2.07.2009,6:10 PM
Pieces of Terlingua: Strawbale home

Last month a tour of Terlingua architecture was held for the Big Bend Historical Society. Since neither I or any of you could attend, in some ways I've been leading you on a virtual tour here. But rather than just an architectural tour, it has been much more: a tour of sense of place. Because architecture is more than just about building a structure; it's designing and constructing places that incorporate the physical, psychological and spiritual needs and desires of the inhabitants within a balanced framework of the surrounding environment. A subgroup of this is called 'green' design and building.

It was my pleasure and honor to have people in Terlingua share with me how they live there. It deepened my connection with the area and the people because of my own similar experience of living simply in the woods of Maine, in some ways the polar (pun intended) opposite of the Big Bend weather and environment. I had no utilities or services except for electricity and could have done without that as well, except that solar collection was limited living under a forest canopy. Here I explored their methods of 'doing without' with so much more.

The most common building is 'adobe', a term applied to a style and construction material. The adobe style is based on hundreds of years of trial and error using local resources and design maximizing use of solar energy and cooling winds. Typically adobes have been simple design: small size, few and small doors and windows placed to maximize winter sun for heat and minimize sun exposure to reduce heat in the summer, long overhangs with ramadas and sheltered courtyards for outdoor living in summer shade, low to the ground to also minimize summer exposure, and shade, shade, shade. The design now crosses over in modern buildings more for cultural and regional appearance than practical design. This can be seen more in the urban areas of other arid regions such as in NM and AZ where homes and building are multistory and of excessive size (I still can't understand why a couple or small family 'requires' homes of 2,000 square feet plus).

Adobe construction has traditionally been simple as well: local clay and sand with additional binding material, including animal dung or vegetative fibers to produce earthen blocks. They require some water and were usually made on location. Several layers of stucco on the exterior provided some weather protection and different kinds of plaster on the interior provided colorful refinement. Roofing materials ran the gamut of canes from local plants, to scavenged materials: tin, aluminum, wood, even mud.

Now adobe construction is often infused with modern materials and techniques, improving weather resistance and thermal capacities. Following 'green' construction, recycled materials are added: papercrete, straw, even organic polymers (such as plastics). Most also use cement in some form or another and to varying ratios.

Adobe and rock hybrids are another approach: strawbales for walls, adobe and/or rock as thermal mass storage. One of the most successful alternative building materials -both here in the southwest and in the mid-west- is strawbales. I've seen two prior to those in Big Bend and both elicited skepticism in my framework of building in the cold frozen Northeast and the rain-penetrating Northwest. One of these had to be rebuilt because an atypical summer rainfall in western Oregon literally 'melted' a strawbale house in the making.

That skepticism has been reversed after visiting a very successful strawbale house in Terglingua. It is not only structurally and design sound, but is the most aesthetically pleasing home I've been in down there.

The primary difference between traditional adobe houses and the hybrid houses are the construction materials: strawbales or rock may replace the adobe blocks, but the stucco and plaster, externally and internally, impart the same concept. They serve as a 'skin' to provide structural support and weather resistance, and they utilize local materials. This also imparts an aesthetic quality that is highly sensory, dare I say even sensuous.

Walls are textural inside and out, imperfections in texture and line add to the overall quality rather than detract, adobe materials can be combined with others to provide interesting and intriguing combinations, and adobe allows for, even invites, individual expression. And overall, it is a more economical and environmentally conservative approach to building. Now compare that with the typical mundane modern design and construction that surrounds us in our urban environments.

In addition, they offer occupant involvement in building. Most of the places in Terlingua, and possibly elsewhere in the Big Bend region, are owner built to some extent. Many places are the handiwork of a communal effort: family, friends and other locals in the community.

Just think now: this provides input by the inhabitants and neighbors that really confers a sense of accomplishment and living. It adds to a sense of place and being. It makes your home really a part of yourself and even of the entire community. And to think that this approach was a necessity of those that lived here only a few decades ago. Everyone helped everyone else build their homes and community buildings (this is being done now in Terlingua!)

This is the type of community I lived in years ago and that I miss now. And to which I hope to return within a few years.

Now, let me introduce you to a strawbale house in southern Big Bend region.

