Straw Bale Goes to Siberia

by Jeff Ruppert, P.E., Carbondale, Colorado

During most of August 2005, I joined two other natural builders from Colorado, Paul Koppana and Cindy Smith, Hungarian Jakub Wihan, and our guide and translator extraordinaire, Alyson Ewald of Missouri, in the southernmost reaches of Siberia. Our goal was to demonstrate the feasibility of bale wall construction in their region. We were observed by local folks and not so local officials alike who were interested in seeing if this new and mysterious building technology made sense.

As members of Builders Without Borders, Paul, Cindy and I volunteered to help design and build a small storage building (15m x 30m) on a piece of land in the Altai Region. The Altai is known to many in Russia as the “Pearl of Siberia.” It is geographically, culturally and biologically very diverse – a literal crossroads throughout the millennia.

A grant from The Center for Safe Energy provided the funds for Alyson Ewalds’ organization and translation and our travel expenses. The land is owned by the Milky Way, a sister organization of The Fund for 21st Century Altai. These and other organizations are working to promote eco-tourism and stewardship of the land and its beauty in the Altai.

Upon our arrival, we began pouring the foundation. This was done with the assistance of an electric mixer. We poured the concrete by hand, which took 2 1/2 days. Prior to forming the foundation, the main carpenter on the project buried 3×15 posts at the corners and along spans for the eventual support of the roof framing. These posts were exposed at the corners for future carving. We also used 3×15’s as the top plate, laid flat. After the foundation was complete, we moved on to making plaster samples and completing the top plate framing. Cindy was our “plaster master”, while Paul and myself worked on the structure.

Halfway through the project, before plaster and roof framing, Milky Way and 21st Century hosted a seminar which was advertised in the local paper and on a TV station they run from Barnaul, where they are located. Alyson interpreted for us with great ease and worked on each part of the project with the members of the organizations. It was an ongoing merry participation of eager folks.

Approximately 30 people showed up, along with the local newspaper and TV crew. We explained, again with the help of Alyson, how bale structures worked and described their advantages. There were many great questions. Feedback from this seminar was very positive. Many non-believers found themselves quietly converted to believing this is a building technology worthy of Siberian winters. The seminar injected all of us with a renewed vigor to close in the structure before our departure a week later.

Building material costs rise steadily in Russia, and during the construction process, it became clear that our hosts did not have the funds to complete the roof. Builders without Borders committed to raising the additional $800 required, so building continued. In a special request to the membership, BWB received close to $3,000 for the project! The extra money was used for solar panels, and our Russian partners were grateful beyond words.

For the remainder of the project, Cindy coordinated all of the volunteer labor to apply large quantities of cob and earth plaster to the walls, while Paul and myself put the recycled, corrugated, plastic roofing up. I also worked on making window frames for the reclaimed windows, while Paul did other carpentry tasks, such as putting plaster stops up and making things look neat.

We departed on the 29th of August with tears in our eyes and new friends wishing us well while asking us to return soon. I am sure some of us will return, as this is just the beginning of gaining official acceptance of bale construction in Russia. We are already in the planning stages for another educational straw-bale project in the Altai region in 2008. For more information, visit