VTL at The Village Building Convergence

Three of us board members were lucky to spend four days last week in Portland, OR, at the 11th Annual Village Building Convergence, a ten-day placemaking festival that combines community development with hands-on education. We first heard about the event when we attended the Eco-Dreaming Vancouver event back in late March, and heard Mark Lakeman speak about the exciting place-making and community building work he does with the organization City Repair.

We wanted to share some photos from our trip down to Portland because we’re excited about applying some of the skills we learned down there here in Vancouver!

Day one was spent at the Ujima Centre, where we worked on the first phases of a cob oven. Cob is a natural building material that is usually made from clay, sand, and straw. We learned about how to mix cob,  design the oven shape to ensure even cooking temperatures, and the composition of different cob layers to make sure the oven is strong, insulative, and fire-proof.

Cob oven design (L) and first layers of the build (R)

On Sunday, we biked past an intersection mural that was in progress. Residents from the surrounding streets had worked together on the design of the painting and were getting ready to paint. The next day, we biked past again to see their progress…

the mural, in progress (L) and almost complete (R)

Later that afternoon we helped build a cob bench at a large empty lot at the intersection of two bike routes. The larger plan for the site was to have space devoted to a community garden and a new farmers market. The benches framed the entrance to the site.


The site (L), bulding the cedar overhang (M), sculpting the cob bench surface (R)

On Monday, we visited the “share-it-square,” which is the site of City Repair’s first project, and flanked by two beautiful cob benches, a 24-hour tea stand, a playful kids clubhouse, and an community info kiosk. Around the corner from the square, we helped with a straw-clay retrofit at a home with backyard chickens in a cob coop complete with green roof – pretty incredible!

We spent our final day constructing a small building out of all natural materials – cob, straw-clay, earth bags, and natural plaster – in the back yard of an art studio.


natural building (L), applying natural plaster (R)

As you know, we are currently gearing up to open the doors to our tool lending library; we’re purchasing specialty tools and investigating which are the most crucial for us to stock in our inventory based on our member’s interests. With this on our minds as we went into the workshops in Portland, we were all struck by the simplicity of the natural building techniques we ended up learning there. At most of the building sites we visited, the only special tools necessary were a hammer, drill, and saw, and the most important tools to get every job done were our hands and feet (essential for mixing and applying all the building materials!). It’s exciting to see how many different kinds of structures you can make with such simple and inexpensive tools and materials, and the impact that these projects can have in a neighbourhood or in a backyard.

Coming back to Vancouver, our own street is looking a little lonely in comparison to some of the colourful places we visited last week and we’d really like to put the skills we learned to work. We think a bench or two outside our shop would look really nice… Is anyone interested in getting together to do some installations outside our shop?  We’d also like to hear from you about your interest in natural building workshops at the VTL. Post in the comments section or on our feedback form if you have thoughts to share about this or stories about your own natural building projects.