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Growing Tomatoes In Drought

Western Oklahoma is, and has been, in a serious drought for several years now and even with some rain over the last few weeks, the outlook is bleak. The farm ponds and large lakes are functionally dry, diminished crop yields, and native grasses are challenged to grow enough to keep the cattle herds fed.

Drought Pod In Arid Climate

Vegetable gardening has suffered severely in this rural community, both from disinterest and the challenges of gardening in a drought. My brother, Rick, has tried to grow a few select vegetables over the last few years, but he has given up due to an inability to keep the garden wet. His garden area is mostly sand, making gardening even more difficult due to lack of rain and lack of organic matter in the soil.

The original Drought Pod I designed and built was for him. My goal was to create an organic mass system that was easy to maintain by providing both moisture and nutrients to his vegetables via this totally passive system. Tomatoes are his main crop of choice.

In my opinion, if one can be successful at growing tomatoes, then you are a real gardener.  It is an indication that soil, nutrients, and moisture are well balanced. Growing any other vegetable will be then easy.

Using available materials from my brothers farm, I created a Drought Pod using a round bale feeder, horse manure, cow manure, spoiled alfalfa and wheat straw hay.

Organic mass is the key to my Drought Pod system. The bigger the organic mass the daily watering requirements are minimized, and all the nutrients are provided from within the organic mass.

How We Built the Original Drought PodTomato Growing With Drought Pod

In Rick's garden we positioned the round bale feeder for easy access around the feeder. We soaked the ground thoroughly with well water before adding organic materials.

Using a Bobcat with a front end loader, I dug out two large loads of muck from the horse corral and two loads from the cow pens where hay has been fed in round bale feeders for years, so it is deep, aged, wet from urine more than rain and very rich.  On top of these 4 loads I added an entire large square bale of spoiled, deteriorating alfalfa hay to act as mulch and more organic material as the bale composts along with the  manure.  

I want this entire organic mass to be thoroughly wet during the construction phase. Ironically, even though they've had minimal rain for the past few years, when I dug into both the horse and cow lots, under this thick packed layer, it was very wet, reinforcing my theory about heavy mulch and moisture accumulation. The animal urine is rich in nitrogen, so that type moisture is a double bonus for the Drought Pod. It speeds up composting process while adding nitrogen for the plants.

At this point the 6 loads of organic material is over the top of the feeder.  I know this wet pile is about to start composting, and that is the goal.  Eventually all the materials inside the round bale feeder will be super rich compost.  To recharge the Drought Pod, just add more loads of manure, old hay, and whatever organic materials are available. Think lasagna gardening.

Planting the Feeder AreaUpdated Drought Pod For Gardening

With the drought pod, the planting area is around the outside of the organic mass, and not in the mass, as it will be too hot.  We used a pitch fork and hand tilled in more spoiled alfalfa into the sand around the feeder to use as the planting area. To that we added about 12" of old wheat straw as much for the planting area once the tomatoes are in the ground.


Drought pod constructed on March 15, 2014

Tomatoes planted about April 23, 2014.  No rain, but plants were watered in with garden hose.

April 30, 2014 Rick reported the rabbits had eaten the tomatoes off, so he was about to give up.  At this point the plants had received no supplemental water, other than the day they were planted on March 15.

Now it is the end of May and Rick reports that the tomatoes, WITH NO CARE, had made a miraculous recovery and were actually about 12" tall and vibrant.  I sent my niece to take pictures as proof on June 6, 2014.

Fresh Garden Tomatoes Sliced

Rick says, "I can't believe it".  It works as it's intended:  No care, minimal water after construction with maximum growth.

June 13, I travel to Western Oklahoma for a cattle drive and to see Rick's Drought Pod tomatoes for myself.

While there, I made a 20 gallon batch of very rich compost tea and gave each plant about 1 gallon of tea for a nutrient boost.

By planting directly beside the organic mass, the tomato roots intentionally seek out moisture and nutrients, and both are found in abundance from inside the organic mass inside the Drought Pod.

Through observation of my urban Drought Pod, which is much different in design because of available materials, and use of a moisture probe, I've learned that the ideal soil moisture outside the Drought Pod is low to medium, while the moisture content inside the pod is wet.  The tomatoes never have wet feet, but can get increased moisture and nutrients as they desire by tapping into the organic mass inside the Drought Pod.  I believe that all plant roots are smart like that.

