It’s been so long since I wrote I’m sure you’ve all forgotten we’re building a straw bale home. Mostly I haven’t written because what I’ve been doing isn’t that photogenic. Or share-worthy. The straw bale walls are up, the windows are in, what are they, twiddling their thumbs over at The Clay Life? Are they expending all their energy biking their laundry so they have nothing left for building their house?
Turns out, building a house is more a marathon than a sprint. In case you just tuned in to this blog and hadn’t figured that out yet. While I did spend January and February cozily in the studio working on pots instead of the house, the rest of the cold season after a morning of studio work I would put on the layers to slog up the snowy hill for afternoons of work on the house.
Naively, I had thought that once the straw bales were up last fall, we’d be able to plaster the walls in a few short weeks, after attending to some minor preparatory details. Because isn’t a straw bale house just a bunch of straw bales stacked under a roof? Turns out, it’s way more kinky than that. An ENTIRE (minus those studio months) WINTER’s worth of “minor details”! Because a straw bale house is in fact a maze–a trap–full of tiny, kinky details that mean the difference between a lumpy, pitiful-looking shack and an elegant yet understated cottage whose gently undulating walls suggest that it was hand-crafted with skill and care. You can guess which direction we hope to lean.
In the picture above you can see some of those kinky details. The wooden header supporting bales over the doorway has been covered with black tar-paper to keep the plaster from sticking to the wood, where it would crack. But since the plaster won’t stick at all to the tar paper, it also had to be covered with blood lath. I know. The places where I stuffed loose straw also needed to be covered with lath, as you can see above in the alcoves between ceiling joists. On top of all that is a wider mesh, which I’ll illuminate in a little bit.
Here’s a [blurry] shot from the ladder of the curve at the top of the wall, where the straw bale walls needed to meet the thinner, more conventionally insulated second story wall. The second story floor joists will rest on a wooden cleat at the top of the straw bale wall. You can see the tight work spaces I navigated this winter: six inches of space between the timber frame and the wall, in which I used twine to cinch the top bales tight against the wood wall, nailed blood lath to the wood, bent and wired it to the mesh below, and stuffed the curve with straw. Then scooted my ladder down and measured for the next piece.
So yes, this winter I learned to pound nails with a hammer. I learned to pound nails between the rungs of a ladder. I learned to pound nails with my non-dominant hand. I learned to pound nails with the side of the hammer when space was too tight to use the head of the hammer. I learned (not well) to pound nails by sound and feel when I couldn’t see them. I cut blood lath with a tin-snips, and I bled.
Once I was mostly done installing the blood lath, I moved on to the other mesh you see in the pictures: 2″x 4″ welded wire fencing, which helps to give the wall rigidity, tying all the bales together in a unified wall. J. ran the chain saw over the wall to trim up loose straws and odd corners of bales sticking out, then it was ready for the fencing. I used fencing staples to attach it to the wood at the top of the wall, both inside and out, then got out my trusty old bale needle. I used the needle to punch twine all the way through the wall, cinching the bales tight between the two layers of fencing and stuffing straw in low spots as I went. I kept a bale needle inside and one outside and scrambled up and down the ladder, pushing twine in from the outside and out from the inside, like a giant, 16 inch thick quilt.
I also put in a few niches, which are standard straw bale house fare.
Oh, I almost forgot. J. also did not twiddle his thumbs this winter. He tried his hand at building windows, and did a plumb job. (Ha! I made that one up myself.) Most of the windows we had bought secondhand came in their jambs, but on a few the jambs had broken upon de-installation. And since these were sliders and what we had wanted from the beginning were french windows, AND since I’m married to a guy who can make anything, we thought we’d shoot to turn those orphan window panes into french windows.
So now we have french windows in the gable ends upstairs and one in the bathroom, and as we install trim on the rest of the windows, we want to keep the whole works easily removable, with the intention of replacing them all with frenches at a later date.
The window trim, on the inside and out, will double as a plaster stop. It’s a little hard to get straight since in places the straw bulges against the window frame…but hey, it’s a hand-built house. It’ll look great.
So as you can see, we’re getting closer and closer to plastering, after which we plan to move the heck in. We’re so close that I’ve already had a nightmare about it. The plastering, that is–that great unknown looming before us.
There were plenty of times this winter when I tossed off my boots with their two pairs of wool socks, when I rubbed my sore, cut hands together and wondered, “Is this worth it?” Would we have launched into this project if we had known the hours, months, years of hard, constant labor we would dedicate to it? Shouldn’t I be doing something else with my life, like reading a book?
This spring I’ve been watching a wood peewee weave her nest above my kiln shed, bringing tiny beakfuls of grass and combining it with mud and other mysterious wonders to create this new little thing in the world, made just by her (and her husband), in the way they know how, with the materials they know how to use, to be just the right home for her little family. She will not be waylaid from her task–she does what is in her to do, and she does it well.
So I, like the wood peewee, do what is in me to do, to work through pain and cold because it’s something I believe in, because I’ve been made to do it, to make beautiful things, to weave a home for my family. You might have to put me in a cage, tie my wings behind my back, to keep me from doing this. Maybe there are better ways to spend one’s life, but for me at this time, working with my hands in the quiet of the winter woods, making something that will ring with the laughter of my family, and making it well: this is where I belong.
So here’s our to-do list:
This also (*sigh*) is where I belong.