If you want to meet someone really passionate about their home, talk to the owners of a strawbale house, as BayBuzz recently did. Take Pen Robinson: “I can’t imagine not living in a strawbale house having lived in one. It just wraps itself around you.”

Strawbale houses have been around in Hawke’s Bay for 18 years (and in countries such as the US, for centuries), so they’re not a new feature of our landscape. But they’re still something of a niche market and sit on the periphery as ‘alternative’.

When you combine strawbales with plaster cladding for the walls of your house, you achieve a wall-width half a metre thick with a high R-value, which means a comfortable, well-regulated inside temperature (warm in winter, cool in summer) without costing the earth.

People choose to build strawbale for a range of reasons, and there’s a huge variability in how they build. Everyone comes to the concept with a different hook-in: environmental consideration, solidity and warmth, health (less toxicity), or simply aesthetics. And whether your strawbale house is self-built on a shoestring, by local builders or by a specialist company from out of town, the result will be a highly individualised, handcrafted home.

Handcrafted homes

Local builders, Nils Rock and Pat Mawson, are currently working on their fourth strawbale house in the Bay, with a fifth in the pipeline. They’re committed advocates for more sustainable building materials and alternative methods, with an emphasis on quality. Nils is particularly interested in optimal low-energy design (‘direction passive housing’), while Pat has become a specialist in the clay plasters they use, which “regulate humidity, both absorbing and releasing moisture vapour, making for a really comfortable air quality.”

Strawbalers Peter and Raewyn Howe, with grandson Samuel Mawson

What they like about strawbale is its organic aesthetic, artistic potential and work satisfaction. Says Nils: “It’s challenging to do things differently – you’re not building to a standard model. Every house is unique, handcrafted, so it’s more interesting as a builder to work on.” And the job itself is diverse – from concrete, steel, timber work, strawbale in-fill and plastering to interior joinery and finishes.

“You’re going to spend more on structural elements, such as wide eaves and walls, than you would on a usual build, but then, you can’t compare a house with an R-value 3-4 times higher to a standard house,” he notes. Pat observes that strawbale houses tend to be high-spec homes. “If you’ve got beautiful insulated walls, you’re probably going to go better quality on the joinery, hardware and finishes. When people think it’s going to be cheap, they’re probably looking at an owner-built model where you can save on the labour costs.”

In the Christchurch earthquakes, strawbale houses all performed well, escaping with only minor cosmetic damage, while the strawbale house in Pahiatua that collapsed in an earthquake this year had major design and construction issues to begin with.

As Pat points out, shoddy design and workmanship with any type of building will give you problems in the long-run. Some of the older strawbale houses in the region are showing flaws, but even ten years ago there was a lot less information and understanding about strawbale structures. Meanwhile technology and techniques for strawbale building is evolving around the world with increasing sophistication, while simultaneously methods are used that are hundreds of years old.

Solid and soft

Pen Robinson spent her early childhood years in Natal, South Africa, in a wattle and daub house her father built, and lived later in England in a granite stone house. So she’s used to thick walls and finds the houses in New Zealand somewhat “flimsy”. It was always clear to her that the home she and husband Sam would build when they moved from their farm south of Waipukerau would be strawbale, as “it was the only real way to go to get the wraparound feel” she was after.

They used a Wanaka-based company, Strawmark, to design and build their large (420m2) Mediterranean-feel house with its use of indoor-outdoor flow and materials, set among vineyards overlooking the sea at Parkhill. There’s a lot of glass (all double glazed), and an interplay of horizontal and vertical planes (with sections of the house that can be shut off as required), creating a feeling of space within enclosure.

It’s not the ‘Hobbit house’ people expect when Pen and Sam say theirs is strawbale. They’ve used a cavity system, so plaster only touches the straw on the interior walls. Viewing the house front-on, it’s hard to pick that interior or that the house holds 45 tonnes of plaster.

An advantage of strawbale is that “it sits well with old timbers – aesthetically it’s a lovely marriage of products,” a marriage the Robinsons have made the most of with an eclectic mix of timbers from heavy hardwood beams and handcrafted cedar doors to the stained white boards on the kitchen ceiling. Another feature is the personalising touches afforded by the use of plaster, such as the iron wagon wheel from the old farm, now embedded into the entrance wall as a ‘truth window’, and the alcove in the hallway for Pen’s collection of antique snuff bottles.

Nils Rock and Pat Lawson

“We’ve ended up with a house we absolutely love living in,” says Pen. “It’s nice to be enclosed by solid walls. And the soft curves – it’s not just aesthetics, it creates a lovely feeling. The irregularities [of the plaster and hardwood beams] soften the house – some houses soften with age but this starts off that way. It’s a modern house, very functional and open, but with all the qualities of strawbale: solid, warm, very energy efficient – more than I thought it would be – and so quiet; there’s a stillness in the house I hadn’t expected, which is such a bonus.”

