‘The Last Straw’ publication is back!

Really great to hear that ‘The Last Straw’ publication is back.

The Last Straw is a user generated publication, foccussed on Straw Bale building techniques, ideas & discussions.
It’s a great read to inspire some new natural building options.

Check out The Last Straw website for loads of articles on a variety of topics, from straw bale science, to sound insulation, foundations and finishes. It has it all!

It has been taken over by The Colorado Straw Bale Association (COSBA)

Head over to the last straw and get your subscription now!

Where have I been? Where am I now? What am i’m doing?

Regular readers may have noticed the rather large absence in posts from jeffreythenaturalbuilder.com from about December last year.

I headed back to BC, Canada for my winter job, teaching snowboarding. (I absolutely love that in the different seasons I can do my two favorite things, building and snowboarding)

From there I went back to the motherland for a long overdue visit. I realised how much I missed the landscape, the trees and the people. It was a fantastic trip that restored my faith in the people of the British Isles.
While there I got to visit my good friend Gonzo who is renovating a 350 year old cob farmhouse in Normandy, France.
The building is in a state of disrepair, but Gonzo is lovingly piecing it back together using earthen materials.
(while offering exceptional camping/homestead/farmstay opportunities to all)

350 cob farmhouse in a state

I taught some earthen plastering with this wild mob of natural builders:

Natural builders gone bad

And got to get my detail fix plastering this wall. I love the edges and the details of intricate work, so this was a pleasure indeed.
This is the point where the cob wall meets a stone portion of the kitchen.

cob meets stone work


I am now back in Moab, Utah to work with Community Rebuilds again.
I spent the first month of July heading up the renovation team for their newly purchased campus building. With the end goal to house all of this Autumn’s interns. This involved lots of regular construction remodeling to get it ready in time. Now we have a blank canvas to work with, which the interns will get to plaster very soon. (I will create a campus renovations post soon!)

The 1st of August saw the beginning of my second Straw Bale house build with CR. This build I am a natural building instructor and am apprenticing with Eric Plorde of Eco Logic Design Build. He is teaching me a great deal about the finer points of running a build and the skills I need to move into building my own full size house projects.
My other role with CR is to continue to develop the campus, teaching plastering and creating an outdoor kitchen.

It’s all very exciting to be back in the mud, and I’m looking forward to updating you all with the progress of the build and campus improvements.

ISBC – International Straw Builders Conference 2012

From September 16 – 22, 2012 in Estes Park, Colorado, straw builders from around the globe gathered for the International Straw Builders Conference.

This was exceptionally timed for the fall builders, meaning that we could attend as part of our Community Rebuilds internship.
We fundraised like crazy, selling cinnamon buns, hosting a ‘big lebowski’ party & a delicious international dinner… eventually with the help of some exceptionally generous people, we raised the cash and were on our way to Colorado!

Every year The Colorado Straw Bale Association hold a conference to bring the local builders together and educate people in the ways of straw bale building. This year they decided to go big an host the international!
Dusty Szymanski, Laura Bartels, John Rehorn, Ian Smith and Mark Schueneman organised five, jam packed, days of talks and workshops from the worlds best straw builders. (plus a little sillyness thrown in for good measure)

My straw bale building life is in it’s early stages, I am constantly learning new ideas and techniques. So it was inspiring to be surrounded by people with a huge amount of experience and knowledge. It greatly impressed me how eager to share people were – projects, ideas and (maybe most importantly) failures were discussed, either in the meeting halls, or informally over lunch… or even more informally around the fire with a beer.

My personal talk highlights included:

