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The Real Deal 

by Ann M. Colford

Carolyn Roberts built her own straw bale home and survived. Not only did she live through the experience, but she wrote a book all about it, called A House of Straw: A Natural Building Odyssey. Part memoir, part journal, and part homebuilding guide, Roberts' book gives readers a view of the project from the eye of the storm.

As a single mother with two sons, the former real estate agent and photo shop manager had neither a lifelong dream of natural building nor an instant epiphany. Rather, she moved toward the idea over a period of time, through the waning years of her second marriage, as she took stock of her life and the gap between her values and her lifestyle. Economic reality drove her decision as much as an ideal of sustainability, but the dream of a simpler, less chaotic life closed the deal.

"I so desperately wanted to build my future with meaning and texture, starting with straw bale walls," she writes. "No more processed, manufactured, imitation pastimes to consume my days and numb my mind."

Coming off divorce, bankruptcy, and a court battle to collect back child support, Roberts needed an affordable home for herself and her teenage sons. After attending a straw bale workshop and consulting with pioneers in the field near her Tucson home, she scaled back her home plans and realized she would have to do most of the labor herself in order to meet her minimal budget.

"Building a smaller house would not only ease my construction workload and lighten my financial strain, but do minimal damage to Earth's ecosystem," she reasoned. "If I could find a way to live in a smaller house and still meet the needs of my family, I would consider it."

In the ensuing chapters, Roberts buys land in the desert outside Tucson and learns the myriad steps involved in raising a home from the cacti and shrubs on the lot. She carries the reader along on her journey of discovery, freely owning up to her naivete and inexperience while rejoicing in her victories. She describes trips to a recycling center to select windows and doors, as well as the hundreds of technical decisions necessary, such as whether to use internal or external pinning to support the walls and the right way to build a foundation. She also discovers that it's simply not possible to learn how to work with natural building materials by reading a book.

"Only by feeling the soil could I understand when the mixture was just the right blend of sand and clay for its purpose," she writes. "Each layer of an earthen floor has a different purpose, to bind or drain or be the smooth surface layer that repels water. I could not write down exact formulas, because I found that every soil has a different ratio of clay and sand - and every clay absorbs differently."

For anyone contemplating the construction of a straw bale home, A House of Straw outlines many of the techniques employed and the issues that arise with building codes created for the more standard wood-frame construction. But more important than any technical information she imparts, Roberts lets her readers understand the emotional roller coaster that is home-building. We mourn with her when a beloved saguaro dies, and we understand her reticence as her relationship with a building consultant moves from professional to personal. The frustrations of permits and inspections and local codes balance the joys of mastering new skills. But in the end, for Roberts, the destination is worth the journey.

"I had given up looking at life as a big Monopoly game where the object is to die clutching the most money," she writes toward the end of the project. "Thanks to my straw bale house, each day had become a creative experience."

Roberts lists a collection of research sources for those interesting in straw bale building or other types of natural, sustainable construction materials. Books, articles, and online resources provide a valuable bibliography.

In keeping with the emotional and spiritual journey undertaken in her straw bale house project, Roberts concludes her story with a litany: "May I remember to live without worrying, enjoying the present, planning for the future, and bringing only the lessons from the past ... May I remember that my fears may be overcome ... May I remember all this every time I look at my beautiful home. May I remember not only how I built the house, but how the house built me."

A House of Straw by Carolyn Roberts, published by Chelsea Green Publishing Company, is available in paperback.

Publication date: 05/22/03

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