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Bale by Bale: The Making of Square One

Last summer while traveling in Hokkaido I had the chance to attend a straw bale home building workshop. It was one of a series Toby and Maiko Weymiller offered to give interested folks an opportunity to learn about straw bale, and to get their new home, Square One, built. A variety of people from far and wide came to lend a hand, and we found the same feeling pervading the work site that we found last spring on a roof in Nagano-ken. This time that sense of yui (group fellowship and learning) raised the walls of a family's new home.

When we left for our camping trip the first floor walls were nearly done and Square One was well on its way. Now Toby, Maiko, and Bomber (their most adorable cat) are enjoying their first spring in their new home. I asked Toby to share some thoughts on the project and the process. Following is our conversation broken into three parts:

Part One: Sum and Substance of Square One

A two-story post and beam straw bale home just outside Asahikawa, Japan, Square One is the culmination of Toby and Maiko's desire to take advantage of their amazing location in the most sustainable way possible. In this first part, Toby talks about how they settled on straw bale, Hokkaido, and the name for their new home.

PH: You both seemed so passionate about straw bale from the start. I'm curious to know what really appealed to you about this technique versus other eco-friendly styles of construction, i.e. recycled materials, etc?

TW: Location was the most important thing for us from the beginning. After we got the property, then we started to talk about what we'd build on it. Originally, I thought about a log cabin because of it's natural feel, and because my good friend, Sakai-san, is a very well-respected log-builder here and throughout Japan.

Over the past ten years Maiko and I were exposed to a variety of sustainable lifestyles and we were becoming greener every day. In Seattle, we lived car-free for many years, and this us introduced to many other eco ideas. A friend of ours, Gabriel Scheer, then loaned me two books on straw bale building. They sat on our coffee table until one morning when I just couldn't get back to sleep. I woke up and started reading. After the first twenty pages or so I brewed a pot of coffee and spent the next three hours going cover to cover. When Maiko woke up I had finished the first book and was jumping into the second. I then told her we were building a straw bale house. As you might think, she took a little longer to come around to the idea. However, after we participated in a workshop in Winthrop, Washington she was sold big time on the idea.

Straw bale IS a recycled material, and in my opinion is the best material for this climate. It would keep us warm in the winter and cooler in the summer - not that it gets real hot up here anyway. It was readily available - from our neighbor's farm across the street for free - and the final product is truly beautiful when you look at it from an aesthetic point of view.

We visited a number of straw bale houses and saw many pictures of many straw bale homes. One, they were very beautiful inside and out. Two, the atmosphere inside a straw bale house is particularly unique. It's very quiet (straw bale insulates against sound as well as cold and heat) and just feels incredibly natural. Of course, the latter is because it is indeed very natural, but I think it goes beyond that. It's so easy to just relax in a straw bale house because you can almost feel the walls breathing. It's truly hard to explain, but I hope you understand more when you come visit!

We also used many other recycled, reused, and sustainable materials in the building. Many beams are recycled (some 100 plus years old), and we strove to find local timber, natural materials, and an assortment of recycled goods including much of the furniture to fit our goal.

PH: How and why did you and Maiko choose Hokkaido?

TW: Maiko is from Asahikawa, Hokkaido, and I lived in Fukagawa, Hokkaido (30 minutes southwest of Asahikawa) for three years. We had a good lifestyle and alot of good friends and family in Seattle, but something was missing. When my mom passed away it was hard on both of us. Maiko and my mom were close. It was a dark place for awhile, but it was also a blessing. When we came out of that dark tunnel the light was not only brighter, but we could see a lot clearer. We realized together that we wanted to live in Hokkaido. Fifteen years ago I dreamed of living in Higashikawa (as close to Asahidake as possible), which is why I worked in Fukagawa for three years. That dream, as well as many others, came true. :)

PH: What did you read to prepare for the project and inspire yourselves?

TW: It's a long list of books, blogs, workshops, and people, and much of the stuff is still in boxes. Bill and Athena Steen's books got us started, though. After that we started looking at everything and anything we could get our hands on.

PH: Did this cost more than a usual house-building project? If you don't mind my asking, what was the overall budget?

