Green Building Archive

Odds and Ends from Home

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Here’s a few items that I thought I’d share with you, mostly this post was driven by people requesting the recipe for the “coctel de nopalitos” or in English, prickly pear pad salad with a lot of juice.  So I thought instead of emailing it out repeatedly why not do it once and for all here.

Coctel de Nopalitos

Prickly pear cactus pads being cleaned, spine stubs removed and ready for chopping.

-  1 1/2 kilo of spineless prickly pear pads that are cleaned, chopped and been either boiled in water until tender or sauteed til the same.  Basically you want to cook until the gel or gooey substances are gone.  These are available these days in a lot of grocery stores catering Mexican shoppers such as Food City in Arizona.
-  1/2 cup of lime juice, best if Key limes or the other will work.
- 1 cup of whole wheat berries, well cooked, in Mexico the ones in the dish we ate had a round shape.
-  1 cup of finely chopped white onion.
-  1 cup of chopped tomatoes.
-  1 1/2 cup of chopped cucumber.
-  1/2 cup of cilantro chopped.
-  2 jalapenos that you buy in a can that have been cured in vinegar (escabeche).
-  1 liter of Clamato
-  1 small can of tomato puree.
-  salt to taste.

Chiles and Climate Change

The part of the prior blog post where I talked about our visit to Casimiro Sanchez, the grower from the town of San Ignacio, is referenced in a New York Times article about our friend Gary Nabhan.  Here’s the link:

The article is plug for Gary’s Book done with Kurt Michael Friese and Kraig Kraft about their odyssey to evaluate the effects of climate change on assorted crops, most notably chiles.

Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail[Paperback]
Kurt Michael Friese (Author), Kraig Kraft (Author), Gary Paul Nabhan(Author)

An Art Book about the Border

This is what I would call a simultaneously beautiful and very cool book about the border.  It’s done by Philip Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Arizona, who describes himself as an artist working primarily in the medium of artists’ books.

It’s entitled “Sanctus Sonorensis,” a book of border “beatitudes” commenting on the complicated attitudes of Americans on illegal immigration from Mexico.  The title refers to a hymn that forms part of the Catholic mass that is sung.  This is a large book weighing 4 lbs on board stock with rounded and gilded edges such as breviaries or missals of Catholic literature.

Price is $50 plus shipping, details can be found on Philip’s blog as well as a good amount of info about the book.  The link for that would be:


Were here at home through early May with the possible exception of a trip to Sonora to check on our building that is currently going up in San Carlos under the guidance of Emiliano Lopez who was the main person we worked with on the Save the Children project in Obregon, Mexico.

Starting Saturday is our week long Straw Bale Comprehensive, then a week off and April 30th through May 7 is the fun course - Artistry with Clay and Lime which is basically a whole bunch of stuff about clay and lime in many different applications.

Photo Processing

I frequently get asked about how I process the photos that appear on this blog.  I thought it perhaps interesting to put up a before and after, in this case a rather extreme and playful one.  What I do is not all that complicated, but in short, I start in Photoshop and rely on a few simple and easy to use tools called plug-ins that I have installed in the program.  The main one is a suit of products by Topaz Labs -

I have a number of requests for a photo class in the Rio Sonora area and am considering it for next year.  I certainly don’t consider myself well qualified to teach Photoshop, but what I can do is show others what I do and how I work.  And of course, I’ve identified a whole lot of interesting things to photograph in that part of Mexico.  If you’re interested let me know.

This image was taken at an old house in Banamichi, Sonora.  You will notice a rather significant difference that deviates somewhat from what some call reality.  And that is something that doesn’t particularly interest me when it comes to creating images.  I want enough of the original to be able to identify it and yet I can lean heavily in the “painterly” direction for some images.

Read the original article on The Canelo Chronicles.
beautystrawbale Bill and Athena Steen are the authors of, most recently, The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes.

