Built to Last

"SINCE I KNOW you guys are urban/city folks like me, I was pleasantly surprised to find that you didn't build some ugly house in the woods." Reading through thank-you letters from seventh graders who had come from Washington, D.C., to work with us, we smiled at this line written by a student we had known since kindergarten.

Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area for more than 30 years, it's true we were "urban folks," but our hearts were drawn to the woods. This crazy venture of ours began more than six years ago, when the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community, located south of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., was poised to build Woodhaven, a new staff home, in keeping with their deep respect for the earth and their mission of nurturing people and community. As Rolling Ridge members, we began building this home as a way to teach and learn about a different kind of architecture and to explore whether it is possible to create an energy-efficient, attractive home that will use fewer resources, last longer, and be gentler on the earth.

This project required discerning the time for humility and the time for hubris: the humility to know when it's crucial to call on experience and skill; the hubris to jump in and try things we've never done before. We could not have built this house without the brilliant work of our architect, Sigi, and building contractor, John, as well as skilled carpenters, electricians, and plumbers. Nor could we have done it without the enthusiastic work of numerous volunteers.

Ever eager to learn by rolling up their sleeves (or in the case of stamping cob, their pant legs), people have come during the past few years to help stack straw bales into strong walls, apply lime plaster on the outside and clay mix on the inside, and plant living roofs. They have filled the house not only with finished walls, but also with a spirit of joy.

One beauty of natural building—besides leaving very little material for the landfill—is that it is accessible and forgiving: Anyone can learn how to mix clay, sand, straw, and water to sculpt a cob wall or plaster straw bales. We even had a 14-month-old who loved exploring mud dancing! One woman from Manhattan kept sending photos to her friends, saying, "They are never going to believe I was doing this!"

People built community as they built the house, laughing at their own learning curves, brainstorming ingenious solutions to construction problems, and feeling a sense of pride in accomplishing something real with their own two hands.

From the beginning, folks in the area watched with an open mind and encouraging spirit. Since this was the first straw bale home in our county, most of the designs were new to the people in the permit office. They had no building code for many of our ideas, but when the structural engineer—a woman they knew to be exceptionally competent and thorough—signed off, they approved our plans. All our subsequent inspections were both collaborative and informative.

When a local farmer delivered more than 600 straw bales stacked sky-high on his massive open-bed truck, he watched with amusement as we labored to pitch them up to the second floor. Finally, he lent us a hand, effortlessly gliding them through the air as only one who has spent his life working a farm can do. That farmer came back later to see what we had done and seemed very pleased with the way we had used his material.

We have hosted loads of visitors—not just those who came for building workshops, but also college students, families, and folks on Jefferson County's Green House Tour. They feel the warmth of the masonry stove, touch the sculpted trees on earth-plastered walls, admire the light coming through colored-glass bottles, and take in the curves, arches, and organic spirit of the space.

Everyone has questions: Are the straw bales a fire hazard? (They aren't.) How does the masonry heater work? Why do you have plants growing on your roof? Many visitors in summer walk in the front door and ask if we have air conditioning. (We don't.) They enjoy seeing the frogs in the pond that refills itself from rainwater off the roof and are surprised to see how well our composting toilet (not "compostable" or "combustible," as some of the kids have called it) works with no water at all.

When we wonder whether this one project has made a difference, we think about why we started in the first place. We wanted to live in a way that is sustainable and careful of resources for the sake of the environment and the global community. Energy efficiency relates to peacemaking not only in the immediate crisis of fossil fuels, but also as people learn how to share resources on the planet rather than hold dominion over nature and each other.

Buildings in the U.S. contribute almost 40 percent of our total CO 2 emissions. By the year 2025, the EPA estimates that they will account for 75 percent of electricity consumption. Because we're using a passive solar design, energy-efficient appliances, solar hot water, a masonry heater, and a mix of natural light and compact fluorescents, our electric bill averages $25 each month. Beyond the numbers, we wanted to see whether people working together could build a better future.

David Pearson writes in Earth to Spirit about "a reawakening of consciousness for designing, building, and living that puts us back in touch with the earth and ourselves ... an architecture that is respectful of nature, caring for health, and nurturing to the spirit—as architect Malcolm Wells has called it: a gentle architecture." Our house is still a work in progress. We are delighted with how it is turning out, still happy with each other, and hopeful that we have created something respectful of nature, nurturing to the spirit, and even beautiful.

Linda and Scot DeGraf worked at Sojourners for a combined total of nearly 20 years. They now reside at and work full time on Woodhaven. For more, check out straw-bale.blogspot.com.

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"Built to Last"
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