By: Linda Sailer, The Dickinson Press
The sound of chain saws filled the air, while loose straw swirled around the feet of the volunteers who have been building a straw bale home for Killdeer/Dickinson veterinarian Dr. Shelley Lenz.
The 17 volunteers are participating in a straw bale workshop taught by Andrew Morrison of Straw Bale Innovations out of Ashland, Ore.
Lenz has been hosting the workshop Monday through today at her home on the south side of Lake Ilo. She provides the meals, a place to throw tents and a make-shift shower created out of what else — bales.
“It’s been so fantastic,” Lenz said. “It’s really going well, even though we’ve had a lot of problems. No one is complaining. It had the potential of being a disaster, but that hasn’t happened when people work together for a common goal.”
Lenz had obtained 400 bales to use in the walls, but Morrison said the bales were too soft and loose for construction.
Workshop participant Stacy Dille of Colorado suggested that her cousin, Myran Hammer — a farmer near Fort Ransom — had new straw bales for sale. Several volunteers made the five-hour trip with two flat-bed trucks, loaded the bales in the middle of the night and returned to Lake Ilo the next morning.
Lenz wanted to build a straw bale house because of her interest in going green. That was last June.
“I wanted to build a new house and make it unique,” she said. “I have family land and I wanted to make it a little eco-friendly.”
She did her homework, learning that straw bale homes are energy efficient — cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
“I liked the look of the plaster on the outside of the walls — they have an Old World look to them,” she added.
A designer was hired to make the house passive solar — the windows had to be placed just right. The house is heated by radiant heat emitted through the cement floors. The plans were certified by engineers, she said.
Lenz went forward with the house after her concerns were met regarding fire, insects and mold. The bales are tightly secured together, wrapped together with mesh and covered with three coats of plaster.
“It’s actually more fire proof than a conventional house,” she said.
Any kind of straw is acceptable — rice, wheat, barley or oats — as long as the bales are tight, she said.
“I created the design myself,” Lenz said. “The things I love most are a lot of open space.”
The home has a basement, with 1,200 square feet on the main floor for a bedroom, living room and kitchen. A breezeway leads into a studio.
“It’s like my little piece of heaven — I don’t bring my work home,” she said.
Lenz will share her home with two dogs and a cat that were rescued from the pound. She also has two horses on the property.
Lenz intended to attend a straw bale workshop, but the opportunity presented itself to host a workshop in North Dakota.
Before the workshop crew arrived, she hired a general contractor, Darryl Binstock Construction, who did the framework and roofing, and arranged for the plumbers and electricians.
“He’s been fantastic — he’s really come through,” Lenz said.
The cost of a straw bale home is comparable to a conventional house, perhaps 10 to 12 percent more.
“We have a free labor force, and if we didn’t do that, I guess it be would more expensive,” she said.
Lenz grew up in Ohio, attended veterinarian school and has been in practice for 12 years. She arrived in Killdeer five years ago.
She owns the Killdeer Veterinary Clinic and State Avenue Veterinary Clinic, Dickinson.
“I liked the geography of North Dakota, I liked the people of North Dakota and the animals needed a good veterinarian,” she said. “The area was underserved — the main reason I came back was to serve the area.”
The workshop was described as hard work and fun. The volunteers hail from throughout the United States and Canada.
“People come to learn how to do the houses,” Lenz said. “People actually want to participate.”
The volunteers start work at 7 a.m. and finish at 6 p.m. with dinner.
“We sit around and talk about everything — we tease each other,” Lenz said. “They’re building my home and that’s what makes my home more special.”
Lenz said her family is excited about the venture.
“You always have a crazy aunt in the family — I recently realized, I’m the crazy aunt,” she joked.
Lenz said a workshop goal is to educate people about construction with straw.
“We’re making use of a waste product for something really good,” she said. “I think it has appeal to people who want a hand in building their own homes.”
Lenz will move into the home the minute it has plumbing. She’s now living in a mobile home on site.
With time, she will cover the last coat of plaster in a red clay color to enhance the dark green roof.
The North Dakota workshop is the sixth that Morrison has hosted this year. He’s done workshops throughout the world, from Australia and Portugal to Canada and the United States.
From here, to goes to Perth, Australia to teach a workshop.
“We teach everything from the toe-ups where the bales sit on, to staking the bales, wrapping the mesh around them and applying the first coat of plaster,” he said.
Several of the workshop participants are interested in learning how to build a straw bale home. Others want to be part of the bigger community, wanting to do something different with like-minded people, he said.
Morrison started in the construction business with conventional methods, but wanted something greener.
“There’s so much waste in the construction industry, it was difficult to watch,” he said. “I wanted something more natural and it’s more fun.”
He said straw bale homes offer a 75 percent reduction of energy costs.
“With the thick window wells — there’s obviously an aesthetic beauty to them,” he added. “You don’t have the rigidity of standard construction work that is perfectly formed, perfectly level and perfectly boring. It’s natural and comfortable,”
Morrison said a straw bale home is three times more fire resistant than a regular home.
“It’s super tight and covered with 1 1/2 inches of lime plaster on the inside and outside — basically it’s completely impenetrable to fire,” he said.
Other concerns are mold and mice.
“All three are not an issue at all,” he said. You can keep the bales dry with proper design. You’re not going to get mice in there because there’s no place for them to go because the bales are so tightly packed. There are homes in Europe and the United States that are 100 years old and still inhabited and doing just fine.”
Describing Lenz’s house, Morrison said. “Environmentally, it really fits into the area. It’s pretty awesome to be putting bales in the wall while watching the haying in the field next to us.”