How (And Why) I Moved To A Straw Bale House
From Typical To (Almost) Perfect
By C. Gonzales, Port Republic, Maryland
By August 2010, I had had enough. My home was lovely, warm when needed, cool when needed, pretty, functional, and safe. But it lacked natural heating, natural cooling and clustered plumbing. It was energy inefficient, so despite our energy star appliances and superb insulation in the attic, it was like every other housing development home—on the land, not of the land.
Unwilling to remodel extensively, I determined we needed two things—property to build on and a house plan. Seeking guidance, I began in the local library, borrowing a phenomenal book by Alex Wilson called Your Green Home: A Guide to Planning a Healthy Environmentally Friendly New Home (2006: New Society Publishers). The book provided me with some new ideas and confirmed some old ones. The land I eventually purchased had no trees to clear, had excellent southern exposure, and would allow our family to be free of covenants, which has enabled us to keep livestock and mow infrequently.
Mr. Wilson discussed land use and building products in a way that crystalized an idea for me. Don’t clear the land of trees to make way for other wood products to make studs. Use what the land provides that is extra. Agricultural land use makes up approximately 30 percent of our local land area, so I pondered. In some areas, air pollution is generated by burning agricultural waste, like straw, in the fields. What if people used that straw for building? (Straw has other uses—mulch, animal bedding and erosion control, to name a few.) I began researching straw bale construction because of the excellent insulating value of bales (R-33) and its local availability. I borrowed a book belonging to friends of mine called The Straw Bale House by Athena Swentzell Steen, Bill Steen, David Bainbridge, and David Eisenberg (1994: Chelsea Green Publishing). I was hooked.
I wanted a different home as well: one story, no excess space filled with stuff, clustered plumbing, and a way to separate noisy appliances from music and movies. And I wanted to build it with straw. Looking online for straw bale house plans, I found Robert Andrews’ exceptional site: www.balewatch.com. With more than 50 plans, many shown with modifications, it is a site replete with options. I chose to start with the Habitat floor plan, though I changed it to suit our needs. After mentally planning the house for months, I finally sat down with pencil, paper, and a tape measure.
Within a few days, I was finished. Included were all my interior requirements: one-story level; clustered plumbing; three bedrooms; storage room; great room with kitchen, dining and “living” combined; 36” wide doors for easy clearance of furniture and maybe wheelchairs later in life; and a separation of the piano from the dishwasher. It looked great on paper! Knowing our climate, which often has hurricanes, I chose to have a frame made using posts and beams to provide a sturdy structure for walls and the roof. The straw was used to “in-fill” between the posts.
But what about the other things I hoped for? Mr. Wilson encouraged readers to involve the forces of nature in their homes’ heating, cooling and energy generation. I oriented my house so the largest windows would face south to increase solar gain in the cooler months. I included flooring with a high thermal mass to help store that heat after the sunset. I added deep eaves to shelter the windows from the summer sun. I placed the porch on the east side to provide shady spot to rest on hot summer evenings. Because water conservation and rain water use are priorities of mine, I specified a standing-seam metal roof to allow for easy collection of clean rain water (not contaminated with asphalt bits) at all four corners. Using active solar power made sense in my location, so I added a 5kW solar array on the roof and a solar water heater. Given Maryland’s humid climate, we required a heat pump with air conditioning for summer use. The heat pump’s fan circulates cool air in summer and heated air in the winter. Radiant floor heat was installed in the floor.
Now the situation was this—plan drawn but no land, no architect and no builder. Several searches for each resulted in the purchase of seven acres (in a snow storm); the finding of an understanding, thorough, inexpensive architect; and the hiring of a reliable, understanding contractor after interviewing four. From August 2010 to December 2011, my dream was realized. We spent our first night in our new house December 31, 2011.
In the past three years, several changes have been made. Despite a solar array, I chose net-metering which means that instead of using batteries to store our power, we are tied to the grid. When the grid goes down, so do we, so I had to prepare redundant systems for cooking, water and heat. A gas stove allows us to cook without electricity. Rain barrels provide ample water for livestock and, with proper filtering, for us. I installed a correct-sized wood-burning stove for our great room, which provides ample heat. Placing a metal roof in the middle of an open field on the crest of a hill allows lightning to find our home easily. Air terminals (lightning rods) were installed in 2014 after an electrical storm caused some damage.
I would do some things differently if I were to rebuild. There’s very little insulation under the slab, so I would add two inches of insulating foam board or straw bale insulation. I also would not install radiant floor heat (which heats the ground at the same time it heats our house). I would use hot water radiators instead. The east side of the house is closest to the road, so time spent on the porch is interrupted by noisy vehicles. The amount of storage space is a bit to low. I’ve added additional flooring in the attic, which has helped. I did not apply for an exemption to the county’s gray water prohibitions. I would enjoy being able to use gray water, although currently we have surplus water.
All in all, designing and building my dream home has been rewarding to the heart and satisfying to the spirit. Our energy consumption is lower than many, and I feel closer to the earth surrounded by our animals and acres of trees, waving grasses and our wetland.