The Last Straw:
So, Matts, when you were younger did you have any sense that you would end up building with bales?
Not in the slightest.
My dad was quite a good carpenter and he started me off very young, so I knew the basics of hand tools. I was born in 1938, so it was all hand tools then. I knew a little bit about tools and working with my hands, but I didn’t have any real exposure to construction. That is until I got hooked up with this architect friend, Rocky.
I was teaching geology in Tucson at the time and living in a house that functioned miserably in the Tucson climate. I heard that there was going to be a lecture series at the university architecture college about design for arid climates. It was a 10 minute walk away and I thought, hell, I could probably learn a lot from that. During the question and answer bit at the end, a young architect named Rocky said that he was working on a little project for his master’s thesis and that if anybody wanted to pitch in on it he’d love some help. He was building a little structure out of found materials- rock, mud, recycled lumber, whatever. I got right on that. I got to know Rocky very well, and we began to get into more projects. I learned a fair amount of construction by working with Rocky. He was really a mentor for me in terms of design and construction.
By the mid ‘80s we were working on mostly owner-builder projects, acting as helpers for the owner-builders. We were doing mostly adobe. We would help with the design if that was appropriate, and then we’d go in and out on the project. We would try to set up the builder so that they could work on their own without having to pay us. We would come back in at an appropriate time and get them into the next step, and we’d have a lot of fun in the process.
Balebugerus Threestringis The Bale Bug
While I was involved with the owner-builder work, I happened to run into a very brief piece written in the Sonoran Permaculture Association newsletter in the spring of 1988. There was a little squib in there about a couple, Steve and Nina MacDonald, who were building a straw bale house in Hilo, New Mexico. And I thought, nah, that can’t be. But then I figured, you know, what could be easier to teach somebody than to carry one end of a bale and put it in place on a wall? So, I thought, I better find out about this thing just in case there is something to it. A friend of mine happened to be headed over to see Steve and Nina, so I went along. We caravanned over there. After about 10 minutes of being in their house, I was off the edge for straw bale.We joked about the bale bug. I’d been bitten by the bale bug within 10 minutes, and I thought, I’ve got to find out more about this. I was headed to Santa Fe to help a friend do an adobe addition, and I mentioned to Ruth Eisenberg, David’s wife, that I had just seen a straw bale house, that it was incredible and that I wanted to learn more. She said that there was a woman in her belly dancing class that lived in a straw bale house near Santa Fe. So I asked her to connect us and that led to my seeing a house in the Santa Fe area. It was an octagonal house with a sand floor with rugs put over it. It had been that way for years, and I thought it was an interesting floor system. At this point I was fired up. When I got home I started to try to pull together some resources about straw bale construction, which was difficult at that point. There just wasn’t a whole lot out there. One of the few things I ran into was in the book Shelter by Lloyd Khan. You’ve probably seen those books. One of them had an article by a Nebraska folklorist called Roger Welsch. Roger had been doing research on sod houses in the Sand Hills. He was asking around, going into these little towns and asking, “Hey, do you have any sod houses around?” And they’d say, “well, yeah. But there’s also one of those hay houses out there and they can look a lot like sod. They’ve got those thick walls.”
What could be easier to teach somebody than to carry one end of a bale and put in place on a wall?
So Roger got interested in those structures as well and on his travels he began asking around about these hay buildings. He ended up writing a little article in Shelter which included a cross-sectional diagram. That got me started. I finally contacted Roger Welsch and he said, “You know, you should be looking for resources.”
I said, “Well, Mr. Welsch, that’s why I called you!”
One thing he did tell me about a little journal article he’d written for some magazine that came out of Pennsylvania. I don’t remember the name of it now. But I managed to get hold of that article.
So at this point, what we had was a plan, an elevation, and a diagram of one of the old rascal straw bales. Around this time, a few of us- including Bill Steen, Pliny Fisk, and David Bainbridge- we ran into a guy who lived just north of Tucson who was interested in building with straw bale. He suggested that we give it a try, just build a little tiny building and see if we could figure out how it was done.
So we went up there and we threw up a tiny little building adapting it from the old Nebraska drawings. In the Nebraska building the lintels over the windows were just a plank, which would inevitably sink in the middle. We knew that we would never get away with doing that now, so we played around with how we might be able to build it as a modern day building. Everybody kept saying that somebody ought to go up to Nebraska and search around and find these old buildings that Roger Welsch mentioned in his article for the Pennsylvania journal. Nobody else volunteered, so Judy and I said, well, hell we might as well do it! We were at a point in our lives where we could do that sort of thing. I’d been working for her in a little nonprofit she had going, and she’d recently lost the funding for it. We were kind of at loose ends, so off we went to Nebraska. It was the first of three trips for me and it went from there. That’s how I got started with it. We started a little company, Out On Bale (Un) Limited, and it began getting quite a bit of press. Every time there was a straw bale article in a magazine or newspaper, people would send us a copy. We were kind of the clearing house for that sort of thing. I still have a whole mess of folders filled with articles and newspaper clippings. In the beginning there were a lot of local newspaper write ups, then as word got out articles started coming in from places like U.S. News & World Report, Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, and even the National Inquirer. The most important of them all was from December 12, 1991. It was an article about straw bale and it was on the front page of the home section of the New York Times. That one blew the lid off.
