Visitor centre artist's impression

How UP STRAW and teamwork is creating a new flagship visitor centre for Hastings Country Park

Visitor centre artist's impressionSince 2019 Huff and Puff Construction have been hard at work on an exciting project to deliver a new flagship straw-bale building for Hastings Borough Council – a new Visitor centre at Hastings Country Park. This centre will house information about the park, its habitats, geology, heritage and species, together with a café and new toilet facilities. It will also provide an excellent facility for visitors to find out about the landscape in which it is situated, and will act as a useful resource for community activities, including those for school children and family events.

Getting this project and plan literally ‘off the ground’ and constructing a building of this nature, however, takes a lot of teamwork. Huff and Puff Construction have collaborated and worked in partnership with many teams, to deliver this building, including the following organisations and groups that have helped make it possible:

Hastings Borough Council is a lead UK partner in the UPStraw project, and the project client.

UP STRAW is a collaborative approach to creating straw awareness and use (see more below).  It includes participants, many of whom are part of the European Straw Building Association (ESBA)  ESBA is an independent, not for profit, European association. Its aim is to promote and develop the use of straw, as a sustainable way of building in all the senses of the term “sustainable”: renewable, ecological, healthy, energy and climate efficient, social and economic.

    SBUK is a membership organisation whose aim is to promote straw bale building and best practice in the UK. SBUK is a member of ESBA.

    Constrawtium is a group of SBUK members - including Huff and Puff Construction - who have come together to collaborate on this build and show that we scale up straw bale building in the UK.

      What is UP STRAW? 

      The Visitor Centre project was funded by Hastings Borough Council together with a funding award from Interreg North West Europe. The Interreg award is part of an innovative project called 'UP STRAW' which is increasing awareness of straw-bale building across North West Europe. The project aims to promote straw as a premium biobased sustainable building material that, when used to construct buildings, has the ability to significantly reduce the resulting buildings carbon footprint. The new centre will be the first straw-bale building in the borough of Hastings and the first built as part of the UP STRAW project, which will also see a public building constructed with straw in each of the five project countries; UK, France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. UP STRAW partners are also working to increase straw bale building skills and awareness within the construction industry.

      So, how did the Hastings build come to life? 

      UP STRAW project visit 2017Straw-bale Building UK (SBUK) are a UK sub-partner in the UP STRAW project.

      Back in September 2017, Huff and Puff Construction Managing Director, Phil Christopher, who is also on the board of SBUK, attended an UP STRAW meeting held by Hastings Borough Council - a lead UK partner in the UP STRAW project.  Hastings Borough Council’s ambition, led by Environment and Natural Resources Manager, Murray Davidson, was to build a flagship straw building in the UK - a new visitor centre at Hastings Country Park.

      With currently so few straw bale builders in the UK, finding companies capable of taking on such a large project as the Hastings build was difficult.  It was at this meeting that Phil, along with SBUK colleagues, suggested SBUK members be asked to come together as a consortium to deliver such projects. 

      In 2018 a handful of SBUK members, including Huff and Puff Construction under the team name Constrawtium, came together to bid for the contract to deliver the Hastings project and were awarded the contract in December 2018.  Read more about the consortium in this previous post:  

      Work then started on site in mid-May 2019 and we are on target for completion by the end of 2020.

      Why a Straw Bale building?

      The centre will be the first public building in Hastings to be built using straw bales. Straw is a renewable material with great insulation properties. It allows the building to breathe naturally, keeping it cool in summer and warm in winter without the need for additional heating. By building with straw, the aim is to keep the carbon footprint of the building as low as possible in keeping with Hastings Borough Council’s aim and desire for sustainable management of the surrounding nature reserve. 

      Follow our progress as we head for completion.

      We’ll keep you posted over the coming weeks about our progress, as we head into the final stages of the build. Keep up to date and follow us on FaceBook – or Twitter @HuffPuffCons for regular Visitor Centre build updates.

      We're sponsoring the Big Straw Bale Gathering 2018!

      BSBG sponsor badgeI'm delighted to say Huff & Puff Construction are sponsoring the inaugural Big Straw Bale Gathering, to be held 10th-12th August at Down to Earth, Swansea.

      This is the first event of its type, a gathering to discuss and learn straw bale construction and share the latest and best thinking within the industry.