Drywall Plaster Notes from Denver

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

For those who are interested here are some notes about the plaster we applied to the drywall panels behind the sculpture. The museum mounted the panels for us leaving ¼ inch depth from the surrounding frame. I wanted to do this because we frequently get questions about plastering over drywall or similar surfaces. All to often I watch people run out and buy what I would consider to be excessively expensive pre-mixed clay plaster products when it is so simple to replicate those mixes at a fraction of the price.

The Mix – It was pretty simple – 1 part C Red clay from Laguna Clay, 2 parts 60 grit silica sand, ½ part chopped straw that was screened using 1/8 inch hardware cloth. The water used to prepare the mix was prepared with 1 part concrete bonder to 7 parts water. This gave the surface of the plaster a little extra hardness and provided the adhesion needed between the plaster and the drywall. It’s possible to use other natural glues, some people like wheat paste, I personally don’t because it makes the mix perform differently and can make the finished surface splotchy in color. I much prefer rice starch powder that we buy from a firecracker supply outet – I’m sure it’s available from a number of other sources. We also make it from scratch using glutinous rice flour, but when traveling, the ready to go powder is preferable. Casein is another option that I love, but again, travel makes it somewhat tedious to prefer unless a pre-mixed powder with lime.

Laguna is one of the biggest suppliers of ceramic supplies. They sell both plain powdered clay as well as clay bodies, that include other ingredients for specific purposes. We usually go to an outlet that provides materials for ceramicists and see what they have in the way of powdered products and typically select a color that is close to what we are looking for. From there it can be adjusted somewhat with a pigment, but the results never seem to be the same as using the clay by itself. Some of the clays/clay bodies that we often use form Laguna include Mohave Red, EM 215, Newman Red, Blackbird.

I don’t remember exactly what the square footage of the wall panels was that we did in the museum, but my memory says something around 300 sf. Given that we used about 1 ½ bags of the C Red at $17 a bag – a total of about 75 lbs, another bag of a clay called Mojave Red which we used as part of the first coat application. Price is about the same. Keep in mind that we applied the plaster thicker than we normally would due to the ¼ inch depth of the molding around the drywall. Cost - $42.50. We used about 4 to 5 -100 lb bags of 60 grit sand at a cost of $6 a bag. Cost - $24. So total expenditure for the walls at ¼ inch thickness - $66.50 or .22 cents sf.

The only thing I can’t tell you about the mix above is the amount of water, I simply don’t remember. We usually eyeball it to get it where we want. What I can say is that if it doesn’t spread easily on the wall, it’s too dry. If it slides off the hawk too easily or the trowel, then it’s too wet.

Plaster consistency used.

The Tools – The accompanying photo shows the tools we were using along with the ingredients, they are described in the notes below. For clarity, one doesn’t need the same tools that we use, I have included them here to show you what we commonly use in these kinds of situations. Similar results can be achieved with a variety of other types of plastering tools. There are a couple of items in the photo that aren’t covered below. One is the Japanese style wood plaster hawk, used to hold the plaster being applied to the wall. The ones we use are copies of ones used in Japan, made by our son Oso. The red spatula shown is for cleaning miscellaneous buckets and tools.

Tools with the dry plaster ingredients on the wood hawk.

Keeping the plaster environment clean is essential especially in a museum. I like to keep two pairs of slip-on shoes when working. One pair of rubber clogs to wear while plastering and another pair of slip-ons to put on when leaving the plastering area. In the museum they put down masonite to cover the floor with plastic edging. Our Japanese friends Ogin and Atsushi had a neat trick, they put down gloves to step on before leaving the work area to clean the bottoms of their shoes.

Transition gloves for clean floors.

The Application - The plaster was applied in two coats. The first coat was the thickest, applied and leveled using a poly float (made in Germany). We bought ours in Denmark. A search on line under German poly floats will usually yield a source for them. They’re great when you have other people helping and applying plaster that don’t have a lot of experience. They even out any mistakes, giving a uniform look to everyone’s work. It’s the yellow rectangular tool in the photo. I find them far superior to wood and they’re lightweight as well.

