Intern & Living Roof
Samad Ansari (right) interned at the Strawbale Studio Aug 15-30, 2017 and wrote this report for credit in his Anthropology Class at Oakland University.
Strawbale Paper by Samad 2016 updated by db with PHOTOS
Report text, without photos:
My interest in the traditional building Strawbale Studio Internship began when I went to an Organic Farmer’s potluck. The meeting was for going over Permaculture techniques such as making a berm for a tree and how different bases of plants affect the direction they grow in, resulting in varied levels of health. A berm is a raised mound of soil for the tree to grow in benefiting its health compared a regular soil bed. The meeting also went over the advantage of using an Austrian Scythe for mowing the grass. Using an Austrian Scythe is cheaper than using a Lawn Mower since it doesn’t use gasoline which is also better for the environment. During the potluck portion, I met Deanne Bednar. Deanne is the founder of Strawbale Studio and runs the internship program.
After obtaining her email I applied and was accepted into the program as a WOOFING Intern. This agreement was in the style of work-trade. Work-trade is often a type of agreement where a host exchanges food and housing in trade of volunteer work. I had 20 hours a week dedicated to several options of work suitable for those hours of work-trade including foraging, maintaining the garden, clearing paths, and general cleanup of buildings. My time at Strawbale was from August fifteenth through the thirty-first, which was two weeks shorter than a regular month internship program. I couldn’t stay the full month since it interfered with prior plans, and it was accommodated.
In the acceptance email, I was given a list of things suggested to bring such as tools or clothing. I was also emailed more information on the schedule of events, a description of the grounds, and an overview of the living conditions offered in the program. Since the address was about an hour away from the place I stayed as well as thirty-five minutes away from Oakland University, I drove there and kept my car with me. I also brought my car to leave during one of the days for my audition into the music program at Oakland University. Having my car also was beneficial when, at varying times, it was necessary for me and others to pick up groceries or other supplies.
We received food from a local Food Buying Club that placed an order together, then the company delivered it to a local drop off point. There was also a CSA – Community Supported Agriculture Farm program we belonged to. The farm raised vegetables and fruits and we picked up our “share”, a box of fresh food, each week. The food was paid for at the beginning of the year, which gave the farmers money to investing in growing the food. Once a month we helped harvest the vegetables for the CSA share-holders. Deanne additionally had friends that were farmers that would help us. As long as we called ahead of time, we could arrange a time to pick up eggs straight from their chicken coops on their farms. Posted on the walls of the chicken coops were envelopes where we dropped off money while we filled up however much we wanted in a basket. At times we are also in need of milk, which we got from Deanne’s other friend. For the two weeks I stayed, all necessities were met.
Strawbale Studio of Oxford Michigan was founded by three friends: Fran Lee, Deanne Bednar, and Carolyn Koch. With a Master’s Degree in Social Ecology, Deanne had taken a three-week course on natural building at the Cob Cottage Company after retiring from teaching art and sustainability. Guided by those experiences and information she helped direct the creation and design of the Stawbale Studio. The building team acquired help from other experts to guide the group to build the Strawbale Studio. Fran was inspired by books like Places of the Soul: Architecture and Environmental Design as a Healing Art. The design of the building was influenced by the books A Pattern Language and The Timeless Way of Building. Fran Lee was the owner before the current owner Deanne Bednar. Fran’s reason for building the structure was to offer a hospitable place for events and workshops to take place. John Eisley was hired to teach the team stone masonry and he worked with the team constructing field stone foundation.
The property was bought in 1993 and building for the studio was initiated in 1997. That year reeds were gathered and the foundation for the building was laid. Flemming Abrahamsson taught the team to thatch the roof the next year. That year the door frames, strawnale walls and base plasters were done on the structure. Detroit Edison donated a solar powered electric system to add functionality to the building. In 2003 Fran Lee and her brother & sister-in law who co-owned the land moved away and ownership of the land shifted to Deanne Bednar who continued to run programs and workshops for the public, passing on teachings of sustainability and natural construction to this day. In 2004 and 2005, the studio was funded by The State of Michigan Energy Office with a “Community Energy Grant for green building.” This grant helped fund publicity, exhibits, tours, workshops, and other helpful things.
