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Thursday, June 14,2012

Local living

Builders explore straw bale structures

By Elizabeth Miller

You´ve gone local with your food. You’ve gone local with your shopping. You know about the farmers’ markets and the benefits of supporting local businesses. And you know about recycling your plastics and your bottles. But what about the house you live in?

Homes are full of timber — somewhere between five and 60-some trees in each house — and mined minerals, built at the expense of the trees and the earth.

In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman describes what happens to all that stuff if humans leave — the plywood or woodchip board houses collapsing in on themselves as their metals rust, aluminum corrodes, the gypsum in sheetrock washes back into the ground and weathering reduces plastic PVC pipes to hydrochloric acid.

So what if you could build a home from waste materials and recycled materials found within 100 miles of your home? A structure that, maybe when you left, allowed you to take a few screws off the top, push the walls in and let it collapse in on itself to become a compost pile — a garden, eventually. What if you could build a home that instead of emitting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from its paints, lacquers and other building materials — compounds that have been tied to health effects ranging from headaches and eye irritation to liver, kidney and central nervous system damage — would be safe from the moment you first opened the front door?

You can. The problem is, you might have to build it yourself.

Colorado builders aren’t the first to discover straw bales as building materials. Homes were built in Georgia and Nebraska almost a century ago using straw bales. Maybe that first little pig with the house made of straw wasn’t so crazy.

But the technology got shuffled away in favor of homes made from logs and bricks. But in the mid-’90s, a straw bale resurgence started.

Today, Americans are re-examining the way we live, from what we eat to how we commute to work, and starting to make changes. We’ve thought smaller about the cars we drive. And now, some people are also thinking smaller and smarter when it comes to their houses.

“I think people are concerned about toxic materials in construction, and I think people also realize that local natural building materials don’t rely on the extraction-productionconsumption-disposal linear stream of materials, so they’re thinking more in cyclical terms,” says Doug Beall, lead architect and builder at ECOS Designs, an ecological design company that draws from indigenous designs and uses natural building materials and concepts like passive solar and day lighting. Beall’s own home is an earth lodge with a great room at the centerbthat needs no electric lighting during the day; it’s lit entirely by a skylight, giving it an airy feel. 

Beall has been building ecologically designed structures for 25 years, but just started to work with straw bales a couple years ago, he says. Now he’s put in a patent application for a new straw bale house that could be carbon negative, taking in more carbon than it emits. These circular structures are a cozy 150 square feet — too small to be an official residence based on Boulder County building codes, and smaller than most people would want to live in. But it makes for an art studio, music room (he says the circular space is resonant) or workshop in the back yard that could be composted at the end of its life.

The straw bales he uses will be load-bearing, so no wood will be required in the walls, except what’s put in the window and door frames. For his prototype, Beall picked up some recycled windows from the Lafayette Flea Market.

“There’s no manufactured, no chemical ingredients. It’s very pure, very natural, and can readily be disposed of at the end of its lifecycle,” Beall says. “The intention is all the components of this thing are recyclable, compostable materials. At the end of the building’s life cycle, you can take the roof off and let the building — it’s all straw — compost.”

With off-the-shelf materials, his rough prototype building cost about $3,000. A skylight and a few windows provide ample light for day use. A finished structure that had electricity and plumbing would come it at less than $20,000, he estimates. It’s probably about the same as standard construction: $100 per square foot.

He built that prototype with his daughter and her boyfriend, neither of whom had formal training, in a few days without experienced tradesmen or heavy equipment. The circular design eliminates tricky right angles, and could stretch up to as large as 700 square feet.

“This system is readily transmittable, you could teach this system fairly easily,” he says.

He knows; he’s done it. Last year, he took a workshop to the Eagle Rock School in Estes Park and taught the former at-risk high schoolers enrolled there how to design their own structure, and built one near the school.

In some ways, the fact that you build it yourself could be this technology’s best benefit. Beall’s designs could be packaged into a kit and shipped to third-world countries to build homes. They might become disaster relief structures, filling in for the tin FEMA sheds that were so hated after Hurricane Katrina.

In developing nations, the building made with local materials would be cheaper — and there probably wouldn’t be plumbing or electricity. The intention of the structure, Beall says, is to use a local resource base to build it where it’s most needed. In the U.S. breadbasket, that’s straw — a byproduct of growing wheat, barley or rye. Even rice paddies produce a kind of straw that could be used for building.

“With 7 billion people on the planet, we have to use our resources much more conservatively,” he says. That will mean building small, and building with less impactful materials.

When Mark Schueneman built his straw bale house, the building’s end of life wasn’t so much what he had in mind. He was thinking about the people who would live in it. It wasn’t that he thought his wife’s cancer, or that of his sister-in-law, had come from the VOCs in their newly remodeled home. He just didn’t want that question to be a part of the equation anymore.

“I thought, my next house, I don’t want it to have any of these unnatural products,” he says. “Then I thought it was pretty cool that I could get the majority of my supplies from inside the county.”

His 2,200-square-foot home is made of straw bales, mud, clay, dirt and natural pigments — no paint and no carpet. He spent a total of $80 on the wood framing for the house, taking much of it from wood palettes given away freely. The insulation came from local straw bales and the rock in the 18-inch foundation that lifts the bales off the ground was dug up in his yard. The walls are plastered in 63,000 pounds of dirt, applied a handful at a time. All if it came from within 100 miles of his home.

A “truth window” lets doubting visitors look right through plexiglass at the straw bale insulation.

But really, the self-described “energy nerd” says, a lot of the draw came from the idea of the energy savings of living in a home insulated with 22 inches of straw and plaster. It pays off. His heating bill the first year in his home was $163 — for 12 months of propane to heat water, cook and run the ambient heat floors.

Making an existing home more energy-efficient would be the more “green” option, he says, and he’d made those conversions in his last home. But he and his wife had planned to size down to a smaller home, and after she died, he decided it was time. He had the opportunity to build on a piece of land right next to a creek north of Boulder, and went for it.

Even on a 90-degree day, the house is cool inside without so much as a fan running. Straw bales lend themselves to curves, and the house has a cool, adobe feel. He practices passive solar principles, opening up windows at night to let the house cool down, and shutting them and the curtains when the sun starts coming in during the day.

His path to this home started at a family cabin in Ontario. Built in 1936, the house relied on a series of buckets to simulate running water. Then someone suggested a solar panel to provide actual water flow. Schueneman’s wife bought him a book on solar energy that included a segment on straw bale houses.

“I went for a workshop in 2001 and just fell in love with the idea of building a house out of sort of recycled materials,” he says.

It took 16 months to complete his new home, which he says was well-received by the county when he went for a building permit.

“It’s amazing, I’ve had busloads of people come to check it out, and I love showing it off because my first impression was what everybody else’s first impression is: Oh, no, you can’t build a house out of straw bale,” he says.

Like Beall, Schueneman has taken the technology to other locations, teaching workshops on Indian reservations in Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

“That’s what I enjoy doing — I don’t want to convert any conventional builders,” he says, “I’d rather show people who have less than comfortable living situations that with effort and not a lot of money they can live comfortably.”

Both will be at the International Straw Builders’ Conference, which is in Estes Park this September, along with people from 14 countries as divergent as Pakistan, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The focus of the conference is on building resilience for the future inspired by nature — developing a certain resiliency by using local materials for low-tech building.

Additional details on the conference are available at www.strawbaleconference.com.

Respond: info@boulderganic.com

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