We're Big in China - Our "Voice of America" Interview

Craig and I were interviewed by Voice of America reporter Wan-Cheng Chao about our strawbale home. Our architect, Sigi Koko, and our new strawbaling friend, Katie, were interviewed as well. Ms. Chao reports for the Chinese-speaking population in the U.S. and abroad. You may listen to the interview and read the story. (Note: the country music at the beginning and pig noises toward the end!)

I'm going to try to get my sister-in-law to use her mad language skills to translate and record the interview for us. That way I can put it on the blog and the English-speaking among us can hear it!

Of particular note is the statement Ms. Chao made to me; that the Chinese would think this was a 'peasant house' because it is made of straw and other things that Chinese peasants would use in construction. I thought this was great! One of the reasons we're building in this manner is because the materials are locally available and sustainable. Those Chinese 'peasants' are some pretty smart people!

Translation - Direct from the Reporter!
Everyone wants his or her family to be warm and comfortable. In Maryland there are people who want to build the ideal house, which is built for maximum protection of the environment, with a verdant living roof and walls built with stalks of straw. As soon as the reporter heard that some people were using straw stalks to build a house, she was filled with curiosity and went to Pylesville, Maryland to see the results.
The house is under construction, with the wall and roof already finished. Entering one finds bundles of straw everywhere. The smell of the straw makes a person think that he or she is in a barn. The day the reporter visited was hot and humid. The house owners, Craig DeRan and his wife Adrienne DeRan and several friends who came to help work, perspired together. They used hand saws to cut the straw stalks, which was then installed into the wall as insulating material. It did not look like the usual American house. Adrienne first explained why they used the straw stalks as building material: “The straw stalk’s insulation effect is very good. It can grow in this locality, the vegetal period is very short, therefore it is very easy to regenerate. This makes much less use of lumber. Sometimes to build a house requires trees a hundred years old. From that perspective, the reproducibility of the straw is very good.”
Architect Sigi Koko, who designed this house, has built more than 20 houses using natural materials. On this day she also helped. Sigi Koko said that covering the house with straw had many advantages; “This has a quite high insulation value at the cheapest price. The straw wall needs only a little energy to heat. This way also helps local agriculture, because after the farmer harvests the crops, the straw stalks can be used that otherwise are waste. Selling the straw gives the farmer additional income. The straw contains no poison, but is pure and natural. Looking at everything from the angle of the environment, the use of straw stalks has the advantage over other ways.”
Voice of America reporter Wan-Cheng Chao says sawing the stalks to just the right size is not easy. Mrs. DeRan told the reporter that people once used steel bars or bonding jumpers to fix the straw stalks in the wall, but they did not work. They finally returned to the traditional material, bamboo. Only then was the problem solved. Mrs. DeRan said, “The bamboo has the tactile fiber of the archery target, and does not produce the moisture dew point inside the wall, which cannot stand that, because that will bring moisture. Steel bars condense the moisture, which causes the straw stalks to rot from inside to outside.” But is the straw susceptible to destruction from insects and bacteria? Mr. DeRan pointed at the soil piled up outside the room, saying that was the clay dug from the foundation, which would be used to spread on the wall before liming. Insects and bacteria were unable to thrive in such an environment.

Building the house with cheap straw and rubbing the wall with dirt from the ground made the reporter say that covering the house this way was no different from what poor peasants did. Mrs. DeRan laughed and said, “Poor peasant house? Peasant does not waste materials, but depends on humans with general knowledge. People may not have much money to buy materials, so they take natural materials conveniently from local areas. If you call our house a poor farmer’s, that is good because the construction makes sense by using material obtained locally and which conforms to the general principles of construction.”
The DeRan house does not look like an average house which must use gas or petroleum products to heat it. With solar energy boards installed on the roof, the fireplace will be the only source of warm air in the house. The specially designed fireplace may also be used at the same time to bake food!

The plan for this environmental house was careful. Two big pieces of roof provides space to grow plants and flowers. Mrs. DeRan said that these two spaces make a “living roof” that can separate cold thermal currents well and allow people to share room with the birds and insects.

Two specialized architects were also helping this day. One was Katie, who told the reporter that her company focused on commercial construction, which does not usually consider environmental questions, so she came to study house construction geared to protect the environment to learn from that experience. She said, “I had known that building this kind of houses is not an accurate science. Sometimes you must build according to circumstances. Building a house with straw is very laborious and needs many people to help. But this is very safe for the environment. I admire the house-owners’ choice very much. I believe that this can finally be a very good house.”

The fairly tale story of the “three little pigs” relates how the first little pig built a grass house from the bushes, but the big, bad wolf blew the thatched house down with one breath and ate the little pig. Mr. and Mrs. DeRan said that many people are very curious about their straw house, so they have set up a blog dealing with the construction to make it public to the world. The blog name is” “the first little pig”. After visiting Mr. and Mrs. DeRan to see how their house protects the environment, the reporter knew it could not be blown down by any big, bad wolf, but might possibly become a model for environmental protection, starting a current on how human housing could share nature over a very long time!

If you want to understand the construction process Mr. and Mrs. DeRan used for their environmentally protective house, you may enter their blog at: firstpig.blogspot.com