Four years ago I packed a how-to book, a sledgehammer, and some recycled stakes into my pickup truck and forged into the desert near Tucson to build the foundation for my straw bale home. I had no idea what lay ahead of me. I knew what lay behind me–many disappointments. There was a good chance I was heading toward one more, as I didn’t know anything about construction and I didn’t have enough money to complete the house.
For eight years I had been dreaming of a simple, independent life with minimal debt. As a single mother, I hoped to find a way to support my family on a secretary’s salary. I knew that if I didn’t take the first step, I would never take one across the threshold of my home.
As I began my project, I made three promises to myself. The first was that this house would be as simple as possible while meeting the needs of my two teenage boys and myself. I knew if I began adding little luxuries I would most likely find myself with a house too expensive and complex for me to build. My greatest savings would be from doing the majority of the labor myself–somehow. I would use a passive solar design for heating and cooling, recycled windows and doors, and nature’s free gifts of straw, soil, and sand wherever possible.
My second pledge was that I wouldn’t give up. Before the sheer terror of this project struck me, I knew this home would be beneficial not only for me, but for the entire planet. It would enable our family to consume fewer resources and minimize pollution. I would document the house construction through a journal and web pages (AHouseOfStraw.com) with the hope it would inspire others to do the same. I determined not to let fear stop me.
My third decision followed the first two–I would trust in a power greater than both nature and me. I grew up in Hawaii, where houses are warmed by the sun and cooled by trade winds, and I believe that nature and people were put on this earth to coexist harmoniously.
Faith and miracles
I often approach life the same way bulldozer attacks a mountainside–charging after what I want without really thinking of all the consequences. I decided that the only way this house could be built was with higher guidance; I would ask, listen for the answer, and follow it, rather than rushing blindly ahead.
Once I determined to let go and listen, amazing events transpired. My original house design was replaced by a simpler, smaller design that still met all our needs. Preparing to fit my family into this new floorplan, I pared our possessions down to the ones we really used–from our furniture to kitchen pots and pans. Rather than missing the items I gave away, I felt lighter and freer without them.
There were many days of hard, repetitive labor in the hot desert sun, but there were also luscious evenings of solitude as I refinished old doors, listening to the symphony of the desert’s wildlife. Days of loneliness and exhaustion were balanced by jubilant days of companionship and music. Every day I grew stronger physically and emotionally, watching the impossible become possible, step by step. I listened to advice from others, considered it, then listened to my own heart and let myself be guided.
My old friends disappeared from my life, as I was too busy to socialize. New ones arrived when I needed them most. My greatest memories are of the party when twenty strangers arrived to hoist my walls, working with great care to make them straight and strong. A year later, on a cold, wet winter day, another sixteen people left their warm living rooms to coat my outer walls with earthen plasters. A few returned to assist with the earthen floor when I was too tired to complete it alone.
Two friends worked incredibly hard to hoist drywall up to our fifteen-foot-high rafters. When a homeless man passed through for a week, he traded carpentry for food and conversation. Instead of pushing me into an expensive loan, a mortgage broker showed me a simple way to borrow the money I needed to complete the house. A romance with my consultant gave me the burst of energy that only new love can give. He also lent me tools, assisted with difficult tasks, and answered myriad questions.
As I grew biceps, I grew the faith that comes from watching obstacles be replaced by miraculous solutions. I had jumped off a cliff and landed somewhere more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. With each worry that I tossed into the desert winds, I gained a joy for the moment, the process.
Then, one spring day a year and a half after I had drawn my foundation on the sand, I watched the building inspector drive away for the last time. The house wasn’t beautiful, but it was livable. We had plywood counters, dollar light fixtures, brown mud walls, and no closet doors, but my dream had become our home.
Letting the walls talk
Sometimes I sit in my living room and stare at the straw bale and earthen walls that insulate me so efficiently from outdoor temperatures. I remember the many layers that make up a wall and the many people whose hands shaped them. The walls are covered with light pottery clay and bright Mexican tile, and they are the most gorgeous I have ever known.
I love the soft sculpted shapes that aren’t perfect because I’m not perfect. I look back over my life and think of all the disappointments that drove me into the desert to build. Instead of dead ends, I see classrooms where I was being taught that life is not about reaching a conclusion but about growing in each process. When I had learned what I needed from each class, I graduated and moved onto the next one. This house was a magnificent teacher.
Mostly, when I look at the strong walls and the sheltering roof, I marvel all over again that this house was built. I know there is a power greater than me who guides me and loves me. I think that’s what I really wanted to know.
“The texture I was seeking in my life wouldn’t come from simply having straw behind the stucco of my home. It would come from changing something inside me and the choices I made each day.”
Adapted from A House of Straw: A Natural Building Odyssey (Chelsea Green, 2002). For more information, go to AHouseOfStraw.com.