My Natural Building Journey

After spending years learning about construction and natural homes, this builder put that training into practice to construct a straw bale guest house.

Photo by Joe Silins
Building my own straw bale guest house was the culmination of one journey and the beginning of another. After graduating from college in 2005 with a fine arts degree, I decided to pursue a career in environmental conservation. I worked at different nonprofits for a couple of years before going back to graduate school for urban planning. My grad program provided a lot of flexibility, so I explored the fields of affordable housing, community development, and international development in addition to environmental planning. I began to see that you can’t separate people from the environment, and that a lot of the destruction of our planet stems from our desire to see ourselves apart from and above the natural world that surrounds us. After school, I got a job with Pima County in Tucson, Arizona, bought a house, and joined the board of directors of a nonprofit working to connect people to the environment.

I continued my education by taking courses in permaculture and water-harvesting design, which helped me realize that being stuck behind a desk for 30 hours a week reviewing payroll reports just wasn’t for me. When a part-time job opened up at the nonprofit I was on the board of, I jumped at the opportunity. I would be leading community workshops and trainings in water-harvesting system installation in Tucson and along the Arizona-Sonora border. To make ends meet, I also got a part-time job working for a residential contractor repairing homes and building custom homes from the ground up. This was a mentally and physically challenging time; I was learning a lot of new skills, and my body was pushed to its limits between the intense physical work and the harsh Tucson summers.

Volunteers helped raise and plaster the straw bale walls in exchange for a learning opportunity.
Photo by Joe Silins


In the midst of all this learning, I continued to be drawn to natural homebuilding. While traveling, I discovered a natural building training center near Mexico City, and I took a weeklong natural building course there. At the end of that trip, I resolved to return to Tucson and build myself a cob casita as a means to start living more simply and to put into practice the techniques I knew in theory. After returning to southern Arizona, I reached out to Bill and Athena Steen of the Canelo Project, who convinced me that straw bale was the way to go, given the extreme temperature swings here in the Sonoran Desert. After attending their weeklong straw bale training, I was ready to embark on my guest house project.

I had a basic floor plan for my guest house, and an architect friend of mine helped me build a SketchUp model. That friend ended up moving away, so I found another architect more versed in natural building who put together the plans for submittal to the city. I have a neighbor who’s constantly reporting me to city code enforcement for minor complaints, so getting a building permit was essential.

Photo by Joe Silins



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