Dry base coat.

The second coat was applied using the same mix. It is applied soon after the first has been floated. It is not applied very thickly, but rather just enough to even out the first coat, filling any holes and depressions. To further refine the surface we typically go over it with a damp paintbrush, gently moving the plaster as needed, followed by the trowel again. For application, we used rectangular Japanese carbon steel (medium gauge) trowels. They have just a bit of flex that works well with finer grade plasters. These trowels are available from Tom and Satomi Lander at: They also have stainless steel versions.

Application of the final layer.

Once we have gone over the plaster with the paintbrush, we follow with a large flexible trowel that has a rounded top, like an American pool trowel, using smooth and even strokes to further even out the plaster. Also available from Tom and Satomi. We also used a small flexible trowel with pointed tip for detailing around the edges and corners.

After smoothing with the large flexible trowel.

The Final Steps – Once the plaster has set (not dry), but won’t smear with finger movement or depress, we go over the surface with a damp tile sponge to reveal the straw. At this stage, it is possible to use a flexible trowel to push any straw back into the plaster that has been left on the surface due to the sponging.

Ogin sponging the walls to reveal the straw.

Final plaster look, still wet.

Read the original post at The Canelo Chronicles.

beautystrawbale Bill and Athena Steen are the authors of, most recently, The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes.

Mud Woman Continues - Part 2

Friday, February 4th, 2011

So much for trying to post photos on a daily basis while working in Denver. I knew it wasn’t likely, but I thought I would try. As it turned out, after my initial post reality took over. On days 2, 3 and 4 we worked til closing, rushed back to the hotel for a quick change of clothes and then out to one dinner after another. If it were a normal weekend for the museum I don’t think it would have been so hectic. As it turned out, the Denver Art Museum was opening its doors to its newly reconstructed American Indian galleries with Athena’s sister, Roxanne, as the featured artist. For us that meant lots of people coming to see the new galleries – a day for docents, a day for members and a day for the public.

Gala dinner at the Denver Art Museum for docents.

Should you have a chance, the new galleries are really worth visiting. Hats off to Nancy Blomberg, curator of native arts for the Museum, who re-conceptualized the galleries and had the vision to emphasize the unique talents of individual artists rather than lumping them together as Native American crafts people. The overall presentation is beautiful, combining static pieces with digital audio/visual presentations. Here’s a link to Native American galleries:

Curator of Native Arts - Nancy Blomberg.

Posting daily photos to the blog was obviously not a practical idea, but I did discover another option that worked well for those on Facebook. As long as the museum’s WiFi was working I could take photos with the iPhone and upload them directly to Facebook.

For clarity I’m going to rewrite some of what I’ve posted before. The sculpture, a “Pueblo Storyteller,” is called “Mud Woman Rolls On” and will be a 10 to 12 foot high sculpture of a Pueblo mother and four children. I was going to hold off posting any drawings of the final piece, but due to requests, I give in. Here’s a couple of sketches that give some idea about what the finished sculpture will look like.

For comparison’s sake, I’ve also included a bronze sculpture of hers to give some idea of what the feel of the final piece will be. Obviously it’s not clay, but I think there will be a similar feeling.

Bronze sculpture in front of Roxanne’s Tower Gallery - Pojoaque, NM.

The museum’s sign using some of Roxanne’s words gives a good brief description of the piece.

If you aren’t familiar with her work check out her website which is a very nice condensed presentation of who she is and her sculptures - Google will also yield a bunch of information about her.