My urban Drought pod tomatoes at 55 days, and I ate my first tomato at 55 days.

My next blog will be about my version of compost tea.

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Cordwood Home in Michigan sold in a few months

Question: What is the best time to sell a cordwood home?  Or any natural home?

Answer:  Before it is built!

One of the most naturally neglected characteristics of an owner/built home is planning for eventual "Re-Sale."  While most DIYers are too overwhelmed with finding land, obtaining capital, getting code approval, gathering materials and working within a timeline, to consider that they may have to, one day, sell the beloved "creation of their own hands." 

Having been involved in and provided consultation to owner/builders for 35 years and having been mortgaged, mortgage-lean and mortgage-free,  there are some simple, cost-benefit concepts that will guard against that day when,  the home must be sold and no buyers are to be had.

Here is a photo of a lovely cordwood home in SW Michigan that sold a few years ago.  The buyers paid the "asking price" and stated afterward that the well-done cordwood walls added to the allure of the homestead.   The seller told me that his wife had made certain they had kept within a concept that would allow the home to be attractive to potential buyers.

Cordwood Home in Michigan full panorama

How To Prepare to Sell a Cordwood Home

The first thing to be aware of is the natural homes market is a small but growing "niche market." That is, it will take a certain type of person to appreciate your cordwood, cob, strawbale or earthship home.   What can you do to make your natural home more sale-able?

This is the full panorama of the exterior of the home.  The attention to detail and the use of Energy Star guidelines helped to make this attractive home more sale worthy:

 1. Build code compliant.   Most banks, home inspection agencies and zoning officials will want to know if the home was built "to the code." 

 2. Build with as much attention to detail, care and professionalism as possible.  If you are a DIY-er, be certain to include a professional when a critical component is being installed (foundation, plumbing, electrical, roof system, etc.)

 3. Build with amenities that are highly prized in your locale:  For example: AC in the south, effective heating system in the north. 

 4. Use standard installs as much as possible.  While you can make your kitchen cabinets or have them custom made, they need to fit broad general parameters for style  Closets are also important to include in your design.  We didn't buy a home at one point, simply because there were no closets. 

 5. If possible, follow Energy Star Guidelines:  use good windows and doors, buy appliances that are Energy Star rated, use additional insulation, invest in a good heating/cooling system and seal out any air infiltration. 

 6. Accessibility: Your home will have more appeal if it is on one floor, has an open concept, has access to first floor laundry, shower, etc.

 7. Pay attention to the number of rooms.  Most homes for resale have at least two bedrooms, some folks like three.  Bathrooms are the same way: one is fine, two is better.

Cordwood in Wisconsin exterior

Homes That Have Sold

While there are a relatively small cordwood homes in North America, there are still a number that are offered for sale every year.  I get calls from real estate agents, sellers, buyers and construction companies wanting to know, how to best market a cordwood home

Designed and built by an engineer, this lovely curved front, post and beam framed cordwood home, not only had beautiful Northern White Cedar cordwood walls, but it had beautiful design features.   Energy Star appliances, a fireplace, radiant in floor heat, custom made kitchen cabinets and an effective heating and cooling system made this home a relatively easy sell. 

Sometimes there is a cordwood outbuilding included in the property.  This must also be built with care and with code compliance.  Here is a fine example of an estate that sold with a beautiful cordwood barn.

Cordwood barn

Here is a Cordwood home that is currently for sale near Wilburton, Oklahoma.
Cordwood in Wisconsin interior

Cordwood in Oklahoma exterior

Cordwood in Oklahoma interior

All the details are at this link.

 Note: The author has no financial concerns in the sale of this home.


Cordwood Construction Best Practices

Use every resource at your disposal and while you may need to use a real estate agent, why not try to sell it yourself?   Many websites featuring natural homes are a mouse click away.  There are also numerous websites that cater to the sell-your-own person.  Here is a sampling of what I accessed in a few minutes. There are many more.          

If you are interested in buying or selling a cordwood home or building one, why not take a look at Click on What's New?  Read the Articles and Newsletter and take a peek at the 700+ pictures under the Photos menu.  

If you would like to read about cordwood, why not try the latest and most up to date book on the subject Cordwood Construction Best Practices (at the Online Bookstore: available in ebook and print format.)