      Held at Down to Earth’s beautiful strawbale roundhouse in South Wales, the weekend will feature talks, discussions and hands-on workshops, for all levels, led by the UK’s best natural builders and leading associated professionals. So come down and get excited about building with straw, learn some new techniques or get stuck into the geeky technical stuff.

      When you are full of knowledge you can relax with great local organic food, music, dancing, yoga, ‘Strawbale Ale’, children’s activities and a host of extracurricular events ranging from walks to canyoneering on the beautiful Gower peninsular!

      Us Huff & Puff folk will be on hand throughout the weekend, so come and seek us out to say hello, and for advice and answers to your straw bale questions. :-)

      Book your tickets here:


      Casein versus Cascamite - a post you'll be glued to!

      Casco glue tinWhen straw bale building, one inevitably ends up with lots of wood that needs both gluing and nailing together. But what glue should a natural builder use?

      Where there is a need for exterior grade glue and certainty that the fix will not be compromised over time, the current glue you frequently see being used is Cascamite. This is a synthetic, urea-formaldehyde glue that generally comes in powder form for mixing on site.  You may also hear of phenol formaldehyde glues like Resorcinol.

      And formaldehyde is bad, right? Well, yes. And no. Formaldehyde is naturally occurring (and companies also make it).  It can be found in small amounts in fruits, vegetables and all sorts of stuff, including us.  And, like many things in life, that's the thing - small quantities can be okay, but larger quantities can start causing problems.  This informative American Cancer Society article suggests the presence of formaldehyde in the air at anything greater than 0.1 parts per million can result in some folk experiencing irritation.  This could be an itchy nose, watery eyes, a burning sensation in the eyes, nose, throat etc.  Because these reactions are very similar to those for all sorts of other illnesses it can be hard to pinpoint formaldehyde as the cause, but it's certainly one of those things some people are more susceptible to.

      Formaldehyde off-gases, i.e. once it is manufactured and put into a material there is a period of time when it will put out more formaldehyde into the atmosphere than it will afterwards.  When added formaldehyde is used in building products it ups the concentration and problems are more likely to occur.  Simple choices when specifying materials can mitigate the formaldehyde risk, and minimise the extra chemicals you're buying and furthering the use of, perhaps unwittingly.  For example, we use a lot of oriented strand board in straw bale structural beams.  We always use Smartply OSB3 because it contains no added formaldehyde, whereas I believe Sterling board and other makes do use extra formaldehyde in the manufacturing process (I am happy to be told otherwise!).  This article from the US points out how important the need for research into finding an effective and more sustainable alternative to formaldehyde based glues in board manufacturing is becoming.

      Cascamite glue tubSo.  What about the glue.  What's the point of using Smartply if you're going to stick it together with a formaldehyde glue? Aren't you undoing all your good work? Well, certainly partially, yes.  I'm no scientist and I've love to hear arguments for and against but, perhaps not surprisingly, I'd much rather use something else.  I understand wool insulation sequesters free formaldehyde, and because we often use that inside the glued beams then that possibly mitigates off-gassing to some degree, but I've seen no real scientific evidence.

      What we need is a fantastic natural wood glue.  Apparently there are no natural wood glues that are not degraded by water in some way, so full-on external use might be difficult, but what about some research on the limits of what does exist?

      There are actually several really good natural glues, and for building purposes I think the absolute best is casein glue.  Casein glue is made from milk and humans have used it for thousands of years.  It's amazingly good glue!  I'm desperate to do some casein glue experiments and if anyone else is interested, or knows of any good casein glue resources, I would love to hear from you!  For further comparison, this page mentions casein glue, along with the formaldehyde ones.

      And this kind of brings us full circle.  Cascamite was born out of the rapidly expanding chemical industry of the mid 20th century.  I found this amazing article from the February 1941 issue of Popular Science magazine (from the US - the advertisements are as much fun as the articles!).  I'd never really made the naming connection between CASein and CAScamite.  It turns out the 'Casein Company', as a producer of casein glue in the US - branded Casco - was looking to chemicals to make better glues (chiefly more waterproof ones).  And consequently Cascamite lives - and Casco died.  I wonder if we can see a revival of casein glue?  I for one am prepared to stick with it.

