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Project

Maddux Home Is Handmade Solar Straw Bale

Credits: ©2012 Jessica Kellner / Natural Home Magazine

Naomi and Rick Maddux created a strawbale home from scratch, built by hand in Boulder, Colorado. It took them nine years for design and construction, and they completed it without construction loans, paying for supplies as they could afford them. Many of the materials are scavenged from “alleyways and dumpsters,” from reclaimed sources, salvaged from deconstruction projects, recycled or had otherwise been discarded. In all, about 50 to 60 percent of the materials for the home were either purchased as reclaimed or used or harvested from the land, including everything from lumber to nails to tar paper, corrugated metal for siding on framed walls, windows in framed walls, wood ceilings, garage roof structure and some interior doors. The highly insulative strawbales for walls were purchased from a local farmer, and Naomi herself made stained glass windows and countertops throughout the home. The house is situated on a south-facing hillside to take full advantage of passive solar gain, with supplemental radiant heat adobe floors. The roof is host to photovoltaic and solar thermal collectors. Outdoors, they employ permaculture principles in the landscaping with terraced gardens on the south side, native perennials, cold frames for starting and growing vegetables, rock from the site for retaining walls, and llama manure fertilizer from a local llama farm.

 

Maddux Straw Bale Home

Naomi and Rick Maddux began the design and construction of a straw bale home in Lefthand Canyon near Boulder, Colorado, in the fall of 2000. Almost nine years later, it was completed. ©2012 Naomi Maddux

The following article from Natural Home Magazine is excerpted from the book "Housing Reclaimed"
by Jessica Kellner, March 2012

The Art of Home: Straw-Bale Building in Colorado

Naomi loves that their unique home has been able to touch and educate so many in their community, from friends and volunteers to area children. “People were able to learn skills they can apply to their own projects. They were able to experience how doing something together for the love of it feels. That was a really cool thing,” she says.

Their involvement with the community has led to outreach possibilities for Rick and Naomi to demonstrate slow building. “This home seems to be an inspiration, both for kids and adults,” Naomi says. “I had a group of fourth graders up here for a site visit. I talked about the value of building something by hand, with a community and an emphasis on beauty and art. A lot of the kids said, ‘Wow, when I grow up I want to do something like this!’ They got a sense of creating something open and inviting, and of the freedom to be able to explore."

After all the hours and love they’ve put in, Naomi and Rick feel their home is an extension of themselves, and it makes it invaluable to them. “We get to live in something we built ourselves,” Rick says. “It makes it soulful. Even if it isn’t a piece of art, even if it’s not so green—if you build your own house, it feels more like yourself. That’s something that’s really precious.”

 

Gathering Reclaimed Building Materials

As the design took shape, Rick and Naomi turned to determining their building materials. They had both long been interested in straw-bale building, so they began to research the technique. “In this region, straw-bale building makes sense,” Naomi says. “I love the aesthetics and the materials, and I love doing things with my hands. Straw-bale construction is something laypeople can do easily if they have the time and inclination.”

The two also had salvaged building materials from a previous home that they wanted to incorporate. To save money and because they enjoy the history of reclaimed materials, they decided to expand their collection and use salvage for nearly everything that wasn’t straw and plaster. They made a shed to store collected materials then began mining their community. They didn’t have to travel far to obtain their first big piece. It showed up next door. “One of the first things we purchased was our roof material,” Naomi says. “Our neighbors bought too much, so we bought the rest from them.”

The two were fortunate to have a friend who worked at the Boulder salvage yard ReSource, and he would call with tips when things came in. Rick and Naomi also went out hunting. “We’d check alleyways and Dumpsters and go to building sites that were tearing off roofs,” she says. “We became excellent scavengers, finding people tearing things down who were happy to have us carry them off for reuse.”

Although they had a rough design in place, the salvaged materials they found played a role in determining the home’s final appearance. Rick and Naomi often opted to design the home around the materials, rather than trying to find items to fit spaces they created. Suiting the design to the dimensions of the building components extended to the home’s physical measurements, as well. “A straw bale is 3 feet wide by 1 1/2 feet tall,” Rick says. “So you design the house with 6-foot-wide windows that are 3 feet off the ground, and you just can pop four bales in beneath the window without cutting them. That’s one lesson I’ve learned through my profession: The more you fit things in their natural shape, the less you have to alter and force them.”

