Barbara Jones's ideal home is warm, long-lasting - and made of bales. Ann Treneman reports on the latest American eco-fashion, and the female builder who is determined to import it to Britain
Barbara Jones has a dream house, and it is made of straw. It will be round, with a sleeping loft and a verandah. It will be simple but strong, because this house will be in the Pennines, where the weather is not kind.

"Straw-bale houses feel so cosy," she says. "It's wonderful. Everyone who has been in one comments on it."

Don't laugh, because Barbara Jones is the kind of woman who does what she says. Besides, after 15 years as a female builder she is immune to sniggers, guffaws and any other rudities.

"People's image of straw-bale houses is some sort of tumbledown shack at the bottom of the garden," she says. "They cannot conceive that what we are talking about is something that looks like an olde worlde cottage."

She spreads out some photographs of large and beautiful homes. "Look at that! That is a straw-bale house. You'd think Barrett or Wimpey would have built that, wouldn't you? That's in Quebec - there are a lot of straw- bale houses there."

She flicks through more examples - from California, Colorado, Arizona - and soon I realise that there has been a major mix-up in The Three Little Pigs. No amount of huffing and puffing could blow these down; in fact many of the houses are faced with bricks or stone inside and out.

I don't mention the pig word to Barbara, as she has undoubtedly heard it all before. We are sitting in the front room of her Yorkshire stone cottage in Todmorden. This is both home and office for her all-woman building firm, called Amazon Nails. She rebuilt the house from derelict, and now it is for sale.

"But no straw," I note, looking round. "I didn't know about straw then," she smiles. "I was a conventional builder. I was ignorant."

That was before 1994, the year that a friend of a friend decided to build herself a straw-bale studio in California. Barbara was hardly a cheerleader at this point, but was curious enough to work it into her travel plans.

"I was a sceptic. I was an expert in my own field and this was new to me. I thought, maybe this will do for California, but it certainly won't do for England."

A few days later, she had changed her mind - and, though she didn't know it then, her life. That's all the time it took for 20 local women to raise the six-metres-square studio.

"I was converted. It was so commonsensical. As soon as you start doing it and see what you are doing, it's as if something clicks. It's like a realisation: this is real, it can work, it's so simple."

The ring of the telephone yanks us back to Yorkshire. Amazon Nails gets at least six calls a day about straw-bale houses, although it doesn't advertise. "I don't know how everybody hears about this, but they do," she says.

The grapevine has reached the Centre for Alternative Technology, in Machynlleth, Wales. "There is an enormous amount of interest," says Charlotte Cosserat, of the centre. "We've had so much demand that we are running a weekend workshop this spring, and Barbara is doing it."

Is this the cutting edge? If you believe that trends start in America, then the answer is yes. Eco-housing is seen as a serious proposition there, and straw-bale buildings are coming into the mainstream: there are more than 400 of them, and several firms build nothing else. They even have an organisation (Out on Bale Unlimited) and a magazine (The Last Straw).

"There are all sorts of people doing it, including serious architects," says Barbara. "Around Santa Fe, there are straw-bale houses going up that are massive - six and 10 bedrooms - with beautiful windows, wooden staircases, stained glass."

Barbara is Britain's straw pioneer. In 1995, she spent three months on a Churchill Fellowship, travelling around North America on a sort of pilgrimage. She traced the house's history, from the Midwestern prairies of the 1870s to Santa Fe's post-modern beauties. She returned an expert. Since then she has led many a workshop and helped to erect several small buildings, and is in demand as a speaker and fount of information. But she knows that this is not enough: she needs a show house.

There are possibilities. There is a two-bedroom bungalow in Wales, and a community centre in Belfast, but both are unfinished.

"Getting a mortgage can be a real problem for these houses," says Keith Hall, at the Association for Environmentally-Conscious Buildings. Then there are planning regulations to deal with. Despite these obstacles, Barbara knows one woman in Leeds whose plans for a straw-bale house are well-advanced, and discussions are under way about a self-build estate for homeless people near Bradford. And then, of course, there is her own dream house. She has a bit of land, but so far nothing else.

Barbara describes herself as a "practical idealist", and as such she knows that she has to show me something. "It's a horse shelter, really. Sometimes we call it a bunkhouse," she says, as we drive up to the Red Water Centre near Todmorden. "Up" is perhaps an under-statement: the hills here demand a new gear for vertical driving. "This is a real Pennine landscape," she exclaims, as we get out of the car and are enveloped by misty rain. "Windswept, rainswept and very, very wet."

We climb up yet more hillside to the bunkhouse. It is small, it is unfinished, but it is undeniably a building, and it is made of straw.

"We are out to prove that it can work here," she says, and literally bounces herself off one of the 20in-thick walls. "See, they don't move - that's one of the worries people have." The others - damp, mice and fire risk - are also myths: the straw is too dense to be easily damaged.

The bales, packed with one-third more straw than normal, are placed like giant building blocks and pinned to the foundations via hazel rods. The bales take the weight of the roof (in this case a "living" one with turf on it). This is a "Nebraska!" style building and is the simplest straw- bale method. The next step will be to find the money to plaster the walls.

This building was raised by a group of women on a workshop last year - it was an occasion for wind, rain, mud and extremely high spirits. "We call it bale frenzy," says Barbara with a laugh. "The idea is like a light turning on. You see, people just get it, and then they are on this high of excitement. It's a sort of joyfulness, really. It is a sense of empowerment - that's really the only word for it. It's a feeling that you can do this thing that you never imagined that you could before."

lt is also a cheaper way to build. Even if you decide to hire an architect and let a builder do all the work, you can save a lot on materials and labour. Bales cost pounds 1.50 each, and you can probably buy all of them for pounds 200 or so. A straw-bale house's walls go up in a day or two: bricks can take six weeks to lay.

So how much would a three-bedroom house cost? She suggests pounds 30,000, maybe less.

Barbara tilts her head as she continues to consider this question. She is 5ft 3ins, with a long braid and a soft voice. I look at her and wonder that she is still in her trade after all these years. Most women don't last: the culture is simply too male. She cheated the statistics by moving to Todmorden in 1989 and setting up as an all-women roofing company. Now she has found straw bales. ("We even thought of calling ourselves Strawpy Women, but stuck with Amazon Nails.")

She detests the machismo of her trade and the way it shrouds the whole idea of building in mystery. "It's a confidence thing," she insists. "In construction, fewer than 1 per cent of us are women. In straw-bale building, at least 50 per cent of the people who are doing the actual building are women. That says it all about what it does for you. It becomes possible".

Amazon Nails' leaflet on straw-bale building costs pounds 1 and is available from 554 Burnley Road, Todmorden OL14 SJF.

The Centre for Alternative Technology straw-bale building course is in late May. Their number is 01654-703743.

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