Connecting People, Culture and Nature – An Interview with Bill Steen

 

Anyone who has been drawn to the beauty of straw bale buildings has surely come across the work of Bill and Athena Steen. Their book, The Straw Bale House, written nearly 20 years ago, sparked the modern-day “straw bale revival”. Focusing on simple, comfortable, handcrafted shelters made with local and natural materials, they’ve inspired many people to build their own home, with their own hands.

Bill and Athena are founding directors of The Canelo Project – a non-profit organization based out of their home in southeastern Arizona, whose theme is “Connecting People, Culture and Nature.” They’ve taught workshops and lectured in Mexico, Europe, and throughout the United States, and their work with straw and clay has been featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., the National Botanical Gardens – Washington D.C., the Denver Art Museum, and the Ceramic Research Center at Arizona State University.

I interviewed Bill one quiet morning in April 2012 during my one-month “internship” at Canelo. We sat outside of the 100-year-old adobe house Bill restored when he arrived here 25 years ago. As we sipped our coffees getting ready for this interview, the big oaks surrounding the house dropped their leaves, as myriad birds chirped happily from the branches above. 

Lubyk: What first attracted you to building with bales?

Steen: It wasn’t the result of any long lost investigation. I think more it was just the time; it was that kind of era. I was just coming out of the late 60s, early 70s, and there was a lot of positive stuff happening. I’m not sure how many people are aware but during that time there was a lot of fun, innovative building that happened, mostly in places like Northern California and New Mexico. Then there was the organic gardening movement that was really big and those ideas continued into the 80s. That was at a time when I had been part of a community in New Mexico and it was time to leave there and when I came back [to Arizona]. I was looking for similar threads without the overlays of being attached to anything. So part of that was coming to this property and continuing my interested in organic gardening and plants. I think those were primary, but at the same time, what fascinated me more was the broader spectrum and how you go about putting a sustainable life together. Obviously part of that is the food you grow, the care of the landscape and the place that you live, and housing and energy use are a big part of that picture, part of that vision.

I had spent 12 or 13 years before that deeply immersed in yoga and meditation, strictly, and if you really sit back and look at yourself, in particular you reflect on yourself and the environment you’re part of, you notice that everyone, including yourself, is disconnected from the physical world, so to speak. The urge for me really was to combine the two and put them together, make that sort of manifest and tangible.

The first thing I had undertaken was the remodel of this old adobe house and in the process it really gets you thinking. Then I ran into this friend who was part of the first straw bale book, David Bainbridge, and he was the one who told me about it. We decided to compile a bunch of information and put together a little booklet. And that was kind of the beginning of it.

Lubyk: Both you and Athena are well known for your work with clay. What is it about clay that makes it so well suited to straw bales over lime and cement-based plasters?

Steen: Again you don’t set out clearly with that intent, at least we didn’t. I think probably what had more to do with it, that we both had in common, was exposure and living in a part of the world of adobe, a very traditional material. In my case, having lived in an old adobe home, and for Athena, it was having been part of building one with her family. For both of us it was more of a desire to combine that with the straw.  In other words, we saw it as an opportunity to put the two together. And I don’t think we were exactly sure how they went together, either one of us, but in my case, I knew about earth floors, and I knew that it was possible to plaster with adobe. I don’t think either of us were really aware of the benefits, as witness by the first building we did using asphalt stabilized plaster. I mean, that doesn’t really reflect any kind of environmental sensitivity but it was a step in that direction.

And as you begin to get into it you discover eventually that what you’re working with is clay at the root of it. At least right here it just happens to manifest as adobe but we met and made good friends with a guy named Frank Anderson from Germany who was part of the movement that founded light-clay straw and they did a lot of the initial clay work in modern buildings in Germany. So we hooked up with him and started to expand what we knew beyond the Southwest dimension. Then one thing leads to another and you discover that it’s a big world and it goes to many other countries beyond just the southwestern United States. It was being done in Europe, you find out about things happening in Japan, I mean the whole world opens up that way. So it was that kind of fascination that got us started.

Lubyk: In terms of clay pairing with straw bales, how does it work, perhaps, better than some of the other plasters in keeping a building healthy?

Steen: I mean that whole realm of what you finish walls with well, the more you get into it the more you discover just how complex it is. Initially it was the aesthetic that drove us and wanting to mimic the vernacular building style, which is really the adobe walls with the metal roofs and dimension lumber that was the result of the railroads coming through bringing supplies. So on one hand we wanted to mimic that vernacular style from this area. Beyond that though, it became a process of discovery. You read books, where everybody has their two cents and after a while you discover that’s kind of incomplete because you’re getting bits and pieces. I think early on we entered into the era where it was becoming popular to put lime over adobe buildings; it had come out of lime efforts in Europe and there was a tradition of it in Mexico, so there’s a certain romance there. It’s like, wow, that sounds way more interesting than cement because you were hearing all the cons about cement and what have you.

