporary fix that, yes is awesome because it saves lives, but at the same time is not solving the problem.
Yes, it certainly is a necessary temporary fix for the situation - otherwise these people could die from infection; and I don't want to point the finger at doctors, as without their significant contributions more lives would be lost. That being said, I felt that moving forward on more improvements to the water system would have far greater impact than medication.
Talk more about the issue of food in Haiti.
Yes so hunger is another major issue in Haiti. It seems crazy given the amount of food waste in North America. So in an effort to curb malnutrition or starvation, we provided multivitamins to supplement daily nutritional needs for suvival. I found it challenging to see the need for multivitamins in a nation once fully self-sufficient from the land and sea. We're helping with the basic needs to survive, but who's down there restoring the life-sustaining ecology? Or practising reforestation? Who's down there looking at alternatives to cooking with charcoal? Who's down there working with soil? Who's harvesting whatever resources we have in terms of food-waste; in terms of any biomatter to develop healthy soil? Who's teaching these people to grow food?
I'm certainly not in the position to guide the transformation of Haiti, but I felt like there was this big void for real, tangible skills. We went to this church one day and there were these beautiful children who each got up and spoke about their experience at Christian camp that summer. They were all smiling and happy, and had a lot of hope, but with their words, they said, "We went to this beautiful camp by the ocean, we got to spend time together and study the Bible, and we learned so much about God, and God is great." Meanwhile I'm thinking, "But did they teach you guys about soil? Or how to clean water? Or any other tangible skills for self-sufficiency?" I mean, is anyone doing that? Or are we just going to continue to fly down pills, food, and religious teachings from other countries?
Regarding these ostensibly "underdeveloped" countries, it seems the only lasting solution would be for us to, A: Stop allowing our corporations to pursue their resources, and B: Promote discussion of ancient farming methods that were lost while generations went through trauma that imperialism inflicted on them. We should help them use their land to become self-sustaining again: it's in their history. We all heard the quote as kids, "Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime."
Definitely, even sending someone like Chelsey [Armstrong, Ethnobiologist Ph.D. student and mutual friend] over to help recover these things. Because it would be great if we could just say: "Hey you know what, you guys can just go do your historical practise of agriculture." But it's different now because all those nations have lost the knowledge, and the ecology has entirely changed. But what Chelsey and her sect of studies is looking at is, "What did it look like when these people lived here before colonization?" And maybe between some combination of organic farmers of our time, and Ethnobotanists, it would be much more of a conversation, because surely there's so much to learn from those cultures.
I was home visiting my family shortly after that trip, and I remember being in the city and walking into one of the MIT buildings in Boston. Right when I walked in, there was a presentation entitled something like "MIT in Haiti". They had been down there building really interesting structures from materials from the land, housing Haitians, setting up the schools, and teaching them how to grow food. But also learning from them about the ecology of that environment, how to grow food in that environment, how to turn bio-waste into compost, and how to clean water. If an organization like MIT is there, that's exciting. That's a huge force of knowledge - with a lot of funding - so hopefully that will be influencing our generation's idea of 'Third World' aid and international development.
Awesome, I'm hopeful it will. You've done quite a bit of traveling. That was Haiti, right after you finished university. Have other trips helped put the theories from your degree into practise the same way Haiti did?
Every travel experience I've ever had (as I'm sure is the same for you) has been such a world forming experience. Observing the built environment, public space, the food and the lifestyles of local people, have always enriched my understanding of public health, wellness, and ecology.
Which bounces us back to where we started off: talking about your involvement in passive housing from your origins of sustainability.
Yes. So I had worked in organic farming for quite a while which is an incredible, massively important field of work. And I kind of fell into it. When my family moved to New Hampshire, the father of my newfound neighbours was so passionate about transforming his land. He had this gorgeous organic vegetable garden, yet he was a doctor - an OB/GYN. He's been a really important person in my life and his family is really close to ours. I remember going next door and thinking it was so different, because we had lived in the city -- I mean St. John's is not a big city, but my high school years were transformed by the move. My brother and I would be out fucking around with the angry rams - getting chased by them. He would even have us cleaning the sheep stalls for money, or weeding the asparagus fields, or harvesting strawberries. But there was nothing romantic about it - it was like, "Aw do we have to?" as defiant teenagers will be. But now I'm glad I had that exposure at a certain age because it helped when I came back into it.
