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GSBN:TLS material for review



I was asked to review a couple books for the next TLS. Now I'm posting those reviews here for any comments, suggestions, casual fact-checking, etc., anyone cares to do in order to help TLS have the most reliable, clear, entertaining and educating content possible.

If you have to be brutal to be constructive, so be it. Replies can be posted here, or sent to me and I will forward them to Chris and Joyce. In any event, I'm very interested in seeing all pertinent replies. Thanks.

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Reading Barbara Jones' succinct yet full-flavored book, Information Guide to Straw Bale Building for Self-Builders and the Construction Industry, got my imagination whirring in the same way that the early booklets "A Straw-Bale Primer" (by Steve and Orien MacDonald - the Xeroxed, flat-stapled precursor to Build It With Bales) and "Plastered Straw bale Construction" (by David Bainbridge with Bill and Athena Steen - the newsprint precursor of The Straw Bale House) did.

I don't know if it's because I've lately been missing the simpler, more winsomely direct, and even primal (but no less thoughtful and intelligent) stuff of earlier times in the strawbale resurgence; or if it's because the bigger books leave less room for reader creativity... but for whatever reasons, I had a greater sense of wide-open possibility in the wake of this book than I've experienced from any strawbale publication in years.

It covers all the basics with soulful intelligence, and gets into a few not-so-basics as well, such as "self-draining" and "rammed earth car tyre" foundations, quicklime plaster (which is not at this time much of an option in the USA, though hydrated-lime plaster is), and an interesting-but-sketchily-described "light-weight frame" system. And the astute balehead will have as much appreciation for the questions and issues that this fairly brief book raises (both subtly and overtly) as for the hard information it contains.

The only important caveat I might offer can be lifted from its own pages: "You must be careful about what you read in books and on the internet about strawbale building and how it must be done." Truer words there never were. Despite my being misty-eyed for the romanticized sweet simplicity of the 'good old days' of the strawbale movement, the growing pile of excellent information available now is a real boon. I'm a staunch believer that before a person starts building their bale home, they ought to have digested far more material on how to do it than they ever thought they could possibly tolerate. That way there's a basis for recognizing situationally-inappropriate generalizations or climate-specific information, allowing the applicable facts to be winnowed and synthesized into the particular unique project at hand, making it the best structure it can be.

Synopsis: This one's got a compelling mix of heart and information, and includes some material little-discussed in other strawbale literature, offering value for novice and veteran alike.

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At first, I kept thinking that Carolyn Roberts' new book, A House of Straw: A Natural Building Odyssey, was the diametric complement of Barbara's. It took me a while to realize that while these two books do on one level coexist in a beautiful symbiosis on opposite ends of a how-to spectrum, through another lens they're extraordinarily similar.

Carolyn's book is a wide-as-life account vividly encompassing all of the foibles and follies, hopes and dreams, heartaches and heartbreaks, breakthroughs and celebrations, large and small joys that the author - a single mother of two teenaged boys - experienced pursuing her goal of building a beautiful, affordable, high-functioning strawbale house.

The story covers both learning and doing, which are often uncomfortably overlapped despite her admirable efforts to inform and educate herself (which anybody would do well to emulate). The thorough, readable, and very human record of her travails and celebrations contains a tidy wealth of usable details and tips as well.

One thing that I most appreciated was its narrative sense of time and effort. Where how-to books might be filled with factual material on topics like how to prepare a foundation or sheathe a roof, this book describes in grueling detail not only just what such innocuous-sounding instructions can actually entail, but that things which have absolutely nothing to do with the house - let alone the task at hand - also keep happening at the same time... and they have to be dealt with.

Even though I'm not a desert-dweller, or a woman (this book is very much from a woman's perspective), and the whole of the author's circumstances couldn't be much more dissimilar from mine, I found it easy to identify with and learn from the story.

I think this kind of powerfully-grounded narrative volume has been noticeably missing from the strawbale bookshelf for quite a long time, and I applaud its arrival.

Synopsis: A well-told real-life tale for all audiences which contains a lot more specific information about building than one might expect.


Mark Piepkorn is a natural building gadfly and a former editor of The Last Straw. He currently lives and works, and sometimes plays, too. You can find him around the DC/mid-Maryland area, or the Pacific Northwest, or somewhere in between. Email him at gadfly@...; or visit him at www.potkettleblack.com


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A nice quote from Carolyn's book:
""I wanted to know that straw bale houses were within the reach of ordinary people like me who didn't have lots of money, who didn't have extensive construction experience, who had to work for a living, and who needed to live within the city limits and commute to work."

(It continues: "But maybe they weren't. If they were not for ordinary folks, then who did they benefit? Perhaps they were only suitable, after all, for Mexicans, yuppies, and the independently wealthy who could live in rural areas with no building codes. Perhaps they were just another fashionable fad for rich hippies.")