This is original content and has not appeared in the printed version of The Last Straw.
In mid August of 2008 we saw ourselves back on the plane to Siberia. This was our second trip as a group of builders and teachers to this far-away and exotic place we now consider our most remote home away from home. Paul Koppana (Crestone, CO), Cindy Smith (Durango, CO) and myself, Jeff Ruppert (Paonia, CO) were much more comfortable this time traveling half-way around the globe having made a trip for the same reasons back in the summer of 2005. We were to teach and transfer our knowledge and skills building a straw bale structure to a group of eager folks near the city of Barnaul. While the goals were similar, the region and our sponsors the same (The Altai Project, Builders Without Borders) , the exact location and the participants for this year were very different. We looked forward to meeting everyone and seeing some old faces from our previous trip. This is the story of our time in Southern Siberia in 2008.
We departed from Denver International Airport on August 16th and flew to Atlanta where we boarded a flight straight to Moscow. We were greeted at the airport by our Czech cohort and friend Jakub Wihan (Kuba) who speaks enough Russian to translate for us. Kuba was present on our 2005 trip and was now playing multiple roles. Not only was he going to be teaching his skills of wall building but he was to also translate for us when he could with his limited Russian. In 2005 we were escorted by our leader, Alyson Ewald of the Altai Project, who organized and raised the funds for our travel. While she was still in the capacity of the two latter roles, she was raising a newborn back home in Missouri on Red Earth Farms. We missed her on this trip but new she was doing something much more important.
We landed in Moscow on August 17, met Kuba and made our way into the city for a long wait (12 hours) until our flight to Siberia. The temperature was nearly 100 degrees (F) and the humidity was hovering around 90%. We ate food, exchanged money and slept on the floor of the airport as jet lag caught up to us despite our best efforts to remain alert. Kuba was fresh from his travel from England so he remained awake while we caught some much needed sleep. We boarded our flight around 11p on Aug 17 and attempted to sleep during the five hour flight through three time zones to the east. We landed around 6a on August 18 very tired and happy to see our Altai friend and hosts.
While the region and some of the folks were familiar to us, the project for this trip was different than 2005. We were asked to help build a gallery/conference building with attached office and kitchen space for the Institute of Architecture and Design in Barnaul on their “Dacha” land which is directly south of Barnaul about 20 kilometers as the crow flies. The building was designed by the architecture students over the past couple years as an ongoing project within their curriculum. The result was a beautiful building using straw bale walls that stood about 14 feet tall. The design of the building incorporated large overhangs and wrap around porches to protect the walls from the harsh winter conditions of Siberia. To say that we were impressed with the design would be an understatement. We thought it was magnificent, but we had doubts as to our ability to tackle all of the work needed for the walls, and then have a roof installed. Our Siberian friends would astound us with their abilities and hard work, but more of that later.
After landing in Barnaul we spent the next few days attending and participating in a seminar for many of the Institute’s important administrators and local officials, we traveled into Barnaul for an art exhibit by one of the students who was also one of our translators, and we visited family of one of the professors and ate dinner. We spent these days talking with Lena and Sergei, our main hosts and the Deans of the Institute directing the project, about building details and what materials we would need. There were already bales on the site and the foundation was freshly poured. There was no wood for the frame, nor any mesh or clay for plaster. Cindy and Kuba immediately began looking for a source of clay which would prove to be a long and difficult task.
Our first step was to have the carpenters install the sill plates. These turned out to be 6×6 timbers that were nailed into the foundation with blocking every several feet. The spaces between the sills were filled with coal slag, which it seems is commonly used as an insulating material in Siberia. On Aug 21 we built the first post as an example for the carpenters, which they copied many times to creating all of the window and door bucks, as well as corner framing. The top plate was to be flat 2x material layered with joints staggered at post locations.
By the 23rd of August the posts were installed and braced around the main gathering space. We were pressed by our hosts to teach a “workshop” and educate everyone in bale-stacking. Paul and I described how stacking bales worked and showed them how to re-tie a bale. The bales were of marginal quality so treating them delicately was very important. The eager participants soon took over and were stacking away. Within an hour three walls were substantially complete and we made everyone stop due to the questionable weather approaching. We needed to cover our work before it was soaked by rain. The carpenters also needed to construct the top-plate assembly so the top bales could be installed.
All of the bales on the main room were installed by the 25th and we began using plastic lath, or mesh, to reinforce the joints between straw and wood. Without a stapler, we attached the mesh to the wood with nails bent over and we had some of the students make pins out of wire for attaching the lath to the bales. Much of this work was loose by the time we began plastering, but it was still good to have it held in-place with something. By this time, no clay had been found despite a few forays by Kuba and Cindy into the neighboring countryside. It seems that any people with a pit of clay did not want to share it. We were in an ancient floodplain where the river had deposited silt and sand, but left little clay exposed that was available for use. It seemed very frustrating as loads of “clay” would show up that was not suitable as a plaster material. Cindy was becoming frustrated and unable to find a solution.