This house incorporates traditional and modern techniques and materials. As in the 'in-fill' construction method, strawbales are placed as the walls in between supporting materials, in this case steel posts and beams, that bear the load of the roof. The other approach is 'load-bearing' where the strawbale walls bear the load of the roof.

As my ex-husband, a building contractor, always stated: "A house is only as good as its foundation." Coming from the Northeast, this was especially true, but is also critical anywhere. Here the foundation and the floor are seamless: concrete. The perimeter provides for total loadbearing and the floor is poured as a slab, which was stained and sealed. Many slabs incorporate heat (either electrical or hot-water). No doubt, the concrete foundation, especially incorporating a slab, is probably the most expensive component of the overall cost. The advantage here is it also serves as thermal mass storage which helps with temperature control.

Here you can see how canes were incorporated into the ceiling treatment adding a textural and earthy component in keeping with the overall aesthetics and 'green' materials. The interior is of open design: the entire living area is open without walls (except for bathroom). A strawbale interior component creates a bench for sitting and reclining while the different color plaster adds contrast and interest. It also imparts a subtle visual demarcation of living area versus working and dining area.

A characteristic interior design component of adobes are the shelves and coveys built into the walls. Here you can also see large glass bottles incorporated into the walls near the top. They add an intriguing expression component while also offering subdued light into the interior without exposure to the harsh and hot summer sun.

Possibilities for expressive creativity in interior plaster is endless. Here on the left side of the photo below you can see tiny glimmering spots in the wall. This is crushed gypsum or mica added to the plaster mixture. To the right of that wall section is the side jam of the door demonstrating how curves and shapes can be incorporated into the design and construction. Adobe and plaster both can be somewhat 'molded', if you will, to shapes and textures that are limited by only the imagination and ability of the builder.

Anyone that thinks this type of construction is limiting only exposes their lack of creativity and ability, or ignorance of both. Seen in this photo is a modern kitchen with concrete counter top lacking little except for a dishwasher. Many consider that a necessity, but that is completely individual and relative. In this environment where resources are more limited, a dishwasher would be extravagant. And, after all, is it really a necessity?

One thing this type of construction requires is thorough planning. It is much better and safer to plan for the advent of additions and details than in modern wooden stick construction. For example, hanging cabinets in not as easy as hammering nails or drilling screws into a wood wall or sheetrock. With adobe and strawbale construction, such details have to be examined and planned for by incorporating amendments and modifications to provide for.

Sleeping arrangement and area can be incorporated in a number of ways. For a small home in which only one person or a couple live in, a loft may be adequate and preferable, such as here. For families, full bedrooms may be desirable for privacy. That entails extra structural and material details.

One special attribute about living in this area of Big Bend (and Texas for that matter) is the opportunities to combine indoor and outdoor living space. I like it as seamless as possible since I usually spend most of my time outdoors. Most of the adobes down here incorporate outdoor living spaces as an integral part of their homes.

This strawbale home has a large semi-covered patio with an excellent view (of my favorite mountain as well), complete with lounge chairs and fire pit. As you can see, the strawbale and adobe-type wall forms the perimeter of the patio and incorporates the load-bearing structure for the roof of woven cane. It also offers shade and shelters the house wall from extremes of the summer sun. It is a perfect example of extending the living space outdoors. Now, who woudn't want to sit here for hours with this view.

This house is off the grid. Solar panels and batteries provide electricity for lights and other uses for electrical appliances; propane fuel for gas kitchen stove and water-heater. Three cisterns catch water from rainfalls during the year, mostly in the mid and late summer months. A gray water system handles 'gray' water (from kitchen and bathroom sinks/shower). In addition to a composting toilet an outhouse provides for leisurely trips to the 'throne' with a view.

Those of us from urban areas are used to planned and completely man-made landscapes. Visitors and new-comers here are struck with the perceived emptiness of vegetation. But they are wrong. It is merely different from what they are used to. And even the indigenous plant life can be used to complement and enhance homes in the landscaped environment. Including my favorite: the blue-green-grays of agave.

This house is a guest house built by the proprietor. It can be rented on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis. Access is by gravel road just east of the main part of the ghost town of Terlingua. If I return to Big Bend for a road trip in March, I suspect I'll stay there for a night or two.

Also, to practice for building my own place down there in the next few years, I plan to build a small strawbale (load-bearing) shed here on my current place.


posted by Macrobe
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