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Rob & Karen: The Handcrafted Life

The Hand Crafted Life

Ever been to ‘The Big Smoke’ a.k.a London? I have. It was the summer of 1977 and my mother wanted to take me on a tour of where she was born and lived before immigrating to Canada after the war. Even then, it was a massive city of over 7 million and I felt totally overwhelmed and happy to get out of the hustle and bustle. A sprawling metropolis is the antithesis of my little island, Gabriola, population 4000 spread over 58 square kilometres.

Maybe that’s how Rob and Karen felt when they decided to return to Canada and sought out something so different from what they had been living. Originally from Alberta, they went to London for a year and ended up staying for over a decade. Karen worked as a teacher and Rob was in publishing. I guess the phrase, time flies was true for them. After their daughter, Mia, was born almost 8 years ago they decided to return home. Not exactly home, Alberta, but back to Canada.

They settled here and began to fulfill their dream of building their own low carbon, sustainable home on land where they could raise their daughter, grow food and keep chickens. Rob is working for New Society Publishing as Director of Collaborative Publishing and Karen is going to be teaching again in the new year. Squeezed in between working and taking care of Mia they have managed to build a house and outbuildings, fence and prepare the land for future projects.


For almost 5 years they’ve been working on a round wood timber framed house, which is finally nearing completion. Rob was kind enough to give me a tour and an explanation of some of the building techniques and systems. I can’t do justice to capturing his level of knowledge and expertise, so if you are interested in his journal and many photos documenting their long slog check out his WordPress blog called ‘TheHandCraftedLife’.

It’s a beautiful house that not only fits into the landscape but it was made from the land: logs harvested from their property, light clay straw walls, rammed earth heat shield behind the wood stove, cob floors and earthen countertops. Forty tons of material has gone into the build, 25 tons in the foundation alone. I think they’re well equipped to withstand ‘the big one’. The solar panels have been in storage for three years, but they’ll be installed before their full occupancy date in April.

Their house is not only sustainable and eco-friendly, it’s got a great homey feel, lots of light and is a monument to their passion and creativity. They’ve built it themselves. Rob was familiar with tools but isn’t a trained builder. Between them, they’ve got lots of ideas, energy and imagination, which combined have created something that is both lasting and aesthetically pleasing .

Their 5.65 acres, in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), contains a large open area which is quite wet. The groundwater issue has hopefully been remedied by them putting in perimeter drainage ditches. Their neighbor, John from Two Feet Farm, has taught them lots about growing food. They’ve applied for farm status and plan to keep their produce organic. So far, there is ¼ acre of vegetable beds which they will follow by planting berries, nut trees and a perennial food forest, as well as bee keeping.

Rob and Karen are first time chicken keepers. They want to raise organic, non-GMO fed heritage layers. A few months ago, they purchased just over 100 two day old chicks from Grade Eh Farms, who specialize in rare breeds. The little fluff balls – Bielefelder, Maline, Silver Laced Wyandottes and several other varieties – arrived via float plane and were brooded in the house. Their neighbour, John, raised half of them. They’ve all since been reunited and have spent the last few weeks in their new digs.

When I stopped by they were still in the coop and hadn’t made their debut to the great outdoors. They wanted to exceed the Canadian Organic and SPCA standards for housing and rearing chickens. Rob’s built a skookum 240 square foot coop, complete with roll away nest boxes, hinged roost bars for easy cleaning and a rainwater catchment system. Water is collected from the roof into a 200 litre tank, which is gravity fed into tiny water bowls in the coop. When the bird pecks at the lever water is dispensed and doesn’t sit or get contaminated.

Their outside area includes woods and overgrown brush which they hope the chickens will dig through and help clear for future planting. They will be protected from predators by an electrified fence and lots of trees.

If you’re like me, you’re looking forward to seeing their house completed and the chicks  grown up and laying. I’m hoping Rob will keep us updated on his blog and perhaps, I’ll be invited back for a follow up report.

Additional photos courtesy of Rob West





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