Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Built to Last

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Built to Last

Article excerpt

More than just another green house, 'Woodhaven' builds community.

"SINCE I KNOW you guys are urban/city folks like me, I was pleasantly surprised to find that you didn't build some ugly house in the woods." Reading through thank-you letters from seventh graders who had come from Washington, D.C., to work with us, we smiled at this line written by a student we had known since kindergarten.

Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area for more than 30 years, it's true we were "urban folks," but our hearts were drawn to the woods. This crazy venture of ours began more than six years ago, when the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community, located south of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., was poised to build Woodhaven, a new staffhome, in keeping with their deep respect for the earth and their mission of nurturing people and community. As Rolling Ridge members, we began building this home as a way to teach and learn about a different kind of architecture and to explore whether it is possible to create an energy-efficient, attractive home that will use fewer resources, last longer, and be gentler on the earth.

This project required discerning the time for humility and the time for hubris: the humility to know when it's crucial to call on experience and skill; the hubris to jump in and try things we've never done before. We could not have built this house without the brilliant work of our architect, Sigi, and building contractor, John, as well as skilled carpenters, electricians, and plumbers. Nor could we have done it without the enthusiastic work of numerous volunteers.

Ever eager to learn by rolling up their sleeves (or in the case of stamping - cob, their pant legs), people have come during the past few years to help stack straw bales into strong walls, apply lime plaster on the outside and clay mix on the inside, and plant living roofs. They have filled the house not only with finished walls, but also with a spirit of joy.

One beauty of natural building-besides leaving very little material for the landfill-is that it is accessible and forgiving: Anyone can learn how to mix clay, sand, straw, and water to sculpt a cob wall or plaster straw bales. We even had a 14-month-old who loved exploring mud dancing! One woman from Manhattan kept sending photos to her friends, saying, "They are never going to believe I was doing this!"

People built community as they built the house, laughing at their own learning curves, brainstorming ingenious solutions to construction problems, and feeling a sense of pride in accomplishing something real with their own two hands.

From the beginning, folks in the area watched with an open mind and encouraging spirit. Since this was the first straw bale home in our county, most of the designs were new to the people in the permit office. They had no building code for many of our ideas, but when the structural engineer- a woman they knew to be exceptionally competent and thorough-signed off, they approved our plans. All our subsequent inspections were both collaborative and informative.

When a local farmer delivered more than 600 straw bales stacked sky-high on his massive open-bed truck, he watched with amusement as we labored to pitch them up to the second floor. Finally, he lent us a hand, effortlessly gliding them through the air as only one who has spent his life working a farm can do. …

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