It's not every day that a world-famous artist asks you to design and build a retreat honoring the work of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy — in highly seismic Joshua Tree, Calif., to boot. Some years ago, the design/build firm I worked for received just such a request from composer Lou Harrison, who at the time was 80 years old. (He died in 2003, after the building was completed.) Fathy, a proponent of traditional building forms and sustainable design, frequently used vaulted roofs. We had been working with straw-bale construction for a number of years and knew builders who were experimenting with self-supporting vaults — but no one had ever built one on a permitted job. It took some doing, but after three years and one full-scale structural test, we got a building permit for a straw-bale home with load-bearing walls and a barrel-vault roof.

During a weekend bale-raising, 30 friends stacked straw walls and buttresses over pressure-treated plates on a grade-beam foundation. The bales were covered inside and out with full-wall-height 14-gauge wire mesh, which had been embedded in the grade beam and would later be embedded in bond beams on top of the walls.

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