Eco-cottage and the RDN

Tuesday, May 12 2015

What we have learned!

The first, of course, we knew all along: One size does not fit all. Our experience throughout confirms that. Who says that the frost line on Gabriola is 18 inches down? (Maybe in Edmonton.) Why do we have to have vapour barrier to make a building absolutely tight and then use “mechanical ventilation devices” to get rid of interior moisture? The building code’s definition of “green” appears to be minimizing heat loss: R28(?) in the roof - maybe in a 2000+ sq. ft. building. In our less than 400 sq. ft. building the heat (in the winter, wood) first warmed us, then cooked our meals and heated our water, then dissipated through the ceiling to melt the snow on the skylights. What ever happened to “small is beautiful?”

Submitted photo: Volunteers help take down the Eco-Cottage at the junction of Stokes and South Road on April 25 ahead of the May 1 deadline put in place by the Regional District to have it dismantled.

The second learning is the suspicion that somewhere along the line the RDN (and probably most other regional districts), downloaded their liability insurance as a cost-saving measure. This has had three significant effects: 1. The download was to a series of professionals and semi-professionals who have had no choice but to pass on incredibly increased costs to their clients; 2. It also means that building inspectors and bylaw officers no longer can provide advice (as in “public servants”) because they might be held liable; 3. Even more devastating: the professionals no longer can push the edges, open up possibilities, or opt for change, because they might be sued. (Part of the definition of professional is one who knows her profession so well that she has the knowledge and experience to push the edges.) 

Our third learning seems to us really worrisome: We are in danger of replacing democracy with bureaucracy. Increasingly, in our complex world, hired staff have the knowledge and therefore the power. Our elected representatives seem to feel their job is to interpret staff decisions to their constituents rather than represent the needs of their constituents to the staff. It would be good if our elected representatives would take back their/our democratic power. Staff are hired, subject to elected representatives; and the job of an elected representative is to “represent” the people.

Our fourth learning: On Gabriola we have been part of a “wink, wink/nod, nod” system for a number of years. People are forced to put in flush toilets with no intention of using them. In our case we probably will be forced to put in a 110 volt electrical system though we are solidly 12-volt and have no intention of hooking up to hydro. One wonderful story is of friends who had to install a “mechanical ventilation device” in their bathroom. As soon as the inspector signed off they took it out and passed it on to a neighbour. Rumour has it that the fan in question has been used in a total of four different buildings. When reasonable people feel they must evade the law, that is a sure sign that the law no longer serves the people. Of course we must have building codes. It’s simply that “one size does not fit all.”

Fifth: In our experience, the current complaint system is destructive of community. It may be cost-efficient and eliminate the need for bylaw inspectors stalking the highways and hedgerows, but it creates an attitude of distrust in the neighbourhood. When we received our first complaint, neighbours came to ensure us that they had not been the one. But they also pointed fingers at who they thought had lodged the complaint. And there goes the neighbourhood! And when a neighbour can lodge complaint after complaint (and vilify us time and again in the social media), the complaint system becomes out and out harassment.

Solution? The complaint system could have built into it a trained mediator. We have several folk like that on Gabriola. Their job would be to discover what the complaint is really about and try to reach a mutually acceptable solution. Their job would also be to let the various jurisdictions know when legitimate complaints are in danger of becoming harassment.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, we have learned humility. When we started to build Thomas, especially, took the “high moral ground.” It’s time for change! Let’s get on with it! But when “high moral ground” meets “law and order” it is as red flags to a bull, on both sides. Elizabeth continually reminds Thomas that we are all - RDN, Islands Trust and Island Health staff, elected representatives, Thomas and Elizabeth, “wink, wink/nod, nod”-ers—we are all victims of the same disintegrating system. It is a system that can only be lose-lose until we work for alternatives that foster win-win.

In our “From Demolition to Celebration” work party, Thomas’ favourite song was: “Thomas went to battle with the RDN, RDN, RDN … And the walls came tumbling down.” Elizabeth’s favourite song, however, was “Let the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.” Systems can change if enough people insist they must. So, along with humility: Let there be hope!

~ Dr. Thomas Harding and Elizabeth Beale