Deirdre McGahern, founder and president of Peterborough-based straw bale building company Straworks, outlines the unique features of the new health centre building quickly taking shape at Camp Kawartha on Clear Lake in Douro-Dummer. The 1,200-square-foot building is a shining example of next generation sustainable architecture, built exclusively with natural materials resulting in net-zero utility costs, zero toxins, zero fossil fuel use, and zero waste output for a zero-carbon footprint.

If the name of the game is to help leave this world in better shape than it was in when you arrived, Camp Kawartha crossed the finish line long ago.

That said, the outdoor education centre on the shores of Clear Lake off Birchview Road in Douro-Dummer isn’t close to being content resting on its many laurels, its new health centre now under construction a shining example of there being much work to be done and Camp Kawartha’s desire to do it.

Gone is the decades-old health centre. In its place is rising a 1,200-square-foot structure that, when completed in June 2021, will boast net-zero energy costs, zero toxins, zero fossil fuel use and zero waste output — all adding up to a zero-carbon footprint. The $375,000 cost is being raised via a fundraising campaign that has already seen $250,000 secured or pledged.

Pine tree trunks and boulders are shown here as support beams for the health care centre. A great example of repurposed natural materials.

On Sunday (November 8), Deirdre McGahern, founder and president of Peterborough-based straw bale building company Straworks (the project’s builder), took a group on a tour of the site, providing kawarthaNOW with an exclusive sneak peek.

“It’s not just about straw bale walls, we’re thinking about carbon emissions and super insulation every step of the way,” says McGahern, adding, “The whole building is an alternative building and is an example of a state-of-the-art, high-performance, natural building.”

Besides catering to the health care needs of campers and day visitors — ranging from poison ivy rashes to sunburn to sprains — the new health centre will be a “teaching building,” enhancing the environmental education programming offered annually to some 16,000 campers, students, and adults.

According to Camp Kawartha executive director Jacob Rodenburg, it will help campers and visitors better understand carbon-neutral design, carbon sequestration, alternative energy generation, the use of natural building materials, product lifecycle, and green waste management systems.

“We feel people need to bear witness to sustainability in action,” says Rodenburg. “The word I find powerful and needed today is regenerative. Can we improve and make things more nature rich? Can we show people that we can have a place where people and nature thrive?”

The new health care centre that is being built at Camp Kawartha in Douro-Dummer.


Among the design and construction features of the building: the use of 300 bales of wheat straw from a Port Hope area farm for exterior wall insulation; a natural plaster comprised of clay, lime, sand, and chopped straw; the absence of any rigid or spray foam; the use of non-toxic paints and finishes; marmoleum flooring made of 97 per cent natural ingredients such as linseed oil, wood flour and jute; and triple-pane glass for all window and doors that is 50 per cent more efficient, reducing condensation.

According to McGahern, the Builders for Climate Action carbon calculator shows the finished building’s material carbon emissions will be 6.9 tonnes but the wood, straw, and cellulose insulation will store 12.5 tonnes (absorbed during photosynthesis when they were in plant form), resulting in net reduction of 5.6 tonnes.

Compare that with a building built conventionally — with a concrete foundation, spray foam insulation, and brick on the exterior — whose material emissions would be about 39 tonnes.

“It’s time for building codes to limit carbon emissions for every build — saying ‘Your (carbon) budget is 10 tonnes, so figure it out’,” says McGahern, whose company has constructed a number of energy-efficient and low-carbon-emitting residential and commercial structures since 2004.

“If that’s what the building code stipulated, builders would have to make careful material selections and do the math, saying ‘Instead of using foam or fiberglass insulation, we’re going to use straw or we’re going to use dense pack cellulose so we can come in on our carbon budget’,” McGahern adds.

“People don’t necessarily make changes until they’re forced to. But there are off-the-shelf ways of making significant carbon reductions in our current building practices.”

Still, McGahern says Ontario is “a leader in sustainable building” in the world, noting she’s attended conventions where “builders from Ontario stand out” for their practices.

As for the fundraising drive, Camp Kawartha has pegged David Goyette — fresh off a stint chairing the 2019-20 United Way of Peterborough and District campaign — to lead the charge.

The thing that sold me was the idea of being involved in creating what has to be one of the most environmentally responsible buildings in the world,” says Goyette. “We had $125,000 to go but we’ve moved that up to $150,000 (for a total of $400,000) because we need to outfit the building — beds and medical machinery, sinks and furniture.”

Goyette says he is passionate about the cause, motivated by “a number of factors” coming together.

“These are lovely people and the idea of a kids’ camp is just spectacular to me. This (Clear Lake) is the same body of water that I live on, so I feel connected in that regard. And the fact that this is an organization that promotes environmental sustainability and leadership — I love it.”

The fundraising campaign will include a live by-invitation-only performance by Peterborough singer Danny Bronson at Camp Kawartha in the new year.

“Raising money during a pandemic is difficult,” Goyette admits. “I can’t have group events and we’re a little distant from people we’d normally meet with face to face. We’ll do our best. The building will be built regardless.”

While potential donors are being approached, anyone can make a donation by visiting or making an e-transfer to There are six donation levels, ranging from Polar ($25 to $249) to Butternut ($25,000 and up), with increasing recognition for each level upwards.

Among those who doesn’t have to be sold on the value of the health centre project is Douro-Dummer councillor Heather Watson.

“More of the community needs to have the opportunity to come and see what they do here,” Watson says. “It’s no longer just a place that kids go to spend their summer. It’s really shaping kids’ and educators’ beliefs around environmental stewardship.”

While Rodenburg is looking forward to the new health centre’s completion and opening, he’s also excited over a major milestone that will be marked in 2012: the 100th anniversary of Camp Kawartha, home to more than 180 acres of trails, forests, fields, wetland and meadows that have served as a classroom for thousands of students year after year.

“What we’re hoping for is to become a nationally relevant environmental education leadership centre,” Rodenburg says. “So we’re not just teaching kids about nature and sustainability, but we’re also training educators, showcasing architects, teaching parents, and seeding awareness and making a difference.”


For more information on Camp Kawartha, its programming and facilities, and the new health centre build, click here

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