The Last Straw
Nina & Steve MacDonald
News From The Gila
by Stephen O. MacDonald
This article appeared in the very first issue of The Last Straw, in the Fall of 1992.
Some years ago I read an article about gifts. The essence was that a gift must keep moving, else it will soon cease to exist. The idea I've held onto, what gifts come my way I try to move on.
Straw bale construction has been like that. Six years ago my family and I built a house of straw.
The idea was the gift of a neighbor. Our house and what it took to build it has, in turn, proven to be a gift to others. I like that. It all has the feeling of doing "good work."
The straw bale network grows, thanks to the untiring energy of Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox, friends who started Out On Bale Unlimited over in Tucson, Arizona. Thanks to friends in Permaculture, as well. People are telling other people. Builders are building. The Straw Bale Primer my son and I put together continues to connect us with folks from all over. Most add personal notes with ideas, concerns and comments, which we try to respond to and learn from. This network has a feeling of community to it.
Our humble little house in this out-of-the-way, very rural valley, has gotten on the map. For awhile there we had visitors almost daily. We should have put out a guest book for all the far-flung people that have come by to see and ask questions. Folks from all over have stopped by (including one from Japan). And in such diversity. Rich and poor, young and old. Ranchers and farmers. Architects, contractors, and engineers. Househusbands and wives. Young "new agers" just starting out. Conservative retirees. Migrant workers and people working with migrants. One of the most recent was a county extension agent (who, on seeing the place, had the now-obvious idea of attaching metal expansion joints to the outside walls by means of pegs to prevent the stucco from cracking).
Building with straw has sparked interest closer to home, as evidenced by a now-complete Nebraska-style potter's studio in Mimbres and a soon-to-be finished addition for kid overflow in Arenas Valley. Most exciting were recent visitors from Silver City, 30 miles away. They and nine other families have joined together to cooperate in building straw homes for each other. I hear they have already hauled in their first house-worth of straw. (I have high hopes for this community approach when confronting the building code people. Several are also involved with Habitat For Humanity, a logical place for this technology).
In my neighborhood, the Gila Valley, I know of 14 straw bale buildings either completed or in process. They range from our chicken coop (which the birds love when June outdoor temperatures hover near 100 degrees) to some very elaborate solar post-and-beam homes across the river. Just a few days ago I went downriver to Cliff to see a new 28'x34' woodworker's shop that I just learned was going up (now that's self empowerment!). Sam used old, very dry alfalfa bales as infill for his 4"x4" post-and-beam structure. Galvanized metal covers the gable roof. Sam was plastering the interior walls with a cement scratch coat when I arrived. He seemed enthused, but slightly worn out, having to do it all by himself. He complained about having to lift the 3-wire bales alone, and of not having a helper during the plastering. The brown alfalfa walls looked fine to me (green alfalfa would be at best foolish, at worst deadly). Sam is wishing he would have waited for fresh 2-wire straw. His original estimate of $5000 may end up double that. Hiring out the concrete floor work, along with several time/labor savers, is making costs rise.
Another Gila owner/builder plans to construct a straw bale home for his family this next year, across the river from Sam. After seeing our house, he dropped his adobe plans and adopted straw. Like so many others, it's pure love once you see and feel a real straw house.
For myself, I have hopes of finally finishing the exterior plastering on my kids' straw bale cabins. The straw walls have been exposed since last October with no problem (but for a House Wren calling it home during the winter months). I still dream of getting my hands on an "ablowbe" machine for this.
A project in the planning stages is the construction of a Quaker Meeting House in the Valley. I want to do a Nebraska-style, vented hip-roofed building with straw bale courtyard walls and a composting privy (partly straw). We have the place and money for materials, but no time. Perhaps we can do a large part of it in a workshop or two next winter. I would especially like to get together some third-world, peace-corp types.
An Alaska friend may soon be buying some property in Gila. It has an old frame hip-roofed house on it. We've checked it out and so far see no problem in retrofitting it with straw bales. Looks like we just need to pour a new concrete pad around the base of the outside walls and extend out the eaves and windows some more. It would be a good time to rewire the place and perhaps run some lines for photovoltaics. Superinsulate the flat ceiling and he'll have one comfortable... and inexpensive... abode.
Just got a call from a fellow in El Paso. He wants to come have a look-see. We set up a date next week. He sounded kindly on the phone. A fellow from Austin also called wanting to get details. He hopes to build a straw bale home out near Fort Davis, west Texas, sometime soon. He asked if I was interested in coming out to give a workshop. I wasn't. I told him to call Matts.
Looks like another hot day in the valley. Already it's in the high 90s. During the night we keep the windows open to capture the night's cool. The mass of our concrete floor helps store it. Thick walls and ceiling keep it in. Inside, the straw bale is holding steady at 75 degrees F. Thank god for that. For one hot-blooded ex-Northerner seeking refuge from the heat, this straw bale is my gift to me.
The preceding article appeared in the introductory issue of The Last Straw in 1992. The color photo of Nena and Steve was provided by Mark Piepkorn. The colorized photo of the MacDonald's house is reprinted with permission from The Straw Bale House book.
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