This spring, students at the University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS) built a new sustainable structure. The 22 students of the new Green Building, a teaching assistant, and their professor constructed the building in about a month. The space is now being used as a classroom for the Environmental Writing and Great Lakes Literature course and is enjoyed by all at UMBS.

A student uses a sledge hammer during construction of the Straw Bale Building.

The Green Building class is part of the new Transforming Learning Program at UMBS, part of the Transforming Learning in the Third Century grant program funded by the University of Michigan. UMBS was awarded $1.5 million over five years in 2016, and 2017 is the inaugural year of the program that seeks to expand the course offerings at the Station to more students in Ann Arbor, especially those who are not majoring in science. Green Building was taught by Joseph Trumpey, an associate professor in the Stamps School of Art and Design and the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

Perched atop the hill that overlooks Douglas Lake, the crew of students in the Green Building class began work May 2. They arrived at UMBS May 1, which was the earliest students have arrived at the station in recent memory. The staff at UMBS worked diligently to have camp up and running for their early arrival, and the Dining Hall accepted its first hungry guests May 1, 2017 – that’s the earliest the Dining Hall has ever opened.

Students carved these wheat stalks on the outside of the building.

Throughout the month-long course, the straw bale builders worked hard in a collective labor of love. The class, which included 19 women and three men, dug the trenches, sunk the footings, staked the straw bales, and hauled countless five-gallon buckets filled with adobe to form the walls. They raised the trusses, raised the roof, and even added a beautiful wrap-around porch that has been well-used this summer. 

Inside the straw bale building, bold wooden beams are a focal point. The wood was harvested from Ann Arbor, and the students even had a hand in milling that wood at Trumpey’s farm downstate. (Trumpey and his family live in a straw bale building they built together over the course of a decade.)

The structure is accentuated by beautiful artistic details. The organically-curved walls that were shaped by hand also include sculpture details of wheat stalks arching on the corners. Inside above the main doorway, a truth window shows the core of the walls: golden bales of straws. Sculpted rays of a sun radiate from the circular window. The students added flakes of mica to the top surface of the earthen plaster, providing subtle sparkle to the space. Outside, hanging below the roofline, the students carved acorns and other vegetative details into the fascia boards. They also made tiles that line a portion of the wall where a stove could be installed in the future.

Keith Taylor (left) and his Environmental Writing and Great Lakes Literature students have class in the Straw Bale Building Friday, July 28.

This summer, the straw bale building is seeing use as a classroom space for Environmental Writing and Great Lakes Literature. Straw bale houses naturally regulate temperature well, according to Trumpey, so the building has provided a cool space for the English students this summer.  Professor Keith Taylor, a longtime instructor at UMBS and poet, leads group discussions, workshops papers, and lectures there.

Other summer residents of the Station use the structure for other activities, like group meditation sessions and yoga. Camp kids even enjoyed a sleep over in the space, using the classroom’s white board as a projector screen for a movie. The building will be used for other receptions and events in the future, and has become a favorite stop for many during tours of camp.

The building is powered by a solar panel that was funded by Program in the Environment. During construction, the solar panel even powered tools they had on site. The rest of the structure was paid for by the Station’s Transforming Learning grant.