Working with/inside a museum clearly has its challenges. I think the first had to do with how the sculpture was to be built. Roxanne wanted it to be made from unfired clay, but in that the upper museum floors have weight limitations, the sculpture had to be relatively lightweight. Building it entirely out of molded clay was clearly out of the question. So what to do? Drawing on our experience of working with straw wattles, that are typically used for erosion control, Roxanne agreed that it would be a great idea to make the core of the structure from the wattles and then simply cover it with clay. And so it began, wattles and pieces of wattles were sewn together, staked when necessary and an initial light coating of clay applied over parts of the sculpture.

Athena using wood dowels to stake the wattles together.

Roxanne and Athena.

The beginning of the arms on the left, Kalin helping Athena with the plaster.

Athena applying plaster.

Museums are very clean places and the challenge of mixing chopped straw and powdered clay, (note: lots of dust), without creating havoc was next on the list Miraculously, the utility room with a good-sized drain and water, was located right next to the space where we were working to make the cleanup of tools and dirty buckets relatively easy. Time will tell how much time is required for the clay plaster/coating to dry and whether or not mold will be a problem. The mix we are using to cover the straw requires a fair amount of time to dry and ideally good air circulation. The actual work space that we have available is really quite adequate, no problems there. Not a concern on this project, but there is always the issue of how the dynamics between everyone connected to the project will go. As for the museum staff, I have nothing but great things to say, they absolutely and completely marvelous in every respect. As for our boss on this project, that would be Roxanne, she’s about as good as you could get, no worries there.

Heather Neilsen, who is the staff person we see the most of at the museum. Her official position - master teacher of native arts.

Both the legs in place.

To the right, the beginnings of the first child.

The end of day 4 as we left the sculpture until a return trip.

The plaster on the back and arms shows the developing form.

As far as I can tell, unless someone tells us different, I would think this to be the first sculpture made out of straw wattles of this size and dimension. There is however a great precedent for sculptures made entirely out of long lengths of straw in Japan. The mud woman sculpture will differ in that it is made from wattles and the Japanese ones are not covered with clay. For never having done this before, the work is going remarkably fast. We may have to slow it down a bit so the work lasts until the scheduled completion in August.

Photo of straw figure from the Akita prefecture sent to us by our friend Kimie Tada, editor of Confort magazine.

It was truly fascinating watching Roxanne sculpt the parts of the body with pieces cut and retied from the wattles. It was like getting a lesson in anatomy. Having done so many sculptures over the years, she clearly knows the human form. Even more amazing, was watching how quickly she adapted to working with the medium. We had brought with us two different types of needles that were to be used for sewing the wattles together, both made by our son Benito, one type from bamboo, the other from a metal rod typically used to straighten wood screen doors. Over the four days that we were there, Roxanne, assisted at times by Athena and her husband Tim, did nothing but sew the structure of the sculpture together. We also mixed a lot of clay and straw together, Athena being the main one to apply it in between talking with and attending to the public.

4 long days were enough, I don’t think any of us wanted to see any more straw. Roxanne’s and Athena’s hands were sore from sewing complete with a few blisters and more than enough dust. I’m not sure exactly what the next phase will be, Roxanne will need to calculate what happens next in the scheme of things. Whatever or whenever it be I look forward to it.

Tired, but satisfied.

We had extraordinarily beautiful weather while we were there, on the average, days in the 50s. However, we escaped just as it started to snow, projected high for Tuesday ranged somewhere around 5 degrees. Not my kind of weather by any means. From the plane, Tucson never looked better.

Read the original post at The Canelo Chronicles.

beautystrawbale Bill and Athena Steen are the authors of, most recently, The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes.

Mud Woman Continues

Monday, January 31st, 2011

(January 27, 2011): We returned to Denver yesterday to begin working with Athena’s sister Roxanne on her sculpture piece “Mud Woman Rolls On.” Our presence coincides with the opening of the Native American exhibit in the old wing of the Denver Art Museum. Gala dinner tomorrow with a public opening on Sunday from 12 to 5 pm. So if you’re in the Denver area, come see us on Sunday on the 3rd floor of the old museum.