By the 27th clay arrived as Cindy and Kuba had found a source. It was good quality so Cindy had the volunteers begin applying a clay slip to the walls while others prepared cob to stuff into voids. The work was fun and we could finally see the project happening. Our hosts, however, had bigger plans. We were asked our opinions about how far we could go during our three week visit. We were scheduled to leave on the 31st which was less than a week away. We strongly encourage our hosts to focus on the main structure and get a roof installed before attempting any more new walls. They charmingly went ahead with their plan of having the lower walls framed, bales stacked and the shed roof framed. At this point a group of twenty or so students showed up to work for a few days. The results were nothing short of miraculous. Where we thought they were flirting with disaster, they used all of the skills we taught them and managed to not only frame and stack the lower walls, but plaster them with two coats of plaster before we left. We were amazed!
Having witnessed how slow things can go in Russia, we could not believe the motivation that was instilled by our hosts in their students and other volunteers. Not only were they dealing with the workshop, but they had a budget that was running out and needed to be refunded by the Institute. If they failed to meet certain deadlines the building would not be finished. We watched Lena and Sergei expertly navigate a sea of regulators, engineers, administrators and volunteers, all the while smiling as we appraoched never missing an opportunity to treat us like family. The experience was humbling to say the least.
As the clay slip was applied to the building, we asked about electrical wiring. No electrician had been hired and we were getting ready to seal the walls. I created an electrical plan with Lena and some students, some wire was produced along with boxes. The boxes were nailed to posts and lathed in-place. Wiring was run up the posts through the top plate where all wiring would be figured out later. We decided on the location of the electrical panel so I could plan where runs would be made later. It was another last-minute detail, but we were able to do what we needed before it was too late.
Most of the plaster was mixed by hand due to a malfunctioning mixer. We limped the mixer along until it was completely dead and then had the students team up in groups to make plaster. They were able to keep up well with the dozens of people applying it. By the time we left, a slip coat and one coat of plaster had been applied to the entire building. Plastic tarps were used to protect the tops of the walls and drape over the rafters of the lower roof. We held our breaths praying for dry weather. We had seen rain on and off most of our visit, but not in large quantities. All we could do was hope for the good fortunes of our amazing friends to continue.
We received pictures of the final building just before Christmas. The building has been completed! They have lime-washed the earthen plaster and installed siding where needed. The roof is on and the interior is finished. There are two truth windows that are the largest we have ever seen. They didn’t seem to be swayed by opinions such as “the plaster is a rigid part of this structure. Leaving it off large expanses of wall may not be desirable,” or “If bugs and rodents do get inside your walls, it will be like a movie theater for visitors.” The desire of these folks to push their limits gave us pause at times and we are impressed by their resolve in the face of possible disaster.
Lessons were learned about working with the locals even if it meant doing something in the wrong order or what seemed to be the wrong way to us. They have their ways of doing things and even though we thought we could help them, there was great resistance to our ideas at times. Stepping back and letting the owners of the project remain in control no matter what was happening seemed to give them a sense of determination that would not be derailed. It turns out that they did not ignore or resist our ideas as we had thought. They listened and integrated them into their program in the best way they could. What became clear to me was that we were working with formally trained architects and students of the classical ways of architecture. They paid attention to details and form. On this project the function drove their form more than what seemed typical.
This building took all of the lessons they were taught about bale buildings and integrated them in a very functional way. They used large overhangs. There was not a single bale wall over 2 feet in height that was not protected by a wrap-around porch. They used earthen plasters even in their extreme climate where temperatures reach -50 degrees (F). They finished the plasters with a lime wash that will be easily maintained over time. They installed two huge masonry fireplaces as thermal mass. There is almost no solar gain due to the dense forest so they reduced glazing on all walls to what was necessary and functional.
We left Krona on August 30 after a quick award ceremony where everyone received some thank you certificate and a book on the design of straw bale houses – a first of it’s kind in Russia. Our next stop was the old building that we helped build back in 2005. That project was 6 hours south by car so we kicked back as best we could in the smallest car we could imagine and rested until we arrived in the heart of the Altai Republic and back in Chemal at The Milky Way. We were interviewed by a video production group and welcomed generously by our previous hosts. They had erected a handful of wood-framed cabins for guests and used the bale building as a tourist attraction and gathering space. The plaster is holding up much better than we thought. It is also earthen with a lime wash.
On Sept 3 we were in Barnaul and boarding a plane back to Moscow and then onto Colorado. It was another magical trip and one that was more successful than any of us thought possible. The memories of bania (sauna) with friends every other night, meeting the families of our Siberian friends, working alongside our gracious hosts Lena and Sergei, and dancing around the campfire with all the volunteers who showed up for two weeks to help us and learn how to build with bales made for a deeply rich experience. We look forward to seeing everyone again some day and to visit those two important projects that brought straw bale construction to the Altai region of Siberia.
We would like to thank the following organizations for their contributions and hard work: