The Deanery Project is a living lab on the Eastern Shore
When the old Tangier Deanery Centre in Ship Harbour came on the market in 2011, Kim Thompson was among a group of local environmentalists, artists and residents who saw its potential.
With 25 acres of oceanfront fields and forest overlooking the Tangier Grand Lake Wilderness Area, the property had served as a summer youth camp for 75 years.
What they also saw was that after being boarded up for three years, the place was a fixer-upper.
“The roof of the main hall was gone, and the ceiling was down in places,” recalls Thompson, now the executive director of The Deanery Project. “We were able to get
a long-term loan from somebody who believed in our idea.”
They formed a non-profit cooperative, and retained the name “Deanery” as a nod to the property’s history.
Twelve years on, the Deanery might be described as an exhibit of the possible. Visitors can see an example of straw-bale construction, how a living roof is put together, or how buildings can be powered by photovoltaic panels. This ever-evolving education and demonstration site is a showcase for environmental sustainability, skills development, community building and the arts.
“We consider it a working lab, where anyone who is interested can explore new ideas that can have a positive environmental and community impact,” Thompson says.
A part-time professor at Dalhousie’s School of Architecture, Thompson has recruited many talented students to the Deanery over the years, along with designers, planners, builders and thinkers.
“They’ve brought so much energy and vision to this space,” she says. “They can get away from their computers and actually build things, which they don’t always get
a chance to do.” Dede Whitten is a Dartmouth resident with a dream of building her
own home and a firm commitment to sustainable construction. It was in August 2022, while researching cob — a natural building material made from subsoil, water and fibrous organic substances such as straw — that she came across the Deanery Project online.
Since then, she’s been an enthusiastic volunteer, making the hour-long drive
on a weekly basis, running workshops, refining her cob expertise and building a compost toilet. “I was looking for a mentor and hands-on experience,” Whitten says.
“This has given me a whole new level of passion, seeing the benefits that come with natural building.”
The Deanery has formed partnerships and co-op agreements with NSCAD, Nova Scotia Community College, Saint Mary’s University and Acadia University, while working
with groups as varied as Nova Scotia Sea School, the Department of Environment and Climate Change Canada and Ulnooweg, which promotes Indigenous-led commercial
and charitable projects.
The Deanery employs a “two-eyed seeing” approach, Thompson explains, combining Indigenous wisdom with contemporary science.
“We want to create an environment where both those things can flourish,” she says.
“We have the skills of rural living, along with all of our connections to academia,
business and other institutions.” Permaculture is defined as the natural integration of people and their landscape to encourage the sustainable production of food, shelter, energy and other materials. The idea is to become more aligned with nature’s patterns and use them for human benefit, to amplify resources without depleting
them, and it informs all of the activities at the Deanery.
“Instead of looking at things in isolation, you consider how each thing that you do impacts other things,” Thompson says. “So much of life has been compartmentalized,
but we cannot make the changes we need to make in this world unless we understand how everything is connected to everything else.” A roof, for example, has many
uses. First and foremost, it is to keep the rain out, but it can also collect water, be a surface to grow vegetables, minimize noise, deflect wind and generate electricity.
“Every piece of infrastructure improvement that we’ve done has been a learning opportunity for us,” she says. “We’ve been able to demonstrate how other communities can find similar projects in their own neighbourhoods, and
we’re very intentional about creating documents and resources that
others can use.”
Arts and culture play an important role at the Deanery. Song circles are a regular occurrence, an artist-in-residence program accommodates artists from near and far, and a sound studio is available for recording music and producing podcasts. Creative arts programming is offered in print-making, shadow play and outdoor movement, and the annual Sea Light Sky Light Festival is an inspiring afternoon and evening of music, entertainment, story-telling and educational presentations, culminating in a lantern walk to the waterfront.
In addition to the students, interns and volunteers, hundreds of curious visitors drop into the Deanery every year, and many remember being there when it was a
summer camp. On the first Sunday of every month, the Deanery has an open house from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., typically with a workshop of some kind in progress, and often with live music.
Accommodations are available for overnight, and extended stays. Three dormitory-style rooms with bunk beds can accommodate 18 people, and there are also tent sites
and a tiny home.
The range of projects and research at the Deanery is vast — from adding biochar to plaster and concrete to active transportation, energy and gardening. What they
all have in common, Thompson says, is enhancing the environment, as well as the bonds that hold communities together.
“We want to inspire people to see what might be possible in their communities and their lives.”
For more information on The Deanery Project, you can contact Executive Director Kim Thompson at email@example.com or call her directly at 902-845-1888. You can also follow the project on Facebook and Instagram.