Today the studio is still active and growing with events being hosted. Carolyn is a co-owner of land next to the Strawbale Studio property along with Deanne. Carolyn is doing bee-keeping and fruit and vegetable gardening in her spare time.
Cob and Strawbale as building materials
The buildings at Strawbale Studio are primarily made of strawbales covered by an earthen plaster. Athough Deanne studied with the Cob Cottage Co. in Oregon, which constructs the walls of solid earth (Cob), the CCC advised Deanne to build in this cold Michigan climate with strawbales for insulation to hold in the heat like a blanket. Earth Walls, or cob walls in contrast work best in milder climates, and especially well in arid climates that are hot in the day and cold at night, like our Southwest.
Below I will share information about this traditional building material, “Cob”, meaning “rounded lump or mass” in Old English.
Cob is a mixture of clay-sand subsoil plus water and some straw as fiber. It can be either refined by sifting with an 1/8th inch screen to make an earth plaster, or left in a chunkier form is it is used to build benches or floors for example. With the internship I participated in, horse manure was used as a fiber in the finish plaster for its fine grain quality. Cob building is far from a new building technique and has been used throughout history. Famous examples of the use of cob are present in the Wall of China, the famous city of Jericho and it was also very popular in medieval times to build and fortify castles. In old England, cob was very popular with peasants and was easy for farmers to make cottages and other buildings of use without much wealth. There are many different types of cob buildings such as adobe, rammed earth, straw-clay, and more. Different building techniques are also possible such as using bricks or a wooden structure to provide a base structure. (Evans 2002: II)
Cob building is the least expensive type of process to go through when building a house. Cob building also provides an environmentally safe way of building a home. Nature can actually take hold of the house and live off of it; bugs can occupy niches and birds can build nests while other animals can cohabit with the humans living inside. With modern housing, the land is torn apart and animals, plants and insects are ousted. The list of raw materials needed for building with cob is very minimal and can easily be done with only the requirement of time. All the materials used are raw and can be found in nature in its natural state. Examples of things not possible in natural building are synthetic elements such as aluminum alloy, stainless steel, plastics, paints, varnishes, particle board, drywall, and cement. The fact that all the material is natural also makes it able to erode over time which is better for the environment. This is a weakness in functionality though, since severe enough weather can break down walls and other parts of the building. Even though natural buildings are vulnerable to break down they can still last generations. (Evans 2002: 22-30)
The cob is actually fireproof and bugs are not able to feast upon it. Heat flows through cob at the rate of an inch per hour; so with a two foot thick cob wall, it takes an entire day for warmth to travel through. With this in mind, a foot-thick wall can keep the building insolated and warm at night and cool during the day. Because the organic shape of the building can be circular and is not obligated to be a box, cold winds don’t make it indoors. The building is also known to absorb sound so it can keep noise out if noise is a present problem. Furthermore, the fact that there isn’t heavy machinery used or any material too heavy to lift makes it accessible to the frail, elderly, and weak. (Evans 2002: 30-36)
The weakness of cob is that is isn’t available in some climates. In areas without clay and sand soil is possible to import materials but it would not be of worth since it would become an unnatural building due to its unnatural environment. In areas of intense moisture such as areas with heavy rains and constant flooding, cob is not suitable and won’t last very long without problems. However, it is possible to build on an area with an incline and make a drainage system to help reduce the effects of water damage. Seismic zones are also very dangerous for any building and cob buildings are no exception. (Evans 2002: 37-38) In freezing climates it isn’t always easy to heat up the home without a rocket stove or some source for heat. A rocket stove is a type of wood stove that is useful for mass heating. It can be made with cob and it consists of a chamber for wood and other organic material to be burned and a duct that follows a J-shaped chimney. The horizontal part of the stove can retain heat for hours and is often a bench for people to sit on. (Evans, Jackson 2006: 19-21)
