Recently, June 5-11, 2022, we hosted a week-long workshop at our farm for 11 people that focused on building a straw bale house. People had a good time and learned a lot – it was a success! This letter is not so much about what we did and learned at the workshop, but about what was so useful about this workshop (and workshops in general). We’ll follow up with some more building letters on some of the things we learned during this week.
Have you ever thought about building a little (or a big) straw bale building? Attracted by the beauty of the lightly undulating wall surface, or the use of completely natural materials? Maybe you have looked at books or photo-filled websites to learn how to do it – I sure did!
If you’re a very confident person, or if you have some pre-existing building experience, or you just have that kind of engineering mind, maybe you can go from there. That is how Mark made the timber frame (with me as his assistant, following directions), and built the gin pole we used to raise it: from a book and a website. In that case, all you probably need to start piling those bales and laying on the plaster is a few books or YouTube videos.
I am not that person. For me and straw bale building, after all that reading, I was no further than what I called “first level of learning” in an early, 2018 blog letter. At this first level, you have tons of information in your head, and perhaps you can bring up no end of interesting tidbits, but there are too many big and little gaps to start on the project yourself.
I needed what I called the second and third levels of learning. The second level is participating in a class with other people (so that social connections can be made in the brain in addition to the factoids), and the third level is practicing the new skills under the guidance of an expert. By watching an expert and doing, your brain learns to prioritize different options and your body starts to know how to do something because you’ve gone through actual motions. Personally, when I was learning permaculture, I found I was not confident to build a food forest myself until I had gone through all of three levels of learning about it.
What I needed for our straw bale project was a workshop. Since there were none being offered in all the Northeast (!), we organized one ourselves. We were lucky enough to engage Michael McDonough, an experienced straw bale contractor and educator, to guide us and we set the date for early June. I guess many other people in the area needed a workshop too, because we sold out in a matter of weeks! What we hoped to get from the workshop was to gain enough skills to finish our own straw bale studio; and to provide others with the skills and confidence that they would be able to put up their own straw bale building.
The workshop lived up to its requirements – and was a lot of fun besides! We had a group of 10 people who came from as far as Detroit and as close as around the corner (five of the 9 were from our small town, Montague!). Unfortunately, we lost some folks due to covid, a sign of the times. We spent many a pleasant hour on meal breaks (eating great food, thank you Mark!) discussing various forms of natural building and other life projects; some of the folks who stayed at our farm sat around a fire every evening; and there were some swimming outings too!
The workshop took us through a meaty section of the build. We started with setting up the sill for the straw bales ended with putting the first layer of plaster on the finished straw bale walls. In between, we prepared the straw bales and stacked them including securing them to the frame and to each other to make relatively stable bale walls, and cutting them to fit corners, windows, and the roof.
I am sure everyone had their own AHA-that-is-how-you-do-that! moments, and here are a few of mine. For example, preparing the straw bales for stacking is a real task that requires time and a process. We had a separate straw-bale preparation site, with two people taking raw bales from the storage pile, using chain saws to smooth off the ends and to a lesser extent the sides and moving the finished bales to their own pile. I learned how to separate a bale into two smaller ones (you need the smaller ones for corners and where you meet windows or doors), using a giant home-made “bale needle” with which you can push two pieces of twine clear through the bale. And I saw the process of cutting and attaching metal lathe to help adhere the plaster in places where it will go over some wood studs (e.g. the sill, and around the door and windows). Importantly, I got a feel for the sheer amount of time needed to get the bales to stack straight and secured. These are just a few of my personal AHA moments; I am sure the others took away similar AHA moments, and many different ones besides.
In the end, I think most of us were left with a pretty good idea of how go through a good part of the straw bale building process. We know all the aspects of putting up a wall made from straw bales and how to mix and apply plaster. These are arguably the two skills that are most unique to straw bale buildings. On the other hand, a one-week workshop is not enough time to go through everything – indeed, no matter how large and efficient the group or how small the building you could never go through the entire process because of the drying time between plaster layers. The workshop did not get to putting on the green sod roof or the earth floor. No educational experience can ever cover everything. But I do feel like I can build on what I learned at the workshop to tackle these new and unknown things. And that’s what counts!
And last but definitely not least - the workshop created a little community for a week, which included most evenings a group sitting around a campfire, and some live performances from our circus artist Moo Butler.
Thanks to everyone who came and helped to make this such an enjoyable learning experience!