A new building technique arrives in Nashville thanks to (literal) grassroots collaboration 

The House That Straw Built

The House That Straw Built
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Some kind of serendipitous confluence seems to run through the straw-bale room being constructed on Clayton Street in 12South. Owned by Bob and Irma Bernstein, it's thought to be the first of its kind in Nashville — a green-friendly structure that not only draws upon pioneer tradition, but incorporates proven ideas that predate the founding of the New World. And it seems a model of community-building besides. Just ask how everyone present came to gather in this room, hard at work smearing earthy, burnt-orange plaster over hefty columns of straw bales. (Hint: It wasn't through Facebook.)

The 31-year-old general contractor, Ryan Nichols of Green Home, built a house in East Nashville a few years ago that the Bernsteins happened to walk through one day. They kept in touch. The industrious woman in the corner is a tenant of the Bernsteins (who own Fido, Bongo Java and Las Paletas) in another property they own up the street; her ex-husband sold them the clay they're using. The guy in the red T-shirt is from the environmental building and supply shop (n)habit — he's providing the straw, purchased in Franklin, and plaster mix.

The woman to the left is Bernstein's sister-in-law. The guy on the ladder, James Worsham, builds and designs displays for Anthropologie. Irma stopped in the Green Hills shop one day and struck up a conversation, and Worsham quickly realized they shared interests in green design, aesthetics and natural materials. He couldn't resist the opportunity to learn something new that involved working with his hands.

This kind of connectivity — as opposed to the kind you siphon off a social-network feed — has turned the event into an old-fashioned grassroots shindig of back-straining work and getting-to-know-you leisure. It's something akin to a barn-raising party from days of yore, where folks commonly gathered to raise a neighbor's walls, then threw a party to celebrate it. It seems so aw-shucks quaint, such a continuance of America's frontier days, that a cynic would be forgiven for congratulating them on the free labor.

"If we were to step back in time to a truly community-based village-style life, this would have been the norm, not the exception," explains Nichols of their decision to bring in the community. "I know my grandparents, who are from south Alabama, all chipped in with neighbors to help stick-frame each other's houses from the ground up. Framing crews, roofers, etc., didn't really exist in their rural communities. It was a much more self-sufficient, arguably interdependent way to live."

The concept — which involves cheap materials such as straw bales, clay and hydrated lime, but intense labor — is well suited to community hands. So Nichols and the Bernsteins decided to explore it. A few weeks ago, the couple sent out an email invite asking friends and acquaintances to join them. "We want your good, positive, affirmative energy in our new home," they wrote. "Come pile the bales and spread the clay!" They expected their friends would help, Irma Paz Bernstein says, and maybe folks who wanted to learn about building. Instead, the call for help went viral, and complete strangers materialized — in the dozens — willing to devote untold joules to the process.

"All the sudden, we have all these people giving their time and their energy and building what will be our home," Irma says by phone. "It's not like this is a park or community space, this is our home — where we are going to sleep and spend our days. They don't have to do it — they want to do it."

Barn-raising in the U.S. dates back to the rural 18th century, while the straw-bale construction technique dates back to the Paleolithic era. (Nashville, not exactly a forerunner in progressive design techniques, took only 2 million years to warm up to the idea.) The process literally begins with a lot of heavy lifting — stacking numerous bales of hay to fill out the walls.

"It's more time-intensive than it sounds," says Nichols. "You have to make a lot of custom-sized bales, cutting out for windows and around posts." Next, the structure must be reinforced — they're using bamboo to create rigidity. Then it takes multiple coats of earth plaster — a mixture made of sand, clay and hydrated lime ("what they use to chalk a baseball field," Nichols explains). Each coat dries for a week, weather permitting, before the next one can be applied. The slam-dunk is the technique's ability to seize onto temperature with a bear-hug grip.

"A lot of it has to do with the plaster," says Nichols. "It performs like a Gortex jacket. It doesn't let water through, but it lets water vapor through, so it's a breathable plaster. The lime pulls humidity out of the bale." This function is why straw bale is such a popular choice for Midwestern homes and wine cellars the world over. The result is a quieter, cleaner, more energy-efficient room. Walking into it, even mid-construction, with only half of the 60 linear feet completed, was like walking into the cool, deadened air of a cave.

Even with the free labor, Nichols said that the straw-bale technique was comparable to a quality standard construction. Some websites (such as Inspectapedia.com) estimate a cost increase of roughly 20 percent over a conventional wood-frame home, but that's including labor.

Nichols says he's learning as he goes. The Franklin native spent the last decade in Central America and out West, and brought back forward-thinking design ideas with him. He lived in a straw-bale house in Japan briefly, and he swears by the different energy in a house built of natural materials. He doesn't expect to become the straw-bale guy of Nashville, though he hopes to build a reputation for finding alternative ways to build a house.

"My soapbox right now is smaller, better designed spaces over bigger, generic ones," he says. "We've been using the same materials over and over — it's always drywall and paint and oak floors, because that's all we've been marketed. We don't realize how generic our homes are until we walk into one designed for a specific person's lifestyle."

For the Bernsteins, that lifestyle is one increasingly committed to a reduced footprint. All the coffee sold at Bob's establishments is Fair Trade; the food is sourced from local farmers. He recycles and researches the best materials to use, all the way down to the to-go containers. When it came to building their house, every consultant instructed the couple to simply install bamboo floors and buy energy efficient windows and be done with it. But it just didn't seem like enough.

"For one, I always like to do something different," says Bob. "We saw this house in the beginning as a big project we were never going to do again. So we chose the opportunity to make a statement, and be a guinea pig in the green world."

They considered a rammed earth technique, which is similar to the straw-bale technique in that it combines earth with cement, which is then packed into the walls. But there were concerns about the moisture content of the soil. In the end, the straw-bale technique made the most sense, and they are the first to be legally coded for it. They've also added geothermal heating and cooling by digging five 250-feet deep holes into their backyard to draw from air at a consistent 60 to 70 degrees, thus requiring minimal energy to heat or cool it seasonally.

The rest is a lesson in community. "We're not extravagant people," says Irma. "We don't do things for show, but we want the things that are important to us. If you wanted the corny side of it, which is what is important to me, it's the energy and how all these people are going to touch these walls where we're going to be living — my husband and my babies and me. That's always been the focus of why we are doing this straw-bale."

Irma recalls the first Saturday they hosted volunteers, and the magic of seeing the walls stacking up. There were some young, some old — everybody doing a little bit of everything. Some were measuring, some cutting, some lifting. They became so absorbed in the rhythm of their work that when the time came for the next shift of volunteers, the early crew didn't want to stop working.

"We finally had to say, 'Hey, everybody, get some sandwiches,' " Irma says. "Then when it ended at 5 p.m. that day, people were just coming in and talking to us. It was just a great sense of community. That house is a home already. You walk inside and people say, 'Great energy!' 'Hello? It's you guys!' "

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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