How to Build a House With Bales of Straw

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I’m Barbara Klein.

And I’m Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. We continue our series of reports about efforts to keep alive traditional ways of doing things.  Today we tell about building homes out of a simple natural material -- straw.

It was a cold winter in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the early nineteen eighties.  Athena Swentzell was a student in college there.  She owned some property.  She wanted her own place to live in but she did not have much money to build a house.  The usual building materials of wood, concrete and brick were too costly.  So she decided to try to build a house using big rectangular bales of straw, the waste material that remains after wheat and other grains are harvested.  She covered the outside of the small house with a cement plaster to keep the straw dry.

Ms. Swentzell had never seen or heard of a house built of straw.  She thought she had invented the idea and was surprised how livable it was.  Later she learned that straw bale houses have been built since the late eighteen hundreds after a machine was invented to form the dry straw into bales.  And she learned there are straw bale houses in many countries throughout the world.

In nineteen eighty-nine, Bill Steen was taking photographs for a small book about straw bale houses.  He met Athena Swentzell after he took a picture of the house she had built.

Athena Swentzell and Bill Steen married and she moved to his home in Canelo, Arizona.  They decided to hold a workshop.  They wanted to teach other people how to make buildings out of straw bales, clay, sand and water -- materials that are available almost everywhere.

The workshop was a success.  Through the years more people became interested in learning how to build a house by hand with natural materials.  The Steens's first book, "The Straw Bale House," was published in nineteen ninety-four.  Ms. Steen says interest really increased after that.

The book demonstrated how to use natural materials throughout a house.  It showed how people who are not experts can build straw bale houses.  It explained how the thickness of the straw walls kept the house warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  And it showed how beautiful these hand-built houses made of natural materials can be.

In recent years, the interest in straw bale building has spread across the United States and in other countries.  Workshops and demonstrations of straw bale building are popular.  Many books on the subject have been published, including several more by Athena and Bill Steen.

Straw bales are used in large houses and very small ones, in office buildings and in schools.  The structures may have metal or wood supports for the roof with straw bales used to fill the walls.  Or the straw bales alone may support the roof.  Windows and doorways may be round or unusual shapes.  Walls may be gently curved.

A plaster made of clay, lime or cement is used to cover the outside of the straw bale walls.  The inside walls are covered with clay and then painted with naturally colored paints made of clay, wheat paste and water.  The designs are very creative.  The resulting structures look very different from modern buildings with their straight walls of wood, cement or brick.  Some small straw bale buildings look like works of art.

In the nineteen nineties, Bill and Athena Steen started the Canelo Project.  It is a small non-profit organization that aims to connect people, culture and nature.  It explores natural building methods that are simple, low cost and pleasing to look at.

Through the Canelo Project, the Steens work with people to create simple, livable shelters using local and natural materials.  They are concerned with balancing the wisdom and skills of the past with modern improvements.  Bill Steen says they try to match the materials to the skills of people doing the building.  Athena Steen says their goal is to keep the materials and tools simple so people can work with family and friends to build their own homes.  This way, she says, they feel a connection to their home that is lost when someone else is the builder.

The Steens hold workshops at their home in Canelo, Arizona, in the spring and autumn.  They live in the large old house made of adobe that was on the property.  The dried clay and straw adobe mixture is the same building material used by people living in dry areas all over the world.

Now, there are about twelve smaller structures used for storing things or for visitors.  Some were built to demonstrate new ideas.  The small buildings look like the big adobe house but all have straw bales inside the earth covered walls.

People who attend the workshops are from many places including Australia, South Korea, Japan, South America, as well as the United States and Canada.  They learn the methods of building with straw bales by helping build a small structure.

One of the workshops is called Straw Bale Comprehensive.  It is for people who are seriously considering building a home out of straw bales and want to do much of the work themselves.  This week-long class lets people take part in a group project to design and build a small structure.

People learn the methods of building with straw bales.  They learn that the straw must be kept completely dry or it will not last.  They learn how to put in electricity and plumbing.  And they learn how to build roofs that will keep rain from the walls.

Another week-long workshop is called Artistry in Clay and Lime.  The Steens show how natural materials can be used to cover walls and floors, build furniture and create paints.

During the workshop, the Steens teach traditional plastering methods used to cover walls in Japan, Mexico, Germany and the American Southwest.  And they demonstrate methods and plaster materials they have developed.  People learn how to make clay or earth plasters especially for inside walls and lime plasters that are less affected by the weather.

People using straw bales for their main building material often want to use other natural materials inside the building.  So the workshop includes information about natural paints that are easy to make and cost very little.  These paints of clay or other earth materials provide beautiful colors – warm rich red, brown and gray.  Clay paints can be used over almost any wall surface including wood and cement.  The workshop also includes ways to make furniture out of clay, straw and local plant materials.

In nineteen ninety-five, the Steens began working in Sonora, Mexico.  The organization, Save the Children, invited them to help people living in a poor farming community near the city of Obregon build low cost houses.

Athena Steen says the people in the community were not happy at first with the idea of building new houses with straw and clay.  They wanted to use modern materials like cement and brick.

Then the Save the Children organization decided it wanted a new office building in Sonora.  The Steens and a team of local women and men were trained by two skilled Mexican builders, Emiliano and Teodoro Lopez.  They produced an office building of more than four hundred fifty square meters.

They started with a floor plan so the space would meet the organization’s needs.  Yet the building itself was designed as it was built.  Bill Steen says they all learned and invented together as the building grew, room by room.  They worked as friends and equals.

The office building has outside walls made of straw bales to keep the desert heat out. The inside walls are made of straw and clay blocks.  The walls are covered in earth plaster with clay from the area in colors of soft yellow, dark red and rich brown.

The result is a useful and beautiful office building.  The women in the poor Mexican village decided they wanted to build their own small houses of the same materials.  They worked with the Steens and others who had taken part in their workshops.  It was a cooperative community effort, which is the way houses have been built for centuries. They built twelve one-room houses for about five hundred dollars each.

One owner of a new straw bale house said that she always thought she would have to have a lot of money to have something beautiful.  "Now I know that is not true," she said.  "You just have to be willing to work for it."

This program was written by Marilyn Rice Christiano and produced by Mario Ritter.  I’m Barbara Klein.

And I’m Steve Ember.  Listen again next month to EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English for another program about efforts to keep traditional ways alive.