The First Straw
A couple months ago, in a coffee shop in northern B.C., my husband-to-be and I sat and wavered. We were in the final design stage of our home—the sexy stage; the fun stage. Not in the up-to-our-elbows-in-mud phase. Not yet.
But that phase—still months away—fazed us as we sat there and wavered. You see, Nick and I were on the cusp of starting to build a straw bale home. To anyone remotely familiar with alternative building, straw bale houses aren’t that astounding. Straw bale construction is as old as the mechanical baler. It gained traction with American pioneers around the turn of the century. Many of those early structures remain today.
But if you’re unfamiliar with alternative building methods, the whole idea of building your home from straw might sound a little—well, shocking. I thought I might need a defibrillator for one insurance agent we approached for a quote.
The thing is, building with straw bales falls outside the building code. There are no dummy-proof guidelines to follow. There’s not, as least where we live, the local straw bale builder to call to build you a straw bale house. More than a century later, the people building straw bale houses are still pioneers, just of a different variety.
Over the past couple decades, straw bales have made a resurgence as a natural, renewable building material with a great R-value. Not to mention, the soft corners and deep windowsills of straw bale walls are hard to beat for esthetics. Straw bale’s era and ethic are in keeping with craftsman design I admire so much: both celebrate the natural, the local.
So, there we teetered. Lured by the opportunity to make our home into something different, something that was truly our own; daunted by the research, labour and many unknowns that lay ahead; asking ourselves if this was a journey we really want to embark on. In the end, it seems like the most rewarding things in life are also the most challenging. I’ve never been one to take the most direct route.
We made the decision to move ahead, to put in the time and effort to create a home that we’re truly proud of. There are certain values we want to build our house around. They go something like this:
Grown close to home: We want our house to be sourced as locally and as naturally as possible. Granted, everything with building is a trade off, and straw bales are no exception. Although natural and efficient, they aren’t readily available in northern B.C. and we’ll likely have to truck them from Alberta. We could have built a log home harvested within a few kilometres of our house; conversely, we could have ordered pink insulation from Ontario. All things considered, we believe straw bales provide the balance we’re looking for of natural, local and esthetics—have I mentioned the esthetics?
Community: We want to see our friends’ and neighbours’ fingerprints in our clay plaster walls for years to come. We want to be surrounded by the people we care about during this process. We want this to be about building and bringing together community. That’s right: we’re going to try and put you to work. There will be beer and smokies.
Education: Finally, we recognize that building unconventionally will take a lot of legwork. The reading, visiting and questioning began some months ago and is unlikely to let up any time soon. The biggest deterrent to building anything other than a traditional stick-framed structure is that there’s effort involved. We don’t want our effort dedicated to only one home. We hope to inspire others to build unconventionally and we’ll gladly share with them what we’ve learned on this journey.
We’re starting with this blog. We hope you’ll join us on this adventure. Admittedly, we have an escape hatch. If we hit a dead end, we’re open to changing course. There are many innovative building methods emerging and some would fit with our current plans. But we’re also excited about the direction we’ve chosen: straw bale is a great fit with the timber frame structure we’re working on.
So, let the mud slinging begin. It should be a lot of fun.