Tina: I love physical work and I quite enjoy working
outdoors. I have always had an attraction to environmental issues, which
were forefront in my teaching, so straw bale fits in quite well with my
personal goals. From my first experience in straw bale building to my most
recent, I have enjoyed the challenges of building each custom home that we
have worked on...and trying to foster a sense of shared problem solving with
my crew. Straw bale building is about community, about networking, problem
sharing, building more responsibly and sustainably, offering more affordable
choices for housing.
NL: How did you learn the techniques that are required?
Tina: Practice, more practice and creative on-site
problem solving. Chris Magwood and Peter Mack formed Camel’s Back
Construction back in 1997 while I was still teaching, yet I was able to
participate in all of the projects they worked on, even if only on my
weekends off. From the very beginning, I remember my input being valid,
which was enlightening, and bit by bit, especially as I became a
full-fledged partner in the company, my confidence in my abilities improved.
I eventually felt confident to teach workshops on my own and now am quite
comfortable being in charge of various jobsites and working with other
contractors to ensure that the details crucial to bale building are properly
addressed. I continue to learn as I go along, picking up interesting tidbits
and new techniques from workshop attendees and by networking with other
builders. (I recently had that opportunity for an entire week at the
International Straw Bale Builder’s Conference, which was hosted in
Lakefield, Ontario. There were builders and representatives from all over
the world, from Sri Lanka to New Zealand to the UK to China...and we got
together to share techniques, compare recent testing and problem solve straw
bale building.) I also learn by continued reading and by doing. Each straw
bale project is unique and, therefore, an opportunity for continued growth.
NL: Do you live in a straw bale house?
Tina: Errr, uhhhh, this is one of the first questions
prospective clients ask me. I sometimes jokingly say, “No way, I’d never
live on one of those houses!” but you have to pick who you’ll tell that to
or it might get taken the wrong way. In all honesty, my partner at the time
and I were looking for land in and around the Peterborough area, upon which
we were going to build our dream home. And lo and behold we found a lovely
100-year-old clapboard house on a river in a small village, with a
functional forge in the barn.
"From the very beginning, I remember my input being valid, which was
enlightening, and bit by bit, especially as I became a full-fledged
partner in the company, my confidence in my abilities improved. I
eventually felt confident to teach workshops on my own and now am
quite comfortable being in charge of various jobsites and working
with other contractors to ensure that the details crucial to bale
building are properly addressed."
At first we thought this would be home for five or so years, and then
we’d go on to build our dream home but after awhile, it became clear that
this was home. We caulked all the leaks, blew cellulose into the uninsulated
walls, installed a solar hot water panel, ripped out the furnace and
installed radiant tubing...and made this ol’ home a lot more efficient than
it used to be. So, at least for now, this remains home for me. I do still
dream about building a straw home someday, but in the meantime, it’s pretty
nice to be on a river in an old home with such history.
NL: What’s the most difficult part of helping someone
build a home?
Tina: Hmmmm. that’s kind of a tough question. I guess
one of the toughest parts is convincing homeowners – especially
owner/builders – how long it will take to get the straw bales ready for
plastering. The bales get erected relatively quickly, and generally with
lots of assistance, but once they are in place, there is stuffing to do,
wall shaping, meshing (if that is being done), stitching, shaping windows,
etc. It’s incredibly labor-intensive. And despite our best efforts to warn
people, owner/builders are always surprised (and sometimes discouraged!) by
how long it takes, especially if they are doing it on their own.
NL: Do you have a favorite part of the straw bale
Tina: I really like shaping windows, despite having to
use what is commonly called a “blood lath” in the trade (a metal plaster
lath, which, when cut, is quite sharp!), looking at a room and imagining
other add-on features to complement the house, such as arched doorway
openings, carved niches, relief work in the plaster, etc. If mesh is used on
the straw bale walls, stitching the mesh through the wall with a 16-inch
sewing needle is also quite a pleasant job.
NL: Is the process different from that of building a
conventional structure – not the techniques, which obviously are different,
but how people work together, relate to each other and so on?
Tina: Oh yes, very different. To start with, there is
often the traditional bale raising work bee weekend, in which friends and
family of the owners join me and some of my crew (we act as supervisors) to
raise the walls. This is always a lot of fun. We spend a lot of time talking
about safety, demonstrate the basics of building with bales and then the
volunteers put in the majority of the bales.
One thing we’ve learned about this process: If you don’t have enough
supervisors on-site, you sometimes have to go back on Monday and take down
and restack bales, so we prefer to adequately supervise, to ensure quality
work as we go. After all of the bales are stacked, there is a tradition of
having a big feast together (often prepared by family members and friends
who make this their contribution to the building project,) which is quite
similar to the barn raising days of yore. Other contractors cringe at the
thought of having volunteer workers on a jobsite, and there are certainly
safety and insurance issues that homeowners have to carefully consider
before jumping in, especially these days, but I have met so many interesting
and inspiring people through the volunteer bale raisings.
