Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Straw Bale Bash

Tucson is on its way to becoming the world's center for straw-bale construction.

By Kay Sather

MARCH 1, 1999:  JUDY KNOX AND her husband Matts Myhrman say Tucson is on its way to becoming known world-wide as the center--if not quite the birthplace--of straw bale construction. This weekend Out on Bale, the straw bale education organization they founded here in 1991, will host a home tour and gathering of the movement's practitioners from all over the world.

The first straw bale structures were built in Nebraska in the late 1800s by pioneers who considered them a temporary answer to their need for shelter in areas where wood, and sometimes even sod, was in short supply. Tucsonans Knox and Myhrman were among the first to recognize the potential of the nearly-forgotten "stop-gap" building material to satisfy present-day needs: it's highly insulative, inexpensive, simple, solid, organically beautiful and environmentally beneficial.

Knox says it all started one "innocent weekend" in Oracle 10 years ago. Myhrman, a geologist/hydrologist with an interest in ecological building, had seen a bale home in New Mexico and knew immediately he wanted to build that way. So he and Knox met with three others having some knowledge of the medium--Bill Steen, David Bainbridge and Pliny Fisk--to talk about building a straw bale structure themselves. Realizing then that they didn't have quite enough information, Knox and Myhrman headed for Nebraska to see what they could learn from the old bale buildings there, some of which are still in use.

They returned to Tucson with first-hand information and enough photographs to fuel a respectable slide show. The next step was a couple of workshop/wallraisings, and by the end of 1991 they'd built a home for Dan Dorsey--a 475-square-foot, legally permitted structure on Tucson's west side.

Knox still speaks with fresh, contagious enthusiasm about her work, and it's not hard to see why one of her trips to the dentist that year resulted in an article in The Arizona Daily Star. (The hygienist's husband was editor of the Star's Home Page.) A feature story in the Tucson Weekly and then an article in The New York Times soon had the Out on Bale phone ringing out of control.

"The Times told us they'd hardly ever gotten so inundated by phone calls," Knox says. "That was when our lives went into a crazy what-did-we-get-ourselves-into kind of thing."

Knox and Myhrman rose to the challenge, expanding their workshop schedule, setting up a mail-order resource center, and publishing a newsletter called The Last Straw. In 1993 they built Mom's Place, a guest house for Myhrman's mother, and the crew waved to friends around the country through the cameras of Good Morning America.

Mom's Place was, in fact, the first load-bearing ("Nebraska-style") straw bale house anywhere to be granted a building permit. (Dorsey's home used a post and beam framework to support the roof, and was built under an experimental permit.) Thanks to the persistent efforts of Myhrman, Bainbridge and the many who have done field testing on bale walls, Tucson now has a straw bale building code which has served as the model for cities in Colorado, California, Nevada, and Texas.

Knox says media attention, including coverage by People magazine, National Geographic and even the National Enquirer, has been a key ingredient in the straw bale revival. The continued involvement of individuals, including the original "Oracle five," has been another. Pliny Fisk has been exploring the design possibilities of straw bales and developing new construction techniques at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems in Austin, Texas. David Bainbridge travels around the country spreading the straw bale message. Bill Steen and his wife, Athena, joined with Bainbridge to write The Straw Bale House, a comprehensive 300-page book complete with slick color photos of finished homes.

Knox and Myhrman have been defining Out on Bale's mission through a number of community-based projects. Initially, they didn't travel far. With a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, they joined the City of Tucson, the Tucson Urban League and Habitat for Humanity to build two homes here and train 140 Habitat workers in straw bale techniques. That work received HUD's National Building Innovation in Home Ownership Award. Other projects have taken them to the Navajo Reservation and to Guadalupe, a small, economically poor Yaqui village surrounded by the wealth of Phoenix and Tempe.

These days, Knox and Myhrman often travel much farther--to Europe, Russia and Mongolia.

"We're not necessary in the U.S. any more," says Knox. "In a good way, we've become dispensable."

Knox says at least 50 straw bale structures, including government buildings, have gone up in Belarus, an area east of Poland. Their own book, Build it with Bales, has been translated into Russian and Mongolian. And contributors to The Last Straw regularly report on bale-building innovations from Australia, New Zealand, China, South Africa and Canada.

Knox calls what they're doing "inspirational message work" and says their purpose is to bring their expertise "to places where it's most applicable. Where there are huge housing problems and lots of straw. That's what drives us more than anything."

"Drives us crazy," laughs Myhrman.

THE MOTIVATION TO build using straw bales comes from, among other things, a desire to use the most appropriate or suitable material for the job--what makes the most sense economically, ecologically, aesthetically, socially. So it's not surprising that the finer points of straw bale construction usually develop from a community's particular needs or resources, and cannot simply be "imported." Factors such as climate and culture help determine the best way to build.

Case in point: Bill and Athena Steen's current work in Mexico. Lacking wood, they've cultivated various types of fast-growing bamboo to use in roofing and "pinning" (one course of bales to another). Lacking good-quality lime, they're developing clay plasters and working with the entrepreneurial types to produce it from raw lime and seashells.

Beyond just using the local resources to build sound, comfortable housing, they've had to combat the widely-held, and understandable, perception that straw and clay are the materials of poverty--that the only "real" houses are made from expensive, imported cement.

"We're continually up against a process of adjustment to preconceptions and work patterns," Bill Steen says.

But their persistence is paying off. Asked to build a new office for Save the Children in Ciudad Obregon, the Steens and their neighborhood crew are using the methods they've developed to construct a 5,000-square-foot building--without power tools. It's nearly complete, and Steen says its "rustic and organic elegance" has already inspired quite a few residents of leaky cardboard shacks to build their own warm-in-winter, cool-in-summer straw bale houses.

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