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BalesLoreNo. 75Prefabricated PanelsProductsStrawTechnicalWinter 2024

The Opportunity in Crisis: An Interview with Ace McArleton

By Ace McArleton and The Last StrawApril 17, 2024May 8th, 2024No Comments

New Frameworks is a design/build firm in Essex Junction, Vermont, and one of two extant straw panel producers in the United States. Tyler Westerman spoke with Co-CEO and Director of Vision & Strategy, Ace McArleton, to learn about their move from bales to panels. The scope of their conversation soon grew beyond panels to the future of sustainable construction and ethical labor. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tyler Westerman: Tell me about the history of how New Frameworks arrived at its straw panel system.
Ace McArleton: In our early years, we would do the nomad natural building thing where we would travel. We had projects in Maine, New York State, Massachusetts. We’d build travel costs into our estimate with our client. Sometimes we’d camp on the land or we’d stay in their house. Many people across many ages and stages of their life might pursue that kind of a lifestyle. In general, for us, it corresponded with [the time] before we had families and homesteads to maintain and things that tied us to [northern Vermont]. It became more and more difficult to travel afar and afield to do site-based installations.
We [became] very rooted in Vermont. We only did projects that were within an hour drive of any of us. Some of them might’ve looked less like a classically natural building project, but we learned a lot doing those and applied a lot of local materials. We got into using wood fiberboard, clay and lime plasters, and found a lot of non-toxic caulks, non-cementitious (lime-based) tile mortars and grouts, [and] ways that we could get our natural building world into more of those typical general contractor, high-performance building projects. Where we are now is wanting to synthesize the two and find a way to make it really easy for people to say yes to bio-based building materials. That’s really the main goal for us: how do we make it easy for people to say yes. What is the quickest way for us to get from all of the complexity and the ideas that people have about [natural building] and to make it really easy.
I would point my fingers not only at Chris [Magwood], but almost only Chris, for getting us into [straw panels] with such fervor and focus. Chris is a great friend, colleague, and comrade. Chris and Jen Feigin, while directing the Endeavour Centre, developed straw panels and the idea of panelization in general and modular building with natural materials in North America. Chris had access to some of NatureBuilt’s [a defunct straw panel manufacturer previously based in Ontario] early development, real basic things, but real helpful things, like: what’s the initial size of space that you’re going to need to really take on a project? That was super helpful. Him sharing that information got us started in earnest building our first panels. We built a prototype in 2018 and then we did our first project in 2019. We also were looking a lot at what ModCell was doing, what EcoCocon was doing, and several other European straw panel manufacturers.
TW: Was there a particular project that required panels? What instigated the first prototypes?
AM: An architect approached us who was building a retirement home for himself and his partner in Massachusetts. We don’t live in Massachusetts. We live in Vermont. We didn’t want to travel to Massachusetts anymore and go stay somewhere. The architect wanted to do a certified Passive House project. We consulted on the design, panelized the wall, and sent one of our high-performance Gryphon doors there. That was our first trial project and it went really well. We loved it, and the builder loved it. On that project we put fiberboard on the exterior and we strapped it so it was ready for siding. The interior we sent [wrapped] with Intello [airtight vapor retarder] and strapping, so they had their interior chase all ready to go and could just apply their interior finishes.
TW: How many projects have been completed at this point with panels?
AM: We have two different kinds of [projects] we’re doing. One of them we call “panel only”, where we’re selling just the panel. They send us their design, we panelize it, and then we ship it to them and they put it in. We have projects where we are the designer and we fabricate panels and we install them, or we don’t install them. Then we have projects where we have created a pre-design. We have this line of pre-designed buildings that are essentially kit buildings that we’re [designing] in-house. We are providing the panels for those as well. Combining all of those, this year we did 12 projects. Last year I think it was slightly less than that, maybe 10. And then the year before that, I think it was six. So we’re somewhere in the range of 20 plus.
TW: When you ship it, does it come with an air sealing barrier already on it?
