From the Desert Exposure – June 23, 2003
Straw in the Wind
There’s a new breeze blowing through home construction – houses made of strawbales – and it's coming from New Mexico.
By David A. Fryxell
Catherine Wanek thinks the first little pig many have been onto something, after all. Next month, her new book, The New Strawbale Home(Gibbs Smith, $39.95), will showcase 40 homes across North America that that are built mostly of straw.
To borrow from another chil-dren's story, Catherine has become a sort of pied piper of the straw-bale building movement. She edited a newsletter, The Last Straw Journal, for rive years; co-edited a previous book, The Art of Natural Building (New Society); and has produced a series of videotapes on strawbale construction. With her husband, Pete Fust, she also somehow finds time to operate the Black Range Lodge in Kingston, NM.
It's Pete who has the last laugh on the tale of the three little pigs. "People love to bring that up," he says. "I just tell them there's a new moral: It turns out that straw is a great building material. You just shouldn't let a pig build your house."
Still, when you say you're building with straw, people do wonder. As Catherine puts it, "What about fire? What about rot? What about the Big Bad Wolf?"
One of her videos shows the fire testing performed to get strawbale houses past New Mexico's building codes. "It's a revelation to people," Catherine says. "The flames are licking at the plaster that covers the bales. Its edited like High Noon so it keeps cutting to the clock. It's a two-hour test; at the end, only two inches of the 18-inch bale are charred."
Pete tells of a Pinos Altos couple who'd packed for an extended trip, realized they'd forgotten something and drove half hour back to their strawbale house – to find their wood pile in flames and fire spreading to a wooden window frame. They put out the fire and left again. A week later, when they came home, they noticed a wall of their house was… hot. The fire had continued to smolder inside the walls — but the densely packed, oxygen-starved straw had burned only a foot or two.
"If you have a fire in a strawbale house, you have time to get out, find a real-estate agent and buy a new house," Pete adds, chuckling. He's a big, base-ball-cap-wearing North Dakota farmboy, a contrast to Catherine, who's small, brown-haired, wiry— hard to imagine her hefting a 30-40-pound bale.
Catherine chimes in that strawbale houses don't have all the nasty chemicals of conventional con-struction which can vaporize in a fire. The "grizzled old engineer" who supervised the code test told her afterward that he's seen conventional foam materials "self-ignite at low temperatures and then rain napalm."
OK, but what about rot? Doesn't straw rot? Not if you seal the water out, Catherine explains. Kept dry, strawbales can remain inert for centuries. That same code test also put to rest fears of the Big Bad Wolf -- wind. The strawbale construction passed the wind-load test "with flying colors," she says. Huff and puff away.
New Mexico and many counties in Arizona and California have okayed strawbale construction in their building codes. In other places, would-be builders have to jump through hoops -- often with Catherine's help. "I got an email from an architect in Western Australia,"she says. She showed them my video, and they promptly gave her a permit."
"It's definitely counterintuitive, but straw is a durable material," Pete concludes. "It's not anything new: There are marly 100-year-old structures in Nebraska, where they invented this, that are still there today. You can doubt the science, but you have to believe a 100-year-old building."
Beside being, durable, straw-bale construction also saves trees: A strawbale house uses only half the timber of a conventional one. Because it's super-insulating, strawbale building saves fossil fuels. (But you have to plaster both sides of the bales. Pete explains; "It's like putting the cap on a Thermos bottle or zipping up a down jacket. You seal the air inside the thousands of tiny capillaries inside the strawbale.")
But there's something else, something less tangible about strawbale houses. "Individually, a stalk of straw seems fragile, but hundreds together, compressed and baled, make a sturdy building block," Catherine writes in The Art of Natural Building. Much the same could be said for the effect of strawbale building on people in a community: Like old-fashioned barn raisings, building a strawbale house brings people together. And together they discover they are stronger — strong enough to build a house.
That sense of community was a big part of what attracted Catherine to strawbale houses in the first place. After growing up in Las Cruces, she'd moved to Los Angeles and gotten into the movie business—first as an electrician, then as an assistant director.
You might say fate brought her back to New Mexico. "On my honeymoon with my first husband, we drove through Kingston and found ourselves buying a lodge," she says. "On your honeymoon, you think you can do anything."
That was 1984, and the 1880s stone lodge in the tiny town on the eastern edge of the Black Range had been closed for a dozen years. At first the couple just lived there while continuing to write screenplays, but the 1988 Writers Guild strike impelled them to re-open the Black Range Lodge as a bed and breakfast.
"Life in the country held much more allure," she says over the contented cackle of chickens beyond the kitchen window. "We were ready to share our philosophy and place with other people."