      Check out this recipe and project for casein glue and let me know how you get on!

      A glimpse into the mind of a straw bale builder...

      Phil Christopher and straw bale wallWhen I was young I wanted to do a lot of different things, but the core ambition was always to do something that would help our environment, not make it worse. To find and promote ways to 'live lightly' and co-exist with the rest of nature - the lack of which, for all the positives of human progress, seems to me to be our kind's biggest failing. Even though I've always 'done my bit', when it came to work I eventually got trapped in the rat race for many years, ending up working in IT as a systems developer at Bournemouth University, sitting at a desk. A few years ago, a moment of clarity got me thinking that there should be more to life than that (no offence IT!), so I started retraining to do something I really wanted to do.

      Having always been a practical person, I started thinking about the building work I'd done throughout my life and how it was something I'd always enjoyed. You get that sense of 'flow' with hands on work - and it's good fun to work with other like-minded people to do something good. So for several years now I've been studying and retraining in 'natural' or 'sustainable' building. (There never seems to be the right word to describe us pioneer builders and I look forward to the day we can all just call it 'building'!)

      I read some research a few years ago that compared IT project management to construction project management. It said job satisfaction was always higher in construction project management because building materials are tangible and you know what goes where, unlike IT, where things are virtual and aren’t as easily designed or implemented. That got me thinking about building as a career and the project management skills I had have proved to be highly transferable. And having made the switch I can confirm that job satisfaction is definitely much higher! I managed to take a career break from work for a few months to start Huff and Puff Construction, and as well as immersing myself in the ways of straw bale and natural building, I did several other courses, from coppice crafts to dry stone walling, and made a point of talking to friends in building, landscaping etc. about what the work was like. Personally I found it useful to get a taste of lots of different skills and trades so I’d know what I was dealing with in business. And a big part of natural building and renovation is knowing what materials to specify. The straw, timber and lime and clay plasters are the easy bits. Knowing if you want to specify low smoke zero halogen electrical cable and polypropylene conduit instead of PVC (which we do), or to use something like Fermacell board instead of new plasterboard (if the client really wants that kind of finish) involves some effort working out and sourcing.

      The training never ends and it's fascinating! We have lost - or nearly lost - so much information about how we used to build before modern cement. And modern cement (which does have the occasional use) has generally been a disaster in our building fabric and is a bigger disaster for our climate. Traditional materials such as lime and clay work 'with' buildings. They are mostly weaker than the materials they glue together, like brick and stone, which means buildings can actually move, without failing. They are also breathable, whereas cement traps water and has been responsible for destroying many a fine building with its overuse. Globally, cement production alone accounts for 5-10% of global manmade CO2 emissions. Where we don’t need it, we shouldn’t be using it. That easily covers most housing under three stories.

      Which brings me on to straw. Straw - and reeds and other similar materials - have been used in buildings and shelters the world over for as long as we’ve existed. With the vast amount of arable crops we grow we have more straw than we know what to do with. In the UK alone, we could build at least half a million houses each year from surplus straw. And like trees, straw captures carbon when it grows. Unlike trees, straw grows every year. Lock that straw up in a building for 200 plus years and we’re making a massive contribution to carbon capture - with no massively complicated technology required.

      And that’s the beauty of building with straw. There are details to learn, like any other craft, but it’s inherently simple. Everyone can have a go without breaking the bank. This doesn’t translate well to our corporate world, of course, where a big company always has to make big bucks. A system where things are made more complicated to make sure individuals can’t do things for themselves. So, buck the trend. Get natural, get local, get your hands dirty and let’s do it for ourselves!

      That’s what natural builders believe in. Of course, the reality at the moment is that creating a green and ethical business often feels like trying to put as many hurdles in the way of success as you possibly can. Success as it’s currently defined, of course. I can hear big shot investors laughing… "Who wants to invest in a building business that doesn’t believe in getting a cut for as many middle men along the way as possible, at the customer’s expense?”, "Natural builders must all be mad!”

      But I believe we will prevail, because we have a much broader definition of success. We teach, we empower people, we make people smile, we get people of all ages and types working together and we end up with beautiful, breathable, insulating, planet-saving buildings that people can enjoy. And we can do it cheaper than those ugly, over-priced, under-insulated boxes that are currently on sale everywhere. I am sure we will prevail, because even though the current system is rigged against us, we offer a chance of something better.


