Last weekend we got to visit the Whole Tree Construction, straw bale house that we helped build last year.  Doug and I participated in a 6-day strawbale, clay wall workshop.  (See posts Straw bale – Bending Walls  , Stitching Straw Bales Makes Strong Walls, and Earthen Clay on Straw Bales – a Match Made in Heaven. )

The frame we started with in our 2010 workshop.

Kara House was designed and built for two sisters of the Wheaten Franciscan Order , which focuses on

  • Promoting peace;
  • Effecting reconciliation;
  • And being in solidarity with the poor; thus,
  • Bringing hope to all.

That makes for worthwhile organization to this non-religious observer, and meeting Marge and Gabriel, reinforced reinforced my positive impression.  These two sisters built their home at The Christine Center which has turned 125 acres in central Wisconsin into a spiritual retreat, where cottages cluster near a environmentally-conscious, central-meeting and dining complex.

It was a pleasure to be there for six days of camping, building in the woods and eating hearty, vegetarian fare with the center’s various pilgrims. I’ve been looking forward to the time when we could return and see how the house turned out.

I’m also eager to see any other whole tree houses I can at this point before we finalize our plans and start building next spring.

Every Whole Trees house is a combination of accumulating green-building craft and nudging the frontiers of sustainable construction.  It’s reassuring and illuminating to see what has come before as we get ready to inch forward.

Here is a photo essay of what we saw.

This house is straw bale with a sod roof. and passive solar design. The entrance is between the two round rooms.  The room on the left is a studio, and the room on the right is the kitchen/dining/living room.  

The exterior is a concrete stucco with a life-edge facia board.

The south-facing wall collects a lot of solar energy during the day and Gabriel says that as the sun sets, the room is filled with a golden glow as well as a lot of great solar warmth.

Here is the same window from the inside.We sat in the living room and had a great chat about the comfort level of in-floor hot water heat.

The kitchen space seemed really pleasant.Open-shelf storage has many advantages.

1.  You don’t lose things in the bottom of drawers or the back of the cabinet.

2.  You can’t cram them so full, and it keeps one from accumulating excess items.

Though I have conventional cabinets in my current kitchen, I’m looking forward to having open storage in our place next year.Extending from the circular main room is a wing that contains bedrooms, bath, mechanicals and a study.Whole tree rafters and live-edge trim makes a room feel very connected to the source of its materials.

The studio was the room we spent most of our time working on during the 2010 workshop.  It became a very wonderful space as soon as the straw bales were stacked to enclose it. 

Both circular rooms are topped with a tractor tire rim and a sky light.

It was very gratifying to see the finished home that we worked on.  This project really gave us a feel for how whole tree timbers, straw bale and clay can come together.  Every step is so direct and logical, yet every step is also personal and hand-crafted.  It felt really good to work with these materials, and they make amazing dwellings.

4 replies

  1. Yes, it is an amazing house. Very cozy and comfortable. Seeing the structural members, and having them be so natural makes for a very open, positive feeling.
    All those trees, as are all the trees going to be used in our house, were chosen for both their suitability to the building project and because cutting them opened up the forest in healthy ways.
    We could make many many homes this way and only improve the woodlands in the process.

  2. While there is something very charming about this place, I’ll have to admit that I kept looking at the elbows in the branches and see wonderful places for spider webs and dust accumulation. Not being a neat house keeper myself, it just seems to me that one would have to spend a lot of extra time dusting to keep ahead of the spiders. :o)

    • Valid point, Monique. There will be some high dusting required.

      The design of our house (because no round rooms) will need less timbers and not provide quite so many dust-catching opportunities as Kara Woods house.
      However, I think I won’t mind running a long-handled feather duster over the surfaces often enough to prevent fuzzy build-up. The surfaces are interesting and tactile, and it won’t be like dusting on a standard horizontal surface that has objects on it that all need to be moved and moved back.
      Also, because it is a small space, cleaning will be a LOT easier than it is in my current old house. For me, dragging a vacuum around the floors is a lot less fun than dusting, and I’m looking forward to a serious cut in square feet in that regard.
      I’ll happily trade a few minutes of feather dusting on a sunny day for the visual lift of the branching beams.

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