TW: Yes. Honestly, there wasn't really a budget per say. We had a ballpark figure that we wanted to stay near (roughly US$330,000) and we went a little over that. We had enough stress over the course of this project without constantly nickle-and-diming ourselves. However, we found places every day to make it less expensive. In the end, we have no regrets regarding the cost of the project as we have an amazingly beautiful house that we love!!!

PH: Can you give me an example of places where you could have cut corners but chose not to as well as where you chose to save?

TW: One example of where we could have cut corners is labor. Stefan, our natural builder, did a lot of work on the house that we could have hired done at probably a third of his hourly rate. We also could have done much of the final plastering ourselves or with more friends, family and workshops rather than hiring a local plaster company. In both cases, we decided against cutting corners in the interest of time (winter was coming fast!) and because we wanted a durable, high quality finish.

We also could have ordered timber logs from America or Canada for a lower price than those we got from Yamagata-ken. We chose to go with local and reused logs to cut down on the embodied energy of our house.

On the flip side, we also could have spent more on labor and materials. We could have flown professionals over to be with us during the project. Instead, we decided to trust who we had locally and what destiny seemed to choose for us. We also used a wholesale method to get many of our materials at about a third of the cost.

PH: What's the lifespan of a straw bale house?

TW: For as long as we want. With care, there is no reason why it won't last many lifetimes. The tosashikkui lime plaster we are looking to put on the walls are used in buildings in Kochi Prefecture that are over 600 years old. With TLC (like any other building) a straw bale house should last forever.

PH: Why do you think most people build straw bale houses?

TW: One, because they can do it themselves. Two, because they could then save alot of money and forgo a mortgage. Three, it's an eco-friendly material.

PH: What's the ultimate goal or objective of your home and what role does building it in this way play?

TW: To be sustainable now and for the rest of our lives. As I mentioned earlier, location was the most important factor. We have just about everything we need - shops, bank, post office, town hall, good ramen, and a good izakaya - within a one kilometer walk. We are two blocks from the last bus stop in town, and two blocks from a cycling road that takes us either into the mountains or back into Asahikawa. We are on the edge of town so we have amazing views and can get to the largest national park in all of Japan with just a fifteen minute drive or an hour bike ride.

PH: Why did you call your house Square One?

TW: I wanted a name for our house. I was thinking about it one day while listening to one of Tom Petty's latest CD's, The Highway Companion. (I'm a bit of a fan, by the way.) The song, Square One, started and the lyrics touched home. (No pun intended.) I remembered the first time I heard that song. It was shortly after my mom passed away when watching the movie Elizabethtown, which also helped us cope with the sudden loss in our lives. I didn't want the name of the house to be strictly after a Tom Petty song, but the more I thought about it the more I liked it.

I then did some research on what Square One means to different people, and I liked what I found. For us, it's a place to go back to and refresh. Whether we go to work, the outdoors, another country or whatever, we will ALWAYS come back to Square One to refresh and be home. Square One is where we belong and where we will stay!

Learn more about Toby and Maiko's adventures in straw bale and Hokkaido at their blog. Interior photos can be found here, and more photos of the construction process can be found here and by perusing their blog. Check back here tomorrow for the next part of the interview: Straw Bale in Japan!

(Completed house photo courtesy of Toby and Maiko Weymiller.)


Anjuli said…
This is excellent! I have heard about the straw bale houses- and was meaning to go to a teaching session on this very thing (in Oregon)- now your post has prompted me to begin pursuing that option once again. We had contemplated using this form of building for the structures we were constructing in Ghana for schools and clinics.

Thank you once again for this reminder!
That's great news, Anjuli! So far I've been most impressed by straw bale, and while it may not be perfect for every situation and climate I do think it's pretty great. It seems so logical in so many ways. What were you constructing in Ghana?
Anjuli said…
Joan - we have been constructing schools and clinics. We need to check out whether the straw bale will be conducive to the climate there.
Anjuli, that sounds like an amazing experience, and good work. I look forward to hearing more about that!
Shayne said…
$330,000 for a house sounds like a lot but is that a good price for the area. it is a lot for Michigan but not for Washington DC
You're quite right, Shayne. In Japan and up in Hokkaido building, as Toby mentions, is big business. Construction is constantly underway, and things tend to be more expensive here, too. Not everyone who builds with straw bale will spend this much, but it's also a good example of how building sustainably doesn't nave to mean ugly or sloppy. I think those are often two stereotypes of green living that should be put to rest.

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