The author, Patricia Brown, had been given an assignment by her editor to write about some kind of quirky building technique people were fooling around with. She heard about us through an organization in Colorado where we had done a slideshow presentation, and she ended up coming up to visit us in Nebraska. She was going to spend a day or two, and try to get a photograph or whatever. She ended up staying six days. We got her on a wall raising and she got in touch with a lot of people. She kept calling her editor and saying that she couldn’t come back yet, that it was too good, and she had to stay a few more days. She went back and wrote this article that ended up on the front page. It was called “Houses the Cows Would Love to Eat.” It went viral.
Image from Houses the Cows Would Love to Eat.
The article got picked up and reprinted by a lot of newspapers around the world. We got information requests from people all over the place. It was never the same after that. Our phone rang off the hook, and some people managed to find out where we were and just showed up knocking on the door. There still weren’t many written resources at the time, and we hadn’t yet published Build it with Bales, so a lot of information traveled byword of mouth and people came over looking to get involved and pick your brain. I really enjoyed the teaching part. That was the part where I shined. Teaching has always meant a lot to me. My wife Judy had been a teacher as well and that was how we approached straw bale: we wanted to share it. That’s what teaching is about. You want to be a resource for somebody who wants to learn about something. We came along at just the right time for straw bale. We came along when what was needed was somebody to get curious about straw bale, was willing to dig into it, and then wanted to share it. That was a very good fit for us. So we were hearing all these problems, suggestions, etc. It was all coming into us and we thought: this is not good. This is information that shouldn’t just stop with us, it really needs to get out there. So that was when we decided to start a journal. I have a bad history of liking wordplay (like Out On Bale), and I suggested The Last Straw, and it took. I think the first real gathering that we put together, and I don’t remember the date on it now- must have been the very early nineties- was a conference up in Arthur, Nebraska. Arthur is in the Sand Hills of Nebraska and in the center of the area where, as far as we know, straw bale building got invented. At the time we only knew from a newspaper article that there was this bale church in Arthur, so we made some telephone calls. Eventually we got in contact with the people who took care of the building. It was no longer being used as a church, but a group had gotten some money from the town bicentennial to fix it up. Anyway, it wasn’t difficult to get in contact with some of those folks and they agreed to make the church available and open up the school for meeting rooms. They also helped find places for folks to stay in Arthur because the nearest motel was at least an hour away. So everybody stayed with somebody in Arthur. We got to see a lot of the old buildings and photographs and meet people who, as kids, had been involved with their parents working on the buildings.
Dirty work at a gathering in Oracle, AZ in 1989
Around the same time, the natural building colloquiums started with Ianto Evans, Linda Smiley, and Michael Smith with the Cob Cottage Company. They did a gathering up there which was really the first one. It was pretty small, the word hadn’t gotten out. It was a thing where people were just brainstorming and getting to know each other. There weren’t really speakers and that sort of thing. I think it was the next year that Catherine Wanek got the idea of doing a natural building colloquium at the Black Range Lodge. Not very long ago, we had the 20th anniversary of that first one. They tried to get as many of the old geezers like me who had been at that first one to attend. It was great. We had 150 people camping. It was a zoo and they were feeding everyone three times a day. It was an incredible scene. I did a presentation on the history of straw bale up to the point where Judy and I made our first trip up to the Sand Hills. From there I said that one of the young sprouts at the meeting needed to pick up the presentation and talk about the modern part of the straw bale thing. The Black Range is a great place. If you ever have the chance when heading through Kingston, New Mexico, stay at the Black Range Lodge. All I knew at the beginning was that straw bale made a lot of sense to me. It seemed like a very sensible way to do things, but I wasn’t sure how much of the rest of the population would see it as sensible. It was up for grabs. Journalists, people interviewing me for articles and that sort of thing would often say, “Well, what do you think? Is this really going to take off and be a big thing?” I would just say, “I don’t know. The people will judge it now. We’re putting it out there the best we know how and people are going to look at it and they’re going to decide whether it makes sense to do or not.” We knew that we were on the lunatic fringe of building and that all we could do was what we were doing and sharing as much as we could. We were having a lot of fun and we would just have to see what happened with it. It quickly took on a life of its own in terms of exposure. We never had to look for somebody to do an article or video about straw bale. I don’t think anybody had a plan, it was just a lot of fun.