An Urban Home-Raising and So Much More

The Be the Change Project and House Alive Natural Builders conducted a three-day cordwood cob house-raising workshop in early May in Reno, Nevada. Registrations and interest in the months leading up to the “One-Day Cob House” event were great and we gathered on Friday morning with 60 people and high hopes.  Cob is known as a slow and laborious building technique and this effort, as far as we know, was a first.  Friday was a set-up and skill building day and included a tour of our project – an electricity, car, and fossil-fuel-free urban homestead – to strengthen the container of the weekend and share the broader vision behind our project and this most unusual of natural building workshops. Saturday was the build day – 6:30 a.m. start!  Sunday was a light day of cleanup, some base coat of plaster, reflection and goodbyes. We raised a 184-square-foot cob cabin that weekend but what we really built was a beloved community.

One Day Group.jpg

It was three o’clock on Saturday afternoon when I left the building site on my bike to get a line level from my house (our “Be the Change Project”) two blocks away. Five minutes later I was pedaling my way through marble-sized hail ricocheting off me and the road. My heart sank as I figured our ambitious effort to raise a cob house in one day was doomed. 

We had risen at dawn that morning – all 60 of us - and started building at 6:30am. Progress was good at about 10 inches an hour.  We assembled the roof on the ground without a hitch.  The workshop participants were a wonderful, interesting, and hard-working group from all walks of life: a team that builds houses for the homeless, a couple from a Jewish urban farm and education center in Berkeley, a family with three girls from the foothills of California (the girls orchestrated the Friday night talent show all on their own), older women homesteaders, young single guys just getting started in natural building…

Weather Woes

One Day wall.jpg

But alas, the weather was against us. May in Reno is a tricky time of year with any kind of weather possible.  I had checked the weather forecast daily for the past 10 days and saw it go from good to bad and worse.  While Friday, the first day of the workshop where we did skill building, harvested clay, and gave a tour of our project, was pleasant with sunshine and a light wind, Saturday called for afternoon rain and temperatures dropping throughout the day. And that’s just about what we got. 

“All well”, I thought as I biked back to the site, “We gave it our best.” Our planning and organization was outstanding; our lead instructors, Coenraad and James of House Alive, are some of the best around; our group of 60 was outstanding with a healthy mix of folks with cob, Earthship, and carpentry experience.  “Maybe tomorrow we can get the rest done.” I thought.   “We can tarp it, hope for better weather, and pile into the main house to get warm.  After all, a cob house in two days is pretty amazing, too.”

But then, I heard it: cheering!  60 joyful voices raised up against the hail in a chorus of whoops, whistles, and hollers. They were celebrating the hail and the hard weather that was pushing against them. I turned into the site, leaped off my bike, and dashed to the building. Hands blue and pink from the cold were piling cob higher, muddy shoes were dancing atop batches of cob, cordwood was being handed up the walls, and people were straddling bales and barrels and ladders to get to our highest layer of  – all with smiles. It was going to work. We were going to do it. A cob house in a day!

Cob Building Workshop Wrap-Up

One Day Roof.jpg

We called it quits on Saturday at about 6:30pm and considered the day a great success. We had raised walls six and a half feet high and built and hoisted, with 100 hands, a roof to top those sturdy walls. We were tired and cold but also effervescent and joyful from a good day of side-by-side meaningful work. The cabin will host interns, guests, and maybe even a new resident to be part of our growing community. With earthen plastering, light straw clay infill of the box-beam, and an earthen floor, there is still much to do. But it will be done with the help of many more hands and hearts learning and experiencing the joys of natural building and the joys of a living community.   It will also be an object of great beauty, something most of our modern homes (and by extension, our modern lives) sadly cannot claim.

Most folks were gone by one on Sunday (it was sunny and warm, by the way) but a small group of us locals and friends remained. We were lazing about munching on leftovers and reflecting on the weekend, still in awe at what transpired.  Someone mentioned the hand blessings done by Katy. Another shared how one participant found the workshop by Googling “Cob Party.” We laughed about the face painting and agreed the African drumming group was incredible.  I remarked about how cool it was that James (of House Alive) flew to Reno from the Galapagos Islands just to be at the workshop and wound up co-leading it. And what about those kids who organized the campfire talent show!  I think all of us sitting there at that moment would have agreed with what another friend said the next day, “I feel like anything’s possible with this community.”  We feel so blessed.

One Day with roof.jpg

There will be another “One-Day Cob House” build next year, near Reno. Contact me if you’re interested in being part of another phenomenal workshop.

