I built my house with straw

“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 film-maker.

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-it-yourselfer; 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.

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 super-yachts 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.

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

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