Again, since each home is custom, there are always unique problems that
arise, such as how to stack bales around the venting, or what to do about
that particular post. Often, solutions to these problems arise from group
Another major difference I see between conventional builders and straw
bale builders is the relationship that we tend to forge with our clients.
Many of our former clients have remained friends and we still visit (and
receive visits by!) some of them. I think that this is different from the
more traditional role of client/builder due to the fact that people who have
chosen to build with straw bales often have something in common with us
already, and that is an interest in healthier living and environmental
issues. While this isn’t always the case, it has been common in our
NL: Other than the community aspect, what do you see as
the advantages of straw bale construction?
Tina: With rising energy costs, those people living in
conventional, on-grid homes are really looking for ways to reduce their
overall operating costs. Of course, with walls of R-40 (about double the
insulation of standard homes) there are tremendous energy savings to be had
both in summer and winter in a properly designed passive-solar straw bale
house. And for folks who decide to take the leap to build an off-grid straw
bale home, well, they definitely benefit from the insulation factor.
But there are many other benefits. Straw bale construction allows for
more creative design, in that you are already working with a malleable and
quite adaptable building material. Straw bale homes are unique, they feel
good (no, really, I’m not just saying that...you have to visit a straw home
to appreciate how it feels inside) and they offer excellent sound
insulation. Some people are touting straw bale homes as “healthy homes” if
they are finished and furnished with non-toxic materials.
NL: Would you describe straw bale construction as
high-tech or low-tech?
“One of my main goals is to bring straw bale building to the
affordable housing industry. These are the people who will most
benefit from the energy-related cost savings of the straw bale
Tina: Hmmmm, that’s kind of a tricky question. Straw bale construction,
while being a specialized form of building, is also quite an accessible form
of building, in that you don’t have to have advanced math skills and years
of training that other trades might require. (I’m speaking strictly of the
straw bale portion of the house here; if you choose to build an entire home,
then the skills you require are quite different.) We have had participation
from 10-year-olds to 84-year-olds, men and women alike, and at one jobsite
we even had a volunteer in a wheelchair help with the stitching portion of
the job. Now that is exciting! It is empowering for people to get back to
their roots and participate in real projects, not unlike what we would have
all been doing had we lived 200 years ago in Canada. However, there is a
danger in considering straw bale construction really low tech, in that
without proper instruction, guidance or skills, the detailing of a straw
bale building can potentially fail.
NL: Do you see yourself still doing this in, say, 10 or
Tina: Good question! My repetitive stress injuries tell me that I
shouldn’t be...or that perhaps, I should consider taking on more of a true
management role and less of a hands-on role. I can see continuing to be in
this line of work for the next few years, but 20 years sounds like an
eternity! As long as I remain inspired by this work, and happy, I will keep
NL: What is your involvement in the straw bale industry?
Is it right to call it an industry…or is it still more a community at this
Tina: While it’s true that it seems more like a
community than an industry, I think things are changing in that regard.
Straw bale building, in its infancy, was rather grassroots and, yeah,
probably had a “hippy/granola” feel to it, but things are rapidly
progressing to give straw bale building a more professional feel.
The Ontario Straw Bale Building Coalition (OSBBC) was formed in 2003 when
a group of homeowners and builders decided to fill the need for a central
information resource center. It’s now a non-profit, grassroots network of
straw bale homeowners, professionals and citizens interested in building
more sustainably. As a board member of the OSBBC and, more recently, as one
of the key organizers of the International Straw Bale Building Conference
that I talked about earlier, I work hard to promote straw bale building,
including doing demonstrations and presentations to building inspectors,
architects, eco-fairs and so on. One of the mandates of the OSBBC is public
education, and I’ve definitely seen a huge shift in public awareness of
straw bale building over the past 10 years. More people have at least heard
of building with bales and there are far fewer (whew!) Three Little Pigs
jokes out there.
Having said all that, I would still refer to a straw bale “community”
when talking about those of us working in the field. We all know one another
and network together, even work together upon occasion, so it’s definitely
more of a community than an industry in that regard.
NL: Are there many women in the industry?
Tina: There are a number of women in the industry.
Actually, on one of our jobs last year, we had more women than men on our
crew, and the General Contractor at that job referred to us as “the Camel’s
Back girls.” Some of the men on our crew didn’t take too kindly to that but,
heck, I’ve been one of the guys for quite awhile now. When I first started
building, I was generally the only woman on the jobsite. Wince then, things
have changed a lot, with an increasing number of women working in the field.
We have noticed in teaching workshops over the years that a large percentage
of participants have been women. I think this is, in part, due to the
accessible nature of bale building. Also, quite honestly, I find that some
of our best detail workers are women, including shaping windows, installing
mesh neatly, etc. We find that other trades, while in the beginning might be
surprised to see women on the jobsite, are quite accepting, especially once
they see our work!
