2016 Workshop – Building a Green Room

There are many different definitions of “green building” out there. But it is widely agreed that “green building” includes the design, construction, and operation of a building with deliberate attention to energy use, water use, indoor environmental quality, choice of materials, and the building’s effects on its site.

The subject of this year’s strawbale workshop, once again co-sponsored by the Entrada Institute of Torrey, Utah, is just such a building. Straw is a renewable, low-cost product, plus, it is readily available, naturally fire-retardant, and has a high insulation value.

Dave Swinger, of Swinger Straw near Grand Junction, Colorado provided 200 of the most beautiful construction bales we’ve ever worked with. They were light-weight (under fifty pounds each), compact, dry, bright, uniform in dimension, and affordable. Not only did Dave deliver the bales at a time convenient to our workshop date, he also provided pallets and tarps to protect them from the elements.

Prior to straw delivery, pouring the foundation – the first step of the process – proved to be problematic due to a high water table. This is a common, but ephemeral problem in our area, which appears during irrigation season. Perforated pipe and loads of gravels solved that. The next steps included the actual cement pour and roughed-in electrical and plumbing systems.

Water, whether from the ground or as precipitation, is an enemy of straw, so, before bales can be stacked, the framing and roof must be in place. This was completed in the nick of time, and the workshop began on June 22 with seven enthusiastic participants, four instructors, and one assistant. During that evening’s first meeting, we toured the building site and discussed the project – a green room for the future Entrada Performance Center. The space will serve as a practice and waiting room before and after shows when performers are not engaged on the stage.

During days one and two, workshop participants stacked bales in walls, working together to solve unique challenges presented in this building, one being the wiring. In residential construction, flexible Romex can be channeled between the courses of bales. Not so in this commercial structure, which required wiring to be placed inside conduit. Called in at the last minute, Charlie Harvey and crew from Harvey’s Electric in Lyman, Utah, understood our needs and installed the wiring in a manner that we could work around without much struggle.

Because the building was tall – almost 13 feet on the east side – it was necessary to work from scaffolding on the exterior. Bales arranged in a series of “stairs” made it possible to reach the highest sections inside.


Beautiful, 50-pound bales


Trimming bales


Making custom-sized bales with bale needle and baling twine


Bale needle


Stacking the north wall from scaffolding


Fitting custom bale between wall bucks




Persuading a bale into position with Big O


There’s more than one way to persuade a bale.


A lovely building site


East wall


Interior of building

Once the bales were stacked, we moved on to plaster – mixing clay straw to fill the gaps between the bales, applying the slip coat, and, finally, applying the brown (first) coat of plaster to the exterior. Because the project was large, the instructors didn’t want to spend the majority of the workshop time making plaster. Therefore, prior to the start of the class, they created a plaster pit using tarps and old bales. They spent two long days loading clay, sand, straw, and water into a mortar mixer to make approximately 5 cubic yards of plaster. That’s about four tons of mud, enough to cover the exterior of the building with one coat plus some. Still, students learned the fundamentals of making plaster – its components and the characteristics of a good mix. They made clay straw by hand and got their hands dirty while getting the feel of brown coat.


Mixing table


Making straw clay by hand


Straw clay ready for use


Kim, who built the first strawbale house in Wayne County, was here to help.


We got our hands dirty.


We got more than our hands dirty.


Filling gaps with straw clay


Applying slip with stucco sprayer


The first coat


Almost finished with the brown coat


The crew

After four days of hard work and camaraderie, the green room is on its way to completion. But that is for the future. For now, after a successful workshop, participants have developed new skills and are formulating plans for future strawbale projects of their own. We’ll all be there to help.



Photovoltaic Panels

Due to the high insulative characteristics of straw, strawbale homes are reputed to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Air conditioning is generally unnecessary in the summer. In the winter, heat is easily retained within the high R-value walls. During the summer, we open the windows at night to allow the cool western breezes in. Closing the windows during the day keeps the house between 65 and 72 degrees all day long. In the winter, the masonry heater and radiant heat in the floor (powered by a drain-back solar system, which heats water), coupled with the passive design of the house, maintains the same temperatures as in the summer. Naturally this leads to great savings in energy costs.

