‘Our glittering straw home lets us retire in France on small pensions’

Cardamom in the plaster and a ‘glitterball’ wall - the couple who built a low-bills house from straw bales fill it with quirky ideas

South African native Tania Solomons built a house from straw in Corrèze; creative flair with green glass pieces in the walls
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For years, the Three Little Pigs’ attempts to construct a safe, secure home have been a cautionary tale for anyone opting to use any building material other than brick.

However, with no big, bad wolf threatening to blow it down, South African native-turned-Corrèze resident Tania Solomons chose to construct her house with straw.

‘The smell and silence was amazing’

Ms Solomons, 57, cited childhood games as the inspiration behind her €180,000 build in Lagraulière.

She told The Connexion: “I grew up with horses, and remember playing in the hay barn.

“We would tunnel the bales and climb in there. The smell and silence was amazing.

“When we decided to build a house, we opted to insulate using natural materials.

“The idea was to make it as energy-efficient as possible so that, as we go into retirement, our meagre pensions still afford us a lifestyle here.

“Those discussions drew me back to my horse-riding years. I said: ‘Why not? Let’s build a straw house.’”

Read more: Couple who built a straw bale house in France share their one regret

Farmers sell construction-grade bales of straw

Like every new house in France, the three-bedroom property had to comply with strict building regulations, and the straw bales were checked by the Réseau français de la construction paille (French straw building network).

“They come from the Lot, where there are quite specialised farmers who sell these construction-grade bales,” Ms Solomons said.

“The typical size is 80cm x 50cm x 35cm, and they weigh about 20kg to 25kg each so are highly dense. You have to be very strong to lift them. It’s like the gym workout from hell!”

The straw has been used throughout the two-storey house, which is built on a concrete foundation.

As well as using straw for highly insulated outer walls, Tania and her partner Andrew, 55, used the material inside to create a “cave-like” atmosphere.

“It’s a lovely environment to work and live in because it always smells fresh and it has these amazing sound qualities.

“If you’re inside, you cannot hear people stopping in the driveway, for example. Nothing. It’s completely soundproof.”

Read more: ‘We built a €120,000 eco-house for a thrifty retirement in France’

Spices and pieces of glass in the walls

Straw bales were not the only quirky element of the build.

In the bathroom, for example, avid cook Ms Solomons mixed ginger, cardamom and turmeric into the plaster to give it rich, earthy tones.

“It’s amazing because the moment you have hot water in the bath and it steams, it creates a spa effect where all of the scents come to life again.”

Other walls are no less interesting.

In the living room, for instance, she added pieces of green glass.

“All these speckles of emerald in the wall are struck by the western sunlight in the afternoon. I call it the emerald mine,” she said.

“Then, on the floor above, I decided to create walls with fissures and stick them full of glass and mica. It is almost like walking into a 1970s disco. It glitters everywhere.”

Photo: Ginger, cardamom and turmeric mixed into the plaster on the bathroom wall gives it rich, earthy tones; Credit: Tania Solomons

Bales are place upright for better insulation

Creativity aside, there are practical advantages to building with straw, especially if the fibres are orientated to optimise insulation performance.

“What’s unique with these dense bales is that they are placed in an upright position, so all the little strands run from top to bottom,” Ms Solomons said.

“It gives better insulation compared to bales placed sideways, where air travels straight through and doesn’t get trapped and warmed.”

The energy savings are remarkable, she said.

Read more: Our green home made from tyres is part of us, says family in France

‘We spend €180 a year on heating and cooling’

“The whole motivation for building this house was to retire on a British pension. So we didn’t want to spend a huge amount of money on heating systems and a whole lot of technology we don’t need.

“We heat the house and cool it in summer with one single air-conditioning unit.

“On average, we spend €30 per month when we run it round the clock. So, with the six months that it’s on day and night, that’s €180 per year. And it’s the only heating we have because it’s all we need.”

‘Everything is secondhand to keep costs down’

The couple’s thrift does not stop at energy consumption.

Ms Solomons and her partner installed a complete kitchen for €1,800.

“We didn’t have a ceiling or floor or any walls, nor any electricity or plumbing. There was nothing,” she said.

“Everything we have installed is secondhand, down to the sink and all the white goods.”

While she bought base units for the cupboards, to keep costs down she created doors for them by using old French tapestries:

“Nobody wants these tapestries because they’re not fashionable any more, but I think they’re very romantic.”

Photo: Secondhand tapestries cover the kitchen unit bases; Credit: Tania Solomons

‘I always live in extremes’

The couple, who bought the land in early 2019 and moved to France later that year, hope to complete the interior by May.

A large pergola and external double garage are scheduled to be added by August 2025.

The house build is a far cry from Ms Solomons’ previous career in finance, but she said she has always “lived in extremes”.

She added: “I believe life is short and I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. We should try things in different ways and experience a wide spectrum of life.

“The house wouldn’t be a surprise to people in my finance world. In fact, many of them follow me on Facebook and think it’s the ultimate escapism.”

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