Nurturing our grass roots

Sexism, shoddy workmanship and a social conscience brings women builders together, says Robert Nurden
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The Independent Online

The no-holds-barred sexism of the building site - wolf whistles, bum cleavages and all - was enough to deter carpenter and joiner Barbara Jones from working with men on conventional construction projects for ever. It was her experience in the 1970s of "ghastly male chauvinism" that spurred her on to seek out a more congenial way of earning a living.

The no-holds-barred sexism of the building site - wolf whistles, bum cleavages and all - was enough to deter carpenter and joiner Barbara Jones from working with men on conventional construction projects for ever. It was her experience in the 1970s of "ghastly male chauvinism" that spurred her on to seek out a more congenial way of earning a living.

It wasn't just the attitudes she encountered, however. It was also, she says, the poor quality of workmanship, cutting of corners to meet deadlines and general shoddiness of work among men who had no vested interest in the project.

Now, 25 years later, she is part of a women's building co-operative in North Yorkshire called Amazon Nails - a neat pun on 'ammers and nails. Along with two other women and hundreds of volunteers, male and female, she is intent on empowering, training and encouraging people to get more involved in the building process.

This may also include home-owners who, with other volunteers, receive free training on real building sites. "We like to think our construction sites are happy places, where children, ethnic minorities and the disabled are made welcome. After the day's work we cook and eat together, sing and tell stories," says Jones, 47.

Yet, if you were to wander on to one of Amazon Nails's building sites, you'd soon notice that there was one familiar material missing: bricks. This is down to the fact that most of the walls built by the co-operative are made out of straw bales, bought for £1.50 each from a local farmer.

The branching out into environmental building came in 1994, after Jones visited the Great Plains in the US, where she saw straw being used as a mainstream building material. It started back in the 1850s in Nebraska, where early settlers - mostly grain farmers - lived in temporary straw houses because the timber was not available. The style became the accepted form of construction - the material acted as an excellent insulation against the winters, which were harsh, but low in humidity. She attended low-tech building courses and returned to the UK convinced that "straw was the way to go" for sustainable building.

"If you are going to get more people involved in the construction process, using straw is an ideal starting point, because it is tactile and friendly," says Jones.

Amazon Nails, which has 800 volunteers across the country, hardly ever uses conventional materials. Its roofs are generally made of cedar shingles insulated with sheep's wool, with a layer of sedum moss on top. Floors are made with a suspended timber frame or treated lime.

Before this sounds a little too much like the wacky work of the sandals-and-lentils brigade, it would be good to point out that Amazon Nails is just one of a number of groups promoting sustainable forms of construction. Next month, the Ecology Building Society will add a straw bale library extension to its Keighley headquarters. Going hand-in-hand with that project is a training course in straw bale construction for the society's 16 staff.

While the Association for Environment Conscious Building welcomes straw as a form of construction, it nevertheless recognises its limits. "It is about appropriateness, in terms of setting - it wouldn't work in a Victorian inner city area, for example," says Carole Townsend, an architect with the association.

But Amazon Nails is about much more than materials. It is about having a philosophy towards the issue of ownership, about education and it is, literally, about grass roots development.

Amazingly, it has managed to make building fun, as cohorts of volunteers from all over the country turn up to work on projects. It has also made inroads into the mainstream by training builders in sustainable techniques. "It is surprising how quickly they take to it," says Jones. "Sometimes the men try to sneak some cement into the lime. But some of them are starting to change their practices. Our multi-dimensional approach is really starting to make a difference."

Amazon Nails: 01706 814696, www.strawbalefutures.org.uk

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