Natural Life Magazine

Natural Life Editor Wendy Priesnitz Interviews
Tina Therrien, straw bale builder

Interview with a woman straw bale builderTina Therrien is a partner in Camel’s Back Construction, a Canadian straw bale pioneer with over 60 straw bale residences, studios and other assorted buildings to its credit. The company is committed to constructing sustainable buildings and to reducing the negative impact of its building practices. We interviewed her in 2007.

NL: What was your life like before you became a straw bale builder?

Tina: I consider that I grew up at my family cottage on the Burnt River, just north of Fenelon Falls, Ontario, where I had my first introduction to building, with my parents building two different homes on the river. I spent my summers romping through the woods making tree forts with my brothers, swimming and playing outdoors. Later, I briefly attended University of Toronto. I only lasted one month; after having spent most of my schooling in buildings where I knew everyone, I couldn’t adjust to becoming just a number, as I was at U of T....besides which, I kept getting lost in Toronto. So my love of smaller communities took me to Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, where I studied French and Psychology. I chose to study abroad for my third year, and my last year of Teacher’s Ed was at Queen’s University. I taught French Immersion for 10 years, mostly in the early primary grades.

NL: How did you get interested in straw bale building?

Tina: My very good friends, Chris Magwood and Julie Bowen, decided to build their straw bale home back in 1996. Although I was teaching at the time, I went out on every available weekend that I had, and assisted with their project, from helping take down a barn on-site (no easy feat!) to the timber raising, to plastering. The sheer physicality of this work differs tremendously from teaching. Both are satisfying and both are tiring, but in different ways. Teaching is more tiring mentally, whereas building is more tiring physically. At around the time that Chris and Julie were building their home, I was looking for change in my life, and building sure did fit that bill. I really enjoyed learning to use power tools!    

NL: So is it the physical work that attracts you to straw bale construction?

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.

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 construction process?

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 discussions.

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 experience.

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 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?

Tina Therrien, straw bale builder
“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.”

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 20 years?

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 doing it.

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 point?

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 development?

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.Tina Therrien

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 apartment complexes.

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?

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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 built.

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’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.)


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