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Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox want to make the world a better place in which to live-better built, more affordable and kinder to our shrinking natural resources. Their mantra is "Build it with straw." Yes, straw-big, thick cubes of straw hay you can stack like children's building blocks, skewer with steel beams, and cover in stucco. Add the roofing, wiring and plumbing, and you've got a snugly built bale home.
Through Out on Bale (un)Ltd. in Tucson, Arizona, the husband-and-wife team provides seminars and consulting services on straw-bale construction. The Last Straw, their quarterly journal, presents the latest research on straw-bale developments and shares experiences of individuals who have built straw-bale homes as their primary residences.
The two former educators admit their enterprise resulted more from their fascination with straw homes than their desire to become entrepreneurs. "We felt the technique had extraordinary potential, and we wanted to share what we knew with other people," says Myhrman.
The process began when Myhrman saw a small story about straw-bale construction in an industry periodical. A month later, while in New Mexico for a job, he visited Gila, where the house he read about was built. From that point on, says Myhrman, he was bitten by the "bale bug."
Soon after, Tucson's Arizona Daily Star wrote a story on the subject. "It made the front page of the Sunday Home section, in color," Knox recalls. "That brought a swarm of interest from this area." One news story led to another, and interest in straw-bale homes continued to grow, especially when The New York Times and National Geographic featured articles on this alternative building method.
Myhrman and Knox continued their research. "We talked to everyone we could find who had lived in, built or designed a straw home. We wanted to know how they were affected by termites, fires and other factors," Myhrman explains. The couple learned that stuccoed straw-bale homes are fire-resistant, energy efficient and quiet. They stand up to heavy storms, termites, and, yes, big bad wolves. Also, they can be inexpensive for an owner-builder to construct: as low as $12 a square foot.
In 1992, Myhrman and Knox founded Out on Bale with an investment of less than $1,000, for basic office equipment and a computer. "We started small and paid as we went, so we didn't have to go into debt," Myhrman explains. The couple later invested $5,000 in desktop publishing equipment and software to publish the The Last Straw, which reaches subscribers as far away as South Africa and New Zealand. They also found time to build a straw-bale guest home on their urban lot in Tucson.
Out on Bale is indeed "an affair of the heart, not the pocketbook," as Knox claims. The business generates $30,000 a year, enough to "pay the rent, buy our food, and let us do our work." Through their work, she estimates, the straw-bale revival has grown from a few hundred straw-bale homes four years ago to 1,000 such homes today. What's the couple's advice for finding business fulfillment? "Get excited about something," suggests Myhrman, "and see where it leads you."
Freelancer Carla Goodman is considering building her homebased office out of straw.
Out on Bale (un)Ltd., 1037 E. Linden St., Tucson, AZ 85719, (520) 622-6896.