      Shaftesbury Build and Training Course

      I've been busy this month working with all the wonderful folk at Bittles Brook Farm in Motcombe, Shaftesbury, in preparation for the building and training course we are running there in a couple of weeks.

      I've come to know the farm through Jonathan Davies, who is a recently graduated Master of Architecture, educated in Australia, Sweden and the UK.  It's refreshing to work with an architect that fully understands how to work with straw and has a passion for designing truly sustainable buildings.  We've been working together on Huff and Puff projects since the Sherborne Art Cabin, and our connections have brought me to meeting the wonderful Bourchier family at Bittles Brook Farm.

      Horses at Bittles Brook FarmClive takes care of the sheep rearing on the farm, whilst Carolyn runs 'The New Horse' - a place where people of all ages can learn to interact with their horses as equals, understand the therapeutic qualities of horses, and where horses themselves can get some therapy and rehabilitation.  I've never had much to do with horses, although I've always wanted to, and it's magical to see these wonderful animals being treated with such love and respect.

      This farm itself is nestled in the rolling Dorset countryside just two miles from the historic town of Shaftesbury, famous for its Gold Hill (remember those Hovis bread adverts!), and surrounded by truly magnificent views.  It really is a very lovely place.

      The farm is in need of more storage space for hay and equipment for all the animals, and this has given a great opportunity this summer to get everyone together to use their areas of expertise to design a load-bearing straw bale building to meet the need for storage and utility purposes, as well as as a new hay barn.

      Jonathan digging foundationsThe new building is going to have a footprint of 7.5m x 5.5.m and will be built on car tyre pier foundations.  The last few weeks have involved getting materials on site and, most significantly, Jonathan digging out the holes for the car tyre piers.  The ground on the site is really heavy clay, and even a mini-digger had a bit of trouble getting through it.  The holes are all dug now though, thanks to Jonathan's perseverance, and the piers will now be built up, alongside all the carpentry work in preparing the bottom ring beam of the building.

      Once all that is in place we'll be ready to get on with the straw, which is coming via a swap for some hay, I think, via a man with a very exciting sounding small baler (I really do get excited about such things!) that can make them accurately, super-square and even vary the size!

      Hopefully more blog posts soon with further progress.  And in the meantime do check out the course page if you fancy coming along to learn about how it's done.  Camping and all food is included in the price - currently just £350 for five days for the next few bookings - and it will also be a great opportunity to ask questions about your own ideas and projects.

      We are a Living Wage Employer

      Living Wage EmployerI am delighted to say that Huff and Puff Construction is now an accredited Living Wage employer!

      You can read all about the Living Wage on the website here - and you can find us listed on this page.

      Paying employees a living wage makes sound business sense and, as an ethical business, this was a natural step for Huff and Puff Construction to take as we took on Tom Mackenzie this summer to help with the Sherborne ArtsLink Art Cabin project. Having just finished college and embarking on his adult working life, Tom is enjoying learning lots of new skills in natural building.

      Tom using a drawknife to remove bark from the chestnut posts.
      Tom using a drawknife to remove bark from the chestnut posts.

      Did you know the current minimum wage for an apprentice is just £2.68 per hour? How people are supposed to live on that, I don't know. Rather than pay Tom such apprentice rates we are paying Tom a Living Wage, and in return he is applying himself wholeheartedly to the job at hand.

      Employers have a responsibility to their employees to pay them enough to build a life on - and the national minimum wage falls far short of letting anyone, young or old, achieve this.

      This week we have been mostly digging holes...

      All holes dug!
      All holes dug!

      Week four of the Sherborne build and the first week of young people and Youth Centre staff helping on the site.  The main focus this week has been digging the holes for the car tyre piers. We needed 11 holes in total and, as mentioned previously, the clayey and rocky soil had been baked rock hard in the recent heat.  The week before we had considered wetting the ground to see if it made digging any easier, but didn't because we thought it would just make things messier. By Monday this became fairly academic as the first rain in weeks had done the wetting for us.  And it really did just make things squidgy and no easier to get out.

