Mother Earth Living

The Art of Home: Straw-Bale Building in Colorado

A couple builds an artistic, nature-inspired dream home with the help of their community – and without a construction loan.
By Jessica Kellner
March/April 2012
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Naomi Maddux is a permaculture enthusiast who designed her home’s rambling native landscape to fit in with its surroundings.
Photo By Paul Weinrauch
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When singer-songwriter and professional organizer Naomi Maddux and her husband, Rick, a woodworker, got the opportunity to purchase land through a cooperative deal between Boulder County and the original land owners, they were inspired to begin work on their dream home—one built thoughtfully and artistically, taking inspiration from the natural beauty that surrounds it. And with the help of their community, they were able to realize their dreams without a construction loan, using a post-and-beam frame with straw-bale infill and nearly 75 percent reclaimed building materials. Rick says the creative impulse has been with him since childhood. “I’ve always known I had to make things,” he says. “I was the kid who took things apart to see how they worked. My mom would say, ‘Could you please put the toaster oven back together?’ And now that’s what I do for a living.”

For Naomi, building the home outside Boulder, Colorado, helped her express her creativity in new ways. “I became a glass artist in the process,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about it before, but building this house opened me to create in a visually artistic way.”

Rick and Naomi agree that they owe the gorgeous results of their giant art project to their collaboration, which, for both, pushed their boundaries and stretched their notions of what a home could be. “It was the combination of his skills and my capacities, which over time became stronger,” Naomi says. “Soon I was able to communicate my vision to Rick, and he would tell me what was possible.”

When they started the design process, the two knew a few basics: They wanted to build the home they’d live in for the rest of their lives; and they wanted to take their time, design it well and avoid going into debt. “We made, I’d say, 13 or 14 sketches of ideas,” Rick says. “We had everything from kidney shapes to earthships—all sorts of drawings. We finally agreed on a design that included flow and simplicity, and was something we could build ourselves, by hand.” Next, they each identified elements they did and did not want in a home and designed around that wish list. “We wanted it to feel warm and welcoming, so we paid attention to that in our vision,” Rick says. “We both don’t like that, in most American houses, the first thing you see is the garage door. So we decided to put the garage out of sight. Then we said, ‘Let’s put it underground and grow a live roof on top.’”

The site itself, a woody lot at the base of the Rocky Mountains, determined some of the design elements. The southern-facing slope of the hillside invited a passive solar orientation. By orienting the house to the south and incorporating properly sized overhangs, they assured all rooms would face the warming winter sun, yet be protected from hot summer rays. The pair also knew they wanted the home to feel spacious without actually being large, so they chose an open floorplan with no hallways. “If you can see from one side of a living space to the other, even if it’s only 30 feet wide, you get a 30-foot view,” Rick says. “Our house is 50 feet wide, and when you walk in you can see from one side to the other. It feels big even though it’s only on a 20-by-50-foot footprint.”

Gathering Reclaimed Building Materials

As the design took shape, Rick and Naomi turned to determining their building materials. They had both long been interested in straw-bale building, so they began to research the technique. “In this region, straw-bale building makes sense,” Naomi says. “I love the aesthetics and the materials, and I love doing things with my hands. Straw-bale construction is something laypeople can do easily if they have the time and inclination.”

The two also had salvaged building materials from a previous home that they wanted to incorporate. To save money and because they enjoy the history of reclaimed materials, they decided to expand their collection and use salvage for nearly everything that wasn’t straw and plaster. They made a shed to store collected materials then began mining their community. They didn’t have to travel far to obtain their first big piece. It showed up next door. “One of the first things we purchased was our roof material,” Naomi says. “Our neighbors bought too much, so we bought the rest from them.” The two were fortunate to have a friend who worked at the Boulder salvage yard ReSource, and he would call with tips when things came in. Rick and Naomi also went out hunting. “We’d check alleyways and Dumpsters and go to building sites that were tearing off roofs,” she says. “We became excellent scavengers, finding people tearing things down who were happy to have us carry them off for reuse.”

Although they had a rough design in place, the salvaged materials they found played a role in determining the home’s final appearance. Rick and Naomi often opted to design the home around the materials, rather than trying to find items to fit spaces they created. Suiting the design to the dimensions of the building components extended to the home’s physical measurements, as well. “A straw bale is 3 feet wide by 1 1/2 feet tall,” Rick says. “So you design the house with 6-foot-wide windows that are 3 feet off the ground, and you just can pop four bales in beneath the window without cutting them. That’s one lesson I’ve learned through my profession: The more you fit things in their natural shape, the less you have to alter and force them.”