The first thing needed for the natural construction is the location. A tip included in Ianto Evans’ book states that accessing the U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps aids in choosing a suitable site to build upon. Government laws also have to come into consideration when choosing an area. Some areas such as the United Kingdom require regulations such as fire safety or conservation of fuel and power. (Ley 1997) Most importantly the weather and climate have to agree with the lifestyle of the space. (Evans 2002: 63-65) As mentioned before, a major weakness of cob is excessive water. To fix the problem of ground water seeping into the floors, the house must be built on an elevated area and avoid building on flood plains or in gullies. Solid subsoil is a great find because firm ground is best to build on. It is important to test the ground for any solid layers of rock, loose soil or toxic water to avoid building in that area. The best recommended land to build upon is a slope since it has a natural drainage system as well as maximum benefits from the sun for heat when built facing south perpendicular to the path of the sun. Frost pockets in valleys or low ground are also best to avoid, and staying clear of trees blocking the home from the sun. Appropriate placement of trees can help keep the best temperature providing shade during certain times of day or allowing breezes to flow through for hot climates. (Evans 2002: 66-76)
Next it is necessary to gather the raw materials needed to produce a home. The first material and most prevalent is soil. Cob uses clay (about 25%) and sand (about 75%) There are many types of soil and the content of the dirt is variable to how useful it is for building cob. There is topsoil or humus which contains most life such as plants, roots and organic material. This type of soil isn’t suitable for building. Based on the journal Building and Environment written by Erwan Hamard, “Topsoil is rich in organic matter that decompose after implementation and created mechanical weaknesses inside earth walls”. (Hamard 2016: 3.1) Beneath the topsoil is either sand, silt or clay. Coarse sand is best to build with since it won’t absorb water or shrink from drying; it is very stable. Silt is composed of very small particles and is almost like dust. It isn’t very stable and is not the best to build with. Clay is a sand chemically bonded with water and it is very useful to fill in cracks but isn’t the best to use by itself due to being vulnerable to cracking when dry. Clay also shrinks when dry but upon drying on straw, the clay can bond with the straw making it a very stable mix. Every type of soil can be used to build with, but depending on the quality, repairs might have to be made on the building after wear and tear. (Smith 2002: 119-125) For the foundation, it is necessary to find large rocks or slabs for the walls to sit upon. The flatter and more brick-like the rock, the easier they can stack together. This is important so the house isn’t flooded by ground water. For the foundation of the walls, lumber is needed to establish a framework for the cob to form around and it is needed for the roof. Plywood is useful for the cob to form around. Doors will also need lumber for their framework and body. (Smith 2002: 133) For a thatched roof many reeds or grains are necessary for harvest. The harvest process is lengthy and it can be done by sickle. (Kennedy 2002: 206)
Straw is useful because it lightens the cob and strengthens it. The straw does not rot either after combining it with soil. Farmers usually harvest straw with a tractor machine and straw bales can easily be bought inexpensively from various places. Though if it is unavailable or expensive, places like Wales or New Zealand have been known to use tussock or wild grass. (Smith 2002: 129)
Building a cob or strawbale house requires the foundation, the walls, a roof, and doors. With the location in mind, it is then time to clear and level the ground. During this part of the process it is very important to keep in mind the shape and layout of the building and it helps to have the building marked and measured out. Drainage is essential so it has to be dug outside the perimeter of the building with slopes leading water down it productively. Clearing the property can be done with shears, shovels, pulaskis (a type of tool that is a mix of an axe head and a hoe) and pickaxes. It’s necessary to be weary of boulders and roots while carrying out this step. Vegetation also needs to be cleared out along with loose topsoil. The clearing and digging should be as deep as the type of floor being put in. During this part it is important to keep the soil and material to use later. In between digs, a tarp should be put over the work area to keep the ground dry from rain. At this stage of the construction it is also possible and recommended to put down the roof and skeleton of the building. (Smith 2002: 110-114)