When I was doing my degree, I met Samantha and Kenzie [Benesh] and thought, "Those girls are awesome, what's their deal? Oh they're vegetarian and they care about their environments", And it reminded me that I've always cared about my environment. It reinvigorated that past and I was pulled by these people who were really inspiring - I looked up to them. So through my studies and meeting people like that, I began developing a deep appreciation for food. After my degree I started thinking, "Great I've talked about it a whole lot, now how the hell am I going to actually influence this?" I could write a million papers on food, but I needed to experience it. From there I helped out in this permaculture food forest in East Van[couver], where there had been a group of countercultural, punk, anarchists that started transforming industrial land into food gardens. Have you heard of the Purple Thistle Collective?
I haven't. What do they do?
So I found them through my interest in permaculture, which I had just been turned onto. Permaculture is a philosophy towards land use, looking at bridging nature's mentality on how to use land, with human mentality on how to use land. Human mentality is always looking for a lot of order and utility i.e. food/products; whereas permaculture says nature prefers randomness and wildness. So this is in the middle. The Purple Thistle seemed to be a collective of teens, but they all had very anarchist undertones. They had a space on Vernon street where they would make Zines and create art, they would do screen printings and create film projects, but they also had this trucking facility that the city had allowed them to turn into an 'anything goes' garden. Adam Huggins, a friend there who is this really intelligent, botanist - he salvaged bricks and made raised beds where he grew beans and all sorts of medicinal flowers and greens - kale before it was popular for example. So they just really transformed the industrial land.
When you read about what anarchy really means, it's about honouring disorder not hailing destruction. So it's cool to hear this: anarchist movements connected to growing food - it now seems a very natural alliance to re-wild nature with.
Yes, and while I am partial to order, government, and the methodologies of traditional organic farmers, I'm always open to new philosophies and social frameworks. The Purple Thistle represented a very approachable and unique group of people tackling an issue that lies close to my heart: the production of food organically and near to where we live. The area in which the garden existed--industrial East Vancouver--provided a very interesting backdrop as food forests and lush gardens contrasted with industry and traffic. In many ways the gardens represented an extension of a diversification of the local economy. The area became an urban agriculture hub as the Purple Thistle expanded its garden to include more areas of underutilized lawn; planting beans, and squash, and fruit trees, and even including a number of bee hives on a nearby rooftop. Strathcona Park has this whole history of urban agriculture as well, with the cottonwood gardens - the Strathcona community gardens – which are many acres of community garden space that have existed in Vancouver for over 20 years. Actually Sole Food received a significant piece of land on Vernon Street to grow organic veggies year round in covered greenhouse structures. So the city supported this proliferation of urban food.
One day we drove out to The Southlands which is another interesting place - totally upscale but an interesting enclave of agriculture. There were horses out there so we were picking up all of this horse manure to bring down to the city to do what they called cover composting where you would literally layer horse shit and organic matter all over the old lawn. The idea is that this huge layer of organic matter becomes incredibly fertile soil with all this mycology happening within it. It then can be planted with perennial plants like native fruit trees, berries, vegetables, herbs etc.
So over the years I managed to volunteer with a number of garden collectives and really learned a lot from the people who were doing it. Initially it was counter-intuitive because at that 20 something age, I was just thinking: "Party". I was self-centred and it was all about me, but to meet these various groups, whether it was these young kids - the Purple Thistle, or elderly groups, really deflected that mentality.
You also worked with a Disabled Gardeners' Association?
Yeah, an ex of mine and I used to volunteer with this group in Templeton Park which was a disabled gardeners' association. It would be a weekend morning and I would be hungover and go to the garden to work with people in wheelchairs. They had all these beds that were raised up to a level that they could work in. It was a great organization called Disabled Independent Gardener's Association, and they had a space in the community garden with raised beds that were elevated to a level that was workable for handicapped individuals, and what a great way to connect people! Gardening period. It's just amazing how gardening disarms you. It's no longer about dress, or age, or cultural background. It's about getting your hands dirty, braving the elements, learning about and connecting with your food, and learning about and connecting with each other.
This shows how your studies, paired with your research into ecology led you to farming and gardening. How did you put to practise your interest in architecture and building living spaces "sustainably" so to speak?
