Meeting With Building Authority

Its been about three weeks since we submitted the plans and Sandra phoned mid-week to get an update of where we are at in the approval process. When we submitted the plans we were told that it was taking about three weeks to get a set of plans approved …

Sandra talked over the phone with the building inspector assigned to review our file. What came out of this discussion is that construction techniques used in an earthship fall outside of the prescribed methods outlined in Part nine of the 2006 British Columbia Building Code (BCBC), and as such the alternative solution that we are proposing has to be shown to functionally meet the minimum prescriptive requirements outlined in Part 9. Section 2.3 of the Code provides a guideline of the requirements for documenting an acceptable alternative solution. Don’t worry if your head is spinning … it took me a while to wade through all of this.

Our business has been building log houses for over thirty years (first with Sandra’s dad designing the buildings and most recently me). Log structures also fall outside of Part 9 of the Building Code. Basically an engineer is required to stamp (certify structural compliance) the design as the Building Code does not cover log construction, and the Building Authority does not have the expertise to evaluate it.

In discussions we have had with other people building earthships in various jurisdictions their permitting experience generally involved getting an engineer to stamp the plans as I have just described for log buildings. So when we submitted our plans to the Building Authority I stamped the plans as was our practice for log structures.

After Sandra’s telephone conversation with the building inspector we took a look at the Code sections that the Building Authority was referring to. In 2006 a new iteration of the Building Code was released. A significant change in this release of the Code was the introduction of objectives and functional statements in lieu of the prescriptive practices outlined in Part 9 of the Building Code. The intention of this change is to allow for alternative building solutions that are not addressed by Part 9 of the Building Code. However, any proposed alternative building system has to be shown to meet the minimum prescriptive requirements outlined in the Code.

Feeling that we now understood what was being asked we requested a meeting with the inspector to go over what was required. We are able to set up a meeting quite quickly and on Friday morning we sat down with the inspector and the building department head.

The meeting went quite well. They confirmed that due to the unique nature of the building project we would need to submit a technical brief on the alternative building method being used as required in the new Building Code. We gave a brief overview of the earthship design principles and went over some of the material we were using to design our house (Earthship Volumes I-III and the Engineer’s Report from New Mexico). These materials (particularly the Engineer’s Report) went a long way towards addressing their concerns about the building system. What they requested at the end of the meeting was an overview and synopsis of earthship design principles that differ from Part 9 of the Building Code. They seemed quite satisfied that ‘earthship’ construction techniques were valid, well documented and backed up by actual completed buildings.

We hope to have the requested document in the Building Authority’s possession by the end of this week so that we can proceed with our building project.

Waiting on Permit Approval, reading and septic thoughts …

We thought spring was right around the corner last week when we submitted our building plans, but the last week has been bone chillingly cold. We were down to -20 degrees Celcius on a couple of evenings and the snow is just not melting. The driveway is a skating rink and unfortunately it slopes down to the highway. It is up over zero today, and the long term forecast is for warmer weather.

The good news is that I have read some more books during this cold weather!

My copy of Water From the Sky (Michael Reynolds) arrived a couple of days ago. I truly wish I had read this book prior to laying out my plans. This book is detailed and clarifies a number of issues that were not well explained in the Earthship Volumes. The book also has color pictures which give a much better idea of what a finished home might look like. Also, it provides good examples of what has worked and what has not worked based on thirty years of building experience. Hopefully I will be smart enough to listen and understand what is being described. It has certainly given me a number of ideas as I think about my building.

I borrowed a book called Earthships: Building a Zero Carbon Future for Homes (Mischa Hewitt and Kevin Telfer). This book was written about two earthships that were built in the United Kingdom. This is a well written book that goes into some construction and technical details. It also has good colour pictures of finished buildings.

I have also now had a chance to review the Engineer’s Report sold by Earthship Biotecture that gives structural support for rammed earth tire walls. The report cautions about using earth cliffs as descrbed in the Earthship Volumes. It recommends getting the advice of a geotechnical engineer if you are planning to use this construction technique. Thankfully, this is not a concern for us as we plan to fully level our building site. Otherwise the report is positive about tire walls with lateral restraint (a bond beam)!