For the foundation, rocks will be needed to keep the house above ground to avoid over saturation of water in the cob walls. Water can flood the house and even make it collapse if left untreated long enough. A rubble trench is a traditional drainage system from the Middle East and it combines the functionality of a strong foundation of large stone, and a drainage system. The rubble trench is useful against freezing water; freezing water expands and can push up the floor from the home, which can be problematic. The trench goes below the frost line and is then filled with stones with the drainage dug around it so water can escape while the rocks support the foundation. (Smith 2002: 162-164) Above this will be two rows of stone. Each row will have a space in between that will be filled with sand or other material such as pumice, perlite or mortar for insulation. The rows will be made with the larger stones fitting the bottom to provide a strong base and each stone will be picked to fit together carefully and stably. All rocks should rest on each other in a firm manner. On top of the foundation will be the cob wall. It is also worth noting that rammed tires and sandbags can be used as foundation instead of stones. (Smith 2002: 164-166)
Tanya applies an earth plaster over the strawbale wall in the Hobbit Sauna Addition
For the production of cob, first a ½” wire mesh screen attached to a 2×4 wooden frame is used to sift the soil so that it can be mixed by foot. Then the soil is dumped on to the tarp. Water is mixed in gradually and the mixture is tossed around and stepped on until the consistency of the mix can be molded into a soft yet firm ball. After that step, straw can be added to make it a stable mix. Using this method, a supply of cob balls can be stacked and molded on top of the foundation. Using a combination of kneading with bare hands and a trough to smooth out edges, the walls of the structure can be molded. After the initial wall is built about a foot thick, it can be sponged down and smoothed out. Cob can also be molded into shapes and designs to add personal touches. A scaffolding or ladder should be considered for reaching the higher parts of the building. While producing the wall, arched door shapes can be made, to be finished later with the installation of wood. Along with doors, windows can also be shaped out for glass to be fit into later. It is important to note the shape of the doorway and windows to make sure it doesn’t collapse. This is achieved by shaping the top of the opening in a round shape or to enforce with a support system either with cob or lumber. (Smith 2002: 212)
The roof of the house is the most important part. The roof does a variety of things beneficial to the protection of the house structure. The roof keeps the rain off the cob walls so it doesn’t become damaged, risking collapse. The thatched roof prevents heat loss and gain so living inside the home is comfortable. It keeps the outside elements from disturbing life inside (such as high winds, excess light, dust or other disturbances). Depending on the type of roof built, it can even collect water for irrigation, household use, or to grow plant life. The roof should be designed the same time as the rest of the house so unexpected beams don’t have to be installed. The structure is held together with cross bracing and trusses. The logs making up the structure can be nailed together or tied with lashing. Fencing staples are another solution to keep two logs joined. (Kennedy 2002: 206-211)
There are different shapes of roofs. There can be shed roofs bearing a single surface. Gable roofs are two flat surfaces meeting at a ridge. This provides extra space vertically. This roof system is held up by the wall ends or posts with rafters attached to the ridge on top. Hipped roofs are sloped on all four sides and are easily built. The structure consists of a bond beam across the level tops of the walls. The rafters are supported to keep the walls from pushing apart. All roofs contain a structure that makes the shape and the waterproof material that protects from elements. For natural building in the climate used in the internship, timber was used as the material for the Studio. It is worth noting that bamboo could also be used in other parts of the world. (Kennedy 2002: 210-211)
For the waterproof structure, thatched roofs are usually made of reeds. In other parts of the world, roofs are made of sea weed or sometimes metal tiles like ones found in shanty towns in Africa. Thatched roofs are the most common used for natural building in Northern Europe. Thatching is done with tight bundles of grain straw or reed grass. The bundles are tied and weaved inside and outside the framework of the roof. A thatch roof can last up to sixty years or more. It provides good insulation as well. The problem with thatch roofs is that they are flammable and the material needed for them are not abundant in the United States due to harvesters cutting the stalks of the grains high making the material useless for thatching. (Smith 2002: 227-245)
