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Camp Covid

09 Apr 2020
Image Credit: Andy Thomson
Architectural Credit: Thomson Architecture
There is no question that the COVID-19 crisis has affected vast sectors of the economy and the public in adverse ways, but in Architecture, as in economics, there are models of more resilient structures that can withstand massive shocks and still maintain their stability.

One such shock was the financial crash of 2007/8.  I was working in Napa, California at that time and was given notice by my employer that all 16 of our major projects were frozen due to stalled financing and with that announcement, the company added they simply did not have the cash to pay staff for the past month worked. It took us all some time to process that shock. I realized I had almost no contingency in my bank account and no ability as a foreign/Canadian professional to claim any kind of unemployment benefit  - despite paying US taxes, so we had to haul all of our belongings in front of our little house for a weekend yard sale just to generate enough money for gas to return to Canada.

Gun-shy from this experience I assumed the same kind of financial collapse would eventually happen in Canada, despite CHMC and a better regulated market. So when we returned I kept a keen eye on bargain country properties that could help us avoid a repeat of that predicament.  Life in California was amazing, the pay was great, the food was amazing and the constant perfect weather was something I was just getting used to. I just had assumed the good times would continue to roll, but I should have known better.

I say I should have known better because in my undergrad I had lived for a year in a tent in a backyard as a kind of experiment in radical ecology. This was heavily influenced by reading Thoreau’s Walden, and I chose to live in a tent because building a cabin in downtown Toronto was just not an option.  In my graduate years in Vancouver this experiment entered a second phase; living in renovated motorhomes, vans and airstream-like trailers.  We found ways to live with extreme frugality, while revelling in the creative act of inventing for ourselves solar systems that were tied into our vehicle batteries, super-charged alternators for boosting our live-aboard batteries, and propane heating systems that wouldn’t kill us by consuming all of the oxygen in the small spaces, while waking up to a different view of the spectacular mountains, forest and fog of the West Coast every morning. I guess that was one way to learn resilience on a shoestring budget, something I had dubbed ‘Architecture as Camping’.

Subsequently, these lessons found their way into my professional design work when, in 2006, we introduced a concept called the ‘miniHome’, also known as the ‘world’s first ecological and off-grid RV’. The idea spread like wildfire because it addressed both housing affordability and ecological design in one tidy package, to the point where Oprah herself caught wind of it and flew a photo crew from Chicago to stage and shoot the project for her ‘O At Home’ magazine. That’s how I met Jay Schafer who had also caught Oprah’s interest, and his Tumbleweed Tiny Home company was very likely the match that lit the entire Tiny Home Movement ablaze.

Having lived in dozens of boats, vans, motorhomes and purpose-built off-grid trailers in the intervening years had taught me a few things;

1. How to reduce construction materials and budgets to a fraction of conventional builds (50% or better) 2. How to design resilient mechanical systems that operate independently of conventional service infrastructure, ie Solar/PV, batteries, inverters, DC systems, Biodiesel and Propane appliances and backup generators, etc. 3. How to design for passive energy gains and losses while preserving a high level of indoor air quality (IAQ/EAQ), in other words, air-tight envelopes with natural materials and controlled ventilation with heat-recovery. 4. Campgrounds could be the perfect model for the ecological neighbourhoods of the future. 5. Architects can design better RV’s and Tiny Homes than most DIY’ers

I still had a nagging feeling that the answer for reducing construction budgets didn’t have to mean making everything tiny. It just meant we needed to find a way to be smarter with how to use materials more economically - and by that I don’t mean cheaper - I mean simply use less of them altogether. What if insulation could be structural? What if cladding could be structural? What if structure could be the finish? In my perfect world structural cladding that also insulated would be a thing. One example, the miniHome cost ~$150k for an extremely compact but efficient 270 sf of gross area (most people guessed it was 500 sf). In contrast, our first solarQ project cost the same total amount ~150k, but gave us 2,800 sf of living area -  ten times the area, same great price. That understanding was a gradual discovery- it didn’t happen overnight.

Let’s rewind 40 years.

I’ve been immersed in the design philosophy of Buckminster Fuller since my grandfather (also an architect) introduced me to his ideas as a kid. I’ve read Synergetics twice, and have built more than enough domes to understand the myriad problems with cladding, insulating and finishing them, without leaks, and without unending interior finishing projects.

How could we ‘ephemeralize’ the architecture of a house? The key must lie in something like SIPS, or structural insulated panels, but SIPS that somehow also integrated finishes and could be easily assembled with unskilled trades. Two decades of experimentation along these lines led to several built projects, and several dead ends. The issue with inventing a ‘do everything’ building product is you need to expose it to a ‘test everything’ regime in order to bring it to market. It’s just too expensive to start such a company (I tried) and a monolithic solution can never solve for a wide range of building forms and purposes.

So what if off-the-shelf components could be ‘hacked’ in such a way as to result in a kind of super-economical structural shell, that you could point Southwards to act like a big solar oven in Winter, but with large enough overhangs you could completely block Summer gains? What if you super-insulated such a shell and added good windows so that you could make it nearly airtight, and run all of the outdoor air through a heat exchanger? What if you used the floor as a kind of thermal battery and what if you pumped those solar gains from the hot South end into the cooler North end?

To put all of these ideas into practice we built a big ‘quonset hut’, with help from my amazing 70-year-old country neighbour, on a budget acreage on the Ottawa River in Quebec. We subsequently perfected the approach on a second SolarQ near Collingwood.

The real test was when we had a year of energy bills at full occupancy to evaluate the performance of the design. The cost to operate for a year was $1,200.00 (averaging 1,000kWh/month) and that included charging our electric car. That’s it. Total. Bonus? It’s zero-carbon. The only thing we burn on site is the occasional bit of deadfall for a marshmallow roast.  So very much unlike the smug billionaires that are self-isolating in mega-yachts in the Mediterranean, we can attest that a totally different level of resilience is possible - on a shoestring budget, and we’ve got 50 acres here on this ecological campground to share with the broader creative community. We think of it as an architectural sandbox of sorts. Do you have an idea for an amazing off-grid and super energy-efficient cabin? If you're willing to brave the mosquitoes and coyotes, pitch it to us!  We’ve got 20 cleared sites for off-grid cabins, and the zoning to support it, and you’ll definitely have the social distance we all need now. (for more info visit

So, while others are facing rent and unrelenting utility bills with reduced or no income, we can certainly commiserate, but we can also offer alternative solutions. Why would anyone volunteer themselves into what is basically a kind of indentured servitude to both the financial system and the fossil fuel industry when there are ways we can break free? I am in no way joking when I say that breaking free may just need to start at first in a tent, or a van, or an RV, or something of your own creation - just as it did for us.

A View project slideshow here:

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