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Alternative and Sustainable Construction
by Joe, Sheila and John Leonard


The motivation behind sustainable construction is as varied and individual as the people who create these unique and beautiful homes.  Our experience has been that those who challenge themselves with natural building break the mold of square boxes and are free to imagine, using nature - both the world around them and their own inner nature - as models for creation of unique, livable homes.  Alfonso Ponce, writer and Professor of Architecture at the University of Mexico wrote, “Building is a collaboration with nature, printing a human signal on the landscape, so that it will be thus changed forever - we can affirm that he who builds is, in all senses of the word, a dream-maker.” 

And thus, our dream - built of straw bale and cob.

Thoughts we share with those who have the courage to task themselves with creating the unique and sustainable:

The search for housing that is healthy, affordable and environmentally responsible is leading a growing number of people to take a fresh look at building techniques long shunned by the modern construction industry. Earth and straw, once materials of necessity for indigenous and pioneering peoples the world over, are now being rediscovered in the United States as materials of choice by those who are embracing an ethic of natural building.        

Straw bale and earth construction leaves much to the individual imagination, though there are parameters that must be followed to ensure a sound and viable building.  Good building design and technique is crucial.  There are many resources available outlining building techniques and documenting research in sustainable construction techniques - read everything you can, talk to others who have completed a sustainable project, and, if appropriate, find an architect or engineer who has experience in sustainable building.

There is a long history of battle between the building regulatory system and proponents of sustainable building systems. This battle is often waged in the shadow of indigenous buildings, which are hundreds and even thousands of years old, and in spite of the fact that almost half of the world’s population today is housed in adobe, cob, and earth dwellings.  Some states have permit systems in place - if yours does not, speak with someone who has gone through the process to help you approach your permitting offices.

Straw is an annually renewable crop, available wherever grain crops are grown. It is a waste product, much of which is currently burned in the field. The thick walls offer superior insulation value, averaging R-48 for an 18" wall. Bales are easy to work with, relatively lightweight, and require a minimum of tools. With a natural plaster, straw bale walls "breathe," and together with the sound-absorbing qualities, provide a quiet, salutary interior environment. Straw bales can also be combined to great effect with other natural building systems.

The word cob comes from an Old English root meaning "a lump or rounded mass." It's a traditional building technique using earth mixed with water, straw and  sand. It dries to a hardness similar to lean concrete and is used like adobe to create self-supporting, load-bearing walls. Cob has been used for centuries throughout Western Europe, even in rainy and windy climates, as far north as the latitude of Alaska. This ancient technology doesn't contribute to deforestation, pollution or mining, nor depend on manufactured materials or power tools. Cob is non-toxic and completely recyclable, which is important in this era of dwindling natural resources and increasing chemical contaminants.

The effect of living in an earth and straw dwelling - the connection with diverse cultures and the ties with more than just the present - is enriching beyond written word.  Natural building has a bright future - as techniques evolve and more builders, architects, and developers employ them, structures which meet a multitude of human needs will assist in the regeneration of the planet.  While many challenges lie ahead, it is still exciting to be part of this quest to create a more sustainable human culture.