This is the house that mom built

One woman raises a straw bale house in the Galilee.

House in the north 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Sarah Kopp)
House in the north 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Sarah Kopp)
It sounds like a children’s story – a house of straw. This one has a grape arbor and wide front porch with a moonflower vine perfuming the air. Perched on a breezy hill, it commands a sweeping view of Mount Meron and the Galilee.
The house was built by a woman, more or less with her own two hands, using a material nobody in the area ever heard of. When Sarah Kopp, 49, made aliya with husband Velvel and three children, she became Israel’s straw bale pioneer.
The Kopps moved to Israel from Seattle in 1993. Another six children were born after aliya. Settling in Safed, they were uncomfortable living in an apartment. Sarah, who seems to recognize no obstacles, decided that they should build their own house.
Choosing one of two sites available in the area, Kopp began to research sustainable architecture online. She discovered an Internet mailing list dedicated to straw bale construction and became enthusiastic. The list became her source of information and support – and she had no way of knowing how much support she was going to need.
Her vision was to build the house as a family, involving the community and having fun doing it. The illusion soon evaporated.
“When I was in touch with people building straw bale houses in the US and Europe, I read about parties where their friends, or other people interested in this kind of building, came for weekend workshops and helped build the houses. They’d do a bale wall-raising or a plastering party. They’d have a barbecue and drinks. A lot of work got done with a lot of fun and camaraderie and learning together.
“That never happened for me here. I worked with the architect and engineer and became the house’s contractor. I had to pay helpers for every phase of the building. People were derisive about the building materials and techniques. The workers thought I was crazy, or got annoyed at having to work with the itchy straw bales.
“And I was on my own for the entire project, which was really difficult. During the time I was building the house, I was working full-time and had two babies. Velvel was doing his internship at a Jerusalem law office, not getting paid and coming home only for Shabbat. It was difficult for him, too, watching the money get spent and the house not done yet.”
Even some of her children became hostile to the project. “My boys were embarrassed that their mother was building a house,” Sarah recalls.
“Fathers usually take care of house repairs and building.”
There were challenges at every turn.
When the walls were ready to be plastered, the company who plastered the exterior refused to work on the inside.
The material is earth plaster, mixed onsite, which is almost unheard of in Israel. It takes more material and work to apply it to straw bale than to conventional buildings. Kopp ended up plastering the walls herself during one of her maternity leaves.
The roofers refused to put insulation on the roof. “They’d never heard of such a thing and didn’t believe it had any purpose. I bought insulating material, the same kind of Dacron padding that’s used in sleeping bags and jackets...
I just went up the ladder with a carpenter’s staple gun and stapled the insulation in place myself, while the roofers stood by and laughed. They said it was a waste of money and asked if I was nuts.”
Asked to explain why straw bale building is ecology-friendly, Kopp says, “It’s ecologically excellent because it’s a non-processed building material [production of construction cement contributes substantially to global air pollution].
Straw bales use up a waste product of farming. Getting rid of straw is a problem for farmers. Burning it is illegal and it’s no good for animal feed.”
Counting the advantages, she continues, “Straw bale saves money on heating: one small wood-burning stove keeps both floors warm in our Safed winters. And we don’t need air conditioning because straw bale is highly heat-resistant. The kids love it when they walk into the house in summer and it’s so cool inside. It’s pleasant, relaxing, a different feeling from other houses.”
This writer can attest to that. The house, which I visited on a hot summer day, was comfortably cool. The curvy outlines around the walls and doors are endearingly different, and the antique tiles that line the window niches and shelves create splashes of color against the white plaster. “Scavenged from abandoned houses about to get demolished,” comments Sarah about the tiles. Indeed, much of the house’s materials are recycled, including the wood and plumbing.
Straw bale houses last 100 years, as compared to the average 70-80 years of concrete buildings. The material is adaptable, making attractive houses that take the imprint of the owner’s personality and whims.
Twelve years after the house was finished, and with all the creative flourishes in place, Kopp’s adult twins are talking about building their own straw bale house.
Budget constrictions hindered the completion of the Kopps’ house, but straw bale houses can go up quickly.
“We had to put the money aside little by little. It took three years, from buying the land to getting a plan and moving in. But if you have the budget, there’s no reason why a 2,000-squarefoot, two-story, four-bedroom house like ours should take more than a few months. The building cost is about the same as a conventional house.”
Attached to the house is an attractive straw bale zimmer (bed-and-breakfast unit) with a private porch and garden.
On the property around the back is a shed where three goats live. The indefatigable Kopp makes cheese out of their milk, which she sells locally.
I ask her what lessons she took away from the project. She answers philosophically.
“The experience was the most difficult, and in a way the most disappointing project I’ve ever taken on. I had extremely high hopes for how beautiful and creative I was going to make it look. In the end, those creative flourishes needed time and money that I didn’t have,” she says.
“I had hopes for how much fun it was going to be. In the end, it wasn’t fun – it was really hard work, and every single week there was a new challenge to overcome. Finding workers, getting them to do the work like I wanted, getting the money, finding materials… “What I learned from the experience was to value the process of whatever you’re in. Not to focus so much on the end product. When you work to get something and finally get it, you’ve got it and the whole experience is over.
Most of our lives are taken up with the process of trying to accomplish our goals. And if we’re not enjoying that process on some level – emotionally, spiritually or physically, then what’s life about? “I’m not going to make myself miserable striving to get something. I’d rather enjoy the process of setting it up, even if it takes longer than I thought, or doesn’t result exactly the way I wanted, or even if I never get there. At least the process was a journey that was worth taking.”