Symbiosis

Peter and Raewyn Howe have always lived urban but had a “green outlook”. Pete worked at an organic market in Brisbane for years and first found out about strawbale houses through some of his customers. They liked the “organised chaos” of the aesthetic they saw there, but the opportunity to build their own came when they moved to rural Hawke’s Bay to live with their daughter and her family.

Built in 2011 by son-in-law Pat Mawson, theirs is a basic two-storey, pitched-roof cottage (80m2). It’s set up for solar, a wood stove heats water, and they have onsite grey and black water systems, with a wormerator (literally, worms) for processing sewerage. This was a rural decision as much as ecological. “Living rurally has given us opportunities to do things differently, and to think of the way we use resources,” says Pete.

“It was the first home in Hawke’s Bay to get Council consent to use natural lime and mud plasters externally. We didn’t use any cement or wire-mesh. Old carpeting was used to line the inside on non-structure walls, such as the bedrooms upstairs, and plastered over.” The wooden floors, beams, window fittings, etc, are all made from recycled timbers and finished with natural oils.

Using the resources at hand (such as clay from behind the house, sand from the river and timber from Waipukurau Hospital for the stairs) has given them a great sense of satisfaction. Pete: “We feel as though we haven’t taxed the earth too much by building our house.” Indeed, there’s a sense of symbiosis between house and land. “It’s all in one – we go from working in the dirt in our garden into a dirt house. We couldn’t be happier!”

DIY pragmatism

Grenville Christie and Sharleen Baird moved up from Lyttleton, bought a paddock in Waipukurau and planted a native forest from seed. Grenville had done a “hell of a lot” of research, and the question he asked himself was “what’s really practical for me to build here?”

He came up with a ranch-style strawbale house, using a pole structure for the roof; a compacted aglime floor and a stone foundation wall for thermal mass. For the plaster: aglime with a little cement, whitewashed and coloured with lime flour. Wooden sash windows and doors built from local farm-grade timbers, and salvaged materials for bathroom fittings. “I like the concept of using simple products to get a superior house, and a low carbon footprint was appealing. Pretty much everything except the ceiling has come out of CHB.”

There’s “a bit of all the houses we’ve lived in”, such as the wood fretwork in the hallway, a concept from their villa in Lyttleton. Local history too – rimu shelves and cabinets from the old maternity hospital that was demolished have been incorporated (Sharleen, who bakes her own bread, still uses the original wooden flour bins). They like the “rustic charm, the character” of the materials themselves – the grain of wood, the imperfect plaster finish – and enjoy the ambience of the house: the even temperature and air quality.

Something as simple as orientation makes a huge difference. The house faces northwest and traps the sun in winter – a woodstove in the kitchen is all the heating Grenville and Sharleen need. They went away for three days during a winter snap when temperatures dropped to zero and when they returned the house was still a comfortable 15°C inside.

It took almost five years for Grenville to build (2004-09), including all the wooden joinery. The result, a beautiful, spacious low-energy house, is an impressive feat of DIY craftsmanship and Kiwi ingenuity. “We could never afford to have a house like this if we had to pay someone else to build it. I also wanted to demonstrate that ordinary people can do this stuff with a bit of help and advice. We’re too often told we can’t do things for ourselves.”

Tradition

Michelle and Phillip Smith are keen on “using nature and old wisdom”. Phillip is a traditional navigator, sailing Polynesian-style waka, which incorporate modern eco-technologies like solar, across the Pacific. Similarly, their strawbale house (completed 18 months ago) brings together traditional proven techniques with contemporary materials and methods.

The house is orientated for optimum sun and privacy: ranch-slide doors and large windows in the open-plan living room face northeast, with smaller windows set in the southwest walls. From the front the eaves have been shaped to resemble the wharenui on a marae. The entrance is a cob wall embedded with coloured glass bottles, letting light through in a stained-glass effect onto the polished coloured concrete floor. Inside there’s barely a straight line – the walls are artistically shaped and plastered with natural clay renders, complemented by stained macrocarpa doors and cupboards. The curves create a depth and complexity of perspective along with the height and angles of the ceiling.

Michelle explains: “We were drawn primarily to strawbale by the eco factor and the rustic, old look of strawbale homes. And we liked the fact that houses were built like this for hundreds of years.” With two small children (Tainga and Marere), natural, healthy materials were important, and they also wanted a house that would blend in with the environment. They aim to be as self-sufficient as they can.

Phillip did some original plans for the house and then worked on the design together with Peter Le Bon (Create-A-Vision), who was contracted to build it. Building was a collaborative process, with Phillip working on the house whenever he could between sails.

“From the foundations, toilet system, to finishes, we’ve tried to do everything as eco-friendly and sustainable as possible within a budget. It’s a balance – for example, we would have preferred to use wood for the windows rather than aluminium, but it would have cost us two thirds more and we just couldn’t afford it.” Family and friends helped out on weekend working bees to do all the internal walls – hanging hessian and old carpet, staining wood, sponging walls. “We saved heaps by doing as much as we could ourselves.”

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