Straw Bale Workshops in the Time of COVID

Written by Andrew Morrison

“…My neck is stiff, my voice is weak, I hardly whisper when I speak. My tongue is filling up my mouth, I think my hair is falling out. My elbow’s bent, my spine ain’t straight, My temperature is one-o-eight. My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear, There is a hole inside my ear. I have a hangnail, and my hart is—what? What’s that? What’s that you say? You say today is… Saturday? G’bye, I’m going out to play!

For many, Shel Silverstein described 2020 perfectly when he said these final lines in his poem “Sick.” There have been so many challenges this year from COVID to the fight for equality and racial justice, to living in a heavily divided country undergoing an unprecedented election, to living in the age of disinformation and weaponized social media. But what’s that? What’s that you say? Straw bale workshops were amazing anyway! Good-bye, I’m signing up for the new classes that start in May! (and yes, that’s a sneak peak into the workshop schedule for next year!)

COVID-Safe Straw Bale Workshop Group Photo

That’s right, we held three straw bale workshops in the time of COVID and managed the health and safety of our participants with a perfect track record. We did not have a single COVID incident at any of our events and we are happy to share that we had a ton of fun! To be able to spend a week together: living, playing, laughing, sharing, and working was something wonderful, especially in these times where isolation is a common challenge due to the impacts of COVID. Honestly, I would say this was the most fun season we’ve had because we were all that much more appreciative of the opportunity to spend time together.

After much consideration and research regarding managing the risks of COVID, we discovered some great things about our workshops and why they are an ideal experience, even with COVID in the picture.

  • Starting the Day Each Morning

    Our Workshops happen entirely outdoors. Most people sleep on site in tents, hammocks, or RVs (some people get nearby hotel rooms). The work takes place in an unfinished residential structure that, even after baled, offers excellent air flow.

  • Masks are the norm anyway. I talk about air flow above, but there are lots of times when that flowing air is full of straw dust, so wearing a mask has been common practice on straw bale builds for many years. During our workshops now all participants must wear a mask when standing within 10′ of another person.
  • Keeping a Safe Distance

    Keeping our distance. Even when hanging out around the campfire, we keep a safe distance from each other and allow the fresh, flowing, outdoor air to keep us safe. And again, if participants are within 10′ of each other, even in the evenings and around the campfire, masks must be worn.

  • Safe Food Handling. Our meals are served outside and under sanitized and controlled conditions. Each host is briefed on safe handling practices as specified by the CDC and those measures are all followed.
  • Sanitation. We have cleaning stations throughout the job site to allow people to keep their hands cleaned and sanitized. We also provide showers and bathroom facilities of course.
  • Daily temperature checks. I check everyone’s temperature upon arrival before mingling with the group and then every day per CDC guidelines.
  • COVID protocol details. You can see more details about what measures we have adopted to create a safe space for all participants HERE.
  • COVID refunds. You can see how we are dealing with refunds during this pandemic HERE.

For a lot of people, getting out and connecting with other human beings is something that happens much less often now. I find that very sad as I believe that human interaction, in person, is so important for our health and sanity. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I will attempt to share the general feeling that I witnessed at our 2020 workshops from participants.

  • Taking Time to Connect

    Gratitude. I would say that the overall energy I got from people was one of gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity to connect with other people, in person, in a safe way. Some hadn’t realized that they had gotten used to being separate from others and were happy to be reminded of the importance of in-person connections.

  • Sense of adventure. For some, camping out was not something they had done much of until COVID hit and the workshop became a new adventure for them. For others, being amongst other people who hold similar ideals and have a common goal of building someone’s house was the adventure.
  • Understanding the Bigger Picture

    Expanding knowledge. One thing that 2020 showed me is just how thin a razor’s edge this world is walking. We are finding a way through the COVID pandemic and showing resilience, but I also see where we have some HUGE holes in our safety nets. Learning how to build an energy efficient house is a great example of learning a new skill that will benefit you in the years to come in many ways. Not to be a doomsayer, but I do have a new appreciation for the skills I have around building. I can tell you that I don’t have those same skills in gardening…but I’m working on it!! 🙂 Expanding my own knowledge each day..

