Wider Scope

The House of Straw and Clay

handmade Sawyer County dwelling slated for bulldozer

Emily Thierfelder |

Two years ago, 29-year-old Febe Simone Dancier and 32-year-old Machel Piper moved from Sheboygan County to Saywer County to create a fresh start at life. Dancier was no longer operating her own natural health food store while Piper, a former kindergarten and music teacher, was healing from a divorce. Determined to regain perspective, the two women decided to construct their own home on five acres of recently purchased land. After discovering how expensive typical construction projects can be, they decided to take a page from natural home construction and build their own house out of an element called cob, a mixture of clay, sand, and straw.

“We wanted a place, a sanctuary, to heal from our past wounds,” explains Piper, “so we decided to literally start building our dream.”

Armed with a few tons of cob, which they chose for its light weight and extreme durability, Piper and Dancier spent six months constructing the 175-square-foot home. 

“We both have no building experience,” said Piper. “Looking back, it was probably one of the craziest things I have ever done.” 

The women now live in a home that is heated in the winter and cool in the summer – and having both grown up in typical suburbia, “normal” homes are exactly what these two were used to. Their new, environmentally friendly home even boasts its own “humanure” system, a simple, low-cost toilet system that recycles human waste by using carbon-based material like sawdust to facilitate the compost process. 



“It’s incredibly strong and if taken care of, can last hundreds of years,” explains Piper of their new home.

Sawyer County officials, however, were not so thrilled. On April 19, Piper and Dancier received a letter from the county. It stated that because their home did not meet several county codes – for instance, it fell short of the minimum spare requirement of 500 square feet – the county was now prepared to bulldoze their living quarters unless the two women could reconstruct a larger, up-to-code dwelling. 

According to Sawyer County Zoning Administrator Bill Christman, neither Piper nor Dancier ever submitted requests for sanitary or land-use permits prior to constructing their home. As Christman explains, a sanitary permit states that the building will be serviced by code-compliance septic system – which excludes their humanure system. If a sanitary permit is granted, application for a land-use permit begins. Because the women never applied for either, they should not have proceeded with their home construction.

“We have no issues with the type of construction of a home,” said Christman. “All we need is a land-use permit, and we did not receive a request for one.”

In the midst of communicating with officials about the future of their cob home, Piper and Dancier received an offer from Bruce-based Sun Spirit Log Homes owners Bert and Nanci Mertes to build them a log home. The offer was accepted, and the women are now constructing a log cabin that is up to county standards.

Christman said that the county is optimistic about the future of their home.

“We’re... hoping everything works out all right, that they get the appropriate permits and move on with their log home,” he said. The county will continue to work with them throughout this process; on April 25, Christman visited Piper and Dancier to help them apply for appropriate permits.

In the meantime, Piper and Dancier are hard at work on a children’s novel about their experiences. “We are not giving up the fight for legalizing smaller homes,” said Piper. “We want the state of Wisconsin to recognize sawdust toilets and make them legal as well.”

“We feel this is just the beginning of a long line of miracles,” Piper continues. “I have never been happier in my life.”