Saxmundham: A bale-build that entwines a team

The Benhall strawbuild

The Benhall strawbuild - Credit: Archant

They are building with straw and sharing the huffing and puffing that the work entails with others – but it’s a fair bet that their end result will not be blown down.

It’s pretty inevitable that references to the nursery rhyme about the three little pigs and the big bad wolf will be made in the process that Rachel Biggins and her partner Jo Grant are undertaking as they are building with straw bales. However, in their case, it’s less to do with rhyme and much more to do with reason.

Former nutritionist Rachel and psychologist Jo have embarked on an innovative community “learn and build together” environmentally friendly construction project at their home in Benhall, near Saxmundham.

They have combined building an attractive garden room that incorporates straw bales in its construction with offering an educational course in such building techniques, with experienced straw-bale builder Matt Muldoon leading the way.

In a neat equation, Rachel and Jo get their building completed quicker because of the extra help they receive from people on the course and, in return, course participants learn the technique and gain valuable experience by being taught and assisted by Matt.


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Volunteers will also be welcome to take roles in the project, gaining hands-on experience without the tutorials.

“We try to live with green principles as much as we can but, without wanting to sound patronising, we are normal people and we do not really cast ourselves in the role of eco-warriors or anything like that,” said Rachel.

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“We wanted to see how we could build in a different way while staying within the strict planning guidelines we had to work to because our property is a Grade II listed farm cottage dating from the 1700s”.

Rachel Biggins

“We just wanted to see how we could build in a different way while staying within the strict planning guidelines we had to work to because our property is a Grade II listed farm cottage dating from the 1700s.

“We do not have a great deal of money and this is a little like being self-sufficient if you like – it all comes in at about two-thirds of the price it would have been if it was built totally conventionally.”

When finished, 20ftx30ft timber-framed construction will act as a garden room, a dark room for Rachel’s black-and-white photography, an office/study for the couple’s writing and their music.

“Jo plays the trumpet and I play the piano and our house is semi-detached,” said Rachel.

“Our neighbours are wonderful but we do not want to cause any noise issues and straw bales give marvellous sound insulation as they are densely compressed, which means they are also more fire-resistant than conventional materials and they also allow less damp to get in.

“A nice thing about working with straw is the personalisation factor. You can sculpt the straw, you can put little indentations into it and make nice little alcoves and nice recessed windows that have broad window ledges because of the depth of the bales. It has got a very warm feel to it, there doesn’t have to be so many straight lines – it has a more comfortable, more welcoming feel.

“What we are hoping to do is to share knowledge of a different way of building. We have combined a little conventional building with a bit of straw bale building and it has very much got a local feel.

“We have worked closely with a local structural engineer because everything has to be just so.

“A local builder has put the footings in and the materials are all as local as possible. The bales come from Jo’s uncle, who is a pig farmer near Eye, and the hazel rods we are using with the bales come from a coppiced wood near Debenham.

“If there are any disadvantages they seem to be related to speed. It has take us three-and-a-half to four years to get to this stage, what with the strict planning rules and everything, although one of the reasons was that we do not have a great deal of cash.”

Tutor Matt‘s course is being split into three stages. The first covers planning and building regulation issues and the various types of straw bale design systems.

“We are hoping to share knowledge of a different way of building. We have combined a little conventional building with a bit of straw bale building and its very much got a local feel”.

Rachel Biggins

The second stage covers such aspects as shaping walls, how to accommodate electrical systems and the positioning of doors and windows.

In the final stage course participants are taught how to make and apply lime plaster and wooden cladding, and the pros and cons of each.

Camping at the property will be encouraged and food provided. Costs for the courses vary from free to £75 per stage, depending on practical experience and the ability to pay.

“Our aim is to make this a fun learning experience,” added Rachel.

Anyone interested in finding out more about the project can refer to its Facebook page called “Strawbale build in Suffolk UK”, or email Rachel at rachelbiggins@gmail.com.

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