Barbara realised early on that she loved practical work but was hampered by having no role models, and no opportunities for training, being a woman. So, she started out in childcare – how typical! Nevertheless, Barbara has been very lucky to have been given amazing opportunities that she has been able to say yes to, and ended up running her own company, remaining principled about her work, and really enjoying what she does.
Barbara trained as a carpenter and joiner a long time ago, and specialised in roofing because she loved it the most (challenging, a bit dangerous, lovely views) and started Amazon Nails, a women’s roofing company, in 1989. Barbara then discovered strawbale building in 1994 and knew she had found her true path. Everything she tried to do: learn, gain experience, make contacts, was easy and she was encouraged to share her passion even though she was laughed at a lot in the early days. Barbara truly believes she had found a way for ordinary people to get involved in building again, through simple techniques and affordable methods.
By 2007 it seemed time for a different type of structure, and the business became a social enterprise called amazonails ltd. In this manifestation they achieved a lot, and working with much the same design team as she is now Barbara designed affordable strawbale council houses, the largest loadbearing straw building in the UK and designed, built and trained on many other projects. Barbara has lost count of how many strawbale buildings she has worked on, but it has to be over 300 by now.
Amazonails closed in July 2011, and this has given Barbara the opportunity to get back to my roots, and to do more practical work, both roofing and teaching, that she had missed in the few years previous. Teaching is one of the skills she was delighted to find she was good at, since she really enjoys it, and it’s the best way to pass on knowledge and enthusiasm on a building site.
Barbara then went on to found Straw Works, which originally offered design, training and construction. This gave Barbara the opportunity to continue designing great houses and buildings, work on roofs, teach on real buildings and work part time. It’s too easy to lose sight of what’s important in life – living and loving, giving and growing.
In 2014, Barbara started the School of Natural Building, a separate company that would offer the training and courses side of Barbara’s work. This would leave Straw Works to focus on the design of natural, healthy, straw-insulated buildings, of which Barbara is a worldwide expert thanks to many years of design as well as practical experience.
What others say about Barbara:
Barbara has achieved a lot in her career in construction, and been honoured for it. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, manufacturing and commerce (FRSA) in 2009. She was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Construction in 2011 and received a Woman of Outstanding Achievement Award from UKRC in 2009.
She is very principled about using natural materials for building, and insists on designs that are simple and straight forward, often using unusual materials or techniques that have found her arguing with engineers and Building Inspectors on many occasions! She often says that she has worked with lots of engineers, but most of them only once, as she demands respect, an ability to discuss ideas and methods that are out of the ordinary, and a fearlessness that matches her own. Questioning why we do things the way we do, and learning from the architectural heritage we find around us every day have been her hallmarks.
This approach has produced not only simplified strawbale building techniques, but foundation designs using car tyres, shallow foundations, flexible and self-draining foundations, none of which require cement, and although all legal and approved, none of which are mentioned in UK Building Regulations. She has been and remains a great teacher and innovator; passionate, tenacious and enquiring. Her teaching style was described recently : “I aim to channel the Barbara Jones style of teaching – that is, be clear, be kind, and empower people to use their own common sense and intuitive knowledge to do what they surely can”. A recent course participant, Jo, says: “A massive thank you to being such an inspiration as a woman in the building world! In the last few months, I’ve just begun to feel empowered to do what I truly love – building craft of all natures – and it’s definitely been in part to the role models such as you.”
Barbara was part of Sisterhood and After: an oral history of the Women’s Liberation Movement, a project by the British Library and Sussex University to record the experiences of 60 women who were active in the Women’s Liberation Movement. In this video she talks about women on the tools.