The Strawbale Search
By Jerilou and Kingsley Hammett
Years before Matts Myhrman co-authored Build it With Bales with Steve MacDonald, long before he founded Out on Bale (un)Ltd with Judy Knox and they began publishing The Last Straw, and well before anything like a straw-bale construction renaissance was sweeping across the nation and around the world, he and Knox were working together in Tucson developing micro-enterprise loan programs in Latin America. In those years he still made time to indulge his interest in earthen building materials. He went to Denmark to research rammed-earth houses in the early eighties and began to work with an architecture graduate student at the University of Arizona to find better ways to enable owner/builders to build for themselves.
I was interested in arid-adaptive design, although it was not a result of any training,” Myhrman says. “I had always been fascinated with earth materials in an intellectual kind of way. At one point I brought in Nader Khalili to do a workshop on his fired-ceramic buildings because I also had a background in pottery and geology. So it all kind of fit together for me to be working with clay and clay-rich soil.” But when he came across a short article on straw-bale construction in the Permaculture Drylands Journal in 1988 he knew he had found what he was looking for. The short piece described a young couple in Gila, New Mexico, who had closed in their straw-bale house for $5 a square foot using techniques that had been popular in Nebraska more than 100 years ago.
When I first heard of this straw-bale thing I didn’t really believe it,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘If this really is true it has to be the most intuitive owner/builder-friendly building technique imaginable. And if they can get dried in for $5 a square foot, it certainly has the potential to be affordable.'”
Myhrman tracked down Steve and Nena MacDonald, who confirmed what the article had said and invited him to come see their house.
“I did that,” Myhrman says, “and it took me about ten minutes to go off the deep end. It was almost genetic, somehow, that I was going to become a fanatic, almost like I was predisposed.” With that first encounter he and Knox were off on a multi-year odyssey that has changed the lives of many owner/builders since.
They learned that the MacDonald house had been inspired by an article they had read in Fine Homebuilding four or five years earlier where Gary Strang described the straw-bale architecture studio Jon Hammond built in Winters, California. That project was a post-and-beam adaptation of a Nebraska-style house that Strang had read about in the book Shelter, which had been published in 1972. Peeling back the layers, Myhrman and Knox set out to track down Roger Welsch, the author of the Shelter article, and that’s where their search really began.
“I was coming along for the ride,” Knox says. “I thought it was conceptually interesting. I certainly did not have any predisposition to it, and once it started to become very popular and time consuming I actually resented it. What I wanted to be doing was inspiring deep change. Little did I know, for the first year or two, what a transformational vehicle we had by the tail and that straw-bale construction would become a phenomenon touching the lives of individuals and groups throughout the world.”
After meeting MacDonald in southwestern New Mexico, Myhrman went up to Santa Fe, raving about what he had seen. There he visited with a friend who had met a woman at a belly dancing class some years back who lived in a straw-bale house up in the mountains. They went up to see her place and were told of a small straw-bale storage building she knew about down in town.
“That’s the way it started to happen,” Myhrman says. “One thing led to another. I heard about David Bainbridge, who had been gathering information and had published a little working paper, and we swapped information. I found a couple of old articles from Mother Earth News from the 1970s. Then it got to the point where we, along with David Bainbridge and Bill Steen (co-authors with Athena Swentzell Steen and David Eisenberg of The Straw Bale House book), were asking ourselves, ‘Would this Nebraska thing really work?'”
Finally a fellow in Oracle, Arizona, named James Kalin invited Myhrman, Knox, Bainbridge, Steen, and Pliny Fisk up to his place for the Fourth of July weekend in 1989 to share what everyone knew, to play with some straw bales and mud, and to put up a little temporary building.
“At the end of the weekend we decided we knew technically how to do the basics,” Myhrman says. “We knew how to span the door and window openings, how to pin the bales, how to wrap it in stucco netting, and how to get cement stucco to stick. They were rudimentary techniques by today’s standards, but they worked. However, we still didn’t have answers to the many questions any healthy skeptic would be concerned about if considering building a straw-bale home.”
What they had was what Knox called a lot of “Yeah, buts…” Would the straw bales last? Would they spontaneously combust? Would termites eat them? Would rodents infest them? The only way to find the answers was to go to the source—the Sandhills of northwestern Nebraska—where late-season hay and straw had been used to build homes, schools, and churches since the late 1800s following the development of the mechanical baler. But where were these houses today? All they knew was that Welsch, a noted folklorist and humorist, might know. He had done a number of postcards from Nebraska for Charles Kurault’s CBS Sunday Morning show. In doing research on sod houses he had come across a number of hay bale ones and had gathered enough information to do the article for Shelter. But where was Welsch?