  • John Straube -You might expect a keynote speech from a ‘specialist building science engineer’ to be about as exciting as a snail racing… But John’s highly entertaining talk had the room in hysterics as he bounded cheerfully through slides of moldy buildings. He clearly loves what he does and enjoys to share it.
    He posed the question, ‘what is a natural building material?’ and talked about lime and the processes it goes through to be used in plasters.
  • Jacob Deva Racusin – Jacob began his talk with some statistics about climate change. How climate change is effecting the weather and how we have the option of resilience or regeneration.
    He then spoke of, not only the harmful chemicals, but the energy debt in using foam insulation. How making a super insulated building with foam has a 15 year energy debt. The issue is now, and we can’t wait 15 years to start seeing the benefit. For a while I have been trying to rid the builds I’ve been working on of foam insulation. All I really knew was that I didn’t like using this petroleum product. So it was great to learn more about the real effects of using it.
    Jacob finished with a metaphor of the olive tree – If you plant an olive tree, it will never bear fruit in your lifetime, you have instead plated it for the generations after your death. This is what we need to be doing with our building practices, and we need to be doing it now.
  • Bob Theis – Bob’s talks focused on effective use of space. How you can create effective social areas and how to design small buildings. Bob spent a long time talking about the use of porches and how you can design them to be the main room ‘in’ the house. I have a particular interest in small living and found Bob’s talks to be stuffed full of useful information and fascinating social insights.
  • Chris Magwood – I really enjoyed talking with Chris during the week, his company ‘Endeavour‘ offers an education program in some ways similar to Community Rebuilds up in Ontario, Canada. The variety of projects, exciting building techniques and educational programs were all equally inspiring.
    I really enjoyed Chris’ talk on LEED certification and the Living Building Challenge. In particular how Jen Feigin from Endeavour had spent no less than 2 and a half months working on their living building challenge application. How they learned so much about the resources, embodied energy, shipping impact and material choices by taking part. I’d like to hope that all natural builders would put in this research to make their buildings as natural and low in embodied energy as possible…
  • August Hasz – August spoke on the net zero house, and how it can be achieved. (Net zero means that over the course of a year the house has used no more energy than it can produce) As well as some great steps to work though on your house he also touched on when it stops making economic sense to hit the net zero target. Spending tens of thousands of dollars extra may never pay off (fine for the super rich, but for the real world projects with real budgets it’s not an option).

One other highlight was getting the chance to sit down with Community Rebuilds’ Eric Plourde, our engineer Dodson Harper, and natural building focused structural engineer, Bruce King. I was able to present to them my idea for reducing the amount of concrete in the footer of the Community Rebuilds straw bale house design. The outcome being a possible reduction of upto 75% of the concrete in our footer and a concrete mix that contains less cement (which means less embodied energy – horay!).

The straw bale olympics were held in front of an audience of Elk and bemused onlookers. Events included the bale toss, mud plaster throwing, the bale carry & bale bridge building. The community rebuilds team was edged out of the top 3 by some dubious judging decisions, but much fun was had! (a strict training schedule has been implemented on the CR build site to prepare for the next conference!)

A big thanks to all the organisers, volunteers, speakers & attendees that made it such a great event.
I left feeling educated, inspired & knowing that we are doing great things.

Community Rebuilds – Bales!

I just posted this over on the Community Rebuilds site.- It’s been a fun and exciting week!


This week we finally did what we all came here for, we installed the straw bale walls!

The process was fairly straight forward…

  1. Square up the bales using a mallet, body weight, or a chainsaw
  2. Using a chainsaw remove any sections of the bale that need to fit round framing
  3. Install bale
  4. Compact bales down and flush with outside framing (this means ‘hit it’)

This video shows the first 2 days of bale install condensed down to just over a minute!

Community Rebuilds – Straw Bale Installation from Jeffrey Hart on Vimeo.

The next two days were spent wedging bales into the top gaps, hanging bales over the windows, straightening the walls, meshing then stuffing above the doors and finally stuffing the cracks in the bales with light straw clay (straw coated in wet clay).
This final step means that it will be easier to plaster as we have a flatter more uniform surface.

Working with straw bales is a bit of a journey.
At first they are fantastic giant building blocks, you get to play with chainsaws (always fun) and progress is fast.
Then you get down and dirty with the details. Every space you want to fill involves restringing a bale, cutting a notch from it, cutting the string by accident, a 3 minute four-letter-word-fest, bale repair, then making yourself feel better by beating the bale into submission with a monster wooden mallet named ‘Woody’.
By the end of the week, you are tired, covered in mud from the light straw clay… and people point and laugh at you in the grocery store, when you go to pay and dump a pocket full of straw shavings onto the checkout.

But with all that safely behind you… Oh my goodness it feels good!
We have walls and insulation in the house. All done in a week!

Judging by the amount of people that stop by to see what is happening we are not the only ones excited by this building technique. Today alone I spoke to 3 separate visitors all of whom were looking for tips and ideas for their own straw bale build!

So now, we are ready for the base coat of earthen plaster…. after we get back from the International Straw Balers’ Conference!
(Doing a happy dance)

Just a few more bales to go
The window headers
For now the building is a no smoking zone, once the bales are sealed in plaster you can smoke like a chimney, if you want.
Julia straightens the walls, Thor style
Ta Da!
The triumphant team… can you spot ‘Woody 2′ ?

Community Rebuilds – And We’re off!

I am writing a blog for the strawbale house build I am taking part in for Community Rebuilds.
A group of 9 volunteers have come to the Utah desert to build a sustainable house for a low income family, while learning the process, design and building code sacrifices that must be made.
You can see the whole blog and website here. Continue reading