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.
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.
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.