“I decided I had to go to Nebraska to talk to people who had lived in them, get a look at them, and see if there were really any hay bale houses left up there,” Myhrman says. “But how would I find these buildings? The Shelter article didn’t tell me that, and you don’t know how difficult it was to contact Roger Welsch.”
Welsch finally responded to Myhrman’s inquiries and sent him looking for an article he had written for Keystone Folklore Quarterly in 1970.
“Eventually we got the article faxed to us from the library at Arizona State University,” Myhrman says. “And with that in hand, knowing the general location of these buildings, we set out for Nebraska.”
While the article helped, Knox says, they soon realized they would also have to do virgin research. They spent a lot of time in Nebraska courthouses and in the archives of the Nebraska Historical Society looking up old records. They also developed another technique, where they would come to a small town, go to the senior citizen center, and simply ask those within ear shot whether anyone had ever heard of straw-bale houses.
“Then someone would say, ‘Gee, wasn’t there a hay-bale house built down there by old Jake’s place?'” she says. “It was that kind of a journey. We wandered from place to place, trying to discover them. And indeed we did.”
On their first trip to Nebraska Myhrman and Knox discovered that hay-bale and straw-bale houses (made from rye straw) still exist and are quite impressive. By talking to people who lived in them, built them, or knew those who had, they learned enough about their construction to return to Arizona, mount a slide show, and to work collaboratively with others to turn their new-found knowledge into a usable, modern technique. However, it was when they went back to Nebraska two years later, in 1991, that they really knew what questions to ask.
“We felt increasing urgency about our Sandhills research,” Knox says. “We were right on the cusp on that first trip, but the elders who knew straw-bale information were forgetful or dying. Often we’d be right at the end of a research trail, on a hot lead, and discover the person had died three or six months ago. By our second trip we knew time was running out for finding those with first-hand knowledge of and experience with the old structures.”
By then there was a small but growing group of people interested in what Myhrman and Knox were doing.
“It was not a revival at that point at all. At the most it was dozens of people who had built a handful of Nebraska-style buildings, many done in Cochise County (Arizona) or other areas that required no building codes. But the thing that impressed me in the Sandhills of Nebraska was that people were amazed that anyone was interested enough in what they called ‘hay houses’ to come from Tucson to ask about them.”
The Sandhills of northwestern Nebraska is a vast, scarcely populated area of grass-covered sand dunes. The weather can be ferocious, there were no trees before homesteaders planted them, and the tight sod used for homes on the plains to the East and South existed only in the occasional low-lying meadows that were more valuably used to grow hay as winter feed for livestock. When these lands were first opened to homesteading, they were far from the nearest railroads, making building materials hard to come by. So a new building technology, using minimum wood, had to be created. Hay balers, introduced in the middle 1800s, had become prevalent throughout Nebraska by the 1890s, and some homesteader must have seen the possibility of stacking these “blocks” of baled hay into a shelter.
There is evidence that New Englanders were using stacked hay bales by the middle 1800s to insulate blocks of ice and keep it for summer use, Knox says. Since a good number of the Sandhills homesteaders originally came from Maine, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, it’s not too far-fetched to speculate that someone working his way west would have known about bales being used as an insulative, sheltering material.
The oldest Nebraska hay-bale building Myhrman and Knox found record of was a one-room schoolhouse built in 1896 or 1897. It didn’t last very long. Unfenced and not stuccoed in any way, the superintendent of schools reported in a document dated 1902 that it had been eaten by cows.
The Monhart home today, beautifully preserved inside and out by the Monhart’s daughter Lucille Cross and her husband Jake.
Most of the hay houses in Nebraska—either square or slightly rectangular in shape—were built with a lightly framed hip roof, an ideal design for the purpose because it puts equal weight on all four walls. A hipped roof also sheds wind coming from any direction, and minimal overhangs provide little resistance for uplift. [Please note that minimal overhangs are strongly discouraged by nearly all strawbale construction experts, particularly in climates with significant amounts of driven rain. Contemporary practice for load-bearing straw-bale structures employs strong and simple connection systems between the roof and foundation to combat uplift. – TLS] The hip roof is also framed with a minimum of wood by running four hip rafters from the corners to the peak, running jack rafters down to the top plate, and then nailing on horizontal purlins and shingles.