My late wife, Judy, was very busy and significantly involved in the revival. She held the big picture. She was the worldview of the whole thing, and I was in it for the fun. I wasn’t as altruistic as Judy, because it was all just so much damn fun. In the beginning it felt like we -Judy and I, and Bill and Athena Steen- had run into each other and there was a train sitting there on the tracks, and we thought, hey, let’s go up in the locomotive there and see what’s going on. And there was some coal in there, you know, so we said let’s light a fire in this thing and see what happens. And so all of a sudden we were on this train accelerating. And as it grew, it was like people were running along and hopping in the box cars. They’d see the train coming in and say, whoa, that looks like fun. We just did what we could do and what we enjoyed doing and it felt good. We were busy and we got to the point with workshops where we couldn’t do enough of them. We didn’t want to be on the road all the time because we had The Last Straw and other things to be working on. So we got other people involved. First we got a friend Joanne to start being the point person. If you wanted to have Out On Bale do a workshop, you worked through Joanne. That took some of the pressure away from us. We then trained a couple of people to do our workshop and use our slides. That enabled us to parcel things out so that it didn’t take full time. I was doing a fair amount of what I called hired gun straw bale. Somebody would invite me to come out on a Friday, do a presentation slideshow Friday night, and then supervise a wall raising on Saturday and Sunday and then fly home. I did a lot of that. I knew something indeed about building straw bale walls, but I didn’t know a hell of a lot about construction in the wider sense. I was learning a lot, but I just didn’t have any real training in architecture. Our process was to bounce back and forth between the building site and the slide shows. We would show examples of, for instance, foundations and then go out to the building site a do some work and then come back and look at slides of the next step. And that’s sort of the way that kind of thing went. I got very used to just coming in and doing that and going home and letting somebody else do the roof. They didn’t need me to do that. They might call up somebody to come in and do the plastering, but they also knew something by that time through the workshop. I pretty much was the straw bale technician, if you will. And I really enjoyed those things. I got to meet good people and see some of the country, so it was fun. We hit the curve right at the beginning and it started accelerating upward. Steve McDonald and I published the second version of Build it with Bales, which was much fatter. We knew more, there were videos out there, lots of workshops, articles, and people were learning and getting excited about it.
I don’t think anyone had a plan, it was just a lot of fun
It really began to have quite a trajectory. We had the owner-builders who really got into it. It really does lend itself to owner-building- at least the wall. You may not be able to do it all, but you look at the wall and think: ‘I could do that.’ The owner-builder kind of people that liked to experiment or maybe do things that were kooky, we had them for sure. The back-to-the-land hippies, we had a lot of those, the adventurous types. But it’s tough to be an owner-builder of a home. Oftentimes, at least for a couple, one of them had to have a full-time job. The other would do some stuff during the week and then on the weekends they both worked like crazy. It’s a rare couple that has that kind of commitment. Finally, as with any of these kinds of things, the movement crested. Some people were doing it because it was kind of a fad. It was groovy to have a straw bale house. But at a point, you begin to wear out some of the audience. And so you crest and the numbers of buildings being built starts to go down. Then in many cases it plateaus. It doesn’t disappear entirely, but the numbers of projects being done are lower than when it crested. I think that’s what happened to straw bale. It’s hard to bring it into the mainstream. I think lots of people feel much more comfortable staying with something that has a very long track record. Builders know concrete block, wood, and those kinds of things. I mean this is a big investment, it’s a house. Some people might get curious about straw bale at the beginning, but they end up sort of backing off when it gets really right down to making the final decision.To make straw bale mainstream, you’ve got to be able to compete financially with the other techniques out there. People are generally not going to do straw bale only or the aesthetics.
these days Matts can be found playing with clay and making pottery
They may like the big thick walls and, yes it’s got good insulation, but you can get decent insulation in most climates with other techniques. So you have got to compete in the wallet. You can point out that their energy bills may very well be less. Some people like it because it’s an annually renewable waste product. But most people, you have to talk to their wallet. Back then we were looking at peak oil and that kind of thing. Now as the cost of building materials keeps going up, straw bale might become a more attractive alternative for people. But I’m not sure I see that much of a rise in interest yet. If something happens where it makes sense for people to do it they will, but it has to make sense, and I don’t think the situation has gotten to the point where many people are doing it for that reason. They do it because it’s a neat thing and has environmental things that they like about it and maybe they liked the aesthetic of it. I think that’s the market these days. I do think it’ll stay alive. There will be practitioners, and there’ll be the opportunity for some young people to replace the old farts as they taper off from straw bale. But it’s a tough market right now for younger people who really want to get into natural building. It’s like people who take permaculture courses and get their certificate- it’s hard to be out there making your living as a permaculture practitioner, it’s more of a lifestyle in a way. I know lots of people that have gone through that program and then had found that there was no way they could make a living with it and they weren’t happy about it. It’s tough for younger people because there isn’t, at this point, a big market. There’s some rammed earth going on. There’s some adobe going on, and the occasional cob building. But it’s a niche market at this point. Some of the people that are getting into panelized straw, like John Glassford in Australia- the Straw Wolf with Huff ‘n’ Puff Constructions. They’ve got a good panelized system and they can put up a good house very quickly. There are other people that have sort of worked on that. Chris Magwood had a really good system that they were using. That could be a way that you could commercialize things: speeding up the process. They can build the panels any time of year under a shelter or in a warehouse. They’ve got the system down; they can crank them out. Many people who want straw bale can’t find a contractor who does it or an architect who knows anything about it. But someone like John can put the whole package together. Maybe there will be reasons to really hone those systems so that they can be more competitive.
Matts firing some dung