Inhabitable Structures


“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.” When you hear the term “Straw Bale House,” the line from the three little pigs just sort of pops into your head, but as you’re about to learn, it’s the farthest from the truth. When I mention that phrase Erlend Neumann rolls his eyes; he builds straw bale houses for a living and he’s heard it far too many times.

Erlend Neumann was born in Houston, Texas and raised near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. In grade school he met Lee Edwards, a few years later he met Gabe Shaftlein. Following high school the three friends went their separate ways, but their paths crossed once again in Columbia County. They became business partners forming Northeast Natural Builders.

As a boy Erlend learned farming, loved the honesty of working with the land. A quiet, farmer’s demeanor lingers with him today. Following high school he went to Europe for six months where his life changed, “I liked the diversity of the architecture there, it got my mind thinking about buildings.”

In college he majored in art, loved sculpture and fine art. One professor inspired him with the art of watercolor. Erlend uses his watercolor skills to this day, rendering presentation images of his work. “Art is in everything you do,” he states referring to the fact anyone may be an artist, it all hinges on how you approach your work.

Following college Erlend worked on a project sculpting a six-story high auditorium, the largest sculpted surface in the world. This was a pivotal point in knowing what he wanted to do with his life. “I wanted to create sculpture,” he admits.
Erlend believes in the concept that we become, “that with which we surround ourselves, it’s our inspiration.” Living and working in structures that possess pleasing sculptural and artistically esthetic values cause us to respond accordingly. Buildings can and should please the eye, the soul, the budget and the environment. Erlend would also like to bring color to hospitals, “not for art’s sake, but for sake of the patients.” He believes patients would heal more quickly in a colorful atmosphere.

One day a friend gave him a book that proved a valuable gift; a book on straw bale houses. His imagination sparked, he decided to try it for himself, building a studio for his sister in Hillsdale. He likes the notion of taking sound ideas from the past and combining them with new technologies of today.

So what is a straw bale house? At this point in our interview both he and partner Gabe smile with the pride of brand new fathers. Straw bale houses are similar to adobe, but better suited to this climate and can be two or more stories.

First you build a foundation then construct a post and beam wood frame structure similar to any wood frame house. Then you get bales of straw, 600 required for an 1,800 square foot house. The straw is tightly wedged in between the framing for a perfect, carefully designed fit. The straw, as Erlend illustrates in the photo, is trimmed with a chain saw or blade affixed weed whacker to even it up and prepare it for the next step. Exposed wood is covered with lath, then a clay-plaster mixture is applied to the exterior, followed by a top coat of old world lime plaster. Finally a lime wash is applied to seal the structure and make it breathable. The result resembles an English or Pennsylvania stone farmhouse.

There are numerous benefits to the straw bale house; they’re quicker and less expensive to build than stone and more efficient to heat. With 18 to 20 inch walls they have deep windowsills, they’re quiet, cooler in summer and warmer in winter, constructed from materials made locally, which benefits the local economy and are actually far more fire proof than a wood frame house.

“How long will a straw bale house last?”
“As long as someone maintains it, well over a hundred years,” Gabe explains.

Erlend and his partners, Gabe and Lee have constructed eight straw bale houses, three in Columbia County. Owners of straw bale houses love their homes. “The only complaint we’ve ever had is that guests love it so much they don’t want to leave,” Erlend laughs.

I ask what their dream is for the future. Erlend’s answer is immediate and specific, “To build a straw bale sustainable commercial/residential structure in an urban setting.” He believes that since these structures are so stable, (they’ll withstand an earthquake) efficient and can be sculpted into almost any shape the imagination will allow, they are suited perfectly for commercial structures.

He has a point, after all why shouldn’t office workers enjoy the esthetic, cost effective comfort afforded by straw bale structures? Wouldn’t the workers be inspired and more productive working there rather than in bland structures built with the cheapest most disposable synthetic products available?

Erlend, Gabe and Lee of Northeast Natural Builders, are creating the future from age-old efficient materials, structures both practical and beautiful to look at, too. It doesn’t get much better than that.

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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