ISBC – International Straw Builders Conference – Reflections

From September 16 – 22, 2012 in Estes Park, Colorado, straw builders from around the globe gathered for the International Straw Builders Conference.

This was exceptionally timed for the fall builders, meaning that we could attend as part of our Community Rebuilds internship.
We fundraised like crazy, selling cinnamon buns, hosting a ‘big lebowski’ party & a delicious international dinner… eventually with the help of some exceptionally generous people, we raised the cash and were on our way to Colorado!

Every year The Colorado Straw Bale Association hold a conference to bring the local builders together and educate people in the ways of straw bale building. This year they decided to go big an host the international!
Dusty Szymanski, Laura Bartels, John Rehorn, Ian Smith and Mark Schueneman organised five, jam packed, days of talks and workshops from the worlds best straw builders. (plus a little sillyness thrown in for good measure)

My straw bale building life is in it’s early stages, I am constantly learning new ideas and techniques. So it was inspiring to be surrounded by people with a huge amount of experience and knowledge. It greatly impressed me how eager to share people were – projects, ideas and (maybe most importantly) failures were discussed, either in the meeting halls, or informally over lunch… or even more informally around the fire with a beer.

My personal talk highlights included:

  • John Straube -You might expect a keynote speech from a ‘specialist building science engineer’ to be about as exciting as a snail racing… But John’s highly entertaining talk had the room in hysterics as he bounded cheerfully through slides of moldy buildings. He clearly loves what he does and enjoys to share it.
    He posed the question, ‘what is a natural building material?’ and talked about lime and the processes it goes through to be used in plasters.
  • Jacob Deva Racusin –  Jacob began his talk with some statistics about climate change. How climate change is effecting the weather and how we have the option of resilience or regeneration.
    He then spoke of, not only the harmful chemicals, but the energy debt in using foam insulation. How making a super insulated building with foam has a 15 year energy debt. The issue is now, and we can’t wait 15 years to start seeing the benefit. For a while I have been trying to rid the builds I’ve been working on of foam insulation. All I really knew was that I didn’t like using this petroleum product. So it was great to learn more about the real effects of using it.
    Jacob finished with a metaphor of the olive tree – If you plant an olive tree, it will never bear fruit in your lifetime, you have instead plated it for the generations after your death. This is what we need to be doing with our building practices, and we need to be doing it now.
  • Bob Theis – Bob’s talks focused on effective use of space. How you can create effective social areas and how to design small buildings. Bob spent a long time talking about the use of porches and how you can design them to be the main room ‘in’ the house. I have a particular interest in small living and found Bob’s talks to be stuffed full of useful information and fascinating social insights.
  • Chris Magwood – I really enjoyed talking with Chris during the week, his company ‘Endeavour‘ offers an education program in some ways similar to Community Rebuilds up in Ontario, Canada. The variety of projects, exciting building techniques and educational programs were all equally inspiring.
    I really enjoyed Chris’ talk on LEED certification and the Living Building Challenge. In particular how Jen Feigin from Endeavour had spent no less than 2 and a half months working on their living building challenge application. How they learned so much about the resources, embodied energy, shipping impact and material choices by taking part. I’d like to hope that all natural builders would put in this research to make their buildings as natural and low in embodied energy as possible…
  • August Hasz – August spoke on the net zero house, and how it can be achieved. (Net zero means that over the course of a year the house has used no more energy than it can produce) As well as some great steps to work though on your house he also touched on when it stops making economic sense to hit the net zero target. Spending tens of thousands of dollars extra may never pay off (fine for the super rich, but for the real world projects with real budgets it’s not an option).

One other highlight was getting the chance to sit down with Community Rebuilds’ Eric Plourde, our engineer Dodson Harper, and natural building focused structural engineer, Bruce King. I was able to present to them my idea for reducing the amount of concrete in the footer of the Community Rebuilds straw bale house design. The outcome being a possible reduction of upto 75% of the concrete in our footer and a concrete mix that contains less cement (which means less embodied energy – horay!).
The straw bale olympics were held in front of an audience of Elk and bemused onlookers. Events included the bale toss, mud plaster throwing, the bale carry & bale bridge building. The community rebuilds team was edged out of the top 3 by some dubious judging decisions, but much fun was had!  (a strict training schedule has been implemented on the CR build site to prepare for the next conference!)

A big thanks to all the organisers, volunteers, speakers & attendees that made it such a great event.
I left feeling educated, inspired & knowing that we are doing great things.

Some thoughts from the other CR interns…

César Rizzo Gómez

“I deeply enjoyed  the International Strawbale Conference in Colorado last month

I had decided to go thinking that there I would gain a strong and valuable knowledge on the different arrays of natural building techniques. But I failed to realize that this gathering would be much more than that. I wouldn’t gain just knowledge, but knowledge with a heart. And it wouldn’t be a technical conference, but a swarm of people with strong feelings about what’s wrong with our planet. Further more, not people complaining about it, but doing their part.

I never really thought of the builders’ trade as an environmental conscious one: driving around their massive trucks, operating dirty and enormous Mad Max-like machines, and always with colossal piles of junk at their sites. It was mind blowing finding out that there is so many architects, contractors, designers, plasterers, builders or engineers wrestling to make this trade environmentally friendly; to put you into perspective on how important this shift is: the building industry accounts for almost 47% of total CO2 emissions of the UK(IGT report, BIS, Autumn 2010), and 39% of CO2  emissions in the United States(US Green Building Council, March 2012).

All these speakers were profoundly moving and  inspiring, but I have to mention John Straube and Bernard Amadei for their charisma, the momentum they infused in everybody’s blood, and their excellent sense of humor; I also found encouraging hearing such great professionals as Tracy Theiriot and Bob Theis, showing us from their experience how to professionally design with the human being that is going to live in the house in mind.

A special moment in the conference was finding out about a special woman: Judy Knox. I had never heard of her, but it felt like all the amazing people in this conference had been directly or indirectly influenced by this exceptional lady’s magic, and I encourage to find out more about her remarkable life; you won’t regret it.

Last but not least, I have to thank the organizers; be it the talks, the gatherings around the fireplace at night, or throwing strawbales during the Olympics, it definitely was a fun week to remember that left a penetrating imprint on me.”

Courtney Boyd

“From one nerd to another, geeking out at a straw bale conference with people from all over the world is my kind of
fun! On the lighter side I enjoyed the commradery of singing around the fire in the evenings. On the more serious side I
was highly impressed by the empowering women I met. Every day they challenge the norm that says construction should
be a male dominated field. Tracy Thieriot, Sukita Reay Crimmel, and Anna Wolfeson held a wonderful discussion around just
that. Itʼs clear that feminine energies really have something to offer the world and natural building, especially if we want to
build a healthy and happy future for ourselves and others.”

Adrienne Stolwyk

“I really enjoyed Brian Fuentes’ ( presentation on his work with Passive House ( as well as Bob Theis’ ( talk on designing ‘people places.’  I also loved Bob’s song, ‘We will bale you’ and want him to rewrite more rock songs for straw bale groupies!”

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