Writer Jillian Sullivan’s strawbale cottage looks towards the Hawkdun mountain range from the outskirts of Oturehua in the Ida Valley, Central Otago. It’s red roof and thick straw walls provide shelter from some of the most extreme weather conditions in New Zealand, both hot and cold. And they tell a story too, of having a dream, working hard, persistence and community. Back in 2012, this self proclaimed "(then) unskilled, unfit and 55year old Grandmother" took on the project of building her own home. The result is a natural and energy efficient home that provides a base for an extended family and the odd Central Otago Rail Trail biker as well.
Jillian Sullivan, writer, age 58. Five grown up children and plenty of grandchildren to stay.
I wanted to build a house out of natural materials - strawbale plastered with mud and lime- and to do as much of the building and plastering myself as I could. I wanted to build a house that looked like the original homes in the district. And I wanted to build the house with the help of anyone who wanted to come and learn about strawbale building. From when I was a teenager I believed in the possibility of community and families building houses for each other. The best times on the build were when we were all together - grandchildren and those aged over 60, strangers (not for long), neighbours and friends.
A 107m2 strawbale home with 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, 1 living area, 1 carport plus a 40m2 mezzanine floor
I have twenty acres in the village. I chose it because the Ida Burn stream was on the boundary and the front paddock had five potable springs. I thought having an independent water supply would be important (there is also the local water scheme). The site looks straight out to the Hawkdun Mountains and Mt Ida, as well as Rough Ridge and Blackstone Hill. It's a few minutes walk to the general store. The Rail Trail goes right through the village so that gave me options as well.
When looking for a place, I drove around for five days looking for a piece of land with running water, that was affordable and near the Rail Trail. This was the only site on the market that suited at the time. It had a sign on it so I rang the real estate agent and put an offer in. It was a hard decision to risk buying land somewhere I'd never been before and didn't know anyone beforehand. It felt a bit like jumping off a cliff, making the decision, and sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do, and trust.
I wanted the house to look like a pioneer cottage, similar to the mudbrick and stone houses in the district. I wanted the sun to be in the main bedroom and in the kitchen dining room in the morning, and to be in the sitting-room in the afternoon. The designer added the corner windows to give the pioneer cottage a modern and light-filled improvement.
I drew the original design of a cottage with a high pitched roof and verandah at the front and carport at the back. I chose Grant Harris, Wild Rooster Architectural Design Ltd, in Cromwell, to do the plans as he’d been recommended to me and he’d designed a strawbale house before. He was good to work with and made the experience enjoyable. I’ve since worked with Sol Design, based in Geraldine, who are strawbale designers and teachers.
The first home we owned as a young family was an old cottage with pitched roof and front verandah, and made out of pit sawn timber. Another house we built used macrocarpa and had a mezzanine floor. This house is a combination of those houses, the best things I liked about them.
It was hard to find a builder to take on a strawbale home and an inexperienced grandmother as the labourer! My son-in-law Sam Deavoll (Deavoll Construction) agreed to take the project on and work with me and train me along the way.
We started in the summer of 2012/2013. It took six months for Sam and I to get it to a closed in and liveable situation, and I've been finishing it ever since then.
Building the house full time was one of the best experiences of my life. I became fit and strong, and learnt heaps of new skills. I found I enjoyed using the big equipment like the drop saw. Working physically with someone every day was a real change from working alone at my computer. I enjoyed the companionship and the physicality.
There were two big days where people came together to help. One was the straw bale raising day, where we all cut and fitted straw bales into the timber framework. The second was the mud day when people came to help plaster the mud. At other times people came and stayed for a few days to help out . I loved the feeling of everyone working together and then sharing a big meal to celebrate. One woman plastering said “This feels so good it should be illegal.” Another said “I haven’t felt this creative for years.” Putting the mud mix on by hand is a tactile and addictive experience!
During the build we made a few changes, such as switching a laminated beam to using two long beams of macrocarpa sandwiching a metal beam, to cut down the use of a product that used chemicals.
- Thick, breathable walls(450 cm) and wide timber window sills.
- All untreated timber, mostly macrocarpa.
- A large stone fireplace.
- Corner windows that slide back for unobstructed views.
- Solar hot water heating.
Sam managed the framework materials and tradesmen and I arranged the straw, mud and lime and the community working days. Sam took care of a lot of the building management because he knew where we were at and what was coming up. It was good knowing he was on top of everything and keeping the work flowing. I organized the plastering - mud and lime. But sometimes Sam prodded me with questions, like "Have you found drums for the lime yet?"
Scheduling was an ongoing task that needed to be prioritized to make sure materials and helpers arrived on time. We organized things late at night and first thing in the morning. Often Sam and I would go to the cafe next door while we were building, we called it our office, and make phone calls while we had coffee.
While working on the building site, the biggest challenge for me was working at height - three metres up on the beams. I had to overcome my fear. And remembering all the instructions Sam gave me and figuring out things myself rather than ask him everything when he was busy. I wasn't a very practical person so it was a big learning curve.
The other big challenge was taking on plastering the house myself. The plasterer experienced in working with lime pulled out at the last minute. By then it was getting too close to winter to risk waiting for another plasterer. I decided I would learn on the job and do it myself. Like the building process, making the lime plaster and plastering became a very satisfying experience. I gained in skills and strength as I went, helped along by advice from others. I’ve now helped repair some old mudbrick and stone buildings locally. It feels good to have some skills to pass on.
I love how the house feels like a living being. It has its own presence. It’s quiet, warm, peaceful. And full of character. I love the textured walls and knowing who helped make each part of the house.
- Find a builder who will work beside you, take time off work and build full time. Build a strawbale house that all your family and friends (and small children) can easily work on too. It feels so good to build your own shelter. That experience is something you carry inside you ever afterwards.
Designer / Architect: Grant Harris, Wild Rooster Architectural Design
Builder: Deavoll Construction
Engineer: Murray Petherick
Plumber: Quentin McFeat
Strawbale education and support: Sol Design
Building Product Supplier: Chris Cox, Puketapu Timbers for the wood. Placemakers for building materials.
Kitchen: Deavoll Construction
Window & Door Joinery: Ruby Bay Windows
Strawbales: Mark and Sonia Dillon, Gore
Lime: Taylors of Dunback
Jillian is still working on her strawbale home to this day, with the occasional help of Woofers, family and friends. In addition she is currently writing a book on her journey, which will hopefully be published later this year. Her building experience was the catalyst for many poems and articles, including this poem here, originally published in the literary journal Takahe:
I learn to climb
the ladder hands-free,
up with the drill, the hammer,
sun like lava
on my thighs and knees.
I am enamoured
It beats thinking what if?
Better to drive a nail straight.
That takes care of almost
I do whatever it takes each day
to get up:
Blackstone Hill early
the radio on,
the rungs under my feet.
I don’t presume
height blocks sorrow,
or is safe, yet we are always
all right, walking
those beams like
there’s no tomorrow.
For videos, radio interview and more information on the building of this unique strawbale home, please visit Jillian's website.
Jillian's home is also available on Airbnb for guest bookings.