Photos by Shannon Welles

drought pod may 30

Experimentation and observation are key to my years of successful gardening. I want to list a few books and authors that are instrumental in my approach to gardening.;

I spent NO MONEY to build this Drought Pod and it is fueled by my food waste.    

I've read many books and perhaps my favorite author is Ruth Stout.  What I especially like about Ms. Stout is her observation of the forests around her home and the role that heavy mulch plays in nature and the fact that Mother Nature does not till the soil.  Secondly, she is funny and her approach to gardening is light and forgiving.  I highly recommend her books, even though they are difficult to find.  I think Barnes and Noble has reprinted her best seller.  Search the used sites first!

Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza is another great book.  Her approach to building a garden is forgiving and resourceful.  Starting with cardboard, layers of available, mostly free materials are used to build garden soil.  I used this method at my Ecohut to block out weeds, add layers of whatever organic materials I could drag home and created an awesome, rich garden soil up to 12" deep.  

No-Wrong-Answer Gardening

Barrel in the ground for simple compost tea usage

The great thing about building a garden is that most of the materials one needs to build an organic, rich, microbially diverse garden soil are free.  These materials are considered waste materials and would otherwise be taken to a land fill, but are free to you if you can haul it home.

How I Developed the Drought Pod

I started in 2006 at my Ecohut with a barrel in the ground that I briefly described in my first blog post.  I used horse manure in a bottomless barrel, submerged into the soil about 12" and created a simple form of horse manure compost tea, along with cardboard and heavy mulch to grow about a dozen awesome tomatoes.   The tomatoes were planted directly beside the barrel so that the roots could tap into the compost tea inside the barrel.  

By planting beside the barrel, and not directly into the barrel, the tomatoes never had 'wet feet' and could tap into the nutrient rich moisture as they so chose.  

Passive Moisture-Retention System Using Straw Bales

Moisture retention straw bales in the soil.

bales for moisture retentionAs I was moving hay bales one hot summer day, the only naturally wet spot in the garden was under bales of hay that had been stacked there for a while, waiting to be broken apart for mulch. The realization that the only wet spot in the garden is under a bale of hay led me to my next experimental project.  

I shallowed out the soil about 6" deep, the width of the bale, for the length of the row and then arranged my straw bales in a long row in that recession.  The bales are placed on their edge, with the wires NOT in the soil to keep them from coming apart.  As the bale very slowly breaks down, the wires continue to hold the bale together.  I have bales in my garden that are going on 5 years that are very slowly dissolving into the soil but still performing their intended purpose: moisture retention.  

A drip hose can be placed under the bales as the row is being installed, so that both rows can be water simultaneously.  

hay squares as mulch

The importance of the bale as organic mass is huge:  weed elimination, moisture retention, and the most important function of keeping the root system cool on a hot day.  These bales only need replacing ever few years.

Additionally, I added squares of straw between the rows as heavy mulch for weed control, etc.  

I don't believe you can have too much mulch, plus the elimination of tilling from year to year is priceless. This is a no-till system. Everything is created  on top of the existing soil.

Using this system, I added steel posts and cattle panels on both sides of this straw bale row and planted tomatoes on both sides of the row.  I trellised the tomatoes for space utilization with great results.  

Let me state here the importance of compost tea.  I'm a big believer and heavy user of compost tea in my garden for both root stimulation and as a foliar spray.  In another blog, I will describe how I make compost tea.   

Organic Mass

drought pod barrel

A dense mass of organic material stays wet much longer than an equal amount of organic material distributed over a big surface area.  For example, I just brought to my garden a water logged bale of wheat straw that had been left out in the rain.  It must have weighed a couple hundred pounds.  I cut the wires and am using the flakes and cardboard, as mulch around my Drought Pod.

How to Build a Drought Pod

Walking home one day, someone had discarded a 40 gallon plastic barrel that had been fashioned into a compost tumbler.  The barrel had been drilled with lots of holes and a lid made into the side of the barrel.  These type compost tumblers rarely work as dreamed, then are discarded.  I had no intention of using it as a compost tumbler, but because of a video I watched on YouTube called KEY HOLE GARDENS IN AFRICA, I realized I could create a similar effect with this barrel.  Any type container can be used to create this effect.  Be creative.  Recycle.  

