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Our Strawbale Build: Small And Slow Solutions

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Clockwise from top left: Annie and team building the walls; Art collection; Easterly entrance; Oscar’s room; Just another day on site; Eclectic mirror collection. Photos by Annie Werner

With the help of family, friends and our wider community, my partner and I built a passive solar strawbale home. Building a home is an incredibly rewarding, exhausting and empowering thing to do. It’s an opportunity to implement ethical principles, learn and practise skills, build community, and create a space to live in that is truly reflective of your personal aesthetics and philosophy.

Our house building journey germinated many years ago when as a 15-year-old, I visited the home of a woman who had built by hand her own tiny mudbrick home. From that moment on I was somewhat obsessed with the idea of building my own home. It was very early on in our relationship when I declared my intentions to my partner, Genevieve. Luckily she came onboard, and in the last six years we have hand-built a strawbale tiny house (which we lived in for five years) on our property in the Bega Valley, while we prepared for and built our larger family home that we moved into in March this year.

Of primary concern to us when we set out on our home building project was that our house wouldn’t cost the earth, either metaphorically or literally. We wanted to create a home that would allow us to be mostly debt-free (building within our means), which would fit in with our ethics (being careful in design and utilising reclaimed material wherever possible), and appropriate to our lifestyle (with communal and outdoor spaces, responsive to the natural environment).

Something that reflected all of the concerns listed above was the size of the house. For financial, environmental and ethical reasons, we wanted the house to be small.

PERMACULTURE PRINCIPLES IN ACTION

Observe and interact

Our five years living in the tiny house (26 m2 plus a sleeping loft) really taught us about living in small spaces and utilising outside living areas. It helped us to understand the things we BUILD really valued. This was our ‘observe and interact’ time, and it helped us to decide on what we really wanted from our big house.

Small and slow solutions

What we ended up building is a 93 m2 north facing rectangle, which emphasises communal spaces by having tiny bedrooms. The kitchen, dining room and a super-insulated cold-store take up more than half of the house, reflecting our passion for food. Obviously by global standards, this is still a huge amount of house for only four people, but with new houses built in Australia averaging 241 m2 for an average of

2.6 people, ours is definitely on the small side.

Keeping the house relatively small also meant that we built within our means and were able to do a lot of the work ourselves, which also kept the cost down. We also took our time building and designing the house, which meant we were able to alter the design as we learned about our land and the ways in which we wanted to work with it.

Taking time also allowed us to accumulate materials. A lot of what we used to build the house was reclaimed or repurposed. By slowly accumulating materials and designing and building around those materials, costs were reduced. All of the doors and windows in the house were salvaged from the tip.

One of our favourite features are the arched timber windows in our dining room, rescued from a skip bin by my mum more than 30 years ago. They came out of the old Wollongong courthouse when it was demolished. The glazier who replaced the glass for us was so thrilled to see such beautiful windows being restored and given a new life, and they have a wonderful story behind them, adding to the character of the home.

Produce no waste

In addition to reducing costs, by building slowly and sourcing second-hand, reclaimed or recycled materials wherever possible this also significantly reduced waste. In fact, the building of our house generated only three ute-loads of waste to landfill, yet utilised around 10 ute-loads of materials salvaged from the tip, meaning a waste footprint of -7.

Catch and store energy

We were also very concerned with the long-term livability and ongoing self-sufficiency of the house in terms of energy consumption and waste. For this reason, we have rainwater tanks, off grid solar electricity, evacuated tube hot water (boosted by a second-hand wood oven in winter), and a composting toilet and onsite greywater treatment. Our wood oven also serves multiple functions in addition to heating our water, as it heats our living space and cooks food on top and in the oven box.

The house is oriented north-north-east, with a huge bank of windows and glass doors on the north side to make the most of solar heating during the day. The strawbale walls are rated at ≈ R20, and we have R8.5 recycled glass ceiling insulation which means the temperature in the house is maintained passively.

Integrate rather than segregate

Building our home was also an exercise in community-building; in a way, ‘catching and storing’ the energy that buzzes through our community. We hosted a wall-raising workshop which brought together friends, family and strangers from all over for a week of skill and labour sharing. This week was incredibly empowering for everyone involved and meant that our house was built and energised by so many beautiful people.

Use and value renewable resources and services

We also made the most of the tools and equipment available to us within our community, by sharing and borrowing wherever possible. This kept our costs down as we weren’t buying everything we needed. It also reduced the resources that went into the house as we weren’t buying things we’d only use a handful of times.

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

Asking questions (all of the time, everywhere I went) and admitting vulnerability was also hugely important to the building process. Before building our tiny house, we had never built anything at all other than a dodgy suburban henhouse. We made many mistakes but we turned each and every one of them into a learning opportunity.

By accepting and responding to feedback, recognising our failures and weaknesses and working to remedy them, we were able to adapt our design and build more effectively and efficiently the second-time round. In the process of asking questions and asking for help when we needed it, we met so many people and forged strong networks within our local community.

We tried to do as much as possible ourselves, but there were some jobs in the house that required outsourcing, such as the electrical and plumbing work. In these instances it was absolutely imperative to us that we find tradespeople who were aligned with our ethics, and who would be sensitive and respectful of our DIY approach. We were lucky to find both our electrician and plumber in our local community, and they have been amazing in helping us to realise our dreams in this regard.

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Clockwise from top left: The dining table ready to be filled with food and people; The kitchen; Strawbale house from a distance; The workers; Watermelon in the afternoon; The pink bedroom. Photos by Annie Werner

REFLECTIONS

Living in our home has confirmed for us that our design was both sensible and reflective of our needs and ethics. The house has been performing beautifully throughout the winter. The energy systems are also performing very well.

The principle we’ve learned to value most in this process is that of utilising slow and small solutions. We learned that by taking it slow, being responsive, opportunistic and receptive to the gifts of nature and our community, we can have a house that doesn’t tie us to debt for our whole life. Slowing down also allows space to really consider your personal values, as opposed to those imposed by society and culture.

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