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The First Straw (House)

When is a summer vacation... not? When you go to a resort area — New York's Finger Lakes — and spend your time not sunning, sailing, and swimming... but sweating, sawing and sewing straw bales together for a stranger's home.

When I signed up for a week-long workshop on straw-bale-home construction a few months ago, I figured my fellow students would be oats-and-granola, California types. Fine by me: although I've now lived in Connecticut longer than California, you can't take the Golden State out of the boy.

So I was surprised to find, on arriving in early September in a no-stoplight village near Syracuse, NY, that workshop attendees had come from around the world. Switzerland, Egypt, a number of Canadian provinces, even South Carolina (sorry, Cal, had to say it!). Their professions were all over the place — business owners, builders, medical researchers, teachers, restauranteurs, retirees, investors, graphic designers, an airline pilot — as were their politics... but we did seem to share one thing. We believed Something Had Gone Wrong in the world, and while our views diverged on the cause(s), we knew, somehow, that connecting with other people would help.

Andrew Morrison, the Oregon-based builder, teacher and organizer, has been running straw-bale workshops for 3 years — about 30 of them now, from New Mexico to Tennessee, Australia to Portugal. He's the leader in a small field... but it's darn good business, in that he can get up to 30 people to pay for the privilege of building someone else's home. (I shelled out $750, including all food and lodging — in my own tent; homeowners aren't charged, but put down a $5,000, refundable deposit, and provide three meals a day for the whole encampment.) At least four or five workshop participants are planning to build their own straw-bale homes in the next couple years... and by week's end, it was clear they wouldn't mind if Andrew ran their projects, too. Yes, partly because the build was more complicated than most of us anticipated — but also because we were conscious of having participated in a latter-day barn-raising, and gotten to know people in a way that modern life rarely allows.

Frankie and Lorraine, in theory, are building a four-bedroom bed-and-breakfast near a tourist area (their property is 30 miles from the Finger Lakes wine region). In fact, though, as with many people I met at the workshop, you sense they're taking a jump-off-the-bridge shot at independence, toward the self-reliance the U.S. was built on (and which Ralph Waldo Emerson praised more than 150 years ago).

It's not an easy road: the couple, plus their son Ryan and his friend Andrew (better known as "Pickles," and even "Bubbles"), have spent much of 2011 living in tents, and a trailer, cooking over wood fires and reading by tiki light. They often return to their main digs on Long Island, but this home, clearly, is The Future: as was often noted — sometimes jokingly, sometimes not — a number of people quit their jobs to make this house-build happen.

The house will be big — something like 3,000 square feet — and the bale walls are not load-bearing, because the Cuyler/DeRuyter area gets lake-effect snow that could exceed a bale wall's structural integrity. So what we found, on arrival, was essentially a large pavillion, with 8-by-10-inch double piers at each corner and a massive, complex roof supported by 60-odd trusses running in many directions. A simple house, this was not... and a huge challenge for amateur builders. Fortunately, Andrew — who grew up in New Jersey and went to college in Massachusetts — holds a degree in construction technology and built conventional homes professionally for more than a decade... which means he spotted pretty quickly some of the as-built errors (no, you can't have a gap between rafters and top plates, and those plates better be doubled 2x4s....). We spent a couple days doing repair and prep work, and learning the bale-build process... but then it was time to get itchy.

A few of the Master Baler's tools (a joke no doubt re-invented at every workshop) are:

  • chainsaws,

  • 30-inch baling needles,

  • Weed Whackers,

  • plastic yogurt lids (large), and

  • guitars,

in addition to all the regular construction tools, from hammers and staple guns to compressors and Sawzalls. We used most of them that first wall-building day, soon after Frankie, Lorraine, Ryan and Pickles lay the ceremonial first bale near the future front door... on two dozen three-inch nails projecting upward, head first, from the gravel-filled toe-up forming the bottom plate. We knew, then, this would be a different kind of construction.

Chainsaws? Of course — how else do you shape a bale so it “wraps” around a stud or pier? Giant needles? Yes — you have to sew partial bales together with polyethylene twine and eventually to the floor-to-ceiling wire mesh that ensures bales don't shift within the wall. Weed Whackers? Can't have stray straws (say that 10 times, fast) projecting beyond the mesh, or your plastering won't look so great. And that's where the yogurt lids come in: they're flexible, allowing you to curve the wet, lime-based plaster around window openings and doorways, literally “taking the edge off” these deep, imposing walls (our two-string bales were 18 inches thick, if I remember rightly). And, yes, also use those lids while plastering alcoves and “truth windows” — cut into bales with a chainsaw, naturally.

That may be my favorite image from the workshop — watching Len, a woman hoping to build a "green" home next year in Moncton, New Bruswick, go to town on a bale wall with a gas McCullough (the electric saws were grossly underpowered for bale work).

And guitars? They might be the most important tool at a straw-bale build, since nothing's better for creating kinship around a post-dinner campfire. Andrew, having attended more than a hundred Grateful Dead concerts in his (clearly misspent) younger days, played a lot of folk and traditional songs in the Jerry Garcia vein... but the musical highlight, surely, was when Andre, now from New Jersey but raised in the Old World, embarked on yet another serio-comic Polish folk song. Hardly anyone understood the lyrics, but that didn't matter; we'd spent the day doing something new, and interesting, possibly even important, and it was time to relax and celebrate. No, we didn't finish the home — we barely plastered one exterior wall on the seventh straight work day — but we helped kickstart a dream... and hatched a few of our own.

Chris Goodrich October 13, 2011 at 11:18 PM
My mistake -- Andrew e-mailed he's been teaching workshops for 5 years, not three....

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