A friend of mine was traveling through the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, and came across an example of pioneer-style earth shelter home made out of sod. For me it represents a Thoreauian simplicity rarely seen in Canada today.
On the treeless prairies, sod was often the only building material at hand for providing newly arrived families with shelter.
Such houses were affectionately known as "soddies", and while they presented some challenging living conditions, they also provided benefits not seen in modern homes built with newer technology.
They certainly speak to the ingenuity and creativity of the builders, as well as showing us something about how early settlers made do with what they had where they were at. A soddy is simplicity in action.
Sod bricks were cut from the grassy prairies to construct these dwellings. About 3000 sod bricks were required to complete a 16 X 20 foot house. Usually the whole family would participate, as muscle power, not specialized knowledge, was the most important ingredient.
Each sod brick weighed about 50 pounds, and was laid so that the bricks would grow together and strengthen the structure.
The example shown in these pictures was built as a project commemorating the simplicity and temerity of the tough prairie settlers. Today it is about 30 years old, and provides tourists with a glimpse of the often harsh life on the North American prairies in the late 1800s. There are similar examples in the US and other parts of the Canadian plains.
An original sod home, over 100 years old, still stands in another Saskatchewan location. The older house was built in 1909 and was continuously occupied until 2006. Today it is a designated historical site.
For most families the sod home was a temporary structure, replaced with a wood or brick dwelling as soon as enough resources were gathered together. Continuing to live in a sod home, rather than shifting to a less efficient, more comfortable wood frame or brick home, became a source of shame and symbol of poverty.
However, sod homes have many good qualities not replicated in newer homes. Sod houses have a great thermal mass, so they maintain an even indoor air temperature despite extreme summer heat and winter cold. They were more energy efficient than the houses that replaced them.
Because of the sheer mass of these homes, they are extremely quiet inside. Noisy neighbours or highways, if you had any neighbours or highways back then, wouldn't have been a problem. I imagine these crude dwellings were a tranquil and welcome refuge while summer thunder storms or winter blizzards were raging outside.
The soddy simplicity of these homes represents a world view that we have left behind in favour of more impressive, but less green building methods. Such homes can not be built by the average citizen, and usually always entail going into deep debt.
The simple building technology of sod homes is considered sustainable as these homes use local supplies that are abundant and organic. Such harmonious practicality is rarely seen in more modern homes, unless we are talking about rammed earth houses (an ancient technology), which share many positive qualities with sod construction.
Rammed-earth structures last indefinitely and can be built for less than the cost of standard wood frame houses. A sod home could be built for next to nothing, and properly constructed, could easily provide a lifetime of affordable and quirky shelter.
Some settlers liked sod house life, others not as much. I'm sure Henry David would approve of these diminutive dwellings. I wouldn't mind giving them a try myself.
Note: Thank you to my friend Adele Comstock for taking note of this special little sod house while traveling the seemingly featureless Canadian prairies.