A Home Built of Straw
You can’t help recalling a fairy tale visiting the home of Andrew and Rachel Bishko, who built much of their home with bales of straw and kids in mind
Story and Photos
By GEORGE FREEMAN Editor of GREENE Magazine
If you recall the classic nursery rhyme featuring the Three Little Pigs, they were sent out in the world by their mother, only to encounter the Big Bad Wolf, who huffs and puffs until he destroys the first two pigs’ house of straw and second of sticks, before meeting his fate in the cooking pot of the third little pig, who wisely built his house of bricks.
You can’t help but be reminded of the fairy tale touring the home of Andrew and Rachel Bishko, who built much of their 6,800 square foot home of straw. And sticks, and stone and clay mud and his own creation: clay paint, which he now offers for sale. And glass, lots of glass. And most of all, love of family.
And in this very large home built of straw are three little children, named Honor, 6, Joyous, 3, and Shepherd, 1. It is a tale of love, second marriages, children, chickens and career changes. So let’s all gather round and hear the story:
"When I first visited this community to see if I wanted to move here, I was very attracted to the old cabin on this site and the surrounding property." says Bishko. "I always imagined myself building here, and when I met Rachael several months after moving here, she felt the same way. We were able to purchase the property then, and spent three years planning and designing the house."
It’s a long way to the Ozarks from such faraway places like San Diego and Cleveland, with detours in Alaska. But that’s just the beginning of the new life Andrew and Rachel Bishko are creating just down the long road and off the grid near Windyhill, Mo.
At the end of there journey to the Ozarks, down a rocky lane that will rattle your teeth is 62 Napasha Lane, officially near Buffalo in Dallas County. And while there is something of a fairytale being fashioned here. Andrew Bishko was born into a Jewish family in Cleveland, graduated from Northwestern University and the New England Conservatory of Music; played in a raggae band as far north as Alaska; married and was divorced from a troubled spouse; sought his own therapy and found it through a new faith in God. And then he met Rachel.
Rachel grew up in San Diego, but a life in the sun and on the beaches was not her dream. She wanted the farm life; married and lost her late first husband in Chicago. Shortly after his passing, she joined a religious community through Christ’s Community Church; and two lives became one in a whirlwind in 2005.
And a new fairytale emerged, with dreams of a house full of children, family and friends. Only this one is still being written.
Andrew is an adjunct instructor at Ozarks Technical College, driving more than 50 miles at least three days a week(Music Appreciation, World Music, Songwriting, and a new class in Native American Flute based on his book, recently published by Mel Bay Publications).
"I also teach private music lessons in Springfield, Fair Grove, Buffalo, and Lebanon on many instruments and styles." he says. And, quite expectedly, there is a piano in the Bishko home built of straw. But we digress.
This isn’t just a home for three little pigs. In fact, it’s about as modern as a home can be.
Straw bales from one particular Mennonite farmer near Versailles who seems to know how to pack the straw just right. And mud made from Ozarks clay, carefully sifted and combined with sand in a two-to-one ratio of sand, straw and a resulting muddy mortar mix that is to say the least, messy.
But the result is a home the three little pigs would envy, with a clay tile roof and a kitchen and great room larger than some homes. And more than 1,000 square feet of second-story decks on three sides from which to observe the fauna and flora that make these 74 acres feel like as much like a rustic bed and breakfast as a working farm.
There are already chickens, and goats for meat and milk; a handshake with a hunter has provided venison; a neighbor who raises cattle provides beef; another supplies all the goat milk the family can consume. These are neighbors who love one another in life as well as church; and share music lessons, home-schooling and even their talents as carpenters from time-to-time.
"I started this project hardly knowing how to hammer in a nail, and through my experience of building my own home, I’ve built so many skills within myself," says Bishko. "These include many ways to stack straw bales and plaster them with earthen and/or lime plasters; but they go way beyond – from designing for natural building, physical skills in carpentry, plumbing, timber framing, mixing and applying natural plaster and paint, cob, natural stone masonry, tile roofing, and using local materials such as green oak and red cedar to personal skills such as general contracting, working with crews, finding deals on materials, designing for natural building, and building relationships with local suppliers and craftsmen."
Lunch on a recent warm sunny day includes fish and fresh salad greens, washed down with your choice of goat’s milk or lemonade; followed by apple slices and a dollop of almond butter from Momma Jean’s in Springfield.
The house remains a work in progress, but it has transcended being a project down the road to a home heated and cooled by three high-efficiency heat pumps and often just a wood stove.