I’m going to try something new this time, given my access to the camera on the iPhone 4, let’s see if I can post photos over the next few days without waiting until we return phone. If I get my scene together perhaps I can even upload photos and video from my phone while we’re working during the day via an app for mobile blogging

I was going to post a drawing of what the final sculpture will look like, but I decided against it. Thought it would be more interesting if you watch the piece unfold month by month on the blog. It’s scheduled to be completed by the early part of September. With that I’ll keep the dialogue to the minimum and rely on the photos.

Today’s work that you see below is using what are called straw wattles, typically used to control soil erosion, as the core of the sculpture. For us, it’s picking up on the work we did last year in the Arizona State University Ceramic Research Center. And somewhat it’s an extension of techniques we have evolved working with straw bales and clay plasters.

Arriving the Denver Airport with its tent-like roof.

Roxanne became fascinated with our waitress at the hotel restaurant, told her how beautiful she was and that led to a photo. Lisa, from St Petersburg, Russia, had come to Denver to explore the United States. After an extended stay, she’s ready to go back home, describing it as a beautiful city full or art and culture.

We began our day with a platform to support the sculpture and a stack of the straw wattles.

The first coil was attached to the sculpture base, the second tied to it with twine.

Sewing the coils continued along with staking them together with sharpened wood dowels.


The end of the day, 7 to 8 layers of wattles. More tomorrow.

Read the original post on The Canelo Chronicles.

beautystrawbale Bill and Athena Steen are the authors of, most recently, The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes.

Mud Woman Begins to Roll

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Funny where the world takes you at times. A desire to upload this blog before going to Mexico tomorrow and trouble with the internet at home took me to none other than McDonalds in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Clearly it is not someplace I frequent, but the WiFi is free and the coffee not too bad. The experience came complete with a birthday party right in front of me as I configured this post. Being a military town near the border makes for a really interesting place at times. The party today seemed to be for a teenage Mexican girl, attended by friends - Asians, Mexican, African Americans and Anglos. The escorting father - a captain from Ft. Huachuca in his camos with a Latin wife. What an experience - McDonalds, the iced mocha and the birthday party.

What I’ve written today is an account of our recent trip to Denver to begin wok on the project “Mud Woman Rolls On.” Our trip began with a brief overnight stop in Tucson, where we were part of a presentation at the University of Arizona architecture school with friends Peter Warshall and Gary Nabhan. Distinguished company to say the least, would take too long to tell you who they are – appropriate info sources would be Google, Wikipedia although fitting descriptive words include Whole Earth Catalong and Review, Anthropology, Claude Levi Strauss, Ethnobotany, Native Seed Search, alternative food systems.

By plane we traveled the next day to Albuquerque, New Mexico to rent a truck and drive to Santa Clara Pueblo, north of Santa Fe to spend the evening with Athena’s mother, sister and brother. Dinner, we laugh a lot, collect tools we had stored there and drive ourselves and supplies to Denver on Sunday to begin work on the Denver Art Museum project.

Left to Right - Athena’s brother Cleo, sister Roxanne, mother Rina, Athena and nephew Porter.

Driving through the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado.

My first memory of Denver was finding the Mexican (state of Chihuahua) maid cleaning our room. The short story goes like this; she broke into tears as she told me that her daughter was in intensive care at the hospital the night before due to being sprayed in the face with a computer cleaning solution. She was talking with friends on the sidewalk when a car drove up, sprayed her in the face and then drove off. She’s not sure whether it is better to be in Denver or Mexico.

New wing of the Denver Art Museum.

Roxanne, Athena’s sister was awarded the commission to construct a very large sculpture inside the museum out of unfired clay. In that it’s 10 ft tall, 15 ft long, the know-how to construct needs us. We add to the clay she normally works with, straw wattles, chopped straw, sand and whatever other natural fibers and bamboo may be required. Plus, she and Athena, who enjoy each other’s company a great deal, get to work together on an artistic adventure. I try to add to the process by making good mixes, finding materials, working hard, once in a while coming up with a good idea and keeping track of receipts. The work will happen on the 3rd floor of the old wing of the museum and will be open to the public as it is happening. The official public opening is January 30th. Come see us.