There are a number of reasons. Architecture stemmed from working with architects in the city as just another job; I was a personal assistant to three architects. First of all I loved their homes and their spaces - just really getting attached to simplicity and minimalism in interior spaces and how space when allowed to be spacious, just feels calming. Organization feels good for the human mind - something designed thoughtfully just feels good to be in. Forever I thought I wanted to be an architect and who knows, I still love, love, love design.
But I found that before committing to something as huge as architecture, I was interested in understanding the building process first, and seeing what goes into creating the space. Getting into building at this time came out of economy as well. I had done the internship at Sole Food which was fantastic, but the government sponsored internship ended in the city and all of a sudden I was looking at, "Okay I can work with you guys a bit", but the wage of a farmer is so limited. Especially for someone living in a city. It's really mind-bending what the values are in this economy.
It's interesting, in the New York Times they had a fantastic article that had this horrible name, something along the lines of "Why to Definitely Not Let Your Kid Become a Farmer" or something. But I found it to be really telling. It's quite romantic right now, even I myself may have gotten into farming because it's just a general trend - being aware of what was happening on the internet. You think, "Oh wow, organic farming is this beautiful life path." - which it is. It certainly is. But the realities of it are quite scary; you give up a lot in order to do it. Often many of these people are operating in debt and subsiding on a very frugal existence. That's always scared me away from certain elements of it, but has also excited me more and more because it really makes you value the people who are doing it. A lot of people would say just a generation ago, "Oh farming, that's a very backward practise." But then I look at my friend Lissa Goldstein who's an Ivy League graduate, but who is now a Farmer. By choice.
Incredible. So from there you decided to work with people who had a respect for the environment but in terms of design, use of space, and simplicity?
Yeah it was me falling back into this desire of the means and modes of production - understanding what goes into this work so that I could eventually do it myself. Or so that I can have my minimalist, modern, cool, beautiful, blog-able house. [Laughs] And then I can have my beautiful, simple, food garden attached to my really cool, modern, minimalist house. [Laughter] I thought it was going to just be that easy ... I'd been offered a job with a construction company that aligned with some of my values. It focused on heritage restoration based out of Strathcona and I was learning new skills from the get-go.
I had done a little bit of building here and there, and had worked on construction sites but never under the guidance of a proper carpenter. We did some heritage restoration projects and I definitely enjoyed it, although I was quickly made aware of the challenges of the trade. The end product is so beautiful when you see it, but it takes a lot to get there - especially with restoration or renovation. Taking apart an old house you're really being exposed to a lot of hazardous, chemical materials, lead paint, old insulation that has various carcinogens etc.
These structures that have been deemed 'Heritage' buildings by the city, or another authority, and then someone comes in and wants to redesign them but keep the frame essentially? What does heritage restoration work entail?
A heritage building would be a building that has been almost entirely unchanged - structurally unchanged and interior unchanged, to a degree, since maybe 80 to 100 years in Vancouver standards. Then that would be a heritage building. In order to maintain heritage status (which I think there's a significant tax incentive to do so), you are under restriction of The Heritage Association of the city of Vancouver. It could be something like only being able to paint your house a certain colour, and any renovation work has to be approved by the city. So these houses we work on would have been beautiful old homes that have gone into a state of disrepair but are ready to be upgraded. That was a niche market though - we would do some of that and some other work of course too. But it was always a really interesting project because when you go in and start to upgrade something that already exists, it's opening what could be a pandora's box of issues.
Heritage restoration was interesting and enjoyable but eventually I was getting into mostly condo renovations. And that's when I started to disconnect from the work. It seems so much of the renovation and construction being done in Vancouver is temporary - oriented towards visual trends, rather than creating a long-lasting, functional shelter. This approach not only leads to the construction of energy inefficient buildings, but also creates an incredible amount of construction waste. Construction waste is the largest contributor to the landfill in Vancouver. Luckily I was then able to link with a really interesting design-build project: helping create the stage for the first TED conventions here. So fortunately I've been attached to so many people that are real leaders in these fields: sustainable architecture and organic farming. Of course to tell all of this through my story and my eyes is one thing, but there are so many other people who are phenomenal leaders and entrepreneurs in these realms.
I'm not a fan of only focusing on the so-called leaders - the 'A' type personalities that are the face of an organization. I'm more interested in the people that have actually done all the long hours of hard work. They're the contributing factor to that 'A' personality's success.
