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Drawing on Straw





There is one primary problem with making a building out of straw. The only other example most people know about was blown down by the Big Bad Wolf. So they think straw construction symbolizes bad judgment or poor preparation. Neither attribution is true; you just have to abandon your preconceptions.



And what better place to do that than at a farm in Stanton Heights? In a city neighborhood filled with tidy residences (mostly brick), agriculture has been both an unlikely phenomenon and a well-kept secret for a number of decades. Yet, the DiCaprio family farmed a five-acre parcel for the better part of 80 years, though it fell into disuse in the 1990s.


Meanwhile, Randa Shannon and Barbara Kline, nurse anesthetist coworkers, found that their mutual interest in organic farming coincided with a shared need for housing. They bought the property and the accompanying house in 1999. Since then, their operations have grown as rapidly as their vegetables. Mildreds' Daughters Urban Farm (because both of their mothers were named Mildred) has gone from a three-woman operation, aided originally by organic grower Stephanie Meyers, to a nonprofit organization with a payroll of 15 and a slew of enthusiastic volunteers. They have recently formed a partnership, Grow Pittsburgh, in collaboration with Mindy Schwartz, an urban farmer in Wilkinsburg. They sell produce at the East Liberty Farmer's Market and the Union Project Farmer's Market, in addition to providing heirloom vegetables to gourmet restaurants in the region.


Kline points with great pride to the many vegetables -- radicchio, broccoli, spinach, heirloom Italian squash -- but their overarching goal is provide an example: "To model, teach and facilitate sustainable agriculture," she explains.


In that light, a barn made out of straw bale might seem as though it is just making a point, but it really derives from necessity and functionality. One year, the need for a new chicken coop led to a temporary straw-bale construction. "The chickens did great," Kline recalls. So when expanding operations called for a new, all-purpose structure for storage and meetings, straw bale seemed like a viable option. The chicken experiment had proven its practicality, and Shannon increasingly liked the idea of having "an earthy refuge."


Nick Hurst, one of the first interns for Mildreds' Daughters, is now a builder. He attended a workshop on straw-bale construction with Mark Hoberecht of HarvestBuild Associates in Columbia Station, Ohio, and learned enough to bring the technique back to Stanton Heights.


Fairy tales notwithstanding, here the straw bale is limited to enclosing walls. The Mildreds' Daughters' building, a 320-square-foot multi-use barn, rests on a concrete masonry foundation, which will serve as produce storage. The upper structure of the meeting space is wood framing -- heavy oak timbers joined with pegs. This was completed last September by a team of 40 volunteers. To continue the spirit and practice of community participation in the straw-bale walls, Hoberecht visited the site to conduct a three-day workshop. Right now, construction continues to complete the wrap-around deck on three sides and to begin the plastering inside and out. However, in another workshop to be held Aug. 12-14, Mary Golden of Gaiatecture in Honeoye Falls, New York, will lead a discussion and demonstration of techniques using earth, gypsum and Structolite plasters, as well as various decorative paint and fresco techniques (For more information call 412-799-0833 or e-mail mildredsdaughters@earthlink.net.)


In the meantime, the straw-bale structure is already in use. Kline points out that it's perfect to beat the heat during lunchtime lectures, when the sun is at its hottest. "The insulation value of the straw is phenomenal. It's so cool inside."


Shannon also adds, more ominously, that this environmental conscientiousness is not simply appealing, but necessary. Dependence on Middle Eastern oil for transportation and fertilizers places the conventional food supply in some jeopardy. "The food supply is hanging by a thread and people don't realize it," she cautions. When that Big Bad Wolf comes, in the form of an oil crisis, a straw house, and the organic farm that goes with it, will be just the one to have.

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