The room as we found it, white panels on the walls ready for plaster.

Our first job is to start the project off by plastering the walls that will be the backdrop for the piece. We’ve brought everything with us, including tools, powdered clay, chopped straw that we had to freeze for two weeks to meet museum requirements, the sand we bought in Denver. To help us, Atsushi and Ogin, a young Japanese couple whom we know, joined us at the museum. What we didn’t know, we’ve never worked with them before, is whether or not they would be the kind of help we need. Enthusiastic offers to assist us on projects sometimes make more work for us. In this case, they were flawless in every respect, next to perfect – just enough plastering skill be to be useful, willing to learn and be coached and easily rated 10+ stars plus when it came to cleaning up. I’ll take them anytime.

Not only were Ogin and Atsushi extraordinarly super when it came to cleaning tools at the end of the day, their presentation was on the level of what one would expect of a fine sushi presentation.

I think one of the most fascinating things about our work is when it involves a mix of different cultures, especially when several are together at the same time. This time is was really that of contrast having just left Mexico a few days before, and then on to Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico and onto Denver to work with a Japanese couple. No time or space to say more, but perhaps you can imagine something about the sequence. And now, we are on our way back to Mexico.

At work with Athena, Kalin, Ogin and Atsushi.

We needed one day to gather materials, 3 days to plaster the wall panels. The week went fast. Plastering over drywall is fairly easy work for us, the surface is flat and easy to cover. And yet, we finished without minutes to spare. For those interested in the plastering details, I’ll do another short post on the mixes we used and how we did it. In short, it was fun and thankfully, the museum made us vacate the space at 5 pm, which for us was a great measure of control in that we’re not the best when it comes to stopping work at a reasonable hour.

The walls of the museum in progress.

I will say one thing about the staff at the Denver Art Museum, each and every person we dealt with was absolutely fantastic. I look forward to working with them. We arrived with our work site totally prepared as requested, they were immediately responsive to our every need and request, cordial and complimentary.

Stepping out of the 3rd floor elevator, one encounters the sculpture location. The room as we left it, plaster drying on the walls.

Anyhow, finishing at 5 gave us time to enjoy Denver in the evening. The downtown area is easy to negotiate. 16th street is closed to traffic with the exception of shuttles that ferry people from Union Station to where the street meets the state capitol. More than enough restaurants, the usual kind of shopping opps that one would expect in that kind of setting. Everything, including the museum where we worked, restaurants, Peets coffee, were all within easy walking distance from our hotel. Kalin found his ultimate mac and cheese at Noodles and Co. Holiday lighting makes any city look great at night, Denver was no exception.

16th Street at night.

Denver City and County building.

One dining highlight for us with eating at the restaurant, North. It is part of the Fox Restaurants group of that offers some very innovative menus. It’s the kind of place that stretches my pocket book and more than likely would not be on my list of places I frequent to eat except that my eldest boy John is the regional manager for Arizona, Austin, Kansas City and Denver.

“North” in Denver.

A day’s drive took us back to Santa Fe to spend a night with Athena’s daughter Arin, husband Kory and two grand daughters. A flight the next day brought us back to three days of intensive meetings with officials from the city of Obregon, Sonora, Mexico and two other groups from CEDES and Conafort. After several years of not working in Mexico on building projects, looks like we’ll be back at it in the near future.

The flight home.

To follow this post will come the technical details of the plaster we applied in Denver.

Read the original post at The Canelo Chronicles.

beautystrawbale Bill and Athena Steen are the authors of, most recently, The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes.

