House of straw:

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

a dream come true in Cen­tral Otago

For years Jil­lian Sul­li­van had been fas­ci­nated by houses made from nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als. In her 50s, she built one – and wrote a book about it. In this ex­tract we join Jil­lian and her helpers at her Cen­tral Otago prop­erty on bale-rais­ing day.

It’s only walls with straw in it. We’ll fig­ure it out.”

When life as she knew it ended – her marriage over and her last child off into the world, writer Jil­lian Sul­li­van, then 55, set out to ful­fil a long-held dream of build­ing a straw­bale house. She set­tled in Cen­tral Otago, where she built her new home with her son-in-law Sam Deav­oll as her builder and men­tor, and she as the ap­pren­tice. In this edited ex­tract Jil­lian de­scribes the piv­otal mo­ment of the bale rais­ing, when grand­moth­ers, grand­chil­dren, old friends, new friends and strangers came to­gether to make her dream a re­al­ity.

In the Ida Val­ley, two ma­jor ob­sta­cles were keep­ing me awake at night. The first was that I couldn’t get a straw­bale ex­pert to come on the day of the bale rais­ing.

Sam had taken a 10-day course in straw­bale build­ing in Geraldine. The teacher gave me the names of other ex­pe­ri­enced peo­ple but they were too busy. One man did say he would come to the site the week be­fore the bale day and go over ev­ery­thing with us. He’d make sure we were con­fi­dent in what we were do­ing with the bales. I was re­lieved be­cause I wasn’t feel­ing con­fi­dent at all. But now it was Thurs­day, two days be­fore bale day, and the man still hadn’t come.

The sec­ond ob­sta­cle was not hav­ing enough peo­ple to come to my bale rais­ing. My project was down in the depths of Cen­tral Otago. I was new to the area and didn’t have many con­tacts. My old friends lived 12 hours away by car. Though the mes­sage had gone out through any straw­bale-build­ing chan­nels we knew of, peo­ple couldn’t travel or the date didn’t suit for those who were keen.

I went through the peo­ple who had promised to come: there was Sam and I, his preg­nant wife Hana, writer Brid­get and Sam’s mum, Julie, both in their 60s. My new neigh­bour, poet Brian Turner, would be there, mak­ing it three writ­ers, and hope­fully my friend De­clan Wong, a ma­gi­cian and film­maker. My son Nick was on standby from Auck­land, mak­ing him, apart from Hana and Sam, the only per­son un­der 54 years of age on the site.

Sam put a mes­sage up on Face­book and the only one who said they could come was a friend’s mother, Brid­get Henry, a woman of my age. And I had an email from some­one called Pat Shuker in Twizel, who was keen. Was Pat a man or woman? Older or younger than the rest of us? Be­cause we were sorely short of man­power.

I’d seen the men at the bale-rais­ing I’d at­tended last week, glee­fully us­ing the sledge­ham­mer to pound walls into shape. Brid­get A. had had a dou­ble hip re­place­ment, I had a sore back and Brian more bro­ken bones and in­juries than he cared to re­mem­ber. I knew we wouldn’t be do­ing such vig­or­ous work.

The next morn­ing, Sam and I looked down from the roof to see his fa­ther Den­nis’s truck pull in. Den­nis is a Har­ley Davidson mo­tor­cy­clist, an artist, and a great do-ity­our­selfer; he once built a five-storey house, de­signed by Welling­ton ar­chi­tect Ian Ath­field, on his own, with help from Sam’s mum, Julie. He’d had a se­ri­ous heart at­tack a few years ago, flatlin­ing twice be­fore they could bring him back. He had pills now, he said, to keep him go­ing.

Usu­ally Fri­day night was the end of our work­ing week. On the build­ing site, this Fri­day night, the tools were stacked in the van and the house peace­ful un­der the new moon ris­ing. I looked at the dark, tarpaulined stack of straw bales wait­ing for the morn­ing. How would that stack turn into my house? Right up till the sun set I be­lieved the man would turn up to ad­vise us.

At that mo­ment, in the near dark, I felt over­whelmed with re­spon­si­bil­ity. All these peo­ple com­ing, all this work to do.

“We haven’t got enough men for the heavy work,” I said to Sam, “and we haven’t got any­one to show us what to do.”

“Look at this struc­ture,” said Sam. “Who built this house?”

I looked across at the frames of the house un­der its new roof.

“You and me.”

“Well, we’re go­ing to kick it at the

straw­bale day. Any­one else who turns up is a bonus. It’s only walls with straw in it. We’ll fig­ure it out.”

I re­mem­bered then that some­times the men­tor that arises is your own self; the strengths you have within you, your own courage, your own skills and in­tu­ition and readi­ness to work. Sam said we could do it, and so I took heart from that.

And like Sam said, ev­ery­one that came was a bonus to the two of us, and we would just work it out.

We went into the warmth and light of the car­a­van. Julie went out to the car to get plums for dessert.

“There are car lights down at the house,” she said.

I took a torch and went out into the dark. As I got closer a small ter­rier jumped down from the ute, then some­one with strong legs, in shorts, a big red bushshirt, and with tou­sled dark grey hair.

“Gid­day,” she said. “I’m Pat.”

Pat had driven four-and-a-half hours to a build­ing site, to com­plete strangers. And like the work­ers the house was at­tract­ing, she was a woman, an older woman like the rest of us.

“What do you do, Pat?” Sam asked over din­ner.

“Do? I don’t do any­thing,” she said. “I’m 73.”

