Alumni Spotlight: From Lincoln Logs To Poultry Palace

It’s hard to believe it’s only been about a year since my internship with Community Rebuilds. I remember our first day like it was yesterday. Meeting a bunch of strangers from all over the country who I would be living and working with was a little nerve-wracking, yet exciting. Although we came from a wide variety of backgrounds and motivations, we joined together with one vision: to build, not one, but two strawbale houses in the next 4 1/2 months.

I have to admit, I was quite intimidated at first as I hadn’t had any previous building experience other than with Legos, Lincoln Logs, and chintzy pre-fab furniture from a box. I had always wanted to learn how to build, particularly natural building, but couldn’t fathom how I would ever do it without spending an “arm and a leg” for random workshops here and there or succumbing to yet more expensive schooling. Turns out, Community Rebuilds was just what I was looking for!

From foundations, to framing, to stacking bales, to “mudding”, everything was something I hadn’t done before. I enjoyed the wide variety of work, the novelty of each task, and the ability to stand back at the end of the day and say, “look at what we did, would you just look at that?” And before you knew it, the semester was over and two strawbale houses were built!

Upon finishing my semester as a CR intern, I was lucky to be offered an opportunity from a very supportive friend who had just bought a house in Grand Junction, CO and wanted a strawbale coop for her chickens, ducks, and turkeys. She asked if I would build it and offered to pay me to do it! Although I was quite daunted at the task, I knew I couldn’t pass this one up. What better opportunity to put my new-found skills to the test!

Perhaps the most challenging aspect was discerning the balance between ensuring a safe and sturdy structure with the longevity of the bales in mind (critters, moisture, etc.) and the fact that it was “just a darn chicken coop”, since at that point my only experience had been building a house “to code”. The designing, planning, sourcing of materials, and decision-making was also very stressful and I probably lost more sleep over it than I should have. Perhaps I over-built, but after much restless thought and countless work hours by myself and other fellow CR interns (even instructor Chris Strayer came to help!), Jo’s Poultry Palace now stands beautifully and proudly amongst the fowl.

The responsibilities of the Poultry Palace undertaking complemented the practical building and critical thinking skills that I learned as a CR intern and I couldn’t have asked for a better “next step” (Thanks Jo and Grady!). In addition, I have since had the opportunity to work on another local strawbale home alongside other fellow CR alumni, under the direction of the infamous Doni Kiffmeyer (co-author of Earthbag Building and local natural building guru). It was great to employ different techniques (i.e. bales laid “flat” versus “on edge”), further supplementing my previous experiences.

Because of the skills I acquired through CR and the other subsequent opportunities, I am lucky to be currently employed as a natural builder for an owner-builder boss-friend (also CR alumni!) who is fulfilling a life-long dream of building his own strawbale home in beautiful Moab. I am grateful for the skills and knowledge that I acquired, connections that I’ve made, and doors that have opened because of my internship with CR.

On the job site, I often find myself thinking about where I was a year and a half ago. When I stand on the extended ladder 20 ft in the air, framing with 16 penny nails, I reminisce about how disturbed I used to be of nail guns (and what the hell are 16 penny nails anyways?!). When I slice and shape bales, I remember how terrified I was of chainsaws (I still am but at least I dare use them now). As I precisely measure and carefully cut through a 2×4 Douglas Fir, I remember how scared I was of the chop saw (and how I really thought 2×4’s measured 2 inches by 4 inches). Thanks CR! Now I don’t have to build my future house out of Legos!

Hayley Olsen–  Fall 2014 Intern

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