The Last Straw: A Straw Bale Home Built With Native American Wisdom

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Photo By Robert Reck
The home’s beautifully handcrafted stone fireplace is a stunning ­sculptural backdrop for Bennett’s own sculpture, left, and acrylic painting titled, First Mystery, above.

Stillness. Serenity. Sanctuary. These sensations whisper to your soul as you cross the threshold of Noël Bennett’s sophisticated straw-bale home, a veritable haven nestled in the Vallecitos de los Indios Basin in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. Once home to the Anasazi, whose over 1,500 ruins punctuate this Little Valley of the Indians, the sacred land has been lovingly preserved and honored by Bennett and her late husband Jim Wakeman, who together created a home that celebrates the environment and their partnershipn with it.

Cradled in a bell-shaped basin in the shadow of Redondo Peak, the Sacred Mountain of the West to many Native American tribes, the south-facing structure is surrounded by 200,000 acres of untamed national forest land. It faces a meadow awash in grama grass, evening primrose, penstemon, and skyrocket. And a small river runs through it. It is here that the U-shaped structure “opens its arms to the sun,” says Bennett, nationally renowned artist and author.

Native American wisdom

The straw-bale sanctuary is not only set like a jewel in this pristine setting, it’s a shining example of h¸ózhó, the Navajo philosophy of harmony and balance. “In Navajo way, h¸ózhó is beauty, blessing, balance, and order–a convergence of opposites, unity from ­duality,” says Bennett.

She embraced this philosophy during her eight-year stay on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Arriving there in 1968 with advanced degrees in art and education from Stanford University, she immersed herself in Native American culture, learning the ways and weavings of the Navajo people. “Together we sheared the sheep, collected plants to dye the wool, carded, spun, and wove,” says Bennett. The artist has shared these gifts through her many books and lectures around the world.

The h¸ózhó theme is evident in and throughout Bennett’s home. Interpreted as a T-shape–symbolically the coming together of one vertical and one horizontal line–h¸ózhó manifests itself in Bennett’s abstract acrylic paintings, in Bennett and Wakeman’s collaborative steel sculptures, and the home’s own post-and-beam construction.

Building from the ground up

This post-and-beam construction, which symbolizes to Bennett the seamlessness between man and nature, is the framework that supports the couple’s straw-bale masterpiece–in philosophy and in fact. The selection of straw bale as their building medium came from years of research and experience. In 1984, the couple began carefully crafting a hideaway in Tentrocks Canyon, just miles from their current home site. “We loved this canyon and wanted our retreat to have minimal impact on this beautiful geological reserve,” says Bennett. Thus began what turned out to be a decade-long study of eco-friendly building processes and products.

Information on the subject was scant, so Bennett and Wakeman applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant to research the effect on land of low-impact housing. The approved grant set out four building criteria: “A structure in harmony with nature is designed to have minimum visual impact so it blends with its environment. It is designed to have minimum physical impact so it is pared to essentials and inlaid into native vegetation. It is designed to have minimum environmental impact so it is built of sustainable, recyclable materials. And such architecture is designed to open us to nature, not seal us off.”

The couple also interviewed architects and builders throughout the country, who added their own knowledge and experience to the mix. In the process, they teamed up with Michael McGuire, AIA, a Minnesota architect considered a prominent expert on the natural design principles of the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. “Michael is a master at employing architecture to blur the line between man and nature,” Bennett says. “He’s a master at expressing Wright’s concept of ‘continuous space,’ an idea that espouses that the inside and outside of a home are coherent, seamless, one.”

Together, the three collaborated to create the hideaway. In the process, grant criteria were met with each decision–a challenge in a region with an 8,000-foot elevation, little rainfall, and even less access to building materials. The challenge included installing two metal rails up the side of the mountain by which a tram cart transported all building materials, ensuring that no more land than necessary was disturbed or destroyed by the building process.

“This land, like all land, is fragile–a compact eco-structure,” says Bennett. “But in this high-mountain preserve where the growing and recovery season is short, the challenge of maintaining it was magnified. Jim and I wanted to discover just how sensitive to the environment humans as a species could be.”

Nature-inspired design

Once the hideaway in Tentrocks Canyon was complete, the couple realized how much they had enjoyed working together to build it. So they decided to apply their research and experience to building a primary residence nearby. After purchasing a site seven miles away, they again worked with McGuire to create the house that research–and respect for the environment–helped them build.

Geologically, the house echoes its site. Its U-shaped structure is inspired by the bowl shape of the land, a concave form that is reversed in the domed roof over the central upstairs office and reflects the mountains beyond. “The house is an outgrowth of the site’s natural land form,” says Bennett. “It’s organic in both its ­siting and design.”

The design also pays homage to the 1930s log cabin originally on the site. “The cabin roof had burned and the logs had rotted,” Bennett says, “so we dismantled the structure and erected our straw-bale home in the footprint of the old cabin. This preserved land that hadn’t already been disturbed by human use and left the meadow untouched, pristine.”

Only the cabin’s beautifully hand-crafted stone fireplace remains, which the couple sealed off as an energy-conservation measure, but allowed to become the focal point of the home’s interior. “We preserved the fireplace as an important historical and sculptural element,” Bennett says. “Sealing it off is a reminder that this is an unsustainable, and, therefore archaic, form of heating.”

The actual design is based on using building materials that meet the multiple criteria of beauty, function, and environmental sensitivity. They also had to be non-toxic and highly insulative for this high-altitude setting.

Straw-bale construction was the obvious medium for the home’s architectural artistry. “Straw is a super-insulated, renewable resource that has four-plus times the fire retardency of conventional building materials, and, above all, is beautiful,” says Bennett. Before being lathed and plastered, straw bales also can be easily contoured into the sensuous shapes seen in the home, shapes that encourage dramatic plays of light and shadow.

Baling out

Once the bales were purchased and placed in position, Wakeman–an innovative environmental engineer–fashioned 4-foot-long stainless-steel needles ­ to sew them together with lathing, a two-person process that came naturally to Bennett, a talented weaver of Navajo tapestries.

Next, the bales were covered with stucco, to which straw and iron oxide were added to create a deep, rich, earthy tone that echoes the palette of the woods surrounding the mountain meadow.

Also repeating the natural tones of the environment are the warm hues of the wood trusses that are part of the home’s post-and-beam construction. Made of shredded Douglas fir that has been glued together without toxic formaldehyde, the trusses met the couple’s multiple environmental criteria for beauty, function, and eco-sensitivity. “They’re twice as strong as Douglas fir planking,” says Bennett, “allowing us to have long, unsupported spans of space. And unlike dimensional lumber, shredded lumber utilizes the entire tree so huge beams can be made from small farmed trees rather than old-growth stands.”

Sustainability with sophistication. Energy efficiency with élan. Bennett’s straw-bale home has it all, by design. This artist’s aerie is truly a canvas that reflects nature’s palette, as well as the artist’s own.

McDonald, S. O., et al. Build It With Bales: A Step-By-Step Guide to Straw Bale Construction, Volume II, Out-On-Bale, 1998. 1039 East Linden Street, Tucson, AZ 85719. (520) 624-1673.

The Last Straw: The Journal of Straw Bale Construction, a quarterly news journal from Out-On-Bale, P.O. Box 42000, Tucson, AZ 85733-2000. (520) 882-3848,