Straw-Bale Building—As a Community
As they settled on a design, the time to start construction began. Naomi and Rick became members of the Colorado Straw Bale Association and volunteered on other people’s projects to learn the ins and outs of straw bale building. They used those connections, along with their own social network, when it came time to organize their work parties. “We had been hosting social gatherings here for a couple of years before doing this project, so we had an initial base of people we could email saying, ‘Do you want to learn straw bale building hands-on? We’re doing a work party here,’” Naomi says. “It started with our network of dear friends, but it grew quickly. To date, we’ve had about 100 volunteers work on our house.”

Naomi handled the organization of the work parties, which she describes as productive, fun and completely hectic. She says it’s essential that anyone hoping to take on a project like theirs develop the necessary skills to organize small-scale events, such as scheduling people’s time, communicating effectively and planning ahead in terms of supplies. “When you have a bunch of people at your home, you have to make sure they know what they’re doing and that they have the right materials to work with,” she says.

It was important to Naomi that their friends and community members be informed and well-supplied so they could learn and be productive, but it was also important that they have a good time. “We’d make sure we had enough plaster mixed ahead of time so they could be moving and laying the plaster,” she says. “We’d set up stations where three people could work at the same time, so they weren’t isolated and could be social. We’d start one group here, get them all the materials, then move on. We’d teach the first people enough so they could teach the next, because not everybody would come at the same time. It was a bit of a three-ring circus.” And there is one more vital component to having a successful work party, she adds: “You have to feed them! Make sure you have plenty of food ready so you can serve it up when folks get hungry. The hard work makes for hungry people!”

Rick and Naomi say they could never have built their dream home without the huge amount of community participation. “The plastering required literally tons and tons of material to be lifted and troweled onto the walls,” Naomi says. “It was a godsend to have that much help. It was amazing how much work got done in one day with so many hands pitching in.”

The safe, simple and nontoxic nature of straw-bale building with earthen plasters is perfect for community involvement, and it encouraged people to participate. “You don’t have to worry about wearing gloves or getting it on your clothes,” Naomi says. “We’ve had everybody from kids to 70-year-olds come and help.”

Living In an Art Project

Once the straw-bale structure was up, Rick and Naomi started work on the interior, using reclaimed materials for everything from structural beams to furniture. They say the materials give their home a unique cadence and a connection with the past. “We have a cast-iron sink we got from a music commune,” Rick says. “This sink carries the history of that old farmhouse. It’s heavier-duty than what you get now. It’s a relic. It looks different, and it makes people curious.”

Along with being imbued with character and history, salvaged materials are also often of higher quality than those created today. “Once upon a time, craftsmanship was more important than economics,” Naomi says. “People did things beautifully, and they made things with really high-quality materials. For the most part, when you use a reclaimed material—depending how old it is—it’s a much better quality than what’s being produced today.”

Naomi says the inspiring salvaged materials, paired with a slow building pace, allowed her and Rick to develop their home as a living art project. They weren’t just dedicated to finishing a home in which to live; they were interested in fulfilling their artistic visions. “For a lot of people, the main goal is to get the structure up and be done with it,” Naomi says. “We were more interested in making it as beautiful as we could. It’s not about efficiency and economy. It’s about doing something from your heart’s desire.”

Rick and Naomi found inspiration for their artistic vision in their property and their sense of connection with the natural world. “It was a matter of meeting the beauty of our environment with what we could muster as human beings,” Naomi says. “We were inspired by our surroundings. There are gorgeous forests here, and there are wildflowers in summer and a creek that runs through. There’s water and the sun shines a lot, and the seasons are really palpable. I think all these things contribute to giving you a sensibility about the magnificence of nature and what value that exquisiteness has unto itself.”

Rick and Naomi attempted to mimic the natural landscape within their home. “It’s an organic design,” Rick says. “There are many exposed posts and beams. The handrails are aspen limbs with river birch banisters.” Incorporating his life’s passion into his home, Rick integrated woodworking details all around the house. “The main beams are from one tree—it was a dead-standing Ponderosa pine,” he says. “I cut the tree in half and on one side I carved a 20-foot papa whale. On the other side, I carved the mama and a little baby whale.”