The floor is the final component for the house to be finished. For natural buildings, earthen floors are commonly used to complement cob walls since they need something sturdy to hold up the cob. It helps to start to level the floor of the building before any structure is put up. (Smith 2002: 247-253) To start, the floor has to be dug deep into the subsoil to get rid of organic spongy material such as humus because it isn’t suitable to build upon. Next is to compact the ground while it is slightly dampened using tampers. Then it is necessary create something that keeps the humidity from rising from the subfloor. Crushed rocks or any other type of fine particles should be spread out and tamped well. Then the base layer is poured in. This mix should consist of coarse gravel, some sand, some clay and full straw. The mix should be poured, leveled, dried, and occasionally tamped down depending on how it dries. The second layer should be smoother than the first and the mix should contain finer sand, chopped straw or horse manure. After that is tamped, leveled, dried, the finish mix is spread. The final layer should only be installed after the other layers have completely dried. The mix should contain really fine sand sifted through a screen and horse manure; and once it’s ready it should look like pudding. After this layer dries it is then time to oil the floor with a sponge. Linseed oil should be used and can be reapplied yearly. (Kirsten 2017) With that done, the house can then be inhabited.
Internship at Strawbale Studio
On August fifteenth my internship started. I arrived and met the other interns Jacob and Patrick. Jacob was a student taking a gap year from college to learn about natural building and Patrick was living out of his car and was traveling the U.S. doing various work-trade jobs. He had also participated in building a cob house prior to the internship so he was experienced. I also had met Deanne’s cat named Brindel who had grown up on the land. I walked in on a lesson on lashing. Lashing was useful to know for joining two logs or even branches to make a structure. That morning, we went over different knots and different methods to lash together various structures. Later we built a gable roof skeleton with sticks that were gathered earlier. Along with lashing was cording. Cording was the ability to take material like the local plant, Dog’s Bane and twist the fibers to make a cord. The cord can then be twisted even further with other cords to make a rope. The combined fibers of the cords would strengthen the rope to be able to withstand a surprising amount of force.
After the structure was made, we had lunch and I was introduced to the daily routine. My day as an intern would start out with waking up around 7am or whenever sunrise was that day and I would sleep in the main building in the same room as Jacob and Patrick. If one of us slept in, we would be woken up by either Jacob playing the guitar or Deanne playing the flute. After everyone awoke and was washed, we would meet in the kitchen and cook. Sometimes we would forage for different herbs. Mustard, oregano, dandelion, comfrey, lamb’s quarters, chives and other herbs grew either in the greenhouse or around the estate. These herbs would often be used in either tea or mixed in with scrambled eggs for breakfast. Eventually, two other interns also joined, as well as a dog named Maggie. Cat (Catherine) came first from the United Kingdom. She was an environmental scientist who was taking a year to travel and work at various places. Claire came from France and was an English teacher that taught at a middle school but liked to travel for fun. Each day of the week would include a different workshop or lecture that Deanne would choose to teach for the month. Some days would be reserved for recreation. During these off days people came to visit sometimes such as Gene, a carpenter; or Micah that taught wood carving. Some workshops would last multiple days. On August 20th,21st,27th and 28th, we hosted plaster parties where different friends of Deanne or people who were part of the permaculture meet up group would come and help plaster different buildings while learning at the same time. We had also hosted a full-moon potluck that happens every month. I had met a lot of Deanne’s close friends and met many people with the same passion for sustainability. We enjoyed food while ending the night with a drum circle.
The rest of my time after that first day of the internship was filled with more workshops. The next I participated in was a class on round pole framing. Deanne would use carrots to model logs and show us how to make notches to fit together two pieces of lumber. After harvesting some logs with some hatchets, we had to debark them using a draw knife and a shave horse. We carefully measured the logs using chalk. With a chisel and wooden mallet, we carved out notches to fit together logs to make trusses. Knowing how to fit together two logs to make a sturdy structure was integral in learning how to make a house with natural building. We spent the whole workshop in the red shed chipping away at logs.