“There’s not a vertical stick in the entire roof,” Myhrman says. “That leaves the entire attic a clear space, as compared to our use of trusses, which leaves the attic like a forest.”
The roof was fastened to a simple plank top plate that was toe-nailed to the top few courses of bales with wooden stakes. Since the Sandhills only enjoyed about twelve to fourteen inches of rain a year, the roof needed only very modest overhangs.
“We never documented an instance where a roof was lost off one of these structures,” Knox says, “and this is in tornado country. In fact we met one couple, Jake and Lucille Cross, who after their conventional house was considerably damaged by a tornado, rushed next door to find their parents, the Monharts, playing cards in their hay-bale house, virtually unaware of the storm that had just passed through. We saw that these hay houses were a lot more flexible and durable than we would have given them credit for.”
Myhrman and Knox interviewed ninety-three-year-old Marie Burke, who told them her straw-bale home, built in 1903, hadn’t been stuccoed for the first ten years while they waited until they could build a “real” house. Marie and her husband would go on to raise their five children within its sheltering straw-bale walls and live there until she moved in with her daughter in 1956.
They found one home where wallpaper had been glued right onto the unplastered bales. In other cases, where people couldn’t afford cement or lime stucco, they slapped on a layer of “gumbo mud” that they found in low-lying areas until they could afford better. In fact, the church in Arthur, Nebraska, today open as a historical museum, was built in 1928 of rye straw. A “truth window” installed during its renovation for the Bicentennial in 1976 revealed it was initially plastered only with gumbo mud.
“These were the first indications we had that bales might like to breathe,” Knox says, “and that they really can take care of moisture a lot better than we would have anticipated.”
Myhrman and Knox found some buildings that initially were made from straw but in the intervening years had had their roofs jacked up and the walls replaced with frame. But it wasn’t because the straw bales had failed. The problems stemmed from poor materials for foundations, too little wood to make adequate lintels over doors and windows, or a combination of using rigid posts at the corners and load-bearing bales in between. When the bales invariably settled, the corners did not, creating a sagging wall and a sway-backed roof.
“One thing we’ve got to remember about these Nebraska structures is that we are looking at the survivors,” Myhrman says. “We don’t know for sure how many others there were. We know of a few others that didn’t survive, and there may have been quite a few more beyond that. So we are taking from those that survived to learn how to do it properly.”
In the final analysis, none of the problems Myhrman and Knox originally worried about had plagued the hay-bale houses of Nebraska.
“We didn’t find problems with water damage, rotting bales, or insects,” Knox says. “The only buildings we found that had rodent problems were those that suffered poor maintenance.”
They found one instance where a bale had caught on fire behind a sink while someone was trying to fix a water pipe. The burned bale was simply removed and replaced. And in another case they heard of a roof set afire by lightning.
But in no case did they find anyone in the Sandhills who didn’t say they loved their hay house.
“It was warm in the winter, cool in the summer, it protected them from winds, and was quiet,” Myhrman says. “We just heard it time and again.”
As word of how to build with straw bales began to spread in recent years, owner/builders found they could put up a nice home for $25 to $30 a square foot. After a few builders got experience, straw-bale construction worked its way into the custom home scene. These days it even accounts for a small amount of spec housing, and there has been some talk of straw-bale developments.
“Production straw-bale construction may not be far down the line,” Myhrman predicts. “But strawbale has to be grafted onto a paradigm of simplicity, a deep awareness of the effects of our actions on the planet, rather than be grafted onto the old paradigm of building. When the latter is the case it has failed to live up to its potential.”
Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox operate Out on Bale (un)Ltd, an international straw-bale education and resource service, open by appointment only, at 1037 E. Linden St., Tucson, AZ 85719. Myhrman and Steve MacDonald recently released a revised, updated, and doubled-in-size edition of Build it with Bales, available from any book store.
The preceding article and photographs (originally in black & white), reprinted here with permission, originally appeared in the August 1998 issue of DESIGNER/builder monthly magazine. DESIGNER/builder is published by Fine Additions, Inc., 2405 Maclovia Lane, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505. Phone/fax 505-471-4549. Subscriptions in the US: $28 for one year, or $48 for two years. Contact for rates outside the US.
Why did The Last Straw choose to introduce Judy and Matts at its website with an article that ran in another magazine? Because it’s a very good article. Our mission is to present information and material from all sources in order to promote straw-bale construction and natural building.