AM: It depends. We are looking at how we can make it really easy for general contractors or builders or whoever’s gonna be receiving these [panels] to be able to work with them. We’re looking at potentially sending them with some sort of cover, even if it was a temporary cover, just to keep them sealed and safe. Some of them we’ve sent with raw straw. We send them with Intello [air sealing membrane] if that’s the detail, but we have sent them with a clay base coat as well. We do a lime stabilized clay base coat, that’s our go-to. On the exterior, we send it with sheathing, with CDX [plywood].
TW: How long does it take to manufacture the panels required for, say, a 1,000 SF house?
AM: Right now, we think about it in terms of the number of panels, because that’s easier for our shop. In terms of estimating, we use square footage of the walls to estimate the project and to estimate the time. We figure out how many panels. Then it’s about how many are standard panels versus [custom, where] we have to do something atypical to them. Right now our shop is building a project for the Buddhist Retreat Center, a welcome center in Montana. This is a collaboration with an architecture firm called Love | Schack, a firm that knows straw bale very well. Their project is, I think, 48 panels. It’s maybe two and a half weeks for their 48 panels and the size of that project [1,472 SF].
TW: Considering that you’ve been building with bales for a while I want to hear about the particular considerations or advantages that come with panels versus bales.
AM: What I will say is, I would never want to speak [in terms of] forever, but, I don’t know if I will ever build a site[-built], [straw] bale building again. It does sound so dramatic, I know. I’m not even being negative about a site-built straw bale. I’ve done many [bale buildings].I love working with straw. And I can imagine that there’s probably just different moments to apply one versus the other. If you know me and my work, or Jacob [Racusin] and his work, or New Frameworks and our work, [you know] we’re not prescriptive. It’s just not our vibe. What is the specific instance and what are the outcomes that we’re looking for? What are the values that we’re trying to apply? What is the [building system] that makes sense in pursuit of that?
 
What I will say about getting into panelization is that we have a friendly, warm, bright, dry shop that people love to come to. We can have lunch together. You’re not in a field trying to deal with mud and trying to have a site trailer and trying to sit on buckets. I love construction. I love job sites. Again, I’m in this work for a reason. But in terms of producing an agricultural by-product, high-performance, wall system, it’s nice to have a comfortable, controlled environment to work in.
All the years that I built on site… Is the homeowner, or are we, going to get a tractor trailer to rent for the month that we park in the yard? We pull the bales out and then we’re trying to square them on the lawn. Are we doing it on a tarp because we’re trying to collect the chopped straw to put in the plaster? Or do you bring it in the house? But then you’ve got this giant stack in the middle [of the site]. You’re trying to pull from there to the walls while you’re working. So just on the [basis] of basic spatial availability and ease of working with a big stack of straw bales, it’s really nice to do it in a shop. We saw firsthand how much more nice and tight you could get those walls when you have the benefit of a press or a table or frame that you’re fitting them into. That’s one of the nice things that’s disappeared: we don’t have to square them because the compression, the bottom and top panel, the girts, and [the frame] really take care of squaring for us, and give us the compression that we want to get [for] a nice tight wall. It’s also gotten rid of stuffing, which was the other thing that was just an exhausting, long process. Who doesn’t love mixing up some slip and tossing some light-straw-clay and picking up handfuls of it and making knots? But I’m so glad that I’m not spending days doing that in order to get an airtight, fire-resistant wall, climbing all over scaffolding on the inside and the outside of the wall. The prep work to the frame. The air sealing preparation. The preparation of the bales. The process of [bales] going in the wall and fastening them to whatever framing material. Then we need to prepare it for plaster. We need to shave it. We need to stuff it. All the ways that you would treat the wall prior to applying plaster. I’m grateful you asked me this question, to be perfectly honest, because I have not sat down and really ran through all the things we need to do to build straw bale that now we don’t have to do [with prefabricated panels]. It has simplified a lot of the logistics and labor time [of] building with straw bales.
A new frameworks panel before installation
TW: How has this changed how you integrate with agriculture and the logistics of straw? Have you seen a dramatic difference?
