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home : features : people & places April 29, 2016

6/18/2008 2:03:00 PM
Alternative straw bale building 'greens' up Dewey property
Christopher O’Loughlin, left, gives an extra stir to the cement mixer full of sifted dirt, sand, a handful each of loose straw and wheat paste, and water that creates the plaster for the straw bale building.TribPhoto/Sue Tone
Christopher O’Loughlin, left, gives an extra stir to the cement mixer full of sifted dirt, sand, a handful each of loose straw and wheat paste, and water that creates the plaster for the straw bale building.
TribPhoto/Sue Tone

Sue Tone

The plan was to use their bare feet to mash the dirt, sand and water mixture in a pit, and then plaster the exterior straw bale walls.

But that didn't work out, and the muddy workers ended up plugging in the concrete mixer to finish the job.

"The foot mixing just wasn't fast enough to keep up with the mudders," said Betty Joy of Dewey-Humboldt.

Joy's four-year project, an artist studio in the foothills of Dewey, is a small one-room building about 16-by-20-feet consisting mostly of recycled materials.

"It was a spur of the moment thing," said Cy Joy, Betty's son, this past week. He and his mother had been talking about straw bale construction and noticed someone with a grader down the street. They ran out and contracted to have an area behind the house graded that weekend.

"It wasn't really planned out. We knew the size and that it would be straw bale," Cy said. "This one is unusual because it is load-bearing construction. There's no wood in the walls."

Usually straw bale buildings have a wooden frame and the bales go within the frame. Joy's building has no framework except around the doors and windows.

The roofing beams come from a demolished doctor's office in Phoenix. Cy also salvaged the sucker rods and couplers from a drilling operation.

Then he happened on a pile of structurally insulated panels sitting on the streets of south Phoenix, and the owners told him the panels were free if he hauled them away. With some inventive planning requiring paper cutouts that he pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, Cy fit the SIPs, made of foam material sandwiched between thin sheets of plywood, into a full ceiling.

Only the tin roofing material is store-bought. Betty said she is looking for salvaged doors and windows next, and perhaps a skylight.

The mud plaster is made up of four parts sifted dirt, one part sand, a handful of loose hay, a handful of wheat paste, a bit of eucalyptus oil for a fresh scent, and water to hold it all together. Cy said they may add a coat of lime after the plaster dries, but most likely, once on the walls, the mixture will keep out water and moisture just as is.

According to the Website, research shows that plastered straw bale constructions resist fire for up to two hours due their denseness and difficulty in burning. The flexibility of load-bearing straw walls makes it a good choice for areas threatened by earthquakes. Termites don't like straw, and there is little nutritional material to sustain rodents or insects.

Even people with hay fever can live comfortably in straw bale homes once the walls are plastered and sealed.

Joy said she hopes to have a floor of either concrete or pavers soon. The space between the top of the walls and the roof stands open for now.

"Cy plans to close in the gable ends with the same material he used in the ceiling. On the south wall will be a sliding glass door. The other door and window will be recycled discards," Betty said.

Several friends and other family members from the Phoenix area helped with the plastering.

Betty purchased the property in 1974 when open range existed in the countryside around Dewey. She called it Avalon after King Arthur's mythical city, "an appropriate name for greenhorns charging into battle with the unknown forces that make up the world of finance," she said. Her goal was to get out of the Valley where she taught at Trevor Browne High School and establish a place to live with a simple back-to-the-land lifestyle.

Constructing a straw bale building 35 years later brings her that much closer to the land.

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