Straw-Bale Building—As a Community

As they settled on a design, the time to start construction began. Naomi and Rick became members of the Colorado Straw Bale Association and volunteered on other people’s projects to learn the ins and outs of straw bale building. They used those connections, along with their own social network, when it came time to organize their work parties. “We had been hosting social gatherings here for a couple of years before doing this project, so we had an initial base of people we could email saying, ‘Do you want to learn straw bale building hands-on? We’re doing a work party here,’” Naomi says. “It started with our network of dear friends, but it grew quickly. To date, we’ve had about 100 volunteers work on our house.”

Naomi handled the organization of the work parties, which she describes as productive, fun and completely hectic. She says it’s essential that anyone hoping to take on a project like theirs develop the necessary skills to organize small-scale events, such as scheduling people’s time, communicating effectively and planning ahead in terms of supplies. “When you have a bunch of people at your home, you have to make sure they know what they’re doing and that they have the right materials to work with,” she says.

It was important to Naomi that their friends and community members be informed and well-supplied so they could learn and be productive, but it was also important that they have a good time. “We’d make sure we had enough plaster mixed ahead of time so they could be moving and laying the plaster,” she says. “We’d set up stations where three people could work at the same time, so they weren’t isolated and could be social. We’d start one group here, get them all the materials, then move on. We’d teach the first people enough so they could teach the next, because not everybody would come at the same time. It was a bit of a three-ring circus.” And there is one more vital component to having a successful work party, she adds: “You have to feed them! Make sure you have plenty of food ready so you can serve it up when folks get hungry. The hard work makes for hungry people!”

Rick and Naomi say they could never have built their dream home without the huge amount of community participation. “The plastering required literally tons and tons of material to be lifted and troweled onto the walls,” Naomi says. “It was a godsend to have that much help. It was amazing how much work got done in one day with so many hands pitching in.”

The safe, simple and nontoxic nature of straw-bale building with earthen plasters is perfect for community involvement, and it encouraged people to participate. “You don’t have to worry about wearing gloves or getting it on your clothes,” Naomi says. “We’ve had everybody from kids to 70-year-olds come and help.”

Living In an Art Project

Once the straw-bale structure was up, Rick and Naomi started work on the interior, using reclaimed materials for everything from structural beams to furniture. They say the materials give their home a unique cadence and a connection with the past. “We have a cast-iron sink we got from a music commune,” Rick says. “This sink carries the history of that old farmhouse. It’s heavier-duty than what you get now. It’s a relic. It looks different, and it makes people curious.”

Along with being imbued with character and history, salvaged materials are also often of higher quality than those created today. “Once upon a time, craftsmanship was more important than economics,” Naomi says. “People did things beautifully, and they made things with really high-quality materials. For the most part, when you use a reclaimed material—depending how old it is—it’s a much better quality than what’s being produced today.”

Naomi says the inspiring salvaged materials, paired with a slow building pace, allowed her and Rick to develop their home as a living art project. They weren’t just dedicated to finishing a home in which to live; they were interested in fulfilling their artistic visions. “For a lot of people, the main goal is to get the structure up and be done with it,” Naomi says. “We were more interested in making it as beautiful as we could. It’s not about efficiency and economy. It’s about doing something from your heart’s desire.”

Rick and Naomi found inspiration for their artistic vision in their property and their sense of connection with the natural world. “It was a matter of meeting the beauty of our environment with what we could muster as human beings,” Naomi says. “We were inspired by our surroundings. There are gorgeous forests here, and there are wildflowers in summer and a creek that runs through. There’s water and the sun shines a lot, and the seasons are really palpable. I think all these things contribute to giving you a sensibility about the magnificence of nature and what value that exquisiteness has unto itself.”

Rick and Naomi attempted to mimic the natural landscape within their home. “It’s an organic design,” Rick says. “There are many exposed posts and beams. The handrails are aspen limbs with river birch banisters.” Incorporating his life’s passion into his home, Rick integrated woodworking details all around the house. “The main beams are from one tree—it was a dead-standing Ponderosa pine,” he says. “I cut the tree in half and on one side I carved a 20-foot papa whale. On the other side, I carved the mama and a little baby whale.”

Rick defines art as something that evokes emotion, and he says his home communicates the story of its own creation. “Art is something that makes you feel,” he says. “You may hate it, you may love it. It’s a lot like relationships. Sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s easy. There are things in this house we built when it was really easy, and they look a certain way. It’s not good or bad, but it creates a feeling. Then there are things we built when it was hard for us personally, and the art expresses that.”