I hollowed out the soil about 6" deep where the barrel would sit, then lined that depression with spoiled alfalfa hay.  The barrel was placed atop the hay, then INSIDE the barrel I layered, lasagna style, from bottom to top:  

1) 6" spoiled alfalfa hay
2) 6" veggie waste compost
3) one gallon of rabbit manure
4) two gallons of worm castings plus worms
5) 4" of veggie waste compost
6) enough spoiled alfalfa hay to cover this organic mass 
7) approximately 3 gallons of super rich compost tea 

What I have created, instead of a compost tumbler, is an in-ground worm composting station for all of my food waste.  This organic mass should stay wetter than a sponge, but not soaking wet. Generally, whatever moisture is in my food waste is all I will need to add for a very long time.  

Buy you a moisture probe for a more accurate assessment of the moisture content.  

Another tip I highly recommend is to use an old food blender, put all your veggie waste in that blender and add some water to make a slurry of the veggie waste.  Then dump that slurry into this worm station for easier consumption by the worms and general composting breakdown.

The Garden Pod Perimeter

drought pod april 16

Around the perimeter of the pod, I lay down cardboard to discourage unwanted plant growth then I add stall mix from a horse farm (wood shavings and manure the older the better), compost, powdered manures, anything to create a planting base for your garden plants.  This bermed soil should be at least 8" to 10" deep, and acts as a planting medium for your plants.  

This bermed soil is moderately moist, because the bulk of the moisture and nutrients will come from inside the pod.   Then plant DIRECTLY beside the pod, and as the plants grow the roots will intentionally seek out moisture and nutrients through the holes in the barrel.  By planting on the outside of the barrel, the plants never have wet feet and are able to tap into the moist nutrient ORGANIC MASS inside the barrel.  The bermed soil will actually be on the slightly moist scale, while the inside the barrel, the organic mass will be wet.  

Once the organic mass inside the barrel is complete and the soil bermed around the Drought Pod, mulch heavily with spoiled alfalfa (preferable), wheat straw, berlap bags, anything to create a heavy mulch which will reduce evaporation and most importantly keep the roots cool.  

Just remember this is no-wrong-answer gardening.  There are no absolutes.  I'm not telling you how to garden or to create this project, I'm just telling you how I created this.  Be resourceful, use free manures for the compost tea, get veggie waste from your neighbors.  

The Drought Pod is ideal for small spaces where one doesn't have room for garden rows.  

As Ruth Stout said, "Plants don't know if they are planted in a straight row or not."


I have spent $0. on this project.  It will grow food for years.  No tools are necessary.  The Drought Pod may be my best experimentation project to date.   Here I am in Mother Earth News.

This first photograph is April 16, 2014 the day I planted the tomatoes.

This photograph was taken yesterday, May 30, 2014.  45 days in the ground.  

I hope this makes sense and motivates you to experiment in the garden!  

Until next time.


packing boxesMoving to a new house can be stressful and moving in a green way may be the least of your concerns on top of the whole long list of other things you have got to do before you move. However, moving house in an environmentally friendly way doesn’t have to be as difficult as you might initially think, and simple changes can significantly reduce your carbon footprint, making a positive difference to the environment.


Moving house is a great opportunity for you to get rid of any unwanted clutter that you have accumulated over the years. While this can be a long process and one which might not be very enjoyable, it is your chance at a fresh start – after all, there is very little point in transporting unwanted goods into your new home that are only going to gather dust for the next 10 years!

Be ruthless and eliminate everything that you don’t want. However, don’t be ruthless in the sense that you get rid of your possessions completely - recycle them, give them to a charity or sell them to people who might find more use for them. Perhaps arrange a car boot sale or yard sale a few weeks before the house move or if you prefer sell them online on websites like Gumtree and Ebay – you never know much money you might make. A bit of extra cash is always a bonus, especially with all the expenses that come with moving house. Recycling old possessions is a much greener option than just throwing them out. Furthermore, fewer possessions will require less vehicles to transport to your new home – reducing your carbon footprint even further.  

Reusable Containers and Cardboard Boxes

If you can, get hold of any reusable containers to pack your belongings in because this is a much greener way to pack rather, than using cardboard boxes and tape (which can’t be recycled and takes a very long time to decompose). Ask any friends and family if they have any storage containers that you can borrow for the move, or perhaps find a company that offer a plastic box rental service. 

If you are going to use cardboard boxes to pack your belongings in, then keep it green by going to your local store to see if they have any cardboard boxes that they no longer need. They will most likely have some spare and will be happy to give them away. You can collect them over time so that you have enough for all of your possessions.

