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Gold Straw, Brown Clay -- Green Home

by John T. Rehorn

Someday, an article about straw bale home construction will not, however fleetingly, refer to the Three Little Pigs or the Big Bad Wolf. Someday such a piece will not have to reiterate that straw is no more susceptible to moisture than lumber, that mice and other vermin won’t become members of the family, or that a bale, especially when coated on its exposed sides with plaster, is approximately as flammable as an adobe brick. One day, there will be no need to explain that these homes are not just built by ex-hippies for ten bucks a square foot and all the beer and organic pizza their dozens of volunteers can consume. Someday, but not today.

Today, people who are struggling to make a decent living building green, building sustainably, building homes with straw -- are still convincing prospective clients and the general public of these things. The Colorado Straw Bale Association, COSBA, serves as an oasis of information and reassurance to these builders, along with prospective owner/builders and sustainable building advocates. They held their annual conference recently in Carbondale and featured keynote speeches from the likes of straw bale master Chris Magwood of Ontario, Canada and energy expert Randy Udall, director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency in Carbondale. Though it smelled a lot like preaching-to-the-choir syndrome at Carbondale’s Waldorf School (one of the few schools built of straw in the nation) where the conference was held, participants departed armed with information and conviction to carry on the straw bale crusade in their respective home towns.

Because straw bale construction is in a sort of second infancy in the early 21st century (early 20th century Nebraskans built straw bale homes that are still inhabited), there is a constant stream of new ideas for efficiency and quality emerging. Any builder who tells you he or she knows all there is to know about straw bale building should be treated like a chicken complaining of flu symptoms.

“I think a typical builder came away from the conference with a better understanding of the finer points of straw bale construction,” said Andrew Phillips, the only Durango-area builder to attend the COSBA conference. Finer points like knowing how to think like a raindrop and devising ways to keep that drop out, for example. “There’s an entire infrastructure designed for the conventional builder. You go to the lumber yard, they know the materials they sell, and they’ve got catalogs and how-to manuals -- everything you need to know. But with straw bale construction, we’re still out there experimenting. So at the COSBA conference, it was this core gathering for the dissemination of pretty important information that might seem trite to some, but in essence it’s the backbone of how we proceed.”

Mark Schueneman, COSBA’s executive director, said he thought the best idea to come from this year’s conference was to quantify the performance of a straw bale house compared with a conventionally built one. “Chris Magwood brought up the point that hey, we think we’re doing the right thing, but then everyone does. So if we actually have this happen, then we can put our ‘this-works-better’ badge on it,” Schueneman said.

Phillips, standing in the elegant timber-frame straw bale of his friends and former clients Eric and Teresa Malone, agreed. “It’s important for us to raise the bar on straw bale building, show how viable a structure it can be, and then the masses I think will start seeing that hey, these stand up better than stick frames.”

The Malone home in Heartwood near Bayfield, stands oriented for solar gain among many green homes in this rural co-housing development. Eric Malone procured the timbers for his house from sources no more than a seven miles away. When it came to straw bales and plaster, he called in Phillips for professional expertise. As with all conscious builders, Malone has the rap on his house down. He explained how its trees were harvested in fire mitigation projects and selective thinning. Draft horses were used to skid the logs out of the forest, keeping it roadless. Malone spoke of “embodied energy” (the amount of fossil fuels associated with materials with respect to manufacturing, shipping, and other energy costs) with the ease of a physics professor discussing Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Aside from the small “energy footprint” his natural home makes, he pointed out that its future tracks will have a minimal energy impact for the life of the abode. “I didn’t really know this until we moved in, but we don’t heat,” Malone said. “It’s pretty much 100 percent passive in the winter. Unless we have a long string of days without sun, it just stays warm. Regardless of the embodied energy, the amount of gas consumption over 50 years: that’s the energy savings that are really going to have an impact over the long term.” The Malones have thermal solar panels atop their roof to augment the passive solar gain they get from orienting south with the proper amount of windows. Once the heat’s in, the straw bales keep it there, insulating as well as your best down sleeping bag.

Kelly Ray Mathews of Straw Bale Builders, though still young and devilishly good-looking, is one of the grandfathers of the straw bale movement in La Plata County. Many of the younger or newer builders have worked for Mathews at some time in the past. Unlike some natural home builders, Mathews has enjoyed the luxury in recent years of picking his clients and building only straw bale homes or doing only natural clay plaster jobs. He is currently finishing a paragon for natural building for client Doris Andrew. He revealed his strategy for going exclusively natural. “Most people that I work for are already sold on natural building,” he said. “And honestly I’ve gotten really fussy about who I work for. I mostly try to chase people off now. If I can’t chase them off I tell them how lazy I am and how slow and expensive we are. Then I figure if they still want me, then they’re probably all right to work for.”

