The Crestone Eagle, October 2008:

Strawbales in Siberia—Paul Koppana’s reflections on his latest workshop

story & photos by Diane Bairstow

“The Russians are a generous, humorous folk, quick to laugh and with strong family ties,” Paul Koppana, just returned from Siberia, tells of his experiences and observations. “Interacting with the people: students, professors, environmentalists, trades people and their families was the highlight of my trip,” he says.

    Paul, a soft spoken man with an alternative builder’s eye to environmental issues and a humanist’s interest in people and the way they live, has an intriguing tale to tell about his experiences in a land that conjures up images of vast forests, frozen rivers and lots of snow. We think of Siberia and shiver; however, parts of it at least, are warmer than Crestone.

The Altai region is known as the “Pearl of Siberia” and is the breadbasket for the region. The climate is similar to that of Crestone, although it is a little wetter, a little warmer and “it might have a slightly longer growing season.” He says, “I came back with a lot of new information about gardening in a cold climate because everywhere you go, there are gardens.”

This was Paul’s second trip to Siberia to conduct a straw bale building workshop. The first was in 2005 and had many of the same participants. On this trip, he was accompanied by two other Coloradans, Cindy Smith a natural plaster specialist from Durango, and Jeff Ruppert, an engineer, designer and straw bale contractor from Paonia. The project was sponsored by The Altai Project (part of Earth Island Institute), Builders Without Borders, and a grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding.

Kuba Wihan, a multilingual Czech builder currently working with Amazonails (a multifaceted strawbale firm in the UK) joined the team as the project’s volunteer coordinator. Alyson Ewald and Jennifer Castner of the Altai Project were the women behind the scene who did all the grant writing, trip organization and early translations for the project.

It was a large and complex project with a tight timeline of two weeks and very little R&R built into the schedule. After 38 hours of traveling, the group had a few hours respite in Bernaul before they were off to the retreat facility for the Altai State Technical University, located close to the village of Bobrovka. The facility is about an hour out of the city, “45 minutes, the way they drive,” Paul says, his eyes widening almost imperceptibly. “I guess you’ve heard about the way they drive over there!” The following day, the quartet of weary travelers participated in an all day presentation to a packed house of 30-40 students, volunteers, architects, engineers and other interested folks. The next day they commenced work on the project.

Sergei Pomorov, Dean of the Institute for Architecture and Design at the Altai State Technical University, and Elena Nazarenko, Deputy Dean and Instructor at the same Institute, were in charge of co-coordinating the Russian part of the project. “Sweet folks,” Paul speaks fondly of them, “and the first to teach strawbale building at the university level in Siberia. After the first straw bale workshop, they traveled to Crestone and were amazed by the ‘SB’ here.”

There were delays and difficulties from the start. The University had to choose a contractor from internet bids, and despite their best efforts to find a contractor they could trust, including holding personal interviews, they were disappointed to find that the crew was unreliable and uncommunicative. When Paul and the others arrived on site, the foundation was barely completed. Twenty to 30 students and some 6-12 volunteers pitched in and within two days, the necessary framing was completed.

Bales and clay were on site when they arrived, but this proved to be problematic as well. The bales were loosely tied and were of short rye straw, which wasn’t the best choice, and the clay was mostly silt and unsuitable for plaster. Elena had settled for the rye bales because the farmer told her the bales she had ordered wouldn’t be ready in time, but she managed to get them replaced and the second batch was “awesome with tightly packed long-stemmed wheat straw.”

The problem with the clay was not so easily solved. Cindy Smith searched brick yards through out the region for the right clay, but to no avail. One man told her, “this clay is like gold, and I’d rather make bricks with it.” Another brick maker agreed to sell her clay, but backed out. One of the University professors called the mayor of the town to see if he could exert any influence over the brick maker, but to no avail. With only five days left, Cindy and Kuba managed to get the clay delivered to the project. Bale work on the 8×8 internal structure had been completed and again, with the help of many volunteers, the slip and scratch coat went on.

With only two days left, Sergei and Lena, who were under a lot of pressure to have the project completed, wanted the remaining bale work done; although, the roof for this part of the project was far from completion. Paul and the others recommended against it but were willing to do whatever they wanted. Again, miraculously, they managed to pull together an extra ten helping hands and with a crew of 40+, the bale, slip and plaster all happened in two days. Students came from Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and other regions of Siberia to participate in this project, and Paul found it “refreshing to meet students interested in new and alternative ideas and projects.”

Paul sees great potential for straw bale and alternative building in the region and a lot of public interest. Everyday people stopped by to visit the project, from architects and engineers to builders and news crews. They made the 9:00 news twice on two different stations.

The local houses are built with very poor energy detailing, and people depend on massive amounts of fuel to stay warm. Most houses are small but will have huge 10×10 masonry stoves for heating. Straw bale housing is a perfect alternative to this problem and to the larger one of deforestation.

Although Siberia’s vast forests are renowned, it is predicted that the country will be deforested within the next twenty years, mostly because of the growing Asian demand. The U.S. also imports much of its plywood from Russia. Laws are in place to protect the forests which prohibit logging in places untouched by forest fires. As a result, the loggers are starting forest fires and the logging continues.

There were gardens everywhere he went. “Here we depend on Curt’s and Safeway for our food, there they don’t have much money so there’s a lot of growing and canning going on all the time, and seeds are passed from generation to generation.” Paul explains and tells of Lena, the university professor, who has tomato seeds passed down from her grandmother. Forty percent of the population is rural and a 1/4 acre lot will have flowers growing along the pathway, then cabbages, tomatoes, potatoes, cukes, etc., growing beyond. In the cities, every inch is planted, and most of the city dwellers have dachas, which are plots in large gardens just outside the city. This was instituted during Stalin’s reign, and at the time, even what was planted was regulated by the state.

Now, of course it’s more relaxed and people plant what they like. Many young people don’t know what that kind of repression is like, but the older adults still remember. Lena, who is now in her 50s, told them that she was only now beginning to feel comfortable talking about politics with foreigners. “Westerners can’t even begin to imagine the fear and suppression these people grew up under,” Paul says, and yet “they are a generous folk and quick to laugh.”