When we lived here only part-time, our electricity bills never exceeded the basic fees assessed by Garkane Energy, our local cooperative. Even though we have only a few of the typical items that use electricity – refrigerator, washing machine, lights and computers – now that we live here full-time, our power usage has increased. We anticipated that. We do, however, own one huge electricity hog. That’s the hot tub. And boy does it eat kilowatts. We receive regular reminders of that fact in the form of monthly power bills.

When we built our house, we discussed the possibility of installing photovoltaic (PV) panels to produce electricity. At the time, the cost was prohibitive. In addition, Garkane Energy had fairly archaic net metering practices. Both of those situations have now improved. Plus, last year, Congress extended federal and state tax credits for PV systems for five more years. These things, in conjunction with one very high power bill in February, prompted us to call the local expert, Biggi Blondal of Thousand Lakes Solar, to assess our situation and give us a bid.

After discussing various options, he designed a system based on our average yearly electricity use. We’ll be able to add more panels in the future, and, when Tesla’s Powerwall battery becomes readily and affordably available in the United States, we can add that to our system as well. All of these features are important since it appears the price of coal-powered electricity will do nothing but increase.

We now have twenty solar panels on our roof. They are essentially invisible since they hug the roofline. Last month was the first full month Mr. Sol generated kilowatts for us. Our power bill was $16.06. And, when we file our 2016 taxes, we’ll receive tax credits that will pay for approximately 30% of the total cost of our PV system. Every sunny day makes us smile, not only for the beautiful day before us, but also for the electricity the PV panels are feeding into the power grid to offset the power we use every day.

Solar panel installation. Torrey.

Twenty PV panels waiting for installation

Solar panel installation. Torrey.

Getting the panels to the roof

Solar panel installation. Torrey.

The last panel goes up.

Solar panel installation. Torrey.

Roof before PV panels – drain back system already in place

Solar panel installation. Torrey.

Roof with PV panels and drain back system




Scott in greenhouse. Torrey. Family.

Scott in greenhouse.

From February’s winter chill to July’s 90-degree days, our tomatoes have made a grand transition. It’s hard to believe that, what began as a quarter-inch seed and then became a viable transplant, is now this jolly green giant.

Greenhouse plants. Torrey.

Stupice tomatoes

But we see that metamorphosis with our own eyes and taste these lovely gems that adorn our almost-nightly salads. With their robust growing habit and tangy flavor, stupice tomatoes remain our long-time favorites. Sungold cherries are a close second and should be coming on soon.

Greenhouse plants. Torrey.

Last September, as we began building our strawbale greenhouse, we hoped for a bountiful harvest but didn’t really know what the results of our efforts would be. Our crops grew in March and April, and, until two weeks ago, there was enough spinach to feed our friends and ourselves, plus sell to farmers’ market patrons. The spinach bolted as temperatures increased, but the kale and chard are still going gangbusters. Mooribor hybrid kale and bright lights chard seem to be a good fit in the greenhouse setting.

We’ve just replanted carrots, lettuce, and spinach and have added cucumbers, leaf celery, and hot peppers. These compliment the plants in our outdoor garden.

Greenhouse plants. Torrey.

The greenhouse provides protection to our new apple grafts and jade plant starts.

Scott in greenhouse. Torrey. Family.

The two things we worried about – bugs and excessive heat – have proven to be inconsequential. As planned, we opened the doors on the east and west to create a moderating breeze. Inside temperatures have been no hotter than outside. And, once the doors were opened, the small aphid problem we experienced in April disappeared.

So far, the greenhouse has been a satisfying success. The next tests will be the seeds we just planted and then our fall crops, which will be planted in mid-August.

Greenhouse veggies. Torrey.

Jolly green giant tomato in its infancy

Greenhouse veggies. Torrey.

The first zucchini of 2016 – in April!

Greenhouse veggies. Torrey.

What will become the first cantaloupe of 2016

Greenhouse plants. Torrey.

Bright Lights chard sold at the farmers’ market