Initially the thought was that if you did clay and you put lime over top it would be a really good idea. But you get into that and you discover that it’s a really complex relationship and it’s not always a good one. They’re kind of compatible but not as compatible as one would think. Through various accidents or trials on parts of walls covered in clay that had really gotten soaked or wet, you’d see that water just wasn’t getting through. You’d think, this is impressive, pretty amazing, and yet we clearly saw that if you put a coat of lime over that clay it was enough to trap that moisture inside the bale. On paper you could read that lime was totally permeable and a desirable finish yet you could take two straw bales and cover them both with clay and then one with lime, and you open them up and you’d see that water gets into the one with lime, and it stays there. So that’s kind of fascinating and it was one of the early discovers and perceptions that we made and it really started convincing me just how viable and just how great a material clay was to be covering them.

I think the ideal, if you could get there, weather permitting, would just be to use unstabilized clay plasters all the way around the building, inside and outside. It would be, by far, the healthiest thing that you could do — simplest environmentally, socially, environmentally. That’s feasible in some parts of the country with a certain amount a maintenance periodically; maybe a porch or verandas all the way around would solve parts of that; while in other parts of the world where wood is more abundant, a rain screen assembly would be ideal for wetter, wind-driven rain type climates. For these climates rain screens are brilliant, they make a great deal of sense; way more sense than trying to put cement or lime over bales. The problem is people tend to get attached to that sort of adobe look. They want the exterior of their building to look curvy and sexy instead of straight and angular. My response to that is you can do that on the inside of the building. Just protect your building and do it well. Make sure it’s appropriately protected from the elements and the weather.

Lubyk: Many of your structures are tiny by most North American’s standards. Why do you think it’s important for people to build small?

Steen: [Chuckles]. Well, in our case it’s more, [more chuckles], I’d say we’re not great builders so we don’t do things too big, it’d take us too long. In all seriousness, people build way beyond their needs. They build according to their head and preconceived ideas about what a house should be without giving a whole lot of thought to what they actually need. And it’s not just about need. You don’t need to be some Spartan, Amish type of person, it’s just a matter of wanting to do it nicely, you want to do it comfortably, but try to keep it in the realm of what’s needed. You don’t need 15-foot high ceilings, or 5,000, or 10,000 square feet for a couple of people. That’s just absurdity. But I guess that’s obvious, at least to a great many people.

You’re coming out of a time when people were predominantly rural cultures and then after WWII you had a real accent on getting educated, going to college, getting a degree, going into the workplace, specializing, and I think by and large people have lost, in general, a lot of the practical day-to-day skills that were once just part of everyday life. People, let’s put it this way, don’t know how to do much. And so we’ve lost our ability to understand physical work and what it takes to get something done. We also entered into a period where we hired people to do things for you, more specialized trades. But now there’s a reawakening of people wanting to be part of these things, to grow a tomato, or grow some food, or be a part of building a house for themselves. But again, because they don’t have any concept of what’s work, I think it is a common mistake made by many people to build too big. You look at the houses around you and you think, well, I must be able to do that too. And big surprise, no, it’s a whole different world out there.

Lubyk: What role does natural building have in connecting people with nature?

Steen: Possibly none. [Chuckles]. I mean, I’m not joking. You can, on a piece of paper, read that it’s a responsible thing to do, that it’s a nice thing to do, an ecologically sound thing to do, and pursue it like an idea, right. By and large, if you had to ask me, if I had to make a guess, probably the majority of people out there trying to do natural building are no more connected to nature than they were then before they started, primarily because it’s idea driven. If you look at any young person, when they get away from their parents, there’s always a sort of translating of frustrations and combative elements with your parents into the bigger world. I remember my personal political and religious perspectives in the late 60s, and if you asked me, they were probably more idealistic than that of my parents, but if you looked at me as a person, how sane was I, how much common sense I had, how capable was I to have a positive influence in the world [laughter], there wasn’t much.

If the question is, “what’s it take to get in touch with nature?” – that’s a different thing. If you made a scale and on one side is the ego-driven world and on the other nature, well, you’d have to pick it. Why, because nature is devoid of opinion, it’s devoid of thought, it’s just what it is. The world is just a collection of ego-driven individuals and while everyone is well intentioned in their own way, some trying to satisfy basic emotional drives, others trying to do it more altruistically, essentially, everyone is moved by their ego.

So where is that point where you really connect with nature? You can find it, its there, but not in the way most people look for it. There aren’t a lot of preconceptions, there’s not a lot of intellect there, its just nature. The question is, what’s really driving the person?

Lubyk: Surely, though, going out onto your land and discovering a clay deposit, digging it, and then applying it to the walls of where you’re going to live has a more profound impact on a person than simply jumping in the car to get a bag of cement from Home Depot.

