An attempt to build a temporary shelter using only hand tools and free local materials in northern Idaho.
PHOTO: BILL LONDON
At first glance, most folks probably felt that the little grass hut nestled amid the snowy pines and firs of northern Idaho was a bit out of place. However, "strange" or not, it stood proudly as a testimony to two men's dream that an adequate temporary shelter could still be constructed with hand tools and locally available materials.
Designed and built by Tom Reynard and Christopher LaPaglia as an experiment in low-cost, low-environmental-impact housing, the grass shack stands 22 feet in diameter and has no space-stealing center support. The poles, branches, and bundles of pasture grass used to construct the hut were harvested from area forests and meadows. The baling twine, windows, lumber, and woodstove were obtained at no cost, too, from that other popular source of free materials . . . the county dump.
The men began the project by building a pole frame that was lashed—and occasionally nailed—together. The rafters, like the spokes of a wheel, meet at the midpoint of the roof, and are connected there to a block of wood that serves as the hub.
With the skeleton in place, Tom Reynard went on to use a scythe to cut wild pasture grasses (in that part of Idaho, they grow to a height of four to six feet). Loose bundles of these weeds were tied together to form a "thatch" about one foot in diameter . .. and then were carried to the building site. Once the bundles were assembled, groups of six to eight of them were bent double over a straight branch that had been cut to span the distance between two vertical poles. The ends of thatch were then tied together. Next, these large "shingles" were lashed onto the frame, beginning at the bottom of the walls.
On the roof and south-facing side of the building, each succeeding row of shingles at least partly overlapped that below it to create a wall about six inches thick. (The north-facing walls were 18 inches thick to protect against icy winter winds.) The men then covered the roof with plastic and canvas for waterproofing.
In preparation for the oncoming northern Idaho winter, Chris and Tom excavated an area ten feet in diameter at the center of the hut, removing earth to a depth of about two feet. That "borrowed" dirt was then bermed against the outside of the walls, and an exterior entryway was added for further weatherproofing. The men also installed a woodburning stove near the edge of the inner circle, and ran an insulated stovepipe up through the roof. That last item, by the way, was the only component that didn't jibe with their initial dream of building a totally free dwelling. They couldn't find any usable stovepipe, so Tom and Chris had to buy some.
And there was one other compromise that the builders were forced to make: Chris admitted to using a chain saw to cut one of the poles when he was hurriedly installing two sleeping lofts inside the hut. Other than that, the pair relied exclusively on hand tools.
Chris spent that first winter alone in the Idaho grass shack while his partner vacationed. As the days turned cold, LaPaglia further winterized his home by shoving bits of moss into any obvious outside cracks and then covering all the interior walls with cardboard, cloth, tree boughs, and other scrounged materials. His efforts paid off in a comfortably insulated home that could be heated without running the woodstove overly "hot".
Of course, Chris realizes that the cavelike home isn't much in terms of durability or permanence. "It'll stand fine for a little while, but soon I'll simply remove the lumber and manmade materials, and then it'll collapse and rot. After a few years, all that'll be left of the building will be a pile of fertile soil or a ring of mushrooms."
And LaPaglia doesn't feel that his prediction speaks ill of the grass home. It's just more proof that he and Tom had fulfilled their plan of building a dwelling that lived lightly on the land and didn't require the consumption of any more resources than the immediate environment could easily provide.