Recyclable Materials

Rather than using lots of bubble wrap, which causes a significant environmental problem by taking up space within landfills worldwide, use recyclable materials such as old newspapers and magazines to protect your more fragile possessions. Over the weeks, before the move, collect as many as possible – even offer to take them off the hands of neighbours, friends or perhaps your local convenience store.  Alternatively, old cloth or your clothes will work just as well to protect any valuable items– so any of the clothes clutter that don’t sell or give to charity, save them and use them to protect your possessions.

Green Household Movers

Make sure that you complete some research to ensure that you choose an environmentally friendly removal company. With the environment becoming a major concern in today’s society, there are now loads or different removal companies around to choose from. Such companies will focus on using bio-fuel vans as well as smaller trucks that are more fuel friendly. For example, Abels international removals use vehicles that are built to have very little impact on the environment.

Environmentally Friendly Cleaning Products

Finally, when it comes to cleaning both your old house and your new home, use environmentally friendly cleaning products.  Did you know the average American uses roughly 25 gallons of toxic, hazardous chemical products every year in their home, of which a major portion of these can be found in household cleaning products. Not only do these cleaning products have a negative effect on the environment, but also on your health. Therefore, purchase ecological cleaning products from the supermarket, or alternatively use buckets of hot water with a splash of vinegar –you’ll be surprised how effectively this will clean things as well as protect the environment, your health and your wallet!


From 2012-2013, my partner April and I took on the work of building a new home for ourselves. After living in a less-than-warm cob house in a cold northern Missouri climate, we quickly decided in favor of using straw bale for the wall construction to provide insulation in our new design. That left the frame in question, but we quickly decided that it had to be a traditional timber frame, and I'm glad we made the choice.

Advantages of Straw Bale Building

The union of straw bale building and timber framing is a harmonious one, and there are numerous advantages of employing the two systems in collaboration. Straw bale and timber frames are highly compatible, beautiful, and the efficiency and longevity of using these natural building techniques is superior in a cold climate setting.

The use of straw bales in home construction is actually rather "new", relative to the historical longevity of other natural materials, especially stone, cob, adobe, wattle and daub, and others. All of these long-lived materials have one thing in common -- they are all massive, and do not provide much in way of actual insulation values (R-values). If your goal is to maximize insulation and minimize the amount of fuel you burn to keep comfortable, straw, and specifically straw bales are an excellent option to pursue.

A two-string straw bale is typically quoted to be an average of R-27.5 for its 18" of thickness when used on-flat. (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 1998). Though there are other materials with a higher R-value per inch, I would argue that straw bale is a highly effective choice of insulators, considering all other factors involved.

Straw: A Local Building Material

Those other factors include local availability, fire resistance, ease of use, moisture regulation, and longevity. Straw is widely available across the country, and not too surprisingly, the same places where wheat and cereals are grown are those same places where people usually benefit from living in a well-insulated home. That includes places like the cold north, midwest, and northeast United States.

In an era where nearly everything is shipped great distances during its manufacturing and delivery, choosing the local option is increasingly important to cut down on carbon emissions. In the case of our straw bale home, we were able to acquire all of our bales from a farmer a mere 7 miles away -- that's one trip with a truck and trailer (plus fuel to cut and bale the straw), compared to an almost unaccountable distance most industrial products have traveled.

Fire Resistance, Ease of Use, and Moisture Regulation

Straw bale walls have been subjected to valuable fire-rating tests by the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM), and the results have proven valuable. Two different clay plastered and lime plastered walls have successfully passed code-recognized testing, and proven to be much superior to conventional stud and fiberglass walls in terms of resistance.

The advantages of straw bale extends past local availability, good insulation values, and fire resistance. Working with bales requires few specialized tools, making the work very accessible to unexperienced individuals. Clay and lime-plastered bale walls are vapor permeable, meaning in the best case scenario, the home will self-regulate moisture and remain comfortable throughout the changing seasons. Acoustic isolation is another benefit attributed to straw bale walls, and depending on where you are building, this could be an attractive boon.

Last but not least, straw is 100% biodegradable, and at the end of a straw bale building's lifespan, the material can gracefully return to the earth, leaving no toxins behind. We can drill more deeply into these advantages, but since my goal is to provide an overall illustration of the benefits of straw bale when combined with timber framing, let's look ahead.

