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
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
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,”
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,”
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
We’ll talk next time
From The Road.