      This week we have had many wonderful young people on site, digging holes by hand, ably assisted by Darren, Helen, Mike and Anna (and anyone I've forgotten to mention) from the Youth Centre team.  Darren's Dad, Perry, at Castle Estates, kindly loaned us a second wheelbarrow to get the muck shifted.  Tom and I loosened up some of the soil with the electric breaker, however by far the bulk of the work digging holes was done with good, old-fashioned hard labour.  It was amazing to see how readily everyone pitched in and enjoyed the work.

      The treasure we have found on site!
      The treasure we have found on site!

      Various treasures were uncovered during there digging (nothing to alert the authorities to I hasten to add).  A few nice fossils, some old nails and metal work, and my personal favourite - an old style ring pull from a drinks can that I was sure would be of interest to those born after such things had been firmly attached to the cans involved.  As well as finding treasure, it was decided some things should be buried in the build for good fortune and for our descendants to perhaps marvel at in the future.  A time capsule has been prepared, to place in one of the piers, containing information about the Youth Centre, the build, and all of the people who have taken part so far, and a recent coin will be placed in each hole too.

      Just before Thursday lunchtime all of the holes had been dug and we moved on to sorting the tyres into correctly sized piles of three, ready to place into the holes.  Thursday afternoon was very pleasantly taken over by a break to watch all the young people who had been doing a circus skills workshop putting on the most marvellous show of tightrope walking, plate-spinning and assorted clowning about.

      Using a drawknife to remove bark from the chestnut posts.
      Using a drawknife to remove bark from the chestnut posts.

      Next week we have a sculptor and wood carver coming on site to work with groups of young people to carve two of the chestnut pillars we will have on the porch at the front of the building.  Tom and I had spent the early part of Thursday morning fetching these chestnut poles from Dorset Fencing Supplies - and visiting Dave Partridge of Dorset Hurdles, coppicer and hurdle maker extraordinaire, in the woods at Bloxworth near Wareham, to pick up an order of hazel pins, for pinning our building's straw bales together.  I always say Dave has the nicest office I've ever seen, as whichever wood he is in, it is a simple canopy over his work in some of the most beautiful Dorset woodland.  On Thursday afternoon we also managed to pick up some larch that Tim Dunning, also of the Dorset Coppice Group - like Dave - had kindly sourced for us.

      On Friday we needed to get the chestnut poles stripped of bark, ready for the carving on Monday.  Once again Perry from Castle Estates came to our rescue by very kindly lending us a drawknife to get bark off.

      Complete ring beam base.
      Complete ring beam base.

      As well as tamping some gravel into the base of all the holes to firm them up ready for the tyres to go in, time was also spent gluing and screwing together the remaining sections of the bottom ring beam.  We now have one complete circle!  We have now also ordered the rest of the larch for the ring beams and have had to go as far as West Sussex to find it.  In the greater scheme of things this is still not too bad a distance, I suppose (about 100 miles) and if we'd had more notice I'm very confident we could have got it all within fifty miles of the site.

      On Monday we'll start building the car tyre piers.  We are filling them with 10mm shingle to give us a capillary break under the timber work of the building.  If you haven't come across capillary breaks before tune in next time to find out all about them!

      Please comment below or get in touch with your thoughts on the build progress so far.

      First weeks of the build...

      The Art Cabin Site
      The Art Cabin Site

      Well it's been an extraordinary month on the Sherborne build.  You may remember we are building a straw bale roundhouse.  It's being built with community involvement and will become a community building.  Going from so much planning and preparation into actually being on site has been very exciting indeed.  Here is an update on the first weeks of the build.

      We started off earlier in July by setting up the site.  First of all the fencing was delivered and set up so we could keep the site secure.

      From the middle of the month, Tom - my nephew - arrived as the first official addition to the Huff and Puff Construction employee list.  We marked up the site and began to remove turf from the build area.

      There is a lot to set up on a construction site.  On this site we are using the Youth Centre's facilities for the welfare of those on site.  We have designated fire and first aid points and a double gazebo - kindly loaned by Sherborne ArtsLink - to give us protection from the elements.

      Marking out the first car tyre pier.
      Marking out the first car tyre pier.