At present, the choice for building with straw bales is primarily owner-driven -- they are already on board the green-building movement when looking for a general contractor. Mathews said he is as busy as he can be, lamenting that if he can’t point them to another green builder, those he must turn away will probably go conventional.

“Still, if (green building in La Plata County) is one percent I’d be shocked,” Mathews said. “But I’ve seen a huge growth in the last year.

There are many alluring attributes to these and other naturally built homes. Lines and corners are soft, walls gently undulate -- telltale of the not-quite Euclidean geometry of the bales behind the native clay plaster. A craftman’s pride lurks everywhere. Colors are earth-tone, interiors are cave-cool in the dog days of June. But what often goes unmentioned is the smell. Absent are the vapors of paint, carpet and other “new house” aromas of the conventional building. In their place is a barely describable earthy but clean, non-toxic scent with which you gladly fill your lungs. These homes should make their inhabitants feel better, both physically and ethically. But it’s the construction worker who really gets a health bonus from building the natural home. Imagine the exposure to the kind of fumes and dust a conventional builder encounters year after year.

But Andrew Phillips takes it a step further. What kind of impact will our ruins have in the distant future, he asks. Will you be able to grow tomatoes among the ruins? As for the Malone home, he makes the point: “In a thousand years this house will be nothing more than a pile of organic material. And, it’s just seven miles out of place.”









Sustainable and Natural -- They don’t always mean the same thing.


We’re suckers for buzzwords, especially those of us who do a little thinking about our purchases, practices and choices. Bravo to Natural Home and Garden, the home magazine that covers natural home building, for raising awareness about alternatives to stick-frame houses. Nothing is better than natural ... or is it? Though the word “sustainable” isn’t very alluring, making the natural choice might not be making the best choice when it comes to conscious home building.

Sustainable construction is all about thinking of Mother Earth’s well-being in addition to your own. More often than not, the two are in harmony. But on occasion, you will have to sacrifice money, time or convenience to build sustainably. A straw bale home, for example, requires a commitment to maintenance for the life of the house (if you build well, that means at least two human lifetimes, so take your vitamins). In addition, you don’t want to be moving paintings or mirrors around because you’ll have to put a new hole in the plaster.And forget about remodeling ... wait a minute, maybe that’s an advantage.

Natural building is often in sync with sustainability, but not always. For example, a good sustainable choice in roof framing is using engineered I-joists made from flake-board. At present, the glue they use to make this stuff is really gross, with formaldehyde and other nasties. But the alternative is using lots of natural lumber that has to come from big trees and therefore, old forests. Particle and flake board, and for that matter, wood used in laminated veneer lumber (LVL), can be made from fast-growing, farmable trees. So what about the toxins present in manufactured lumber? Our solution was to build slowly. By the time we had the roof members sheathed on both sides, outgassing was likely 99.5 percent complete.

Many people look to natural alternatives when it comes to home building because they’ve had allergic or even life-threatening reactions to the chemicals coming out of manufactured products. But for those of us who don’t have environmental allergies, I think we can make a few choices in reverence for Gaia, our mother. Sometimes, that means making man-made choices.

My favorite building materials and methods are those that fit the criteria for both sustainability and natural-ness. That’s why I love clay plaster. You can use the earth right from your house site to make the siding for your home and the surface for your floors. You can gather the loose straw from your wall-building, chop it up, and mix it with your clay to make a product with amazing shear strength. Next on the list of my favorite construction words is “recycled”. Recycled often means man-made, but it also means inexpensive. Sucker rods from the local natural gas well industry were used in the straw bale wall system of our house to make it a load-bearing/post and beam hybrid. Aluminum cans were incorporated into our dining room wall. Maple flooring salvaged from a warehouse provided a lovely second-story hardwood floor that we couldn’t have afforded otherwise. Rolled glass from our recycling center was used in place of sand for concrete and plaster needs.

Finally, think “local” as a way to build sustainably. Shipping and freight, especially these days, adds an embodied energy footprint to everything you buy. If there is a local sawmill, a nearby farm for straw, a local stone quarry -- use their services even to the point of tailoring your home design to incorporate local resources. Just as it struck Nebraskans as silly to haul timber across the prairie to build their homes after some clever dude invented the baling machine, it might be silly to insist on oak flooring when you’ve got a guy down the road who mills wonderful knotty pine tongue and groove.

Now, there are sure to be arguments for and against any decision you make regarding sustainable building practices. Sometimes, the jury is still out on a particular idea. But the point is, if you go into the building process with awareness, you’re likely to average on the side of Earth Mother protection. And the owner/builders walking in your footsteps will have the benefits of your trailblazing efforts.





by John T. Rehorn, john@armofthespiral.com






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