AM: We’ve worked with different bale sources over the last 20 years of our business. A mix of using small local farms where it’s just a single farm, a single harvest, and we would reserve that in advance. They would cut it, they’d put it into their barn, and we’d have to time everything with that. That was the most micro version back in our custom site days. [Now] we have a farmer that’s thirty minutes down the road that brings us a load of straw. They back up into our shop, through our garage bay door. They toss off the bales. We stack them in a corner. We have a whole wall in the back [of the shop] that’s covered with straw bales. We just pull from that while we’re building. The [supplier] we have now is great because they have a huge storage facility where they will keep and stockpile straw bales for a long time. We’re working closely with a seventh generation farmer on that land. He has an architecture degree, but went back to farming. We connect on a lot of things. He’s been a great partner to build up our supply and think through our flow of when we’re going to need material and how often and how much, and then timing those deliveries so that he can keep things in his storehouse and then send them to us. We’re storing about two projects [worth of bales] in advance but we don’t have to store ten projects in advance. That’s been really, really helpful. His crop was affected by the flood that we had this summer in Vermont. It brings to mind that we need to be looking at seasonality, fragility, and vulnerability of crops with climate crisis storms that are very unpredictable. We’ve been working on other bio-based residues for panelization, so we can have that resiliency if we need to pivot to other things. 
TW: I talked to Joe Sillins after he announced his partnership with you. I’d love to hear a bit about how that came about, how that’s working for you, and if you see consulting for upstart panel producers becoming a significant part of New Frameworks’ model?
AM: We hope so. We have it in our strategic plan that we’re just coming to the end of completing. I’m calling it our “seed strategy.” How can we help to spread the seeds of this practice to others and to other regions and to other small producers, local producers? We don’t have any interest in being some über straw provider for the whole country. Transportation carbon alone, it doesn’t make sense to put these things on [long haul] trucks, certainly not on the fossil fuel driven transportation system that we have right now. Our ideal is to help create a model that we’re calling light, very light, manufacturing. There’s no heavy investment in heavy equipment. Nothing is automated. It’s something that anybody could start up with some basic knowledge and some basic skills. The idea is that it’s a technology that we all have the right to access and to be able to make safe and ecological and affordable shelter for ourselves and for our communities.
Joe [Sillins] just knew that this technology and this application is something that would be really great for where he lives, for Arizona and Tucson. He came to visit us and visited some job sites and said, ‘I think I’d really like to learn from you all and apply this where I am and get this going.’ We’ve been working through a consulting model to be able to help get him up and running. We’re not very good about getting paid, because we just care about what we’re doing, but everybody has to get paid to a certain degree. We’re figuring out what a fair remuneration looks like for the work that we have put in and the work that we have done on our own investment. We’ve played around with different ideas like doing a producer’s cooperative, which I think would be really neat. Trying to figure out how we can leverage the cooperative model that is so important to us in how we work internally, trying to spread cooperative business models as a more ethical way to work together under capitalism than what we currently have. 
TW: Some see the building industry’s slow moves toward bio-based, carbon sequestering, natural materials coming from a top-down, federal funding/NGO/research arena in terms of the big effects at scale. Meanwhile, there’s been a significant contraction of the domestic labor force in construction and there is a massive demand for housing. I’m wondering, given workers’ leverage in a tight labor market, if a bottom-up, organized labor push for these materials feels viable to you. I know there’s almost no unionized labor in residential construction in this country, so that’s a hard place to start from…
AM: I would say the only reason these powers that you’re speaking of are saying these things is because we’ve been showing that it’s valuable and viable. I really believe that. I don’t see it as coming from on high. They’re just catching up. I’m glad that somebody is finally providing funding, providing options, providing legitimacy. Chris and Jacob and I were texting each other when the UN put out this recent report saying that bio-based materials are necessary for this transition. This is our work that we’ve dedicated our lives to. Nobody ever thought that what we were doing was a good idea. We got ridiculed, laughed at. I’m speaking to the straw bale community, the natural building community: we all know. That’s starting to be legitimized and people are starting to realize indigenous building practices and materials are actually what we need. This is the future.
