Before moving to the Rogue Valley, the Gales had a “pretty traditional lifestyle,” says Chris. They wanted their new home in Talent built from natural materials and after researching the options, chose strawbale construction (see Homelife, March 2005). “It started out to be something different,” she says, “but it’s turned out to be a different way of living.” Nothing shows she’s embraced this lifestyle more than the small triangular solarium that sits just below the house.
The journey to build the solarium/greenhouse is as organic and interesting as the building’s construction. As much as Chris loved her home, something was missing. A gardener for 35 years, she wanted a place to cuddle and to keep her gardening library. She collected pictures to embody her notions and had a building plan created. She even bought antiques for her potting shed/greenhouse.
Don’t confuse strawbale construction with fairy tales about fragile straw houses. The Gales’ home is not in danger of being blown down by the stiff winds coming out of the Siskiyou Mountains. Nor will the mud be melting off the sides of the building any time soon.
Cob construction is an ancient building practice seen all over the world, with many examples of buildings which have stood for centuries. A stiff mixture of sand, clay, straw and water, cob dries to a cement-like hardness. Amazingly, some cob buildings in Turkey withstood earthquakes that destroyed surrounding structures.
The materials for the buildings are inexpensive, but the process is quite labor-intensive. Structures are often completed by work crews assembled in workshops to study the building technique. They take time to build, as cob walls are constructed in stages to prevent slumping. The buildings can be permitted in most areas around the valley, but because buildings using the technique are hard to appraise, financing can be difficult to obtain.
Then things changed. When she showed the plan to cob builder Coenrad Rogman, he told her, “I can’t walk through this.” Instinctively, she understood the problem was one of scale, and the idea of unstructured space took root in her mind. Rogman re-framed her ideas in a simple drawing, which then became the plan for the solarium. “(When) you come down to the simplest of forms… it’s always the best,” says Chris.
She decided on a totally natural space for herself—no electricity, no running water and all natural building materials: straw, sand, clay and wood. Ancestry played a part in the selection of the living roof to top the building. “I’m Norwegian. I knew my ancestors lived with sod roofs.”
Chris is intimate with the construction details of the building, since she and Bob did much of the work. She loved this, from building the foundation to sculpting on its walls and plastering the interior. Part of the fun was the connection the Gales made with the construction crew. “They are dedicated to living more simply and to not taking so much from the earth,” she says.
The building process begins with a concrete footing, which is the base for a stone foundation. Chris built much of the foundation herself after the original worker left. Atop the stone, a layer of cob creates a level surface for the straw bales, which are stacked and then cinched tight. Over the bales, mud and chipped straw (slip) is packed and left to dry and harden. The walls are then plastered with a mixture of sieved clay and sand.
Most of the interior is finished with earthen plaster; the exterior and cob walls finished with lime plaster. The exterior is sprayed with iron sulfate, an icky green substance that dries to a rich terra cotta, says Chris. Further enhancements include forms she sculpted onto the walls, wrought-iron inlays and niches.
The ceiling is supported by wood poles, which extend the walls of the building and are topped with cedar planks. “It’s very atmospheric,” says Chris. “When I’m laying in the hammock I can see it all.” Layers of hardware cloth, landscape fabric, waterproof membrane, and more landscape fabric comprise the roof. To create the living roof, Bob constructed a narrow “planting box” on the roof by nailing fascia boards to the ends of the ceiling poles. The Gales layered cardboard, composted straw, and a planting medium of 4 inches of soilless planting mix (compost and perlite), where they planted four types of sedum.
&Now the 200 square foot solarium/greenhouse is a place where Chris can totally relax, especially in the summer after working in the garden. Its multi-purpose space holds seedlings in the spring, bundles of lavender and herbs hung to dry in the summer and tender perennials in the winter. The passive venting and thick walls create a climate where her geraniums will bloom all winter.
The view of the valley and Roxy Ann from her hillside home deepens Chris’s connection with nature. With its living roof, the solarium is a natural part of the hillside. Wrapped in the atmosphere and ambiance of her strawbale dwellings, she is eager to tell others about the structure’s benefits.
ldquo;I don’t want us to use the earth and not realize it’s part of the life that sustains us,” she says. “We’re all in this together.”