“Have you built a straw­bale house be­fore?” I asked her.

“I’ve helped build them all round the world,” said Pat. “I thought I’d come and help you build yours.”

Our men­tor had ar­rived.

One-off builds

The straw­bale build­ing move­ment is about 160 years old. In New Zealand, bale houses have only been built since the 1970s. As each house has mostly been owner built, although there are spe­cific straw­bale build­ing com­pa­nies now, tech­niques have been evolv­ing. Each house is a one-off, and has its own quirks and chal­lenges. Builders and co-builders come up with their own in­no­va­tions – as Sam and Nick did for me with their im­pro­vi­sa­tions.

That’s part of the fun of build­ing with straw. There’s not one right way of do­ing some­thing. As long as you start out with dry straw and com­press it, you are free to work out the best way to do that.

When an ar­chi­tect draws a plan, they sup­pose that tim­ber will be the length and width it says it is, and be so uni­formly. When a farmer bales straw, the bales come out of the baler in ap­prox­i­mate lengths and weights. Bales are not the same size. A layer in a wall doesn’t take ex­actly 5 bales, but 4.7 bales, or 5.2 bales, de­pend­ing on the size of each orig­i­nal bale. Hence, the uses to which bale nee­dles have to be put.

The main dif­fi­culty with re­siz­ing and re­ty­ing bales in or­der to get them fit­ting cor­rectly into the length of wall, is how hard it is to com­press the bales back to the pres­sure they were un­der when done by ma­chine. The way we had been shown to tighten the strings in Geraldine was to lean over the bale and use our weight to com­press the sheaves of straw while re­ty­ing the string. This worked well enough for tall peo­ple, but for me it meant I lay

across the top of a bale with my feet off the ground as if I was about to nose­dive into the con­crete, launched by a bale of straw.

Nick came up with a new method. He was once a sailor, spend­ing five years sail­ing the world on su­pery­achts be­fore go­ing back to univer­sity to be an en­gi­neer, and he knows his knots. It would be a lot quicker, he said, if we used two loops for pur­chase, as if we had two pul­leys made of rope. The me­chan­i­cal ad­van­tage of the two loops meant the twine could be pulled as tight as a gui­tar string – with­out lift­ing our feet off the ground.

Pat, the Brid­gets and I used this method with­out tip­ping over, and although it was hard on our hands, gloves helped. Soon we were all mea­sur­ing bales like pro­fes­sion­als.

In­side the house, we each took a seg­ment of wall, be­gin­ning with the long back wall. We came to grips with get­ting our bales in place, lay­er­ing them up five bales high, ready to com­press. Here Sam and I would roll out our new tech­nique with cus­tom-made steel plates, which Sam had de­signed. Steel plates and truck strops, this was Sam’s an­swer to the dilemma of how to com­press a wall of straw.

We didn’t have a way of test­ing out our steel-plate method be­fore the rais­ing day, what with need­ing bales up in the wall first. Now, with ev­ery­one gath­ered round to watch, Sam lifted the large steel plate up onto the top bale of straw in a new wall of bales. The aim was to com­press the wall down firmly us­ing truck strops so there was room to slide the last bale in un­der the ceil­ing. We would then re­lease the pres­sure on the wall, the bales would spring back up and lock into a tight wall.

Sam passed the truck strops over the bale, hooked them on the nar­row steel plates bolted to the floor plates and Graeme [a neigh­bour] and De­clan be­gan to ratchet the strops down.

“The wall needs to come down evenly so it doesn’t twist,” Sam said. “Graeme, you go now; okay, now you, De­clan.” The strops clicked and creaked as they tight­ened.

“The bale’s mov­ing down,” I said. “I can see it!”

Sam held his tape mea­sure to the gap. The men took turns ratch­et­ing, and bit by bit the bales com­pressed. For the last ef­fort Graeme leaned in to­wards the wall, haul­ing up with all his strength.

“That’s it,” said Sam. “Good job!” He lifted the last bale and pushed it in on top. The steel plate slid out eas­ily, the strops came off, and the wall locked into place.

“You beauty!” said Graeme. “Go the straw­bale house!” I grinned back at him and Sam. My bed­room wall was no longer a frame­work of tim­ber but a tex­tured, golden mass.

“You did it, Sam,” I said. We nod­ded at each other.

“Now we can keep go­ing,” he said. I took a deep breath of the fra­grance of straw. Straight­ened up. Across from me Hana sat on a bale, mea­sur­ing and cut­ting twine. [Grand­chil­dren] Phoenix and Indy squat­ted over of­f­cuts of wood in the dust. At the corner of the house, Brid­get A. leant into her bale, push­ing it into po­si­tion.

For 25 years I had en­vi­sioned the pos­si­bil­ity of peo­ple com­ing to­gether to build a nat­u­ral, sus­tain­able house. I had be­lieved in com­mu­nity. And here we were help­ing Sam: son, daugh­ter, grand­chil­dren, in-laws, neigh­bours, friends and new friends, none of us a builder, build­ing a house.

Nick ex­plains his method for re­siz­ing and re­ty­ing bales to Pat and Hana, while the bales go into the walls be­hind them.

A cosy wood burner keeps the home warm dur­ing Cen­tral Otago’s cold win­ters. The ceil­ing in the bed­room was crafted by Charly Le Bonté, a young French joiner who as­sisted with the build.

This is an edited ex­tract from A Way Home, by Jil­lian Sul­li­van, Pot­ton & Bur­ton.

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