I also stumbled across a video on the internet that talks about gray water recovery and the permitting process in California. This is a good primer on the subjet and has an excellent list of books for further reading at the end. Sandra provided a link to this video on a previous post.

Possibly my single biggest discovery of the week was a briefing document written about the regulatory environment surrounding gray water in British Columbia (it obviously also has some application to the rest of Canada). It is called REGULATORY AND LEGISLATIVE BARRIERS TO AN EARTHSHIP-LIKE WATER/SEWAGE SYSTEM IN BRITISH COLUMBIA. I have asked the author for permission to post a link to this document on the blog as I do not know how available it is, but I have not yet heard back from him.

We have spent the rest of our week seeing if we can prove that the existing septic system on site is satisfactory to support our proposed earthship. We are required to submit proof of an acceptable existing septic system or get a permit to build a new one in order to get a building permit. Because we are increasing the size of our home the septic regulations require a larger septic tank and field than what was previously acceptable. There is no allowance in the current regulations for composting toilets or gray water recovery in dictating the size of a septic installation. We think our existing system is big enough and hopefully the inspector coming next tuesday agrees with us. Otherwise, we might be looking at the installation of a new septic system that will barely get any use, and cost in the neighborhood of $15,000 dollars. Our fingers are crossed!

No more plans!!!

Okay … I am excited!

After too many long hours of work we took the plunge and submitted the plans to the building authority yesterday.

I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders … until the plans are actually submitted the urge to change and hopefully improve them is irresistible and it begins to feel like a never ending treadmill.

We spent about an hour going over the plans with the senior building inspector when we submitted the plans. He asked lots of questions, said they had seen tires used in buildings before although nothing of the scope shown in our drawings. It was a good discussion. He said that it would take about two weeks for them to review the plans, and (hopefully) at the end of that we will have a building permit.

In addition to evaluating the structure of the building over the last couple of weeks I have been mulling over the water systems in the earthship …

Gray Water Recovery

As mentioned in previous posts the gray water recovery system has been causing me sleepless nights.

I have done a lot more research over the last couple of weeks and am still waiting for my copy of Water From the Sky (Mike Reynolds) so that I can do some more. Having said that I am now comfortable with the workings of one of these systems. My design is shown beside this paragraph. I am drawing heavily from my reading of Earthship Volume III and Create an Oasis with Graywater. The gray water planters are closed systems; the water cannot drain to native soil until it has spent a period of time in the planter’s filtration bed, by which time it is suitable for non-potable uses such as irrigation.

The idea here is that the bulk of the water is consumed by the plants (transpiration and evaporation). Treated water can also ultimately be withdrawn from the system via the treated water overflow outlet and used outside. Our ultimate intention is to have the overflow outlet feed into a gravel bed beneath an area planted with fruit trees.

Rain Water Harvesting

The other activity that has been consuming a lot of my time is harvesting and storage of rain water.

Our intention is to use this harvested water for irrigation and possibly non-potable uses like the washing machine, shower and tub. Here again my design is shown beside this paragraph.

It turns out that an excellent overview of this subject has been written right here in BC. It is titled Rainwater Harvesting on the Gulf Islands: Guide for Regulating the Installation of Rainwater Havesting Systems- Potable and Non-potable Uses, and is written by Dick F. Stubs. I came across it on the internet.

Moving On

The last couple of months has been consumed with getting a set of building plans completed.

The snow has been melting the last couple of days and we are now thinking about how best to prepare so we can hit the ground digging (and pounding) when the snow disappears.

Hopefully tire collection will start again by the end of the week, and I have to start thinking about equipment maintenance. The tractor has been (and still is) buried under snow all winter.

On unrelated but exciting notes…

I just ordered seeds for the garden. (we will be gunning for bigger tomatoes and blue Russian potatoes this year).

We are getting 25 laying chickens and 25 meat birds in about a month. We are thinking that the kids can make some money selling eggs to so far, unsuspecting relatives and friends, and more compost for me.

The kids are planning on 5 sheep between the three of them this year. I am hopeful that a few of these sheep may be Friesens (a European dairy sheep).

I think I need to get outside and do some work …