What is the ground up approach? That’s never been far from what I understand to be the work that we’re doing anyway. In terms of unionized efforts, I think that’s a fascinating idea. I actually got trained in a union, but it was in an urban area. I wish so much that I had 12 lifetimes to live. One of them would be workforce development, very similar to what the timber framers did where they created the timber framers apprentice model through their guild. I think we should have a natural building guild. We should have apprentices. This should be sponsored. Canada has that. That’s how Annie Murphy trained at Endeavour Centre with Chris [Magwood] and Jen [Feigin]… there’s so many examples of places where we recognize, either on a municipal, state, or federal level that these things are necessary and then on an industry level we support that kind of training. We are beyond ready for workforce development training that teaches natural building skills and high performance natural building. Community Rebuilds, they’re doing an amazing job. Yestermorrow. There’s a couple of places we can say that this is happening, but not with enough scale.
About workforce development, when people say there’s nobody in the trades… If I could show you my inbox: how many women, trans people, poor people, people of color, write to me on a regular basis, who are like, ‘can you please teach me? I want to do this work.’ What I see is that there’s this whole completely untapped, vast network of people that desperately want to learn the trades and be welcomed into the trades. [But] the toxic white masculinity of mainstream construction is, newsflash, not inspiring. The risk that people ask their bodies to take, the lack of care for themselves, their clients, the project, is not inspiring. Who’s going to come into [this] space? [And] of course we’ve systematically defunded trades education. [Due to] the general distaste and classist assumptions of our society, trades people get looked down on… ‘That’s not a trade you should want to go into. Oh, that’s only for dumb people. You can’t get degrees.’ We have a legacy of tracking people into academic things and limiting who those people are. And then we say, ‘also you have to be a white, able-bodied, cisgender man in order to do that and do it well.’
TW: You’re talking about remaking this industry in order to make it accessible and open to people. The things you were saying earlier about how working in a shop and building off-site has improved the general lifestyle of the labor…
AM: That’s what we’ve found. People are safer. They’re not scraping off ice from three stories of scaffolding every morning in order to get up and install the window. Sure, we’re still going to have to install windows on [third] stories, but [you’re] minimizing the amount of time that you have to do that. You’re minimizing the risks from that. You’re minimizing the discomfort from that. You’re minimizing health effects. You’re minimizing transportation carbon of travel to job sites. In our shop, all of our tables that we work on are on casters. They’re flexible and the heights of those [tables] depend on what’s comfortable for the work that we’re doing. One of the great examples is plastering. The ability to take a wheelbarrow and just dump plaster on top of this field of a panel laying down horizontally on the ground and just screed it across. There’s no picking up and lifting and moving [heavy plaster and tools]. The number of buckets that I’ve hauled up from three, four stories of scaffolding, hand over hand with ropes [or] a pulley [system]. We’ve all been there. We didn’t really talk about plastering in terms of the benefits of panelization, but I think that’s huge. We still do [the] finish coats on site. We apply our top coat of lime plaster on site, but it’s only a quarter inch. It’s much less material than what you’re doing with a base coat.
TW: Why might this be a ripe moment in history to push for panelized straw systems? What is it about this moment that gives you the confidence to invest your business in this structure?
AM: We spoke about the workforce development element, which I do not think is a small piece. How are we going to achieve this if we don’t figure out how to work in a different way? Otherwise, we’re not going to get the housing that we desperately need, the buildings that we desperately need, the infrastructure that we desperately need. I think the other piece is economics. The expense of custom building is inaccessible to even more people than it was before. When I started 20 years ago, it was not, even then, a very accessible thing for folks. 
We’ve banged our heads against this thing. Cost, labor, and of course the elephant in the room, which is always my first answer, climate. I think more than ever we have people who were hoping it’s not that bad who can’t really deny this anymore, [and saying,] ‘What do we need to do? I’m going to actually think about what I can do practically with my money, with my choices.’ I think the turn of our society taking the climate crisis seriously, combined with economics, combined with workforce development, is really pushing us towards needing to have different solutions. I think there’s an openness. Change is both opportunity and crisis. We have an opportunity in this crisis to remake how we’re working. That openness, that crack that’s happened in the normal, because of everything from climate migration to rising fascism, [has made people feel that] the ground is unstable. [Within] things that we thought were fixed, that we assumed were just the way it was going to happen, there’s an opening. That’s both frightening, because there are really scary and detrimental things that we’ve [already] seen can emerge from that, but there’s also opportunity for a positive growth of a new vision and a new practice that can arise from that place [of crisis]. I see [our] move [into straw panels] as stemming from that.

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