Now it is also a process, and quite a comfortable place to live. A granite countertop from Italy by way of Craig’s list has a commercial six-burner stove top; around the corner is a three-basin stainless steel laundry sink rescued from a commercial recycling business down the road. In fact, many of the doors, windows, fittings and furniture are one-of-a kind finds and bargains from here and there across several states.
The floor skip-planed floor is several varieties of wood rescued from a cabin razed on the property and the remains of an old turkey barn. Same with the ceiling. Double-pane floor to ceiling windows and French Doors provide views in three directions. Floor tile awaits installation in the master bath, but for now there are sub floors in several rooms and the whole family shares the second-floor master bedroom with a huge laundry room just down the hall. A few steps further, however, is the construction zone. Here there are buckets of sand and clay and exposed straw bale construction.
You may scratch your head in disbelief, but these are R-49 rated walls supported by oak timbers around the exterior. Plumbing is hidden in the interior walls, and it’s all included in detailed blueprints based on ideas from Andrew and Rachel. Even in 2008, when home loans were difficult to get, the Bishko’s had no problem with a mortgage and homeowners insurance.
"We talked to our local bank and they were surprisingly supportive," Bishko explained in an e-mail. "Somehow we heard that Missouri Farm Bureau was connected with a company that had insured straw bale houses, and they were actually pretty excited about the project.
"I think the key is to deal with real people, face to face, share you enthusiasm, and have your research done so you can answer questions about safety, fire risk structural issues."
As it turns out, straw bale houses out west actually receive credits on their insurance because they burn a lot slower than conventional frame houses. Andrew also realized that being a consultant left him selling only his expertise. He wanted a product; hence, Ozarks Natural Clay Paint."
"Walls are the structures that define our homes," he has written of his new product. "Research and experience have shown that large monochromatic surfaces fatigue the eye and brain. In recent years, painters have developed many techniques to add texture, variety and depth to latex painted walls—known as "faux" (French for fake) finishes."
Andrew’s straw construction techniques have earned the admiration of his father, who marvels at the Mediterranean feel of the mud walls that have been plastered and finished with paint made from scratch. The subtle blue ceiling above a circular hot tub in the master bath gets its color from the marking chalk used in construction.
"My motto for Ozarks Natural Builders and Consultants is, "I made all the mistakes so you don’t have to!" he says now. "There has been nothing so challenging and so enjoyable in my life as building my own home. I know that others have this dream, and I would like to help them live this dream.
"With my personal experience and contacts in our local area, I can help people make decisions and choices in the planning and design phase, and then help them develop the physical and contracting skills to be successful in creating the home of their dreams–even in this economy. This would apply to more conventional building also – if I can’t help with some aspect of home building myself, I know someone who can.
‘The biggest and most costly mistakes came from not trusting my own authority, second guessing myself, or letting someone else talk me into doing something different from what I wanted and the way I wanted it done.’
– Andrew Bishko
Like his flute music, the Bishko home is part discipline, part inspiration and part improvisation. Craftsmen include friends from the church community who come to occasional work days, Mennonites of varying beliefs but each with masterful skills on the lathe.
The one chapter that includes miscues is the clay tile roof, which still leaks a bit after several tries at getting it right.
"The biggest and most costly mistakes came from not trusting my own authority, second guessing myself, or letting someone else talk me into doing something different from what I wanted and the way I wanted it done," says Andrew. "Apart from that, I’m glad that I didn’t know what I was getting into, because I would have compromised my vision."
Big Bad wolves will have to find their own fairytales. If you’re not a wolf in sheep’s clothing you can reach Bishko at Ozarks Natural, LLC, Builders and Consultants, 417-733-3776, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"All the men in my community have built their own homes, and most of them have professional construction experience," he writes. "They have helped me tremendously, at times on site and even more through their teaching. I have worked with several craftsmen and crews–sometimes training them, sometimes learning alongside them, and always grateful for the talent and experience they brought with them."
Clay paint: What you get..and don’t
- Hand-made in small batches with naturally varied materials.
- Guaranteed absolute color consistency from batch to batch.
- Beautifully modeled, textured finishes.
- Durable, traditional patina—may require additional glaze for high traffic areas.
- Washable, water resistant surfaces.
- Easy water clean-up, even after it has dried.
- No Permanently stained paint clothes.
- No harmful chemicals and VOCs.
- No bland, flat, monochromatic walls