NL: Will construction companies like Camel’s Back
survive and thrive or is the current interest in straw bale homes a fad?
Tina: Camel’s Back has been around now for almost 10
years, and there is no shortage of work. We used to be the only company in
the province, but now there is a handful of other companies specializing in
building with bales. I don’t think this is a passing fad, but rather, an
industry that will continue to grow, little by little, over the next
decades. There are enough straw bale homes being built to support several
businesses and the number of homes increases each year.
NL: Do you have any goals for the industry’s
Tina: My personal goals for the industry may be quite
different from other builders, but one of my main goals is to bring straw
bale building to the affordable housing industry. These are the people who
will most benefit from the energy-related cost savings of the straw bale
home over its lifetime. I have been working on proposals and am confident
that one of these days, this dream will come true, be it through my work or
through the work of others in the straw bale community.
NL: Is it possible to use straw bale techniques on a
large scale? Or will it always be outside the mainstream?
Tina: Straw bale building has developed quietly and
slowly here, with a real growth over the past five years. We
haven’t been in a huge hurry to have it become mainstream, as we were still
developing the best building practices for our climate.
Something that may very well bring straw bale building to the mainstream
is the prefabricated wall industry. There is currently one Canadian company,
based out west, making and selling prefab walls. If a developer decides to
build a subdivision or community with straw bales, it is more likely that
they will buy into the prefab wall system for ease of building, than the
volunteer-driven bale raising method, which I think is great. Heck, as long
as we’re going to continue to create subdivisions, we can only hope that
more developers out there will have the vision to create more sustainable
communities, with straw bale homes, off-grid, shared facilities, etc.
While I would love nothing better than for all new homes to be straw
bale, I don’t see this as being feasible. The danger with a large number of
homes being built too quickly, or by inexperienced builders, is that details
crucial to their success could get overlooked (such as larger roof
overhangs, windows set to the outside of the bale wall, no vapor barriers on
the bale walls, etc.) There will need to be continued education of builders
and developers if straw bale building is to grow at a rapid rate.
NL: Is there a role for government to play, as there is,
say, for the solar and wind industries?
Tina: Most definitely. While LEED® accreditation now exists for new
construction and renovation projects in addition to commercial builds, there
is always more that could be done. I would love to see local municipalities
embrace straw bale housing in new affordable housing projects and small
Interest will continue to grow in straw bale and energy efficient
dwellings as our own personal resources dwindle, and as energy costs
continue to rise. However, I feel that until we really have to change, we
won’t. We should/could learn much by following examples of European
countries who are leaders in environmental laws and policies.
NL: What sort of people are currently building straw
bale homes – are there commonalities in terms of demographics, commitment to
sustainability and so on? Do the people merely want something different or
more creative than the little box house, or are they really thinking outside
the box in terms of sustainability issues and energy conservation?
Tina: When we first started this crazy venture, I think
we found that people were definitely choosing bales for environmental
reasons. But more and more, with increased media coverage, educational
presentations, etc., as people find out about the tremendous energy savings
of a straw bale wall system, they may simply be looking at long-term cost
savings in terms of energy. Some people will choose to build and design with
bales just because it’s hip and, as such, some of these homes may not
incorporate functional passive solar design, and they may not even
incorporate bales into all of the exterior walls of the home. Clients these
days are, in general, more knowledgeable about straw bale building, in part
due to media and in part due to the number of straw homes that have been
NL: Do you think most people are willing to make the
lifestyle changes necessary to turn around our environmental crisis –
building energy-efficient, low-impact houses, using composting toilets, etc?
Tina: Unfortunately, I don’t really think the masses are
committed to sustainability, nor are they really tuned into the
environmental crisis. We dutifully put items into the recycling boxes, but
we don’t necessarily reduce our consumption; we are willing to do the quick
fix, small steps (some of which definitely make a change!), but in terms of
having a deeper vision of our future, we choose to ignore what is being
broadcast around us. Again, until we have to change, I don’t think we really
will, as a society.
NL: Tell me about your involvement in zydeco music.
Tina: Oh yes, that....well, my friends in Peterborough
used to have a Cajun band called Y2K...and when Y2K came and went
uneventfully, the singer of the band left town and the band dismantled.
Since I lived in town, could sing (more like a choir girl, actually, than a
band member!) and was bilingual, I fit the bill for a Cajun/zydeco band, so
they booked me into the band. I absolutely love it...it’s such a great
outlet for me and a definite contrast to the physical and dirty work that I
do with building and plastering. Besides, what else would I do with my
closet of dress-up clothes? (Although upon occasion some of these outfits
make it to the jobsite.)
This interview was published in Natural Life Magazine in 2007.