Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Preparing the land

In the fall, we spent a lot of time on our new land preparing it for building. The land was owned by a woodsman before us, so there was an unbelievable amount of "slash" (branches left behind), and ice storms had brought down many trees. My Dad & Mom spent a lot of time helping us through these months with Dad's chainsaw in full gear (not my favourite tool) to remove the debris. We enjoyed many fine picnics (ask me about spilling an entire meal on the ground, while surrounded by starving volunteers), and lots of laughs. We transplanted a lot of seedlings from the areas where the excavator would wage war - mostly cedar and spruce. Fortunately, we found homes for many young trees amongst friends and family as well.

Please note: I'm still new to this format and I haven't written html in the last 10 years, so I'm having trouble making multiple photos appear in the blog as I would like...I welcome assistance from anyone who knows how I can make that look better (besides using just one photo per posting).

Workshops...find out if you like it first

We can't recommend strawbale workshops enough. It will really help you figure out if you will enjoy building a strawbale building. We met Kim Thompson and joined one of her workshops last August to build Matt Black's greenhouse (he's pictured above with his greenhouse timberframe near Antigonish, NS as we were in the midst of raising the bale walls). Matt's wife was also present with their new baby, Sage. We have found that strawbale building is almost always a family affair. People of all ages can participate. The folks we met were loads of fun, the food was fabulous (that's a key to a good working party, btw), and we learned a tonne.

Matt used an existing concrete pad he has on his property, but it was too close to the ground to place the strawbales directly on (if they get wet from snow and back splashing rain, they mold and rot). We filled polypropelyne bags with clay rich soil, closed them using nails as pins, laid them flat around the perimeter and then tamped them down using a wide, homemade wooden hammer. These are called "earth bags." We only built a raised foundation, but many have built entire homes out of these bags and plastered them - they can look amazing. After that, we began using the strawbales. Here you can see an image from our workshop of a mixing pit. Using strawbales covered in a hole-free tarp, you can create multiple pits in convenient locations to mix the clay slip you coat the bales with. We used the "french dip" method to coat the sides of the bales in the pits before we laid them on the foundation. A thorough coating of this milkshake-like clay mix on the straw is important to enable the next layer of thicker earth plaster to stick.You can also spray on the slip, if you can create or find an appropriate tool to do so (I mentioned the auto undercoating spray gun in a previous posting).

We stuffed clay-dipped bundles of straw in any gaps and tied each bale to the other bales beside it using poly-twine (much easier to work with than sisal twine). External "pins" are added to strength the wall about every three feet. We notched lines into the wall vertically on opposing sides of the bale, then placed alder branches in the notches that we tied with poly-twine. Check out the picture of the bale-needle we used to tie them with. From there we made the scratch coat of earth plaster. This is done using a mix of chopped straw, clay-rich soil and sand. I'll add photos to my next posting. The romantic part of this stage is "the dance." One of the ways people mix this plaster is to roll the ingredients together on a tarp and then have people "dance" on it - kind of like the grape-crushing traditions of vineyards - only muddy. And no wine afterwards. Well, lots of w-h-i-n-e if you try to do a large structure this way because the romance wears off after a while. Most folks use a mortar mixer for larger structures. This layer is about an inch thick, and must only be applied if the layer of clay slip on the bales is moist (usually spritzed with water). If I remember correctly, you should "key" the surface in, creating divets to allow the next layer to adhere to it. We will be applying a final lime-earth mix to our home to protect it from the elements.
We didn't have time to finish all of Matt's greenhouse, but it was an enlightening experience.

Maria Recchia's house

Our next stop: Maria Recchia's home. Maria works with the Centre for Community-Based Resource Management in St. Andrews and is an avid organic gardener. She has nearly finished building this gorgeous strawbale home. Here she is with Dave in this photo outside her home. We spent a fun afternoon with Maria, during which she patiently showed us how to work with earth plaster and filled us in on lots of resources and building tips. This is a timber frame (non load bearing) structure with strawbale exteriour walls. She has an excellent composting toilet system and plans to install solar panels in future. Her greenhouse (the wooden-sided windowed part that's sticking out here), can provide extra passive solar heat to the interiour of the home, or the heat can be blocked out simply by leaving the inside greenhouse door shut. The clay earth for the plaster was taken from the excavation on site, and sifted by hand at first until a neighbour made a gas-powered sifter (using a washing machine motor I think?). Lots of innovative tools are made to make strawbale building more efficient. Did you know that the spray gun that auto shops use to undercoat cars & trucks can be used to spray on the clay slip? Brilliant! Now, we have to figure out where to get one...

Blogging strawbale

Blogs often seem like vanity diaries, so I've long hesitated to get too involved in them (plus the time commitment to create an effective blog is significant). Hopefully this won't seem vain, but rather an expression of how excited and proud we are to be venturing into somewhat new territory - we'll be the first strawbale owner-builders in our municipality. My motivation to kick this off is to provide our friends and family from across Canada and other parts of the world with a closer view of our experience, no matter where they are.

This photo (above) is of our new property when we purchased it last year. It's a serene, private setting, covered in cedar trees that feast on the sweet lime rock bed below the immediate surface. There are lots of rugged rocks covered in moss amongst the trees.

Learning from others

After our first strawbale home visit in the Spring of 2005, we began to research strawbale building intensively through the internet, library and personal visits. A family visit in Ontario turned into a strawbale adventure. We met Glen Hunter & Joanne Sokolowski (see their Straw House blog: and the folks at Camp Kawartha who built a mess hall out of strawbale (see: An international strawbale builders conference will be held there this Fall.

Everyone in the "Strawbale Community" has welcomed us warmly over the past year. We're grateful to them for sharing their experiences and resources. It has been very encouraging.

This picture is of a simple strawbale guest house we found on the web. The relief of a tree in the exteriour plaster is incredibly inspiring for me... the tricky part for me would be to create a relief that is somewhat timeless and not too amateur.

In the beginning...

In the beginning, Dave & I planned to buy a pre-owned home near Saint John, New Brunswick. We searched for many months and found very little that we could afford or that we liked. At the same time, we were both experiencing difficulties with allergies, so I began to explore what would make a "healthy" home for us. That's when I found straw bale homes online like this one in the photo (interiour shot). Beautiful. Handcrafted. Energy-efficient beyond imagination.

We found a family in NB who had built a strawbale house, and they graciously invited us to visit them to learn more. After several hours of interrogating those fine folks, we drove away knowing our path had just changed direction for the better...

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