Sieben Linden Ecovillage of Germany

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Last Summer (09), while traveling from Denmark to our next workshop in Slovakia, we were given a tornado-like tour of the well-known German ecovillage, Sieben Linden that is located in the Altmark region of former East Germany. We were escorted/driven there by German architect Dirk Scharmer, who has designed numerous straw bale buildings, as well as some of the ecovillage buildings. Dirk took time from a busy work schedule to give us a tour of the site along with Martin Stengel, one of the founding members of the community. An overnight’s stay was much too short a time to absorb all that we saw as well as remember the names of the many people we met. Despite the blur-like quality of our experience there, there was much to remember, in particular, some of the most impressive and well-built straw bale buildings we encountered on our trip.

I won’t be much help when it comes to telling you some of the essential information about Sieben Linden other than rhetoric-like basics. However, I do have lots of photos for you. Here’s my take when it comes to the basic information about Sieben Linden. Around 80 adults and 30 plus children live in multi-family dwellings on 77 hectares of mixed farmland and forest. As would be expected of an ecovillage they grow a large percentage of what they eat, provide most of their electricity from photovoltaic systems, heating from passive solar, backup heat from local wood and they share vehicles. Studies have shown that they use far less water, electricity, heating fuel, fossil fuel for heating, growing and transporting food than the average German household. CO2 emissions are only 10% of the German average. Main activities include gatherings, workshops of all types, tours and festivals as well as farming. The English website is: If you have questions that aren’t answered in the website I’m guessing that you could email Martin Stengel at: [email protected].

What reminded me to write this post was the July-August 2010 issue of Smithsonian Magazine which had as a theme – “40 Things You Need to Know about the Next 40 years.” Just so happened that number one on the list was that “Architects will construct sophisticated modern buildings out of mud.” The article focused on a professor from M.I.T. who was doing vaulted structures out of clay bricks. His work is not exactly something new, but perhaps his association with M.I.T. got the Smithsonian to take notice. Basically, the essence of the article was that you could build something out of clay/mud instead of concrete and steel and consume a lot less energy.

The only thing the article has to do with Sieben Linden is that it allowed me to remember the very beautiful straw bale buildings we saw there that were finished with clay plasters. In the classical sense of the term, they are not traditional style mud buildings, but rather what I would call “insulated” mud buildings. In essence the clay plastered straw bale walls are really two thin clay walls sandwiching straw insulation in-between. And it wasn’t so much that these were the only clay plastered straw bale buildings we saw on our European tour, in fact almost every building we saw was finished with clay, but rather that the Sieben Linden buildings were some of the most nicely finished and detailed. So what I would like to do in this post is share a whole bunch of photos with you from our visit there. The construction photos should be credited to our German friend, Professor Burkard Reuger.

The buildings that have been constructed since the founding of the community in 1998 are passive solar, built of straw bales and other sustainable materials. Most are multi-family dwellings that are made up of shared apartments for singles, couples and families. Included in the mix is a three story building that is considered to be the largest straw bale building in Europe.

This building was built by one of the ecovillage’s groups known as “Club 99.” It was their first residence and was built entirely by hand with only local timber, clay, and straw, and recycled materials. They achieved their goal that was to use 90 percent less CO2 emissions than is typical in the home-construction process.

Dirk Scharmer and Silke Hagmeier of Club 99.

Door Mosaic done by Silke.

Back side of Club 99 building.

Dirk Scharmer and Martin Stengel

Kitchen shelves.

Interior unfired clay brick wall.

This two-and-a-half straw building was under construction during our visit and is Club 99s second residence. Apparently Sieben Linden is divided into different neighborhoods, Club 99 is considered to be it’s most radical, committed to such practices as income-sharing, vegan diets and the use of equipment for farming and gardening that does not rely on fossil fuels.

New residence being constructed by members of Club 99.

Vertical shaft mixers are common in Europe, here you see the mix being distributed into the wheelbarrow at the bottom of the mixer.

The clay used at Sieben Linden is delivered as small chunks and soaked in a vat as seen in the photo below. It is then combined with sand, chopped straw and wheat paste for the exterior plaster.