A House Called Home

All the love, history and artistry that went into the house created a spirit of its own. “It’s palpable,” Naomi says. “I think it’s all that loving attention and all those hands. You can feel the harmony that’s involved.”

The quality and history of the materials and the spirit of cooperation are evident to everyone who visits the home, Rick says. “Everybody finds this place interesting,” he says. “It’s unique. It’s not like a regular house. There’s natural plaster on the wall. We used flour paste, clay and sand to make the finish plaster and added our own pigments. People ask, ‘What’s that sparkly stuff in the wall?’ And we say, ‘Oh, that’s mica we found around some quartz up on the hill.’”

Naomi loves that their unique home has been able to touch and educate so many in their community, from friends and volunteers to area children. “People were able to learn skills they can apply to their own projects. They were able to experience how doing something together for the love of it feels. That was a really cool thing,” she says.

Their involvement with the community has led to outreach possibilities for Rick and Naomi to demonstrate slow building. “This home seems to be an inspiration, both for kids and adults,” Naomi says. “I had a group of fourth graders up here for a site visit. I talked about the value of building something by hand, with a community and an emphasis on beauty and art. A lot of the kids said, ‘Wow, when I grow up I want to do something like this!’ They got a sense of creating something open and inviting, and of the freedom to be able to explore."

After all the hours and love they’ve put in, Naomi and Rick feel their home is an extension of themselves, and it makes it invaluable to them. “We get to live in something we built ourselves,” Rick says. “It makes it soulful. Even if it isn’t a piece of art, even if it’s not so green—if you build your own house, it feels more like yourself. That’s something that’s really precious.”

Inspired by stories of beautiful homes built from reclaimed materials like this one, Natural Home & Garden Editor Jessica Kellner wrote the book Housing Reclaimed, published last autumn, from which this article is excerpted. Share your reclaimed building projects by emailing Jessica at jkellner@nhandg.com. 

A Mini-Mortgage

Rick and Naomi Maddux didn’t take out a construction loan for their home. Through a Boulder County Open Space land acquisition program, they secured a small mortgage on the original building on their land, but Naomi says getting a construction loan to build their home likely would have been impossible. “We probably wouldn’t have qualified for a loan at the time we built, because we didn’t have enough accumulated income,” she says. Besides, when the couple started construction 10 years ago, banks were uninformed about alternative building methods and didn’t often lend to builders whose plans were outside the realm of conventional building, Naomi says. Plus, their slow, artistic building style wouldn’t have lent itself to the usual loan repayment schedule. “With a loan, you normally have to finish building within six months or a year,” Naomi says. “There was no way I wanted to be constrained like that. I didn’t want to blow a gasket trying to get everything done in that time. We didn’t have an end date, and that was fine with us.”

Today, Naomi and Rick enjoy knowing they are self-sufficient. “It’s allowed us to live within our means,” Naomi says. “We live on a small budget every month, and we’re not in debt. I call it peace of mind. We don’t have this weight over our heads. We’re not paying interest on a construction loan or credit cards. We’re not paying a capitalist entity to float our boat. That feels good.”

A Chat with Rick & Naomi

How does your home’s landscape complement your home? Our home was built to honor our landscape, which is beautiful and wild with rocks and trees and native plants, sidled next to a creek in the Rocky Mountains.

What’s your favorite space in your home? The reading cubby at the top of the stairs, and in winter, the living room area around the wood-burning stove, and the master bath.

What’s your most prized salvaged piece? The wood-burning cookstove that was Rick’s great grandmother’s—we drove to North Dakota to retrieve it from an outbuilding on the old farmstead, converted it to propane and just love the feel of it.

What’s your advice for people who would like to emulate the way you built your home? Do it while you have the energy and strength. Be community-minded and use your experience as an opportunity to pass these skills on to others while having the blessing of their assistance. Take your time. Do not build under a construction loan time frame if possible. Have at least 60 percent of your materials stockpiled before you start digging. Stick to your structural plan while being open and willing to make improvements. Beauty is as important as function. Remember to rest.

Resources

Builders 

Rick and Naomi Maddux 

Information 

Colorado Straw Bale Association 

Environmental Protection Agency
deconstruction guide

Books 

Building with Secondhand Stuff by Chris Peterson

Housing Reclaimed by Jessica Kellner

More Straw Bale Building by Chris Magwood and Peter Mack

Salvage Secrets by Joanne Palmisano

Building Supplies 

Building Materials Reuse Association
state-by-state directory of salvage yards

Old House Online
state-by-state directory of salvage yards


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