Building Inspiration: Deanne Bednar and The Strawbale Studio

A few years ago I left my cubicle and headed to southern Oregon for a 9-day course in natural building, and my view of home construction would never be the same. The traditional techniques being taught displayed the wisdom of centuries past, simpler times when buildings were crafted by hand, materials were harvested directly from the land, and villagers collaborated.

It just so happened that my teacher in that course, Deanne Bednar, had come through the same school 15 years earlier as a student. Retiring in the late 90's after a 28-year career as a Michigan art teacher, she was finally able to apply her creativity to the building arts. After that first workshop, Deanne returned home to begin collaborating on what became known as the Strawbale Studio.

Entrance to the Strawbale Studio

Entrance to the Strawbale Studio. Photo by Dana Lynn Driscoll.

Deanne and her friends were inspired by reading Places of the Soul as well as A Pattern Language. These books took sustainability beyond energy efficiency to examine what allows some buildings to energize and uplift their occupants through design.

Strawbale Studio nook

Natural materials, curved forms, and lots of daylight were used to create an uplifting experience.

Looking back at her first build, some of Deanne’s advice was to “make it smaller than you think. What seemed like such a small footprint became such a big building and quite a stretch for first-time builders. I would really recommend the incremental building. Do phase one and then plan to add more phases later.”

Part of the uplifting design was working with local materials in their natural state. This roof of local phragmite, or water reed, has the potential to last 70 years or more.

The north side of the Strawbale Studio. Photo by Ed Laing.

 Deanne also said “don’t be embarrassed or surprised to bring people in to help along the way. We brought in a thatcher. We actually hired someone to put up the roof structure but we got the logs here, we scraped them and debarked them, and now I do my own framing. I make a big point to be involved with the framing now, because before, I didn’t want to be anywhere near it; the timbers were too big. But now I’m trying to reclaim the roof structure part of the process.”

Deanne attending a roundpole framing class

Always a student herself, here Deanne digs into a round pole framing course in Vermont.

Today, on the same land about an hour outside Detroit, Deanne and other instructors hold workshops covering earth plastering, thatching, cob, reed collection, round pole framing, and living roofs. Courses on rocket stoves, a hyper-efficient wood-fired heating option, are also taught.

Deanne leading a reed collecting workshop.

An intern learns to thatch

An intern learns to thatch.

Building the Kensington Kids' Cottage

Building the Kensington Kids Cottage. Strawbales would be added to the stone foundation for insulation.

Earth ovens are great for pizza, and according to Deanne, also for getting the swing of things when first starting with natural materials. Notice the cheeks double as hand-holds.

The Smiling Sun Earth Oven Face, in process

The smiling sun earth oven door, in process.

The spiral chamber, a workshop project built with wattle and daub (woven sticks covered with a clay and straw mixture).

Deanne and the Strawbale Studio are all about helping workshop attendees connect to the land, the materials, and each other. Echoing my own sentiments from my first natural building workshop in 2011, Deanne explains that “anytime anybody gets here it is such a joyful experience I believe because it holds so many of our needs all in one place. We don’t have to go out separately to get exercise in one direction and in another direction to get food and in another direction to find community or vitamin D from the sunlight. So it just brings it all together and that, I think, naturally makes us joyful and happy…it’s very energizing.”

Playing in the mud was never so productive.

If you’d like to get hands-on with earth plaster, thatching, cob, rocket stoves, reed collection, round pole framing, or living roofs, please check out the upcoming workshops for the Strawbale Studio and The Natural Cottage Project.

If you’d like Deanne to keep you up-to-date on what’s happening at the Strawbale Studio, you can get on her email list here.

Deanne told me that the stone mason she hired to help with the Strawbale Studio back in 1996 recently taught a tool maintenance class there, more than 15 years later. I can attest to the power of community at these workshops. It is very different from a normal construction site, and you kind of feel like this must have been what it was like to have a village. My first natural building workshop where I met Deanne was a very moving experience and had a hand in changing my career direction.

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What did you think of the Strawbale Studio? Let me know in the comments!

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