British Columbia

Netonia Yalte, 70, builds homes out of Haida Gwaii beach debris

Netonia Yalte lives on Haida Gwaii and builds homes out of materials that wash up on the beach: glass, driftwood, whale bones and cedar. "I call them stackwalls, because you stack and mortar in whatever you've got that's lasting building material."

'I never made anything the same twice, and I never have a plan,' says Yalte

This tiny house (about 180 square feet) is made of cordwood, driftwood and bottles built up with mortar, a technique known as stackwall. It was designed and built by Netonia Yalte. (Lloyd Alter)

Netonia Yalte builds homes out of whale bones, cedar, glass, driftwood and whatever else she can find on Haida Gwaii. 

"I call them stackwall, because you stack and mortar in whatever you've got that's lasting building material," she told CBC Radio West's Rebecca Zanbergen. 

"There's unlimited amount of creativity you could do with the building materials that wash up on the beaches around here. I have to be more responsible so that the structure is sound, but I love to put any extras that people come up with and stick them in there," said Yalte.

1st home was her own

"Necessity breeds invention," says Yalte, who admits the 1,500-square-foot project involved a massive amount of work, including 400 mixes in the wheelbarrow by hand.  

"I was living in poverty with three children and a half a welfare cheque. I was limited in what I could do. I needed a home badly. I had nothing to build it [with] except what was all around.

A seating area in one of the homes includes a bench on one side that's carved out of a log and a little cantilevered seat mortared into the wall on the other side. (Lloyd Alter)

"I had a power saw and a pickup truck. I could do this. After 42 trips of wood and 200 trips of sand and sawdust that I gathered everywhere, I built our home. 

"A little two-year-old did it with me, and he was 3½ when we moved in." That was 26 years ago.

'I never have a plan'

Since then, Yalte has built at least 30 other structures, including outhouses, gazebos, houses and walls. "I never made anything the same twice, and I never have a plan," she says.

Yalte currently lives alone in a home she built on Graham Island. It's surrounded by tiny cabins and a wall to protect the homestead from the strong winds. She built all of it herself.

The materials Yalte uses in her construction include glass, bone, cement, sawdust (for insulation), sand and water. (Lloyd Alter)

Not slowing down at 70

"I'm compulsive about the stackwall," said Yalte.

"I have a dream about making a village, and I know it's going to happen, because I've already had a vision of it happening, where a whole bunch of people live here with children running free and animals running free. I'm creating that dream," she said.

"I have all the weaknesses of everybody else that gets to be 70, but I refuse to get disabled. I just do whatever it takes, and I just live a healthy lifestyle."

To hear the full interview with Netonia Yalte, listen to the audio titled: 70-year-old woman builds homes out of whale bones on Haida Gwaii.


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