Houses made of straw
Straw bale home building takes root locally

Durango builder Andrew Phillips talks about the energy efficiency of a straw bale home he helped construct inside the Heartwood community in Bayfield. Now in a sort of second infancy, straw bale construction is gaining in popularity, with a stream of new ideas for efficiency and quality constantly emerging./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by John T. Rehorn

Someday, an article about straw bale homes will not, however fleetingly, refer to the Three Little Pigs or the Big Bad Wolf. Someday, such a piece will not have to reiterate that straw is no more susceptible to moisture than lumber, that mice and other vermin won’t become members of the family, or that a bale, especially when coated on its exposed sides with plaster, is approximately as flammable as an adobe brick. One day, there will be no need to explain that these homes are not just built by ex-hippies for 10 bucks a square foot and all the beer and organic pizza their dozens of volunteers can consume.

Someday, but not today.

Today, people who are struggling to make a decent living building green, sustainable homes with straw are still convincing prospective clients and the general public of these things. Because straw bale construction is in a sort of second infancy (early 20th century Nebraskans built straw bale homes that are still inhabited), a constant stream of new ideas for efficiency and quality is emerging. Any builder who tells you he or she knows all there is to know about straw bale building should be treated like a chicken complaining of flu symptoms.

“There’s an entire infrastructure designed for the conventional builder. You go to the lumber yard … and they’ve got catalogs and how-to manuals – everything you need to know. But with straw bale construction, we’re still out there experimenting,” said Andrew Phillips, a Durango-area builder. Phillips recently attended the Colorado Straw Bale Association Conference in Carbondale, where he said builders were educated of the finer points of straw bale construction, like knowing how to think like a raindrop and devising ways to keep that drop out. Phillips said such things might seem trite but they are actually “the backbone” of how to proceed with the relatively young technology.

Mark Schueneman, executive director for the Colorado Straw Bale Association, said he thought the best suggestion that came from the conference was the idea to quantify the performance of a straw bale house versus a conventionally built one.

“If we actually have this happen, then we can put our ‘this-works-better’ badge on it,” Schueneman said.

Phillips, standing in the elegant timber-frame straw bale of his friends and former clients, Eric and Teresa Malone, agreed. “It’s important for us to raise the bar on straw bale building, show how viable a structure it can be,” he said. “And then the masses, I think, will start seeing that ‘Hey, these stand up better than stick frames.’”

The Malone home in Heartwood, a rural, co-housing development near Bayfield, is one of many in the development oriented for solar gain. Eric Malone procured all the timber for his house no farther than 7 miles away. When it came to straw bales and plaster, he called in Phillips for professional expertise. 4

As with all conscious builders, Malone has the rap on his house down. He explained how its trees were harvested in fire-mitigation projects and selective thinning. Draft horses were used to skid the logs out of the forest, keeping it roadless. Malone spoke of “embodied energy” (the amount of fossil fuels associated with materials with respect to manufacturing, shipping and other energy costs) with ease. Aside from the small “energy footprint” his natural home makes, he pointed out that it will have a minimal energy impact for the life of the abode.

“I didn’t really know this until we moved in, but we don’t heat,” Malone said. “It’s pretty much 100 percent passive in the winter. Unless we have a long string of days without sun, it just stays warm,” he said. “Regardless of the embodied energy, the amount of gas consumption over 50 years: that’s the energy savings that are really going to have an impact over the long term.”

The unfinished walls of a garage show the straw bales that go into created an energy-efficient, natural structure./Photo by Todd Newcomer

The Malones have thermal solar panels atop their roof to augment the passive solar gain from southern exposure. Once the heat’s in, the straw bales keep it there, insulating as well as your best down sleeping bag.

Though still young, Kelly Ray Mathews, of Straw Bale Builders, is one of the grandfathers of the straw bale movement in La Plata County. Many of the younger or newer builders have worked for Mathews at some time in the past. Unlike some natural builders, Mathews has enjoyed the luxury in recent years of picking his clients and building only straw bale homes or doing only natural clay plaster jobs. He is currently finishing a paragon for natural building for client Doris Andrew. He revealed his strategy for going exclusively natural.

“Most people that I work for are already sold on natural building,” he said. “And honestly I’ve gotten really fussy about who I work for. I mostly try to chase people off now. If I can’t chase them off, I tell them how lazy I am and how slow and expensive we are. Then I figure if they still want me, then they’re probably all right to work for.”

At present, the choice for building with straw bales is primarily owner-driven – they are already on board the green-building movement when looking for a general contractor. Mathews said he is as busy as he can be, lamenting that if he can’t point them to another green builder, those he turns away will likely go conventional.

“Still, if (green building in La Plata County) is 1 percent, I’d be shocked,” Mathews said. “But I’ve seen a huge growth in the last year. And I think honestly the Eco-Home Center has made a huge difference. (Owner Laurie Dickson) sends a ton of work my way, and I think she’s created a lot of work. I think there’s a hunger for it.”

There are many alluring attributes to naturally built homes. Lines and corners are soft, walls gently undulate – telltale of the bales behind the native clay plaster. A craftman’s pride lurks everywhere. Colors are earthtones, interiors are cave-cool in the dog days of summer. But what often goes unmentioned is the smell – or lack thereof. Absent are the vapors of paint, carpet and other “new house” aromas of conventional building. In their place is a barely describable earthy but clean, nontoxic scent with which you gladly fill your lungs.

These homes should make their inhabitants feel better, both physically and ethically. But it’s the construction worker who really gets a health bonus from building the natural home. Imagine the exposure to the kind of fumes and dust a conventional builder encounters year after year. But Andrew Phillips takes it a step further. What kind of

impact will our ruins have in the distant future, he asks. Will you be able to grow tomatoes among the ruins? As for the Malone home, he makes the point: “In a thousand years this house will be nothing more than a pile of organic material. And, it’s just 7 miles out of place.” •



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