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The Straw House Monologues PDF Print E-mail
Article by Laura McDermid
Have you ever watched Grand Designs? I am totally mesmerised by this TV show. I watch with fascination and admiration as passionate people bring their creations to life. I cringe with them when the build goes awry and am jubilant when they finally see their dream come true. But sometimes that very same dream turns into a dreaded nightmare when the neighbours complain about the unsightly erection next door or when funds are exhausted halfway through the build! It takes guts to build your dream house, and a lot of patience...........
About two years ago my husband Stuart and I were inspired to build our own place. We purchased a plot that was far away enough to feel as though we are in the country but close enough to commute to the main centres for work. However, we decided that if we are going to build then we are going to do it ‘properly’. And so we embarked on designing an eco-friendly, self-sustainable dwelling. Sounds simple right?
Living naturally with a low carbon-footprint is not as easy as it sounds. First of all, it took us a year to find the right architect. We had meetings with a ‘green’ consortium, whom although passionate about building alternatively, had no experience in building with straw (our chosen method) and treated the project like a clinical trial, as ten different people all vied to consult on various elements of the build. This felt too corporate for us and ultimately way too expensive.
The next architect that we met with was undoubtedly creative but lacked the insight and passion that is required for a project of this nature. And then finally in September 2010, I met with Kate Shimwell from Shimwell Designs who immediately fell in love with the project. Although she hasn’t built with straw before, she embraced the challenge with verve, seeing the bigger picture that allows her to extend her skills to incorporate green building in her portfolio of offerings.
Kate understood that we did not want a ‘hobbit hut’. We need something comfortable and above all affordable. We chose straw because a) It is eco-friendly and b) has fantastic insulating properties. We also chose to use wood instead of steel and will be incorporating natural rock from our land. Many times people claim that they are building an ‘eco’ house, whilst back at the ranch they are using tons of brick, cement and imported double-glazed windows from Norway. Adding a couple of solar panels and collecting a bit of rain water does not make it a green build! Unfortunately the terms ‘green’ and ‘eco’ have lost their true essence and are tossed around like confetti at a wedding. Unless a recognised governing body provides a framework with set parameters, people will prostitute these words shamelessly.
But enough pontificating, my point is that we are really passionate about using reclaimed and locally sourced materials. However, we were soon to find out that very few people have any clue as to what we are aiming to achieve. I have heard the three little pigs joke so many times that I don’t even mention that we are building with straw in casual conversation anymore. I see people thinking “why in this advanced technological day and age would you want to go back to the middle-ages”. For those of you who need an explanation, there is none. For those of you that don’t, none is needed.
In the former category falls the council – as they stare at us like a rabbit caught in the headlights. They see the word ‘straw’ and they translate it to ‘thatch’. They see the word ‘wood’ and they associate that with a Canadian log cabin. Mention the word ‘eco’ and they want to drown everything in poisonous chemicals in order to prevent rodents and insects from being within 8km of the property. And of course the whole place must be covered in a fire-retardant substance, just in case that meteor really does hit planet earth. The only ‘retardant’ in this story is the council – as they have not updated their regulation (or their thinking) since 1957.
Please don’t get me started on the financing of projects of this nature! Stuart and I had to sell our house to raise some capital, plus we had to sell shares and investments in order to fund this project. No bank will issue a building loan unless you are building traditional “Tuscan Style” homes built with bricks and mortar. Stuart works for a bank (I shan’t mention the name except to say that it’s the “Green Bank”). He has approached the powers that be in the Home Loans department to discuss the possibility of procuring a loan. And of course this bank that does so much to save the planet politely declined. The reason was that they cannot take the ‘risk’ of financing a house whose walls can potentially get blown down by a talking wolf.
But even in the face of all this adversity we shall persevere. I now understand how Noah must have felt when he built his Ark and had all the neighbours cracking jokes about ships in the desert. It is not easy ‘going solo’ – I question my intentions and sanity daily. The ultimate motivation for me will be to teach other like-minded people on how to live and build sustainably. The educational element will be executed through our NGO, Evolution Africa, which we established three years ago. Embarking on a mission of this nature is pointless unless one can ultimately share the knowledge.
I just count my blessings on a daily basis for people like Kate and her staff as well as the engineer Horst Wilkens from L.S.C. Brunette & associates, quantity surveyor Wendy Steven-Jennings from WSJ Quantity surveyors and videographer Candice from MelonMoon productions who are contributing inordinate amounts of time and effort to this project for little or no money all because they can think outside the box. They have recognised that this is a project that takes more than individual ego’s into account; it is about amalgamating the needs of humanity with the environment with as little negative impact on either as possible.
And when the time comes (for it certainly will) when Eskom is raping its customers even more for its intermittent power supply, and the acid mine drainage has found its way into our drinking water and when the price of a head of lettuce is R50 and food and resources are scarce – we will hopefully have inspired and taught a few people about living sustainably. And maybe like Noah did on that fateful day when the heavens opened, I too will look out of the window of my strange construction and feel a sense of sadness for my neighbours who believed that this blue planet could continue to sustain their voracious and demanding lifestyles.
So if you are an “out-of-the-box” type of thinker, I invite you to join us on our journey by following our progress on www.starflower.co.za
I encourage your thoughts, views and criticisms as we need your input to give us some perspective and to keep reminding us why we are doing this when it would be so much easier to make Summercon wealthier by buying another off-plan Tuscan abomination.