Green start for Grand House

It's the first straw. Definitely not the last straw.

A bale-laying ceremony Sunday for the Grand House Student Co-operative was a symbolic first step for a small, environmentally friendly student residence being built on a steep hillside in Cambridge.

The grassroots, affordable housing project is backed by student volunteers, university officials and local business donors.

On Sunday, supporters erected a small pyramid from six straw bales, the last laid by Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig. The bales, a waste product converted to construction material, represent the future walls of the ecologically sound building.

At the pyramid's peak, the co-op's executive director, Chantal Cornu, planted a red flag bearing the black letters GH and stepped back.

The moment was the culmination of three years of effort for Cornu, a graduate of the University of Waterloo's school of architecture and the driving force behind the co-op student housing project on Ainslie Street near Water Street.

"This is about three things," Cornu said, "education, sustainability and affordability. We want people to learn. We want to show how students and academia can partner with local business and government."

Cornu expects construction will likely begin in mid-June after the city building permit is granted. It should be completed in eight months.

Both the building and the organization behind it have the support of Cambridge officials and residents.

"This project is small, the concept is huge," Ward 4 Coun. Ben Tucci said. "It's making use of empty space. It's community building.

"It's how people with vision and purpose come together."

Reg Nuhn, who lives across the street, is also pleased with the change.

"It was a dump before, and they're making it into something useful," Nuhn said.

The green building, to be built on a hilly and unused road allowance, will use helical piles -- engineered steel stilts -- speeding the construction and avoiding use of concrete and insulation, products that take a lot of energy to produce.

It will feature post-and-beam walls filled with straw bales coated with cement-lime plaster which have an R40 insulation value, as well as passive solar heating and cooling.

It will also include rainwater harvesting for irrigation and toilets, and a heat-recovery system to extract energy from waste hot water.

Cornu has previously worked on six other buildings using straw-bale construction.

The co-op has raised more than $60,000 from their buy-a-bale campaign, and local businesses and government agencies have donated more than $40,000 in materials and more than $100,000 worth of professional services, Cornu says.

To complete the project, Cornu says the co-op needs at least another $130,000 in funds or donated materials.

The top three items on Cornu's wish list are steel for the substructure, engineered wood for the frame and windows. Volunteers with construction experience would be appreciated, and there will be one paid position for an experienced site supervisor, Cornu says.

Individuals or businesses wishing to donate material, labour or funds should contact the Grand House Student Co-operative at 519-721-2014 or via e-mail at For additional information, visit the co-op website at

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