About the same time, they became interested in "permaculture” (one definition: "conscious design and maintenance of cultivated ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems"). Catherine says, "Once you live in the country, garden, and connect with the land, you become more aware how much the landscape has suffered because of humans. You don't see it in the city. where it's all concrete and developed. Permaculture is a way to regenerate the landscape, from your backyard to a whole bioregion."
A permaculturist they met introduced them to the notion of strawbale building, and in 1992 they decided to give it a try with a two-story greenhouse addition. She says, "It was a way to warm up this leaky old stone lodge, which is the opposite of an energy-efficient home."
They held a workshop to build the greenhouse, most of which went up in just two days. "It was a transformative experience," Catherine recalls. "I got really jazzed about strawbale building because of the energy around the workshop. It was less like work, and more like a party."
She'd used her old Hollywood skills to videotape the construction, and decided to make another video, this time allowing many different strawbale houses. Separated from her first husband by now, Catherine traveled around the country, slept in her van and filmed 10 strawbale homes around the Southwest. She also met Pete, at the Orange County, Calif.,Convention Center, where she was videotaping and he was exhibiting an eco-friendly house he'd helped build. The rest is what Pete calls "one of the many strawbale romances."
Together with an ever-shifting array of visiting enthusiasts, they've since dotted the lodge property with nine different straw-bale structures; ranging from a guest house to a chicken coop. The guest house, with a breath-taking mountain view, serves as a summer escape from the Arizona heat for Catherine's parents and as a special room for lodge guests the rest of the year. It was recently featured in Su Casa, a magazine published by the Homebuilders Association of New Mexico.
The Black Range Lodge has also hosted five colloquia on natural building; the next will be in October. It's HQ for a mail-order book and video operation (www.strawbalecentral.com). And in October 2001 it was the site of the first training course for Builders Without Borders (www.builderswithoutborders.org), a nonprofit organization Catherine and Pete helped to found to share low-tech, natural-building solutions with poor communities and the Third World.
The first little pig's house didn't last long enough for anyone to ask the other big ques-tion about a strawbale home: What's it like? Think of 18-by-14-by-36-inch bales of straw—the standard hales straight off the farm work just fine—stacked like bricks. For a 1,000-square-foot structure you need 200-230 bales. Larger, complicated floor plans generally use a post-and-beam system, with strawbales as infill; this scheme means you can raise the roof before you need the bales, keeping both bales and workers dry.
You can build pretty much any style of house with strawbale that you can with conventional techniques; the examples in Catherine's new book range from quaint cottages to starkly modem creations. Except for the thickness of the walls and, typically, a "truth window" cut into the plaster somewhere inside to reveal the straw, the homes she described and photographed could in any standard-construction showplace from House and Garden.
That's the thing: You just can’t have thin walls. "Here in the southwest, we love thick walls, emulating the adobe tradition" she says. "That’s probably one reason why strawbale has caught on in New Mexico." Though particularly popular in the Southwest, strawbale homes have been built in nearly every state — about 5,000 of them, most within the past 10 years. Pete predicts that total will double in just the next two to three years.
Part of the appeal is cost savings, but he cautions that strawbale houses are not necessarily cheaper. It all depends on how much work you are willing to do yourself (and with the help of friends) reducing the 65 percent of the cost of an average home today that goes toward labor. (Pete points out that's exactly the reverse of 1948 – the first year more American single-family homes were built by profes-sionals rather than by the people who would live in them – when 65% of the cost was materials.) Strawbale construction does open the door to the possibility of doing more yourself.
In Sunland Park, NM, near El Paso, for instance, the Sisters of Charity—with help from Builders Without Borders—are sponsoring a project on state desert land, building 47 strawbale houses for low-income residents. "Sweat equity" helps make that effort possible. Ultimately, the project, dubbed Tierra Madre, will incorporate permaculture design, passive and active solar energy, water harvesting and gray-water reclamation.
Inevitably, strawbale construction also gets you thinking about all those other aspects of "natural building,” a term that Catherine coined in 1995. She says,"Strawbale enables you to realize, ‘Hey. if I'm going this far, I really ought to examine what else goes into my house."'
So, no, even though strawbale houses may seem at first glance just like thick-walled versions of connventional homes, they are different. They even feel different, often with more rounded walls and lumpier surfaces. The thick strawbale walls keep exterior noises out and interior noises in (one family Catherine knows built a strawbale rehearsal room for their bass-playing son). Inside a strawbale house, well, the word "cozy" keeps coming up. "It feels like an embrace," says Catherine.
Huff and puff all you like —these straw houses are for keeps.