Steen: Maybe. I’ve seen people go get clay and I wouldn’t say they’re any more in touch with anything. They’re simply driven by an idea. They’re more fueled by anger against the establishment and being different. But if the intention is there when you’re out getting your clay, really connecting with the place that you are, and just connecting with the dirt, and having a whole different appreciation for where you are, then yeah, I’d say there’s a connection.

Lubyk: How might natural building be used to deal with exorbitantly high housing prices, which are out of reach for many young people?

Steen: I don’t know. It’s just such a bizarre mix these days. Obviously if you get yourself onto a piece of ground, I don’t want to say land because maybe it’s not, maybe it is land out there but maybe it’s a piece of ground in a city, that’s the first part. There’s a lot of old stuff out there that could be redone and brought up to a whole different standard that can be bought for a very reasonable price. The key is avoiding building too big, it’s doing a bunch of the work yourself, or with the help of friends, and you’ve got to have some mechanism to exchange and trade with people who have skills that you don’t, or that you can offer them.

But it is context even more than just finding a piece of ground that’s important. What’s the context that you can create a life? Out here, in this context, it takes a whole different perception and effort than being in the middle of the city trying to hold a job and work there. I don’t have the answer. That’s a really tough one in this day and age. Super hard.

Lubyk: Do you foresee more natural building happening in urban centres or will this remain largely a rural occupation?

Steen: No, I think you’ll see these materials used increasingly. I can’t remember which magazine it was in but they ran an article, I think it was last summer, that was titled, 40 things you need to know for the next 40 years, and number one was building with earth! There’s an awareness out there and it’ll keep growing, that’s for sure. People are doing it with foods, people are doing it with all kinds of products, and inherently you’ll have to see more and more stuff done that way.

Lubyk: Could natural building go mainstream? If it did, what would be gained and/or potentially lost?

Steen: Anymore, at least on days that I’m wise, when I have all the elements of my brain working, I don’t ever think about it. That always used to be the thing with straw bale, how do you get it to go mainstream? People barely understand it yet, let alone make it mainstream. It’s kind of like anything, if you simply resign yourself to what you do, and do it really well, and really put your effort and energy into that, then it’ll go there automatically. If it’s done well and it’s done beautifully and you’ve confined yourself to that focus, it just goes that way — the rest just kind of follows. Do it passionately, do it well, and the rest will take care of itself.

Lubyk: If someone is interested in building with straw bales, what advice do you have for them to get started?

Steen: There’re so many different ways of building but at the same time we’re in our own little category. Nobody else that I know of builds the way we do, but you go to somebody else and they’ll build the way they do. For me, it comes down to how accessible are you to someone who knows something — someone who is capable of doing a good building. It may be different than ours but being accessible to someone that can really help or give decent advice is important. Really, there’s a lot of bad information out there and the whole field isn’t really cohesive; the era’s changed. It doesn’t really have the same ease and appeal that it did.

Lubyk: Why are workshops so important to attend when there is so much information in books, on video, and on You Tube?

Steen: I think it’s a great way to get started in terms of just getting familiar with the material. The argument could made that they’re worth it just for that. You can read and read and read and it’s just not the same as putting your hands to it and doing it with your hands. The building may not be exactly the way you’re going to do it but at least it starts you with the materials. Ideally, it’s a good workshop and the information you get is sound. It just moves you a whole increment. Some people just try to jump from nothing to building their house and that’s not a good idea. Ideally you’d just build something really small and insignificant first because you’ll discover a hell of a lot in the process, so at least a workshop gets you started. And I think it gives you an experience of working with other people that you don’t typically get. There was more of a wall-raising mentality earlier on when people used to love to get together, which is not so much there anymore, but at least, even though it’s a workshop, you get a sense that it’s possible to work with other people and there’s another way of doing it than just hiring a bunch of people to come do it for you. I think that’s some of the main value to it.

Lubyk: Can you give some advice to people attempting to work through codes and some of the red tape and hurdles associated with getting permits to build a natural building? What sort of approach should people take if they wish to be successful?

Steen: Go talk with your building inspector. Get acquainted with him. Most people have the perception that the building inspector automatically implies your enemy. They’re not. They’re just people like anybody else. You just have to start a dialogue. You’re not a war with the person. They’re there and they’re doing their job and it’s like anything — approach them like a human being and they’ll work with you. You find out where they’re at and what they’re open to and then you start your discussion, whether it’s you needing to collect more information, more documents, but that’s the crux of it in wanting to have a successful outcome. That’s my approach.

One thought on “Connecting People, Culture and Nature – An Interview with Bill Steen

  1. Anonymous

    Great article Ashley, thank you.

    It really is encouraging to know that all of these resources and incredible people, including you, are out there working out all of the details, fine tuning the process and sharing the knowledge.

    Michael Moore
    Genesis Permaculture

    Reply

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