The next activity I recall was learning stone masonry. We used mortar to fit together rocks for the kid’s cottage that was on the estate. We used a limestone mortar mixture and a trough to spread the mortar and let it dry. We were equipped with gloves and if any of the cement touched our skin, we used vinegar to disintegrate the rock from our skin. The rocks that fit together made a foundation for the wall. Colored bottles were also used in the cob part of the structure to let in light.
The most important activity presented in the internship was the use of cob. The buildings that needed cob and were workable for our internship were the parts of the hobbit sauna and the kid’s cottage. We spent most of our time with cob inside and outside the hobbit sauna. Soil was dug up from the field and brought back to the property in a wheelbarrow. After we brought the soil, it was then to be sifted with wire mesh framed in wood. Depending on the measure of the wire, different types of soil can be achieved. This type of soil mixed with water and straw can be used as the base plaster of a cob wall. It is usually mixed in a wheelbarrow since it is very soft. An eight-inch wiring can bring the soil into a finer form. There were buckets of horse manure brought in by the neighboring farms and friends of Deanne. This material was useful because of the soft short fibers found in it strengthened the plaster. The finish plaster can also be used to mold shapes and designs. Mixing this type of fine soil with horse manure and water can make a finish plaster which is smooth and easy to work with compared to the chunkier cob mix used for solid shapes like benches and thick areas.
Using quarter inch or ½ inch screen can get more solid chunky soil. Each thicker cob mixture was mixed using the tarp method. With a tarp on the floor, we used our bare feet stomping over the mix while rolling over the tarp when it was flattened enough. The consistency was firm but malleable. Once successfully mixed, cob balls were made and tossed to the work area with a line of people. A trough was used to place the cob on top of the walls. Our palms worked as well to work the material into the sides of the building.
Some days were dedicated to work-trade hours. To fulfill our work-trade requirements, we had to dedicate a specific amount of hours to Deanne’s personal tasks. Some of the interns had different agreements; but for me, I had 20 hours to fulfill. These tasks included: trimming the paths with a machete, cleaning the houses and buildings, sweeping the shed, mowing the lawn, answering emails and virtual organization of the Strawbale Studio, or digging up soil for storage.
One of my final days was spent taking the interns downtown to see various landmarks and explore the city of Detroit. We visited the Heidelberg project and went to the Green Garage. We also spent a visit to Midtown to have dinner in a Mediterranean restaurant. Afterward we met Deanne at a venue called the Red Door where other Environmentalists were sharing stories, music, and food. The same week Deanne held a ceremony by candlelight where we toured the grounds under the stars and reflected on each project silently while I accompanied her with the guitar. With this my internship came to an end.
All of the activities presented in the internship had very high value to me in my own personal interest in sustainability. I returned to the suburbs and to school and experienced a bit of culture shock. My time in the internship felt longer than it had been because every single day was slow paced and progressed naturally just like the rest of the subjects taught. When I went back to school the very next day it was disheartening to be back in fast paced routine and stress of college life. I remember seeing the construction of a building and the clearing of some trees happening on my way to the university. The heavy machinery used looked almost alien to me compared to the simple hand tools that were used back at Strawbale studio; and the pace of it was unnaturally speedy. It contrasted with the time, effort and care of Deanne’s projects. The philosophies presented by the author Ianto Evans and other natural builders such as Deanne do not fit with the construction I saw. Natural builders are trying to waste less material, respect the Earth, and be community oriented and sustainable for the future. Based on the international interns that I stayed with, sustainability is growing in Europe. Though here in America, climate change and other environmental related issues are still being debated. Natural building and sustainable living can help bring a healthier lifestyle to people and a cleaner lifestyle for other Americans and for the planet.
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