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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.
- - - - - - - - - -
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
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.
- - - - -
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
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.")