Yeah that's always important. That's very important. I agree.
Tell me more about the TED stage project. What is Design-build for those of us who are unfamiliar?
The Design-build project with TED was myself reconnecting with the architects that I had worked with when I was in University. One of them was Michael Green who is a renowned local architect. He does really beautiful work in Vancouver and around the world: residential, commercial, and he has his own firm in the city. I had reached out to him because this theme of architecture and education was coming back up where I was wondering if I want to go back and get a Master's [degree] in Architecture. At that time he was starting a Design-build research school in Vancouver. Design-build has always excited me because it's so creative and also so hands-on. He offered me to just come in and help because I had some experience with carpentry so I could help with some of the students who were architecture students or design students.
Michael has been attached to the TED talks for quite a while - he's done a number of TED talks himself. It was a refreshing experience mostly because I met some amazing students - it's awesome to connect with other people around your age that are on a similar path. You get into the discussion of, "How did you get into architecture?" or, "What elements are bothering you?". One of the girls Chantelle Grills I'd spoken to about my disillusionment with condo renovations - finding it mundane and lacking value in terms of the work that we were doing. Through her I got introduced to Erik Olofsson who I worked with later on. I met him for coffee and instantly thought, "Okay this is someone in the trades who is entirely fascinating". He's got a really calm energy and is a really calm conversationalist as well as a great listener. He was someone that I immediately felt a lot of respect from and a lot of respect for.
You mentioned once that you found a huge difference working with people who weren't throwing their cigarette butts on the site, or spitting on the site, and who wouldn't curse at each other or talk disrespectfully - things that bring that negative energy onto the site. You noted how it can actually affect the living space that is being built. Thinking philosophically, can energy effect a living space?
Yeah, essentially all that energy is embodied in the space created. All that anger, frustration, and yelling of directions. As someone that was learning to be a carpenter, you're taking direction from other people which can always be hard, but it's a whole lot easier when the person offering direction is saying it clearly and not feeling frustrated if you ask questions. So Erik as the owner of Olofsson construction was someone I clearly found really encouraging to work with and to learn from. An individual with a wealth of building experience and a desire to change the way homes are built in Canada. He studied Passive House construction and was really pushing to bring this established energy-saving building methodology to his work and to Canada. It was really refreshing to meet someone in construction who cared so much about the quality, longevity, and sustainability of the product.
Is Olofsson the one who introduced you to the idea of Passive Housing?
I'd been familiar with Passive House before meeting Erik. I've always been really interested in various typologies of sustainable building. Passive House had been exposed to me through independent research. I was turned on by the European sound of it - it's a German concept: Passivhaus. It was further attracted by its widespread adoption in the European built environment. Passive House is essentially a third party certification process which tests the energy efficiency of a structure. Those who learn about the Passive House standard also learn about the simple principles that allow these structures to use a tiny fraction of the energy of the average building.
The principles include orientation of the house to maximize passive heating and cooling from sun and shade, substantial insulation to maintain a neutral temperature and to capture the warmth emitted from appliances and inhabitants, triple pane windows, and a heat recovery ventilation system. It's not a complex concept to grasp although execution requires a high level of skill and cooperation between builder, architect, engineer, and client. Erik was the first person I had encountered who was taking this technology seriously in Vancouver, and I was immediately excited to help him with his mission to build them in British Columbia (which we managed to do in the fall/winter of 2014). There are thousands of these houses in Europe, but the idea is relatively new to Canada so the incentive is not quite there and the legislation not demanded.
Did Vancouver not just increase its standards on building insulation? Having a certain thickness on window panes so that the heat wouldn't escape as much?
Yeah, so as part of the Vancouver Greenest City action plan they are mandating incremental increases in energy efficiency of new buildings with each new five-year period, so it's definitely happening. Next up with Erik and his company, they're building a Passive House in Valemount which is Erik's hometown. Passive House is definitely a positive development for the built environment of Canada, and there are more being built in the country now so that's great. It's a 'rising tide that lifts all boats' kind of thing. And I'll always want to be involved in the rising tide.
Sounds phenomenal. I'm excited to start seeing these in our neighbourhoods.
Yes, it's great stuff.
Thanks again Andrew - lovely ride through your history with agriculture and architecture.
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