Source: Sherman Publications

Build a house using just the backyard

by Meg Peters

September 25, 2013

While studying at the Strawbale Studio hidden in the growth of Oxford’s back roads, clay will get under some toenails.

Hands will smooth the edges of stucco walls.

Learning the difference between silt and sand will be left to the fingers.

What the current project volunteers worked on last Thursday September 19 is the “Hobit sauna,” originally intended to be of short stature but which has grown to at least 9 feet tall. People from Lake Orion, Grosse Pointe and Rhode Island participated at the volunteer day to try and help finish the sauna before winter.

Just a few miles north of Lake Orion, the Strawbale Studio is a 600 square foot natural structure built almost entirely from on-site, excavated materials.

It is a center for learning about natural building using trees, subsoil, water, straw and the sun to make sustainable homes with neutral or positive ecological impacts.

Interns and volunteers come from around the state and country to set foot in the Strawbale Studio. Their aim is to learn the works of earth-plastering and cob construction, the main building materials, from Deanne Bednar, Coordinator of the Strawbale Studio Natural Building and Sustainable Living Program.

“For me I love having a direct connection (with materials) as opposed to going to the store and buying something where I’ve lost track of it,” Bednar said. “If I buy some lumber from the store, I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know the ecological impact of how it was cut, or what was going on in the factory, I’m just disconnected.”

Finding trees to use from her 50-plus acres, Bednar makes her lumber decisions based on their relationship to the surrounding environment.

Dead ash and locust trees are common choices for many of the hand-built structures around her property, including the actual studio, a live-roof shelter and the sauna.

“So it becomes developing a relationship with the trees and knowing them and to me that’s like falling in love with the natural world again. It’s coming home to what was home for all of the generations, and I get to start living in the relationship again,” she said.

First, she digs a hole.

Brushing aside the top layer of soil, dense in nutrients and to be used for gardening, she scoops out the subsoil and makes a test shaker of it. The goal is to excavate an area that is composed of 75 percent sand and 25 percent clay, with minimal silt.

She says to take a Mason jar, fill it halfway with water and pour the soil sample in. In the first five seconds the sand will settle, mark it with tape. In two to three minutes the silt will settle over the sand because it’s lighter—mark that too. After about an hour, the clay will settle. A good sample will be 75 percent sand, which holds the clay together while everything dries.

After a site is selected and excavated, the subsoil is made into cob, a gooey mixture of the subsoil, water and straw.

Stomping the mixture with a wine-maker’s feet, Bednar sloshes together the clay-sand-silt mixture with water on top of a tarp. Then, she adds the straw.

“Straw gives it tensile strength and it holds everything together like rebar in concrete or horse hair fibers in lime plaster,” she explained.

The resulting cob is then used like a potter would make a bowl by hand, except a home.

Volunteers helped plaster the walls of the outdoor sauna with the cob material, worked on smaller sculpting detail within the sauna, and helped create a window using glass bottles as a type of glass art.

Bednar started at the Strawbale Studio as a volunteer years ago. She had studied natural building in Oregon for three weeks and returned to Oxford to dig in.

“I wanted a place to experiment with building, of course along with this whole idea that how can we create homes that are easy on the planet, that use natural local resources that are beautiful and aesthetic and that we can build ourselves,” she said.

Her background is in art and sustainable future thinking, and teaching at the middle school level.

After years of volunteering at Strawbale Studio, the previous owners sold it to her. Now people can sign up for tours online and they can volunteer on scheduled days all in the art of learning how natural, earthwork building works.

“The best thing I’ve learned is being with the community and working with the hands and really feeling the earth,” said Lake Orion resident Natalie Spisak while volunteering last week. “This is of the earth and we are building a shelter to house us here, so it’s really cool to work with that and Deanne is full of so much knowledge.”

Some volunteers will carry this experience with them on their quest to mold their own cob.

“We have been interested in this kind of sustainable housing, and getting recyclable materials, things you can get from natural sources,” said Steve Lian, who is originally from Malaysia but now lives in Grosse Pointe.

“You can get off the grid. My son was the one who told me about it. He’s in Ontario. We want to eventually build our own, (home) so we are looking for land in Ontario now.”

Lian has visions of making a sustainable home with a live roof on it. A live roof is exactly what it sounds like, a roof composed of topsoil and plants, supported by a base layer.

Shlomy Goldman from Rhode Island is pursuing natural building skills from multiple builders around the country, with the flexible goal of pioneering natural building into the mainstream back home in Rhode Island and New England.

“It’s not an exact science, it’s more of an art,” he said. “For instance, mixing cob by foot and getting the right recipe or the right measurements of ingredients, is a huge spectrum and everyone has different opinions. There’s not necessarily one right way and every building soil is different.”

Multiple interns have stayed at the studio, and Bednar is currently looking for someone interested in the winter internship.

For more information on sustainable building, to set up a tour or to find out when the next round of volunteer days are, contact Deane Bednar at 248-628-1887. Visit the to see all different types of hand-built structures from the power of many, many hands.