Building a home can be extremely stressful, frustrating and cause many arguments with our loved ones. We have all seen it on TV shows like “Grand Designs”. People embrace a project and encounter many problems along the way, such as changing design after the project began—arguing about it—extending the timeframe—arguing about it—exceeding budget—arguing about it, etc. Eyes roll, hair pulled. What a drama!
But this doesn't have to be the norm. Andrew and Alessandra, who have just finished building their straw-bale home in the North Island, had a very different experience to share. They helped answer three questions that puzzled me the most.
1. How can we enjoy the process of building our home instead of rolling our eyes and blaming each other?
Andrew and Alessandra said the secrets lie in planning, preparing, finding the right professionals and understanding your limits.
Thirty years ago, Andrew met his dream. He walked into an architect-designed straw-bale house and was blown away. From that moment, Andrew started researching, reading and talking about building a straw-bale home. When he met Alessandra, the dream became more real.
Alessandra and Andrew wanted to create a place that matched their lifestyle, but most importantly, the house itself was not the goal, the shared experience of building a home themselves was the dream long-held. They wanted to shape their home based on their values, values about how it should be made, who and what it should be built with, and how it should fit into its environment.
They deliberately created a financial safety-net for their house build over many years, therefore even though they had one year of living without income during the construction process, it was still sustainable for them. When the right land was found, they bought it without a site visit as they were working overseas. Then they found Pat Mawson, their builder, via recommendation and waited for two more years until everything aligned to start the build together.
During the preparation, while sharing and bouncing ideas around with Alessandra, Andrew converted their concept design into drawings, simple 3D renders and a collage of pictures. He then worked off and on via phone and email for more than a year with their architect Alex Greig and builder Pat Mawson to slowly transform the dream into reality—a set of plans that could express the shared vision and gain building consent from the local council. According to Andrew, the professionals helped him simplify and improve on the original ideas, while also suggesting cost saving. It was important to find the right professionals, ask questions and trust their expertise. Which leads us to another secret of a happy building process, know what you can do and what you can't.
(Image clockwise: Happy feet; Cleaning up the straw wall; The couple were treading clay slurry into loose straw; Pat checking the weight/density, uniformity of the bales in the field. )
Alessandra and Andrew were clear in this department. They focused on doing the tasks that they could do and left what they couldn't do to the pros, which Andrew said, was one of the best decisions they made. They chose to work with professionals like Pat and his team, who were experienced in working with straw-bales and earthen plasters, rather than tackling it alone from theories that were picked up from books, YouTube or workshops. It also guaranteed the quality of the build as Alessandra and Andrew were able to share their ideas, take advice and adjust the building plan as things progressed.
2. How can we create not just a house but a personalised home?
Alessandra and Andrew committed their time and effort into creating their own home, they helped build it rather than just commissioning others to do it for them. They were involved in every detail.
They installed large wooden windows and glass sliding doors around the house, which framed several ever-evolving natural pictures. After setting the orientation of the house for the sun, they designed several comfortable windows seats for themselves to enjoy the sunrise and sunset, or watch clouds passing by.
They also chose to build with natural materials like straw-bales, clay plaster, recycled timber, wool insulation and natural oil and paint finishes. The straw and plaster walls help regulate moisture levels and maintain a healthy living environment. It also gives the feeling of being surrounded by nature. They also used clay plaster as wall cladding. The clay created slightly uneven surfaces that feel warm and natural when touching them.
Andrew was keen to combine traditional building materials and techniques with new building methods. He wanted a highly efficient building, so with Pat’s recommendation an air barrier membrane was added to the non-straw-bale sections of the house exterior walls. With this implemented and the smart design of the ceilings, windows, doors and floors, it allowed passive solar heating and cooling for the house all year round.
Alessandra’s unique touch to the project comes to a particular place: the corners of the building. She created beautiful curves around the doors and windows, which made the entire home flow beautifully and feel like one. She said, even now, every time she walks past the corners, it takes her right back to the time when she made them.
Additionally, the uniqueness of their home comes in many other shapes and forms. Looking around their house, you can find mixed and matched up-cycled timber dining chairs, custom-made interior joinery from recycled timber cabinets, old native timber fence rails and palings etc. All of these items fill Alessandra’s and Andrew’s house with character and transforms it into their beloved home.
3. What does it feel like to live in the countryside in a straw-bale home?
Straw-bale construction is a traditional building method, but is new to most people. Natural building materials generally contain no toxins, are fully biodegradable or at least recyclable and help keep indoor air quality at a healthy level.
What inspired Andrew way back in his first experience of a straw-bale home was the local materials, and the thick walls of the straw which anchored the whole house firmly into the landscape, it felt grounded.
Alessandra spends a fair amount of time alone in the house. Often friends and family are concerned that she might be lonely or feel unsafe. To their surprise, Alessandra says she feels safer in her country home than in the city apartment where she used to live. The house is warmer and full of character. She enjoys the variety of animal life around the house, which brings beautiful natural sounds inside the house day and night. The natural sounds and the absence of city lights create a very comfortable and relaxing atmosphere. The ever-changing views which are framed by the large windows and glass doors, make every day of the week feel like a holiday.
Reading Andrew and Alessandra’s story, you might feel you don't have as much time for planning and preparing for your dream home. Though few journeys are ever perfect and without hurdles, Andrew and Alessandra’s principles can help us avoid some detours and mistakes. The principles can be summarised as below:
Invest time: Dream, plan and prepare. Consider how you want to live, and what is important to you in terms of materials, colours, space, feel and flow. By dreaming of living in your home, you can start creating sketches, plans and collages of pictures.
Know your strengths and limits, utilise professionals’ expertise. Be clear on what skills you bring, what tasks you can do versus where you are better off to work with professionals. The sketches and plans that you've prepared can give professionals a clear and shared vision. This vision will help the professionals work with your ideas, simplify and develop options that align with it and enhance it.
Add a part of yourself into the building. Being involved helps you identify with the building, your home. Add your favourite materials or colours and if possible, pitch in and help the professionals on site with work that you can do.
Enjoy the process. Having a task list is important for organising the build, but it’s important to go with the flow. Celebrate milestones along the way, embrace the challenges, learn and grow.
Would you like to see this house in person? It is possible to book a night in their quiet, peaceful and natural sanctuary. A perfect opportunity to forget about your daily worries and clear your head.
If you are keen on finding out more about straw bale building, get in touch with their builder Pat at www.strawhome.co.nz
To get in touch with the architect, Alex Greig, go to www.greenhausarchitects.co.nz