  • Relief. That may sound weird, but there was a sense of relief, of normalcy from many participants. Experiencing the workshop brought back a feeling of “things will be okay”.
  • True Happiness

    Happiness. So this one pretty much sums it up. People had fun, made friends, played music, told stories, learned new skills, shared laughs and tears, and generally found some joy. As much as I love teaching you about straw bale construction, what I really love is to see people find their joy and share it with others. I’ve seen it happen time and again at the workshops, and it’s part of what keeps bringing me back to this amazing job I have (not to brag, just to say I LOVE what I do and I thank YOU for affording me the opportunity).

I look forward to seeing you sometime in 2021. I truly do.


9 Responses

  1. It makes a lot of sense that strawbale building would be a relatively COVID-safe activity. It is probably more dangerous driving there than it is to be there. 🙂

    Any chance that any of 2021’s workshops will be in Canada, particularly the prairie provinces?

  2. I was really excited to see your email this evening and to read this great post. I had hoped to attend another workshop this year but a tumultuous year it was for me before even adding in Covid. Things are settling and I sure would love to join in another workshop as I still hold the dream of building my own straw bale house in the next few years.

    Sending love and gratitude your way for bringing some light into our lives.

  3. Hello. I am in touch with a potential host in Canada (a couple actually), but the biggest issue is crossing the border. The Trump Administration has done a terrible job handling the COVID pandemic and so our numbers continue to rise. As such, the border is closed to Americans traveling into Canada. That’s the biggest hang up right now. I have done several workshops in Canada and I look forward to more in the future when it is an option once again.

  4. Dear Andrew,
    You are an inspiration! My husband and I bought 5 acres and we are ready to build a draw bale small chapel. When can we book you to come next year? We are in Dallas Oregon just outside Salem. Please contact me (858)2485123 or [email protected].
    In gratitude,

  5. Hi Andrew, thanks for all your work over the years. I’m wondering if you’ve ever encountered these double compressed straw bales? I just saw an ad for them and it seems to be a growing way to pack hay. The bales are twice compressed and sized to fit on pallet skids, 24/skid. Their size is 21x16x12″ and the seller says they weigh about 35 lbs each.(Approx 15lbs per cu.ft) I’m wondering what you think about the pros and cons of building with something like that? Here’s a link although it may expire as it’s for a classified ad:

    I’m possibly planning a straw bale passive solar greenhouse project and I’m wondering if these would be worth the expense (they do cost quite a bit more on a volume or square foot basis)
    Thank you!

  6. Hi Rick. I have seen those bales (not these specifically, but highly compressed bales) and I would NOT recommend them. They are too tight and lose some of their R-value as a result because they lack the entrained air that comes with a common bale. Further, they tend to be very short straw in the bales themselves. I would stick with regular bales for the best results.

  7. Hello Andrew, Merry Christmas from Nova Scotia.

    I have wanted to build a straw bale house forever! 2021 may be the year… I thought the workshops would be a fantastic way to meet, learn and have that labour force all packed in a week! Not sure how that would work for 2021? I think your website is so informative and it really is exciting to think about the future when looking here. We haven’t spoken with the building official yet to see if it is allowed in the municipality where we have our lot.

    One question… have you ever seen a duplex made with staw bale? I’m thinking that building two houses at the same time may be the best cost effective way but I was unsure if it would work? Thanks in advance. I really love the courtyard plan you have shown here.

  8. Hi Kim. So glad to hear of your excitement and thanks for the kind words about the website. I’m happy to hear that you find it so helpful. I have done a few “common wall” homes with straw bale construction and they have gone really well. It may take some convincing for the building department to allow you to build the common wall out of bales, but the science supports the concept in terms of fire resistance, soundproofing, and insulation.

    Covid sure is making 2021 a hard year for Canadians to attend my workshops. It’s also made it impossible thus far for me to teach a class north of the border. Maybe 2022 will be the year!

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