The home built with hay and hard yakka

By Arthur Hawkes
Photography by Olivia Lamb

Featured in Capital #83
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Edward and Auriga Martin have built the off-grid eco home they always dreamed of, from natural materials sourced from the local area.

Edward and Auriga Martin’s straw bale home project began eight years ago, when they purchased a secluded Martinborough paddock. The house they built there is almost entirely crafted from natural building materials that were sourced within a few kilometres of the property.

As Edward describes the testing three-year build, he smears a clay mixture onto straw bales which have been stacked like bricks to form a wall. They sit between wooden bucks – strong uprights of parallel timber with horizontal supports. Before the demo, he has sprayed the wall with a thin clay and water mixture, which grips to the layer he’s now daubing with his hands: a viscous paste of clay, water, sand, and straw, which will dry to form a sturdy plaster.

While straw feature walls are increasingly common, Auriga and Edward wanted to have all the walls, interior and exterior, made from straw; to have the frame of the house made entirely from wood; and to have earth floors throughout. The only man-made material in the core build is the concrete for the two bathroom floors, and Edward even experimented with making Roman-style concrete from lime, but this proved a bridge too far.

“Every single thing took longer than expected, and nothing was easy about it. You couldn’t really turn to people to ask, as it was all so specific. When I started it I was probably the perfect combination of naive and arrogant to actually think I could do it,” Edward laughs.

Almost all the materials he used come from the Wairarapa: the barley straw is from a local farm, the wood was collected and stored in the course of Edward’s work as an arborist, the clay is dug from the ground around the property, and the sand is from a nearby river. Their electricity and hot water come from solar panels and a wetback wood burner.

The roof and bucks were completed by a local builder, then Edward took the reins and did almost everything solo over two years, while Auriga juggled the development of the interior with her busy work life. “This was about using the materials around us,” says Edward. “It’s all here and you can build houses with it.”

Local timber is a feature throughout. Cedar French doors open onto a hefty raised deck at the front, which is sheltered by extended eaves supported by thick macrocarpa beams and Douglas fir pillars. An open-plan living area and kitchen, heated by their wood burner, sits in the middle, with a traditional ceramic sink and black granite counter tops from Early Settler. Three bedrooms and two bathrooms are nestled away to the sides of the house.

The earthen walls and floors are treated with natural oils like linseed and orange, which seal them and repel water. “We can actually mop our earth floors – it’s so cool,” says Auriga. At the rear of the property is another substantial covered deck, which looks out onto surrounding forest. A wood-fired cedar hot tub lies a few metres beyond the tree line. They feed the tub’s furnace on days when someone fancies a restorative soak, which is fairly often as they live an active life.

Edward is a keen skier, and competes in gruelling multi-sport races when he is not working. Their girls, 12 and 10, are competitive mountain bikers. Auriga works long days as a manager in the financial sector. She opened the Ventana art space in Martinborough. Much of their art collection is from her time there, including several colourful ceramic works by fellow Californian Lorien Stern. For a family that gives everything to their work and their passions, the home they’ve built is a sanctuary.

The couple met in Greece when they were 20. “He was on his Kiwi multi-year OE,” says Auriga, “I was doing my American single-year trip. I was going to art school and being productive, and he was DJing and living in a tent! We’ve been together ever since: it was love at first sight, and that was 23 years ago.”

They lived in the USA during their twenties; month-long trips to Bali became a staple after their first child was born in 2009. The French doors, built by Wellington’s Well Hung Joinery and installed by Edward, have a Balinese design incorporated into the frame. “We love Bali,” says Auriga. “This detail reminds us of happiness and vacation.”

Between moving to New Zealand in 2007 and moving into their straw bale home in early 2021, the Martins lived in a traditional farmhouse in Martinborough, the town which Edward’s ancestor John founded in 1879. It got cold in winter, and their newborn would develop an endless cough. “It was stressful as new parents. We just wanted more warmth,” says Auriga. “That was even part of our wedding vows: he said, ‘I promise that you will always be warm’.”

When the style of home they wanted crystallised, Auriga found a course offered by a company called Sol Design. Edward, who admits he is no builder, spent a week in Geraldine with the owners of Sol, Sven and Sarah Johnston, learning the techniques needed to build with straw.

The interior of the property continues the celebration of natural materials. It isn’t too fussy: the exposed wood and textured walls are features in their own right. Some are coloured with plant-based paint from the Natural Paint Company in Christchurch – light blue for the pantry, green for the bathrooms. The red gum used for the bathroom surfaces comes from a huge tree that once stood on the site of their kitchen.

The bathroom tiles are from Moabell, the project of Moroccan-born Mohamed Belkouadssi from Whanganui. He makes each tile using an encaustic cement method with sand, marble powder, and natural pigments. The bright tiles, exposed wood, and colourful artworks are reminiscent of the Californian straw bale homes that Auriga grew up around. “It’s quite common to use straw bales to save money in parts of the US,” she says, “so there’s a lot more of it going on – in the warmer states things dry really quickly. It’s great to see it catching on more here.”

Auriga points out one slightly bowed wall. “That’s a pretty common feature of straw bale homes, but we wanted to avoid it, especially around the window and door frames.” Edward devised a method using pieces of old carpet, which he stretched over edges and back-filled to create smooth, even lines. “He’d drop stuff off at the dump, get weighed, and then come back heavier because he’d taken so much old carpet!”

After the huge effort of the build, the only thing the family needs to do now is add the odd log to the wood burner. “It’s not high maintenance,” says Auriga. “We’re off grid. We choose to keep the fire going when the weather’s not great, but that’s about it – we love it.”


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