Saturday, April 28, 2012

Grandma's House

Beautiful House
Many of you who have driven through Union Bay in the last 25 years have noticed a beautiful home perched on the edge a four lane section of the Island Highway. With its rare gambrel style roof, river stone veneer siding and interesting and clever yard art, this casa stands out to most who have seen this place.

Window sill
Well this home is my grandparents place. It was built over two years, starting the 31st of July 1985, and moved into in October 1987, it was built using stack wall construction. Stack wall refers to a structure that has its bearing walls created with blocks of cord wood with a concrete-type mortar. This is very similar to building with a masonary medium such as blocks or bricks. A major challenge with stack wall is that no two pieces have a level surface to work with. This causes problems with "framing" the doors and windows. Not to mention the tremendous amount of work actually sawing, hauling and splitting the cord wood. Beyond all the challenges, this is a green, low waste, and potentially economical method to create a home built house.

Grandpa's caribou
My Grandpa, Dave, had always wanted to create a retirement home for himself and my Grandma, Shirley. In the early sixties they bought a home along the Van West logging road, where they raised their six children. My mom was the oldest of the brood. I believe the property was an acre, if not just about. Grandpa always maintained a wonderful garden, was an expert fruit tree grafter (did you know that you can grow pears on an apple tree? Well ya can, as well as many different varietys on the same tree), ice tree artist and wonderful community minded man. He turned me into a seafood hog, always having interesting and delicious items for us to sample. Fried Eulechon is still a memory of my youth. I thought they were wonderful. I learned to eat raw oysters, deer organ meat, drink clam nectar, catch trout in small creeks ( he could walk a stream without ever getting his feet wet? I still don't know how), and picking chantrelle mushrooms.

Salvaged post and beam
In 1969 they purchased the property across the logging road from their existing house. It was used as a ice skating rink in the winter by all the local kids. In the early 80's my Grandparents discovered stack wall construction and he began brainstorming in earnest how to create such a place. In the yard of the existing house, where a chicken coop once stood, he experimented and built a shed with red cedar blocks. It was a learning experience, but it must have been a good one, because two years later he began prepping the site to build the big house. A neat thing for me, is that my Grandpa from my dads side did the site prep with a Cat dozer.

Hand built door
Starting out with 25 cords of red cedar, with all the sap wood split off, some gravel and a cement mixer, Grandpa, with the help of a bricklayer, started laying the first courses of blocks. That first month the walls were to the level of the first floor and it was left for the winter. Grandpa worked as a custodian with the school district so he had the summers off, and working afternoon shift he was able to accomplish things in the morning before he went off to work. Most of the raw materials for this house were harvested from the area. All the cedar, including the hand split roofing came from waste timber up the road. The main beam supporting the upper floor joists came from Tree Island, as well as the corner posts of the structure. The door framing, and stair treads also came from Tree Island. The beams were formed with a Alaska mill and a adze, leaving wonderful tool marks in the wood.

Hand painted mortar
The following summer the walls were finished, the hand framed trusses were erected and the cedar shingles installed. That winter they spent their time sanding every bit of wood to remove the discoloration caused from wintering unprotected, warmed by a oil barrel stove, burning the waste wood from construction. Much better than landfill. Soon it was time for drywall, cabinets and painting. Amazingly to me, Grandma painted all the mortar on the inside of the house with grey paint to give it a uniform appearance. The wood was treated with linseed oil and paint thinner. What a tedious, time consuming process. Good thing she has a steady hand and an artists eye. The facing of the chimney on the inside is covered with beautiful flat and polished stones. The original Pacific Energy stove was just replaced a few months ago, showing the durability to the product.

Chimney and new Pacific Energy stove
I still remember as a young guy helping move things across the road to the new house. It was really exciting. The construction of this house was a real community event. Most folks in Union Bay helped out at some point or another. My Grandparents had hats printed up to give as thank you gifts to helpers. These "Stackwall Crew" hats were a sought after commodity, that were hanging on many deer racks around Union Bay. I was excited to get one as a gift, and wore it proudly, even though I was a little young to help very much. The house became a bit of a tourist attraction as well. A book was kept of all the guests that visited during and after the construction. Signatures numbering over 1500 grace the book, from all continents of the planet. It is a museum piece.

Cedar stairs and chimney stone work
In the mid nineties the exterior was getting weathered and began to become too much to maintain so they had stone veneer installed to allow for a beautiful appearance, but a weather resistant siding. Near this time Grandpa became very ill, from years of heavy smoking, he was struck with terrible emphysema. We almost lost him in '96, but he was strong and made a grand recovery. He was hampered for the next decade and a bit, it never stopped him from building. He became renowned for his miniature models that he created from cardboard and red cedar. He modeled many of the historical structures in Union Bay, Cumberland and other areas of the Comox Valley. He made a scale model of Union Bay in the early 20th century, at the height of the coal mining days. His models are displayed at the local museums.

Union Bay Post Office, in miniature
After Grandpa passed in '08, Grandma has done some updates, including new flooring, and some exterior updates, like an asphalt shingle roof, new deck and fencing. It is a great home with much historical value to me and my family. I was grateful for Grandma sitting down with me and chatting about the home, sharing the photo album and tales of trail and error that made the house the solid palace it is. Next time you see the house, have a honk for Grandma and think about the hard work that went into creating a significant landmark in Union Bay.


  1. Oh my gosh..Gma's going to be soooo excited! Well done son! Love to read what you write. Proud of you.

  2. Such an inspiring story. I always loved visiting Dave and Shirley when we were out cruising around. Thanks for the memories.