      Having sampled the soil on site I knew we had about 30cm of a clayey topsoil, with solid clay below.  We dug the hole for the first pier - I say we, but Tom did most of the digging - and it took about a day.  This was chiefly because the ground has dried out so much and it's really hard going.  We have 11 piers in total, so a rethink was required (one which you'll see later, in the form of a hired breaker).

      We moved on to cutting the timber for the ring beams.  The building will have two timber structural ring/box beams.  One beneath the straw bale walls and one above.  These fix the bale walls in position and tie the whole structure together.  Whilst straw bales are really easy to put a curve in, timber is not.  With a circular building the ring beams call for a lot of curved sections to be cut.   I'll go into the technical details of this more in later posts.  For the top and bottom of the ring beams we are using SmartPly OSB3, 18mm thick.  SmartPly is the current green building OSB of choice because it is manufactured without any added formaldehyde.  Building suppliers can probably source it for you even if they normally have a different brand.

      Ring beam templates.
      Ring beam templates.

      In order to get the template cut to the right size, we laid out a section of board on the marked up site.  For all the complexities circles bring, it is great to be able to put a stake in the middle of the site and work out sizes just by running out a piece of string, rather than having to make complicated calculations.  A section was marked up on the OSB board (a 2440mm x 1220mm sheet) and cut out to be used as a template for all the other sections.  By working out the exact internal and external circumference for the OSB element we were able to work out how many section we needed - 8.8 in our case - and so another template was made up for the final, ninth section, to complete the circle.  It took probably two or three days to get these sections cut.

      Glued and screwed noggins drying.
      Glued and screwed noggins drying.

      Our first volunteer arrived this week in the form of Robert.  Tom cut up noggins that will rung from the inside to the outside of the OSB sections and Robert glued and screwed them up into pieces two high, to give us the 240mm internal height we need in the ring beam.  Although it was extra work to do this, the full size we wanted wasn't readily available - and it is normally cheaper (and stronger) to fix two pieces of wood together rather than to use one solid piece.  The glued up pieces were set aside to dry.

      Ready for gluing/screwing.
      Ready for gluing/screwing.

      That brings us up to Friday of this week.  After weeks of sunshine we actually saw a bit of rain.  I took cover in the gazebo to make up a jig so we could assemble the curved ring beam sections and noggins reliably.  We have 36 sections to do in total, so although this took a while, it should be time well spent - plus we can use it future too.  Offcuts of OSB were used to create sections for the noggins to slot into, so the tops can be glued, then a curved section fitted on top and nailed and screwed into place.  Then the complete section can be removed and the next one made up.

      I hope you are enjoying reading about the build.  Please do leave comments via the comments section below, or use our contact form, or Facebook if you'd like to get in touch or get involved in the build.

      There is a bigger gallery of photos here (and a frequently updated album of all the project photos on Facebook here -):


      Sherborne Big Build - Go, Go, Go!

      Our Sherborne big build will be - drum roll please...  at the Sherborne Youth and Community Centre!

      The project is for a seven metre diameter straw bale roundhouse, and will run from now until October.  The centre, on Tinney's Lane in Sherborne, is a community hub for both the young of Sherborne and the local community, all of whom will be invited to take part in various ways.

      Local charity Sherborne ArtsLink are overseeing the project, working with the youth centre team, with funding coming from the Big Lottery Fund.  Huff and Puff Construction have been engaged as principal contractors for the project and I've sought advice from the best in the straw bale business - Straw Works and Strawbuild - for advice on the design of the build.

      As well as helping to build the roundhouse - currently being called the 'Art Cabin' - there is a schedule of art activities in progress, for the young people of Sherborne to create artistic works to go on and in the build.  Already underway is a project to create a stained glass window that will be a focal point in the far wall, opposite the door into the building.

      You can read the Western Gazette article here:

      Here are a few photos from the site and more updates will follow very soon.  If you have any questions, please ask in the comments below.  It's all very exciting!


      Sherborne Big Build - Launch Tomorrow!

      Sherborne Big Build Mystery LocationThe Sherborne Big Build is officially launching tomorrow!  Beg, steal or borrow a copy of the Western Gazette to find out the location!

      Or alternatively check back here because I'm bursting to tell you more!

      In the meantime here is a photo of the site marked out ready to go.  Can you guess where it is?

      Another update tomorrow with all the details!