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Winter Yard

It used to be that the first thing people associated with climate change was heat. That was back in the good old days (five years ago) when it was called global warming. But now, I bet if you took a poll, you’d find out people don’t care anywhere near as much about heat as they do about storms and other weather-related issues like droughts and floods and so on.

Even faced with the end of oil and gas and a worsening economy, most of us could scrape together a living and try to avoid heat exhaustion. But it’s a whole other world to live under constant threat of ‘natural’ disasters like forest fires, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes made worse by a warming planet.

So how has the various impacts of climate change influence planning and decisions about Smiling House?


I’ve already mentioned that we’re letting parts of our meadow and hay field grow back into trees to be used for firewood. The firewood is in case of power outages, ice storms, and so on. Grim and pessimistic as it sounds, there is also the very real possibility the we or our children will have no other source of fuel in the not too distant future. Squirrels don’t get ready for the mildest possible winter. They get ready for the worst.

More immediately important is the chance of a forest fire. Where we live, it’s quite hilly and farms are generally small and quite a big chunk of them is bog and woodland. If a fire started near here, it would have a lot of fuel to sustain itself. So we’ve fire-smarted all the trees in the yard or near the house. That means hacking off all the lower branches of trees so if there’s a grass fire, they trees will be less likely to burn. There’s a lot more to it than that, so I recommend checking out the following site: Government of Alberta FireSmart Info


Western Canadian weather has had a huge influence on all our decisions regarding the building of Smiling House. When you throw climate change into the mix, those decisions become about survival, and not merely comfort. Every aspect of the design of Smiling House going to be influenced by a changing climate. I have to confess, I started writing this section and immediately launched into book-length detail. So here’s the restrained version. I’ll cover these topics in detail in future posts.

a) Foundation

We did a lot of research about foundations, especially about concrete. Sadly, we soon discovered how its production is a huge contributor to global warming. But how could we avoid it? Turns out, the Canadian government has worked out detailed standards on how ro build wood basements, or as they call them, preserved wood foundations. (Here’s the link.)

I’ve read quite a bit of naysaying about wood foundations on the ‘net. Most of it is regarding houses that skipped steps in the code and would probably not pass an inspection. Right now, two main things are drawing me to using wood: price and the fact that I can build it myself.

Price-wise, we can build it for under $10,000. That’s digging, materials and construction. Compare that to around $40,000 for concrete.

Since climate change is sure to dump more rain and snow on our little patch of land, we’re seriously concerned about preventing our basement from flooding. Luckily, we’re on the highest ground around. But that still won’t stop disaster from internal things like our own water supply (which will be in our basement) and from external things like damaged downspouts or obscene amounts of snow melting too fast.

Our solution: ridiculously over-spec’ed drainage under our basement floor. I don’t know what that will look like exactly, but we want bigger than normal pipes draining from the gravel outside the foundation as well as under it. Sometime soon, it will rain for days. Four feet of snow will melt in a week. And sure I’m sitting here, someone will leave a tap on and flood the basement sometime in the next several decades. Whoever is living there then will thank us.

b) Basement

High on our priority list is a cold room slash tornado room. Hey, this is Alberta. We get deadly tornadoes even now and I hate to imagine how much stronger or more frequent they’ll be in a few years. We want our dogs, cats and ourselves safe.

The basic design will be for a thick-walled cold room for vegetables. But the walls and roof themselves will be rebarred to the foundation. If a tornado wants to take us, it’ll be inside our little cube with potatoes and puppies flying around.

c) Main and Second Floor

A few years ago, we stayed a week in Montreal with a friend of Nora’s who went through the terrible ice storm they had in 1998. She was living with neighbors for many months with no electricity. And this in a city of millions. Could it happen here? I guarantee it is only a matter of time.

In such a scenario, in a -30°C winter day, we want a cool basement for our food, a warm mainfloor and a warm second floor. So, a woodstove or two on the mainfloor is the answer.

Nora is pretty much jumping for joy over the prospect of installing a cast iron stove in the kitchen. A few companies still make them, thought they’re many thousands more than a contempory gas or electric one. In addition to the rising hot air, if we go the kitchen stove route, we plan to capture chimney heat as well and use it for in-floor heating on the upper levels.

d) Roof

Asphalt shingles exist only because they are cheap. With the price of oil rising, the quality of these shingles is dropping dramatically. There is no question about us using good quality metal roofing. To boot, since we’ve had it with ice dams and know the potential for them will be greater in the future, our roof will be extremely well ventilated.


Here’s a little statistic for you from the forthcoming final IPCC report: worldwide, food production is expected to flatline or be reduced by 2% a decade from now till 2100 while demand will increase 14% per decade.

I’m not even going to try and guess what horrors that will unleash on our populations. But knowing where we went wrong as a species (hint: agriculture), I’ve been trying to see past our little self-inflicted apocalypse and figure out what we should have done instead – and what we should have been doing all along.

So, I’ve been studying permaculture, how a native ecosystem can be a rich source of food without cultivation, chemicals, or crops in any traditional sense. If humanity is ever to live in any sort of synch with nature, I honestly believe this is the way to go. But not only will we have to change our methods of food production, but we’ll have to change what we end up eating as well.

I’ll get into details in future posts, but the gist of our plans include native fruit, nut and berries. Innoculating logs with native mushroom spores. Growing caragana hedges for winter chicken feed and letting the little gaffers forage during the summer. Having multiple gardens in a variety of habitats (high, low, wet, dry) instead of one central garden. And finding wild, native alternatives to foods we normally buy. Have I mentioned how ridiculously nutritious and tasty nettle pesto is?


If winters are going to be more severe, you want breeds that can tolerate that. Aside from the fact that we have shelter (with metal roofs) for all our animals, they need to be hardy breeds that won’t buckle under a big snow or two weeks of 30° below. Yes, you want a good return on your investment. But if you can’t breed a chicken because it is meant to be slaughtered before it reaches laying age (or it falls over and dies under it’s own weight), then you gotta work with that. Exotic, frou-frou breeds are fine on a mild summer day. But how are they in extreme heat or extreme cold? Do you need electricity to keep them alive or breed them?

Like any good ecosystem, everything has to work together – and one thing often leads to another. We keep maremmas and let them pee on everything from one end of the place to another. We realised if we wanted small, resilient Dexter cattle and true, free range chickens, we had to keep the coyotes away. And if we wanted fruit trees anywhere on our place, we had to make the deer think twice about coming into the yard.

Like everyone else I hate having to think in these sort of extreme terms. But reality is what it is. If we don’t want it coming up behind us and knocking us over, we may as well look it in the face and shake its hand.