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Straw Homes That Would Have Foiled the Wolf

• January 28, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Demonstration farm in rural California draws attention with its crop of unique building experiments.

In the United States, the embodiment of permaculture can be found at a 450-acre parcel — the Quail Springs Permaculture Farm — tucked into a piñon- and juniper-covered canyon in Southern California’s Cuyama Valley, 32 miles “as the raven flies” from the Pacific Ocean and about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Here at the base of two “sister mountains” on a windswept desert-like terrain sacred to the area’s native Chumash Indians live 14 permanent residents, mostly teachers and “land stewards,” along with a handful of interns. All work to restore a landscape laid waste by a century of clear-cutting and grazing, while also hosting seminars and workshops on topics ranging from safe water and green building to creating a carbon economy.

It’s applied permaculture, a design science focused on integrating sustainable shelter, energy, food and water for human settlement.

The idea took shape back in the mid-’70s when Bill Mollison, a University of Tasmania lecturer in environmental psychology, and student David Holmgren began collaborating on how to combat the ills of modern industrial agriculture. Their solution was “permaculture” — for “permanent agriculture” — which they outlined in a 1978 book, Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements. Originally focused on farming methods, permaculture has since evolved to embrace all aspects of human survival.

At Quail Springs, days are spent perfecting gray-water systems, creating food forests and building bio-swales to keep the limited rainwater from eroding the topsoil. But what’s really capturing attention are the buildings constructed with natural products like straw bale, adobe and bamboo.

But don’t expect to see this eco-village-in-the-making take final form in your lifetime — or your children’s or your grandchildren’s — and certainly not in the lifetime of the farm’s founders, husband-and-wife team Warren Brush and Cynthia Harvan.

Brush says the undertaking will take 200 years.

“The elders in my life have always shared the idea that a village can’t be started in one generation,” he explained. The 44-year-old Santa Cruz native says seven generations are needed to bring the necessary cohesiveness between the people and the land.

“That kind of long-term thinking and relationship with place changes how you do everything. And that’s a lot of the impetus for what’s driving us to use natural as opposed to conventional building processes.”

No wonder Quail Springs emphasizes exploring methods and materials that not only preserve natural resources but that can last centuries. Indeed, Brush can be heard frequently citing one rather disarming statistic from the American Contractor’s Association Web site: “The average home built conventionally today will only last 40 years before needing to be rebuilt.”

This won’t work if you have a 200-year plan.

The beginning
Quail Springs’ story begins in 1997 when the couple established the Wilderness Youth Project at a Santa Barbara shelter for homeless families. The idea was to help young people experience the personal and practical benefits of exploring the natural world, using a ranch owned by one of the donors. The site (adjacent to Quail Springs) was perfect for helping kids practice animal tracking, food foraging and other survival — or as Brush terms it, “origin” — skills.

After several years, Brush — a pre-med student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who ended up majoring in botany — noticed that participants were asking for more. “They wanted to know how to apply the ethic of earth and people care to a modern context in the middle of Santa Barbara or L.A. That really unlocked something with my wife, Cindy, and me. We both had this overwhelming feeling that there needed to be this next step.”

In May 2004, with the help of the locally based Zannon Family Foundation, Brush in purchased 160 neighboring acres and began his nonprofit grand oeuvre.

To help fulfill its need for healthy, eco-friendly housing and “foster” as Brush says, “independent, entrepreneurial ways of approaching how we keep ourselves alive,” they brought in Justin Kirmse and his partner Lyn Giesecke in 2008 to found the Living Craft Project. For Kirmse and Giesecke, the goal was clear-cut: to teach the art of natural building and authentic living. This meant pursuing “the simplest path between the land, our hands, our relationships and what physically sustains us – shelter, water, fire and food.”

That also requires a commitment to move away from toxics. Brush cites Paula Baker-LaPorte, a Quail Springs consultant (she and her husband have been promoting “EcoNests” made of clay, straw and wood since 1994) and author of Prescription for a Healthy House, who says the typical home uses a minimum of 10,000 toxic chemicals when all the paints, glues, carpets, caulking, etc., are factored in.

And though the endeavor may sound dreamily utopian, the project is as pragmatic as it gets, offering hands-on instruction to transform anyone interested into the ultimate do-it-yourselfer. Last summer the Living Craft Project launched its first apprenticeship project with six apprentices in their late teens to mid-30s from the United States and Belgium. After getting certified following a 72-hour permaculture design course, Kirmse and Giesecke worked with the team to construct a 350-square-foot straw bale structure (with 100-square-foot light clay-straw attached bedroom) for a young family that stewards the land at Quail Springs.

Meeting the Building Code
Known for its low-cost, easy availability and high insulation value, straw-bale construction got its start in the United States in the early 1900s following the invention of steam-powered bailers in Nebraska. And though it flourished until construction became industrialized in the 1950s, it enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s.

Unfortunately, straw-bale construction is illegal in several states, including California. At Quail Springs, local officials have postured over unmet building codes, especially those dealing with earthquake safety.

Jim MacDonald, director of the Ventura County Building and Safety Division, said that one of the problems is that building codes are just now starting to catch up with green building techniques. “I’m all for alternative building materials, but I have to be satisfied that it complies with state law. Unfortunately, this presents some difficult rigors to applicants.”

It doesn’t help that Quail Springs is located just 11 miles from the San Andreas Fault, the seismic spine of the Golden State.

Brush, though, says engineering tests at the University of Nevada’s Large-Scale Structures Laboratory found that load-bearing straw bale — the same type built at Quail Springs — demonstrated the highest earthquake resistance of any buildings they’d ever seen, and want to see the construction fostered in the more rattling parts of the globe like Pakistan.

So not only isn’t Brush concerned about the Big One — he’s looking forward to it.

“We said codes or no codes, we’re gonna build this because we’re near the fault line, and we’d love to see it go through an earthquake and be able to have that data for other people to learn from.”

His go-to-it attitude isn’t uncommon among alternative-home gurus; witness the legal travails of Earthship inventor Michael Reynolds.

Not that Brush wants to continue going rogue. With the backing of David Eisenberg (chair of the codes committee for the U.S. Green Building Council) Brush is working with local politicians to put pressure on the state to adopt legislation exempting Quail Springs and other research organizations from building-code requirements. Several local universities, including California Polytechnic University and the University of California, have partnered with Quail Springs to test out buildings and sustainable systems that would otherwise be illegal.

“We really want to work with the building department in sharing the data that we’re gathering. I’d love to be able to sit down with Jim MacDonald minus the barriers he has of trying to enforce a code that is no longer relevant to our times ecologically,” Brush said.

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Arnie Cooper
Arnie Cooper, a freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, Calif., covers food, travel and popular culture, as well as architecture and the sustainability movement. He is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal's Leisure and Arts page; his writing has also appeared in Outside, Esquire, Orion and Dwell. He's working on a memoir about his childhood experiences in New York City.

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