Building homes of straw

EAST MEREDITH, New York – Clark Sanders has no cellphone. Nor does he have a computer. And should you and he decide that he will build you one of his sensuous, sturdy straw-bale houses, he will not prepare you a bid.  

Scrupulous and precise, and a long-practicing Buddhist to boot, Sanders dislikes the implicit fiction in a contractor’s estimate. “It’s only a guess, and the house always costs more, so somebody is going to pay for that,” he’ll say. “Either the builder eats it, or the owner pays more. Either way, there’s bad feeling. It’s not nice.”  

You’ll just have to trust him. His clients, who include his former wife, have all been happy to do so.  

Since 1989, Sanders, 58, a quietly intense former veterinarian, has made 11 straw-bale structures in this rural, arts-focused community in the northern Catskills, a part-time home to many in Manhattan’s creative classes. Meticulously and gorgeously wrought, the structures are calling cards for the man and the material, a renewable and inexpensive resource that produces a tight dwelling that stays cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Beloved by owner-builder types since the 1970s, straw-bale houses were built largely under the radar and off the grid until the early 1990s, when a mini-boom erupted, mostly in the southwestern states and California.  

“It has been growing exponentially since then,” said Mark Piepkorn, a former editor of The Last Straw, a quarterly magazine devoted to straw-bale and other alternative building methods, who describes himself as “a natural building gadfly.”  

“But as far as we can tell,” he added, “Clark is the first person to build a code-approved straw-bale house anywhere.” Indeed, in the universe of alternative builders, he said, Sanders is “world class.”  

Originally deployed by late 19th-century homesteaders in the Nebraska plains, straw-bale building techniques, though much refined, have essentially remained the same for the last century: Hay bales are sliced into blocks, tucked into a frame and finished in plaster. (You can visit many of the early Nebraskan straw-balers, but not the first documented one, an unplastered one-room schoolhouse, because it was eaten by cows.)  

Nobody paid much attention to this hardy Plains vernacular until the early 1970s, when Shelter, the building bible of budding counter-culturalists, was first published. Included in its tour of zomes, yurts and tree houses was an essay on the “baled hay” houses of the Plains.  

Idealistic young homesteaders like Sanders, who was also reading the books of back-to-the-landers like Scott and Helen Nearing, were inspired enough to begin experimenting with their own straw bales, though Sanders’ first effort was tragicomic, as the baler he rented impaled itself, and he spent the money he had saved for building to repair the borrowed machinery.  

In any case, he was pretty much otherwise engaged for the next 25 years or so with the construction, which he did mostly by hand and by himself, of a fantastical stone house here. With its swooping peaked slate roof and steeple, its round door and its whorls of vines, it looks like a collaboration between the Brothers Grimm and the architectural humanist Christopher Alexander, whose books are touchstones for Sanders.  

Recently, Andrea Menke, an exuberant German fashion and prop stylist who is married to Sanders, shooed away the chickens that were skittering toward the back porch. There are 16 chickens, two roosters, three dogs, five cats, two extremely shy miniature donkeys and two elderly cows living here in relative harmony, though the younger cow, a 17-year-old Scottish Highland mix named Bubble, has a bad habit of overturning lawn chairs and picking off side-view car mirrors with her horns.  

Four years ago, Menke, who had trained to be an architect and was living in the East Village, drove up here to meet Sanders, whom she knew by reputation and who she hoped would build her a straw-bale house. She took one look at him, standing in the door of his stone fairy-tale house, and felt as if she had been sucker-punched. Six months later, Menke, now 48, changed her mailing address to his.  

Sanders’ houses do take your breath away. He was 19 and deep in his veterinary studies at Cornell when he began building. An older sister had given him 4.5 hectares on a grassy hilltop as a Christmas present. At the time, land was $950 a hectare, so his new homestead cost the same amount, he noted, “as a hot car like a Firebird. But it was a lot safer.”  

He harvested loose stones from the tumble-down walls of nearby farms and stacked them, face out and sorted by colour, on the hill here, a vast library of material. He thought he might be finished in a year or so.  

After veterinary school, he lived in a shack nearby during the winter and in tents, straight-sided canvas numbers, during the summer. Each week, he worked an 80-hour shift squeezed into four days at an emergency vet practice on Long Island, so he could work three full days on his house here.  

Early in 1982, the shack burned down when its wood stove caught fire, and Sanders, who had bought 21 hectares and a little one-room schoolhouse down the road, moved there. By then, he had company. At a retreat in Massachusetts, he and Lotte Helfer, a Swiss meditation student exactly his age, had fallen in love. “It was the kind of place where you don’t talk, but somehow we managed to notice each other,” he said.  

In a few years, they had married and had three children, three dogs and several cats, all living in the schoolhouse in the winter and the tents in the summer, Lotte Sanders toughing it out while Clark Sanders kept building and working, hurtling between the vet practice and the half-built stone house.  

In 1989, he returned to straw-bale construction, building a meditation centre on 53 hectares he and Lotte Sanders had bought nearby. For a man who had been making a stone masterpiece for most of his adult life, Sanders liked the energy efficiencies of straw-bale building, and the sculptural quality of the plastered material, which he worked over like an artist. “For me, a house is a big sculpture you can live in,” he said.  

By the mid-1990s, he had burned out on practicing as a vet, and he put all his energy into creating a near-perfect example of the form, a high-end straw-bale spec house that he built over a five-year period and sold for more than $500,000 to a couple from Manhattan. He hand-sculptured every centimetre of it, from its voluptuous cob staircase to its land, regrading some of the 18-hectare plot into rolling hills that cradle the 279-square-metre house, which looks a little bit Swiss, a little bit Mediterranean. As with most of his projects, Tjalling Heyning, an old friend and building partner, worked alongside him.  

Five years ago, Lotte Sanders moved out. Their youngest child was starting college and it was just time, she said. (She had already begun to shed some layers: Several years earlier, at 50, she had changed her first name to Yemana.)  

Clark Sanders said: “She is a fiercely independent woman who nonetheless puts everything into her responsibilities. It’s not in her nature to get ornery about it.”  

Thrifty, independent women at midlife are a Clark Sanders specialty, maybe because he produces a custom-made structure to a precise budget, and maybe because of the efficiencies inherent in straw-bale construction. Many of his houses are heated solely by wood stove; Lotte Sanders’ house, which has a field of solar panels on its roof, is totally off the grid.  

A decade ago, Sara Zimmerman, now 64 and working as a house painter, left a pharmaceutical job in Manhattan to move up here full time. In 2007, she put everything she had into the construction of a tidy straw-bale home Sanders built for her on two hectares. It was finished in 2008 and cost about $175,000.  

Living in it, she said, “is like some kind of dream fulfilment. There were particular things I wanted, like a mud room with a closet and a bench, and a really nice shower. And every day I enjoy both of those things. It all feels just as good now as it did in the anticipation. It’s a very happy house.”  

After so many years creating his own habitat, you’d wonder if Sanders was, well, over it. Could he take it or leave it?  

“Well, I’d rather not leave it,” he said, looking alarmed.  

In August, he and Menke were married in the backyard in a thoroughly modern ceremony. (Menke’s therapist gave her away, her best friend presided, and Sanders and a former boyfriend of Menke’s cooked.) But Menke never did get her straw-bale.  

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