Building a home, a bale at a time

March 26, 2006|By ROBERT SNYDER


Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?

Not Kristin Alexander and Jeff Feldman. Amidst a countywide building boom, this Berkeley County couple have forsaken a house of brick and stick, opting instead to take a page from the first little pig's book and build for themselves a straw home.

While a tour of the couple's five-acre lot last weekend showed a framed-in house of traditional post and beam construction, stacks upon stacks of straw piled up on each floor of the two-story house revealed this was not the typical building site.

"This is where things turn the corner on being a little more alternative," Feldman said.

Last weekend found the couple, joined by about 25 volunteers, stacking the straw bales that will make the walls of their newly built house near Bedington. While not a load-bearing straw house, the bales will serve as the walls of the house, Feldman said.


About 650 bales of straw were hauled last week to the couple's lot and hoisted into the house by a hay elevator in preparation for its wall-raising that weekend, Feldman said last week.

Alexander said her interest in straw bale building dates to 1990, when she helped a friend build one in Colorado, but Feldman admitted he initially was skeptical.

"I'd never seen a picture of a straw bale house that didn't look southwestern," he said.

Feldman said it was important to the couple that the house be easy to construct.

"We wanted a hand in building this place," he said. "You can do it yourself, whereas with carpentry, you have to be ... skilled. If (the wall) is a half-inch off, we're going to be coating it with a half-inch of plaster. You don't have to hire skilled carpenters to put up straw bale."

Designer Sigi Koko, an environmental architect who assisted the couple with the project, said constructing a house from straw bales is like building with big, fuzzy bricks.

"Really, literally anybody can find a way to be useful in making this wall happen," Koko said.

The house also conforms to the couple's low-impact design standards and requirements for energy efficiency.

Relying on nontoxic building materials and using design features such as passive solar energy for heating makes the house easier on the environment, Koko said.

"In every feature, we considered its environmental impact," said Feldman, adding the straw bales, which double as both walls and interior insulation have a higher R-value than standard stick-built houses with Fiberglas insulation.

And with an abundance of south-facing windows, the house will capture and retain heat from the sun, storing it in the walls and in a first-story earthen floor, which the couple chose as much for its character as for its energy-absorbing ability.

"Plus, it's dirt cheap," Koko said. "By capturing that sunlight, you'll warm the space for free."

The passive solar design will be complemented by a stone-encased wood-burning stove in the basement that will burn at twice the temperature of a standard wood stove, Feldman said.

The house also will include a dry, nonflush composting toilet, and a two-part septic system that separates graywater, which is water from washing dishes and laundry, from other wastes. The graywater will flow into a specially constructed wetlands area in the backyard.

"It's dealing with waste the way that nature does, by breaking it down on a microbial level," Alexander said.

Koko, who founded her company, Down to Earth, in 1989, trumpets the cause of sustainable design and building practices.

"I think building more environmentally conscious is inevitable," said Koko, adding she believes concerns over the toxicity of some building materials and rising energy costs are going to make alternative options more compelling to home buyers.

"A key reason why consumers don't demand housing to be energy-efficient is a lack of information," Koko said. "I have a real commitment to education."

A notable straw bale house feature is the truth window, a hole in the plastered wall that reveals the straw behind it. Koko said the window serves as a response to people who question whether a straw house is what it claims to be.

"Once you cover it up, you want a remnant that shows there's still straw in there," Koko said.

Construction will continue on the house through the summer, and the couple say they expect to move in by August. Eager as they are to finally occupy the house, they say they're also fully enjoying the process.

"We love the idea of this being our friends and family members coming out to help us do this," Alexander said.

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