It’s been a lot of years since I played in the mud.
But there I was last weekend, scooping oozy handfuls of a clay-straw mixture and pressing them into what will eventually become a wall in Patricia Maher’s house.
My hands were filthy, my sweater was a spattered mess and my skin itched from the bits of straw that had sneaked under my clothes.
It was a blast.
Maher is building a straw bale house on North Maple Street just off Hickory Street, in an area on Akron’s near north side that the city improved to attract home construction. Maher and builder Calvin Smith of LaGrange invited the public to view the construction last weekend, and I volunteered to help for an afternoon to get a taste of what this method is all about.
Maher’s house looks conventional from the outside, but its structure is a hybrid between traditional wood framing and straw bale construction. The framing forms the home’s supporting structure, and straw bales along with some loose straw fill the wall cavities to provide insulation. Eventually the straw will be coated with several layers of plaster made from earth, which is where my small part of the process came in.
I worked with Elaine Reily, a friend of Maher’s who had flown in from Boston just to lend a hand. She was one of several friends who had traveled hundreds of miles to help, some of whom had never met but who bonded over the labor of packing straw into walls and tying bales to the wall framing.
For Reily, a onetime architecture student and now a potter, the opportunity to help build a house made partly of clay was too good to pass up. “I thought, oh, my God, I’ve got to come help her. … It’s two of my favorite media,” she said with a smile.
Earlier in the day, Reily had made up buckets full of a clay-water mixture called slip, some of which she and I tossed together with loose straw on a tarpaulin to make a substance called cob. It was a little like tossing an unusually heavy salad, but the muddy results looked more like a newly planted lawn on a rainy day.
We then applied that cob to the curved sections of wall flanking two of Maher’s windows. The cob is supposed to hold the wall’s straw stuffing in place so the plaster can be applied on top of it, and it also allows the extra-deep walls to flare out gently on either side of each window instead of forming a sharp angle.
It was hands-on work. The cob had to be smushed into the straw to get it to stick, and the best tools for accomplishing that were our fingers and palms. Fellow volunteer Jean Riesman of Middletown, R.I., pointed out I was almost literally an embedded reporter.
Luckily our job went faster than volunteer Sally Williams’. Williams, of Buffalo, N.Y., had been assigned the seemingly unending task of poking a stick into one of the walls to eliminate air spaces and find voids where more straw needed to be stuffed in. “You know, it’s coming through the siding on the outside,” builder Smith teased at one point.
That’s the thing about straw bale construction: It’s labor intensive, far more so than traditional building methods. It’s also messy. Straw littered the floors and straw dust hovered in the air, giving the construction site what one volunteer called “a kind of manger feel.”
But straw bale construction is also fairly simple, so it could be a cost-saving option for people with a strong do-it-yourself streak, plenty of time and lots of friends with good backs and even better attitudes.
Maher said she likes that her house involves a community effort and uses construction methods that have been around for millennia, even if that means progress is plodding.
Construction on her house started in June and the framing work in October. She expects a troupe of helpers in and out over the next month, and if all goes well, she’s hoping to move in by the end of May.
“This is not a fast process,” she said with understatement.
Maher, a homeopath who recently moved to Akron from Boston, said she was drawn to straw-bale construction by its environmental and energy-saving benefits and by the old-world beauty of the earth plaster used to cover the walls. Straw bales are superior insulators, and they’re being combined in Maher’s house with a number of other energy-saving and green features to create a home that architect Joe Ferut expects to be extremely airtight and 60 to 70 percent more energy-efficient than a typical home.
Eventually, she’ll have a cozy, 1,700-square-foot home with a combined living and dining area, a study, two bedrooms and a sleeping porch, all wrapped in an exterior of cedar shingles and siding. She’ll also have a stingy heating bill that’s expected to total only about $250 a year.
What’s more, Maher will have the satisfaction of knowing her own labor went into creating her home.
“I’ll have this really intimate relationship with the place where I live,” she said.
Maybe some things are just worth waiting for.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at marybeth.ohio.com.