Rick defines art as something that evokes emotion, and he says his home communicates the story of its own creation. “Art is something that makes you feel,” he says. “You may hate it, you may love it. It’s a lot like relationships. Sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s easy. There are things in this house we built when it was really easy, and they look a certain way. It’s not good or bad, but it creates a feeling. Then there are things we built when it was hard for us personally, and the art expresses that.”

A House Called Home
All the love, history and artistry that went into the house created a spirit of its own. “It’s palpable,” Naomi says. “I think it’s all that loving attention and all those hands. You can feel the harmony that’s involved.”

The quality and history of the materials and the spirit of cooperation are evident to everyone who visits the home, Rick says. “Everybody finds this place interesting,” he says. “It’s unique. It’s not like a regular house. There’s natural plaster on the wall. We used flour paste, clay and sand to make the finish plaster and added our own pigments. People ask, ‘What’s that sparkly stuff in the wall?’ And we say, ‘Oh, that’s mica we found around some quartz up on the hill.’”

Naomi loves that their unique home has been able to touch and educate so many in their community, from friends and volunteers to area children. “People were able to learn skills they can apply to their own projects. They were able to experience how doing something together for the love of it feels. That was a really cool thing,” she says.

Their involvement with the community has led to outreach possibilities for Rick and Naomi to demonstrate slow building. “This home seems to be an inspiration, both for kids and adults,” Naomi says. “I had a group of fourth graders up here for a site visit. I talked about the value of building something by hand, with a community and an emphasis on beauty and art. A lot of the kids said, ‘Wow, when I grow up I want to do something like this!’ They got a sense of creating something open and inviting, and of the freedom to be able to explore."

After all the hours and love they’ve put in, Naomi and Rick feel their home is an extension of themselves, and it makes it invaluable to them. “We get to live in something we built ourselves,” Rick says. “It makes it soulful. Even if it isn’t a piece of art, even if it’s not so green—if you build your own house, it feels more like yourself. That’s something that’s really precious.”

A Mini-Mortgage
Rick and Naomi Maddux didn’t take out a construction loan for their home. Through a Boulder County Open Space land acquisition program, they secured a small mortgage on the original building on their land, but Naomi says getting a construction loan to build their home likely would have been impossible. “We probably wouldn’t have qualified for a loan at the time we built, because we didn’t have enough accumulated income,” she says. Besides, when the couple started construction 10 years ago, banks were uninformed about alternative building methods and didn’t often lend to builders whose plans were outside the realm of conventional building, Naomi says. Plus, their slow, artistic building style wouldn’t have lent itself to the usual loan repayment schedule. “With a loan, you normally have to finish building within six months or a year,” Naomi says. “There was no way I wanted to be constrained like that. I didn’t want to blow a gasket trying to get everything done in that time. We didn’t have an end date, and that was fine with us.”

A Chat with Rick & Naomi
How does your home’s landscape complement your home? Our home was built to honor our landscape, which is beautiful and wild with rocks and trees and native plants, sidled next to a creek in the Rocky Mountains.

What’s your favorite space in your home? The reading cubby at the top of the stairs, and in winter, the living room area around the wood-burning stove, and the master bath.

What’s your most prized salvaged piece? The wood-burning cookstove that was Rick’s great grandmother’s—we drove to North Dakota to retrieve it from an outbuilding on the old farmstead, converted it to propane and just love the feel of it.

What’s your advice for people who would like to emulate the way you built your home? Do it while you have the energy and strength. Be community-minded and use your experience as an opportunity to pass these skills on to others while having the blessing of their assistance. Take your time. Do not build under a construction loan time frame if possible. Have at least 60 percent of your materials stockpiled before you start digging. Stick to your structural plan while being open and willing to make improvements. Beauty is as important as function. Remember to rest.


Documents

  Maddux Home Sweet and Soulful Article 2011 (405 kb)

  Maddux Home Article 2008 (75 kb)

  Maddux Home Article 2009 (300 kb)