I want, one day, to build my own home. I think it's part of natural instincts to want to build one's home at a certain age. Even as kids we develop that instinct by building tree houses, nesting in them and feeling empowered by the self construction and at home precisely because it's self built and every bit of it we know.
I find disheartening that our profit oriented culture takes us away from what is a great human experience: building one's home. It has been made so complicated and normalised, with so many regulations and codes to respect. Once again, industry has managed to take away from us our own poer to decide for ourselves and to create for ourselves. Once again, we have been made powerless and dependent of authorities. What a shame this is how we have decided to behave as a society. It still baffles me and I think that in a near future, we all shall find this natural pleasure and instinct back: building our homes. Because it makes so much sense, because we can absolutely do it. Not so long ago, most people would indeed build their home. Who can't name a grand-pa or such relative that has built that farm house or such ?
Anyhow, here I went for a two days raising straw bales in Garston, New Zealand. The home owners have that thread of building themselves as much as possible and make their home as natural as it can. So they went for a timber frame with straw bale fillings and earthen plasters finishes. Which is a great bet I reckon!
In the last couple of years, looking into getting a place of my own, I have gone through many books and videos, articles and such about natural building, do it yourself building, etc. There are so many ways to build out of the land - earthen bags walls, ramed earth walls, strawbales, cob walls, rawmud brick walls, to name a few - but it's again great to go for hands on experiences. This was the opportunity to go do it, put the books back in the shelves and go do it !
Meet Thierry Vandebroek, a societal entrepreneur who went through a life changing transition.
Natural homes: a whole website about natural building, natural homes, with many examples and pictures to make you dream of beautiful nests. It is too a network for natural homes lovers and builders.
Learning how to build natural homes, DIY
There are so many good things about building with straw bales. First, they are a by-product of standard agriculture, so they are very common in most parts of the world, and pretty cheap which makes them very affordable. They don't require any transformation apart from the straw being choped and baled, which means they have a very small embodied energy level, that is the energy that it requires to produce a material or product, including extracting or harvesting resources, transforming, assembling and transporting them. Another good thing about strawbales is that they are completely natural (apart for the pesticides sprayed on the crops, which there usually is in traditional agriculture, so may be look for organic or natural farming to solve that point), say compared to concret which contains a lot of toxic stuff (especially when industry fuels its combustion process with toxic waste, which they do legally in Europe, not anywhere further than in my hometown in Belgium, see "Eourres, an alternative village" the story about that couple from my hometown who tryed to bring awareness about the factory although legally but yet burning toxic wastes for their production). Strawbales insulate very well compared to any other manufactured material considering their cost to efficiency ratio.
Strawbales insulation usually comes together with earthen plasters, not because it has to, but because those who chose to go with strawbales have a point about natural materials and health issues related to toxic building materials. But the thing is that strawbales go much better with an earthen plaster, as it allows the wall to breath humidity and thus regulate the humidity levels of the walls, but most importantly, of the house. The combination strawbales and earthen plasters seems brilliant: it's mostly natural so healthy both for us dwellers and the planet, allowing your entire house to breath out the excess humidity. For that purpose, both the inside and outside need to be earthen plastered. The use of concret on the walls seems to be the worst one can get about the humidity breathability of a house.
Back to our workshop, it took us about one day to raise the walls. None of us had really done it before but it's almost as simple as stacking bales above each other... very much like construction blocks, or Legos. One day, it's rather quick really. Plus it's good fun and it's a good opportunity to hang out together, build a home (it sounds like my TED talk). The labor intensive phase really starts with the plaster: it takes many layers of clay/sand/straw = standard earthen plaster to finish a wall. And covering all the walls of an entire house takes even more. You need to prepare the clay as fine as you can get, mix it up with water, sand and straw, and apply it by hand (unless you get professional and you've got the machine). But even then, it took us a day to put up the first layer all around the outside of the entire house, counting 30 unexperienced people. Another week-end workshop got us to put other layers, and the couple finished it up moslty themselves, getting sick of it but yet. Now, they've got their natural strawbale earthen plastered beautiful cosy home.
This is what my partner and I are aiming for, once we figure out where we are going to live and how to afford a piece of land. One thing at a time, but "all shall come in time for whom can wait".
About a year later, I went back there to give them a hand plastering the finals coats on the south side of the house, which for waterproofing reasons, is mae out of a lime and sand mix. This mixture turns as hard as concrete to the hand, and looks white / grey as on the pictures above.
I was excited to come, as it had been a year and I expected the inside to be finished too and have a seat into that house I helped lay the bales up and have a feel of its atmosphere.
As due, inside the house was looking great, although the final plaster coats hadn't been put yet, so it was still brown looking from the last clay plaster. Yet, the furniture was up, and every little details that make a house a home: the house had been lived in and invested personally all this time, and one could feel that. But the major thing I noticed was that as you walked inside, there was a sense of stillness, and it felt amazingly warm, even though no heating device was on, and it was autumn (March in the South hemisphere). We plastered the house for the day and finished it, to the great excitement of the couple owners. At night we watched a movie after dinner, to relax both body and mind, and we would open the sliding doors to the garden every now and then, to refresh the place, as the four of us standing there was heating the lounge consequently. I was cold outside, really. So that ticked the box for me. I questionned the owners about the house efficiency, tested for the last year. And they had a great year worth of warmth, put on their little firestove on during winter, which heat the water too when the solar water heating device isn't fully operational due to lack of sun. They love it, they go inside bare feet and t-shirt all year round.
Here are some pictures or theirs they agreed on me sharing with you.