Hans, a local mason whose last name I can’t remember, plastering the outside of the building using the traditional local method of plastering. Plaster is thrown on with a triangular mason’s trowel and then leveled and smoothed with a metal screed.

The oak window sills were very carefully thought-out and detailed.

Prior to plastering, the window construction detail.

Window drawings.

Foundation sill plate and plaster stop detail out of oak.

Spraying water to test the resistance of the wheat paste reinforced plaster.

A pair of straw bale domes constructed by Martin Stengel of Club 99. The clay plaster is protected by a post and beam structure.

One of the domes serves as a bathing room, the other as a bedroom.

Three story, mixed occupancy building that is clay plastered.

Same building under construction.

This is one of Burkard’s photos so I”m not sure what building these bales were used for, but it shows the process of having brought loose straw from the fields and baling it as the site. These look like the most impressive bales that we saw in Europe, I would think that some of our other European friends would see them as perfectly “German.”

The walls in the post and beam structure were compressed using what I believe are car jacks. I’m not totally sure that’s what they are, but as I remember, that is what I was told somewhere during our trip.

First coat of clay plaster being sprayed on the straw bale walls.

The east wall of the three story straw bale was plastered with wheat paste reinforced clay plaster.

The east wall of the same building that receives the most driving rain was first coated with clay and a wood rainscreen on top for additional protection.

Sieben Linden has a youth neighborhood that was very much a touch of time travel back to northern New Mexico ala late 1960s.

Some of the members of the youth group live in small trailers.

Small straw bale being constructed during a workshop in the youth neighborhood.

New straw bale under construction for mixed occupancy.

There is a lot of credit that ought to be assigned to many of the buildings that are portrayed above. As I said earlier, our stay was so brief and packed, that we could not absorb it all. Consequently, the names of those who contributed to these projects are missing.

One of our most memorable Sieben Linden moments was being driven to the train station by Silke Hagmeier in her draft horse powered wagon.

Read the original article on The Canelo Chronicles.

Bill and Athena Steen are the authors of The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes.

Revisiting Slovakia: The Straw Bale Dome Project

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

One of the highlights of our European tour last summer was getting to know the country of Slovakia - the landscape, the people, it’s food and traditional buildings.

We were reminded recently of Slovakia when our friend and host from last summer, architect Zuzana Kierulfova (sounds Slovakian doesn’t it?) sent us a blog update about an ambitious 24 day long workshop/project that she coordinated this last month to build a straw bale dome. The website of her non-profit organization Createrra is:

She has been working with professor Gernot Minke at the Universitat Kassel who is widely recognized for his work with earth buildings of all types and has authored several books on the subject. If your German is good or give Google translate a try, you can view his website at:

Last summer they built a small dome out of compressed earth blocks in Zuzana’s backyard and apparently that wasn’t enough, they got together this summer to construct the straw bale dome. Zuzana recorded the entire process and workshop with really good photos and a blog account that you can view at Its can be a little confusing when you go to the site because you will arrive at what was the last stage of the workshop. If you want to see the entire process start to finish, you have to go back to the original blog post on the workshop, that you will see listed in the blog archive for the month of July.

In short, I will say that this was a most ambitious project and Zuzana I would expect to be absolutely exhausted. At least I would be. Again, without reading the blog in its entirety, I would guess the dome to have been a Minke design, the construction overseen by him and a whole lot of other people working to make it happen. Knowing how workshops go and how they end, I would expect that there is a whole lot more work to be done and Zuzana is most likely thinking hard about how that will happen.

Writing about this Slovakian project has also reminded me that there were several pieces I never got to about our trip to Europe. You can expect those in the near future.

Images from the Unesco village of Vlkolinec

Zuzana at work on a clay floor at our Slovakian workshop.

Zuzanas photos on the dome in process.

Read the original post on Bill & Athena’s blog, The Canelo Chronicles.