Advantages of a Timber Frame

When comparing a timber frame to a conventional stud frame, the myriad advantages make an easy argument. Like straw bales, materials for a timber frame are best acquired locally. Whereas most dimensional lumber used in conventional construction and available at every home supply store across the country comes from only a few (and frequently overexploited) regions (namely, the northwest), a timber frame encourages local use of readily available materials. Shipping large timbers is cost-prohibitive, and it only makes sense to work with local sawmills to produce wood for a frame. I would argue that choosing the timber frame route encourages working within your area, creating stronger connections with your neighbors and local economy.

A Frame For Generations

Another big benefit not to be underestimated is the inherent and potential longevity of a timber frame structure. Timber frames are more durable and long-lived than any than any other framing system, hands down. 500-750 year old timber frame homes are not uncommon in Europe, where maintenance and care of these structures is common. When the wood in a frame is well-protected from the elements and maintained during its lifetime, there is no reason a house should not last well beyond your lifetime. This is in stark contrast to the disposable model of conventional home building today, where homes are simply not expected to last.

Like straw bale, timber frames offer superior fire resistance ratings. Heavy timber construction is given a two hour fire rating by NFPA, the National Fire Protection Association, which is vastly superior to a stick frame insulated with fiberglass. In fact, you may be eligible for lower home insurance costs based on the higher fire rating.

Between the longevity, durability, increased fire resistance, and excellent potential for use of local materials, timber framing is a highly desirable natural building option.

The Meeting of Straw Bale and Timber Framing

I've pinned down a few individual advantages of both straw bale and timber frames. But why do they go so well together?

If kept dry, a timber frame should last almost indefinitely. To maximize your home's energy efficiency, your insulation should be uninterrupted. This is where straw bale and timber frames make for a beautiful combination. A straw bale wrap provides a continuous wall of insulation around the timber frame, providing excellent energy efficiency and protecting the framing from weathering. With a sound roof and foundation, this combination should result in a very long-lasting home. The use of large timbers means that the straw bales do not need to be notched, saving on labor, and leaving the frame exposed on the interior is aesthetically appealing and a functional way to divide living spaces. 

The benefits of straw bale and timber framing are highly complementary, and the best aspects of each can be fully realized when the two are in combination. This is why I have come to believe that this is a building system very worthy of pursuit, especially in colder climates.


In 2012 we were asked to help build a Cordwood Chapel at the Kinstone Permaculture Academy near Fountain City, Wisconsin (SW Wisconsin). We were grateful for the opportunity to work with a wonderful group of people who were in the process of establishing an infrastructure that would help fulfill the goal of spreading the news about permaculture, natural building and all manner of things.

Over the last two years, we have held workshops to teach people about cordwood construction, while getting some serious work done on the 12' chapel walls. Kinstone is alive with activity and is host to many and varied classes (plant identification, permaculture certification, bee keeping, gardening, harvesting, cordwood, straw/clay, and so on). Check out Kinstone Academy's workshop calendar.

Cordwood Construction Pictures

Here are some pictures of the building and some of the amazing folks who lent a hand.

Cordwood Workshop

Two cordwood wall builders are happy with their patterning.

Happy workers at days end

After a hard days work the crew is having a good time posing.

Kinstone framework

The framework is double 8" x 8" cedar posts.   

The river wall

The river wall depicts the nearby Mississippi with recycled colored bottles. 

Sawdust insulation

Sawdust mixed with lime is packed into the insulation cavity to create an R-24 value (as tested by the engineering department at the University of Manitoba). The cordwood infill is all Northern White Cedar.

Roof framework

The roof is set for thatching.  It has a ring collar that ties all the rafters together. 

Thatched roof

The thatch was applied by Master Thatcher William Cahill of

Sunrise wall and doors

The inside of the Chapel.  There are nature motifs throughout (sun, stars, moon, plants, trees, flowers, wind, river, etc.)  The motifs are based on the poem of St. Francis of Assisi, The Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. 

Resting under the snow

The Chapel rests comfortably under a blanket of snow. 

This summer (2014) we are holding three Cordwood and one Cobwood Workshops at Kinstone.  We will be building a sauna and a cobwood kiosk (cobwood is cordwood log ends with cob (sand, clay, straw) mortar).   The complete list of workshops is available at Cordwood Workshops 2014.

We are also hosting a three day workshop in Bonner's Ferry, Idaho.  

For books, articles, photos and information go to Richard Flatau's cordwood website:

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