Big bad wolf proof: Straw Bale Home Tour showcases the benefits and possibilities of homes built with straw bales
Special to The Union
One home boasts countertops and window sills made of old slate blackboards reclaimed from a local school. The floor of another home was stained using fertilizer and is completely off the grid, heated by wood and powered by the sun. At least one home was visited personally by Governor Jerry Brown.
Those are just some of the unique stops on Saturday’s Straw Bale Home Tour. Five homes are in Nevada County and a sixth is in Penryn. Owner-builders, contractors, and engineers will be available along the tour, ready and eager to answer questions.
“Up near North Columbia, my husband felled, bucked, and peeled with a draw knife the posts which support our porch,” said Barbara Roemer, a tour organizer who has lived in a straw bale home for the past year. “Inside our home, we have a pot rack built from ribs from a salvaged fishing boat.”
Organizers of Saturday’s tour hope visitors experience a sense of awe and admiration.
“People will be impressed with how comfortable these homes are,” said David Arkin, director of the nonprofit California Straw Building Association. “The buildings keep warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Another thing is the beauty of the thick walls and the play of daylight through the deeper windows and doors. There is a feeling of solidarity that you don’t get with stick-built homes. We have a saying, ‘You can do anything with straw bales except have skinny walls.’”
According to the Berkeley-based California Straw Building Association, there are approximately 40 straw bale homes in Nevada County, 1,280 in California, 7,850 in the United States, and 16,740 in the world.
Jim Seely, a local general contractor who enjoys building straw bale homes, said some of the houses are expensive because owners choose elaborate floor plans.
“But it can be done simply and inexpensively,” he said. “There are infinite possibilities, and the material is reasonably priced.”
Advocates say people who live in straw bale homes try to source their building materials locally. For example, earth plasters may be made from soil excavated for a house’s foundation.
Straw bale home owner-builders also like to reuse, recycle, and reduce their environmental footprint, which may include the use of repurposed materials and appliances.
“We’re very much engaged with our relationship to the environment,” said Roemer. “All the homes on the tour are built with rice straw, which is a waste material. It can’t be used for animal fodder because there’s too much silica in it and it’s not nutritious for animals. As our association puts it, ‘Hay is for horses. Straw is for houses.’ So we stack it up, plaster it, and live in it.”
The straw bales come from rice growers in the Sacramento Valley who bale their rice straw to construction standards with very high compression. According to the California Straw Building Association, there is enough straw grown in California each year to build 200,000 homes.
“We’re not talking about huff-n-puff and the three little pigs,” said Roemer.
“The material is something we have an abundance of in California,” said Seely. “It’s inexpensive and healthy, and the houses are very energy efficient. It’s a nurturing environment inside a straw bale home.”
Expand & educate
The goal of Saturday’s tour is two-fold. One is to educate people about the possibilities of straw bale home building. The other goal is to raise money for the California Straw Building Association and its mission to expand straw building code development.
The Straw Bale Construction appendix was approved at the International Code Council in 2013, included in the 2015 International Residential Code, and adopted by California in 2017.
Those codes allow prospective homeowners to design and build their own straw bale single-story home. They must enlist the help of an architect and engineer if the building is two stories or taller.
Safe & sound
Advocates say they appreciate straw bale home construction for a variety of reasons. First, the homes are fire resistant.
“Straw bale walls, properly-plastered, have a two-hour fire rating and withstand fire up to three times better than a framed wall,” said Roemer. “Here in Nevada County, there is at least one straw structure that didn’t succumb to fire lapping at its walls during the Lobo Fire, and that structure is located on the property of one of the homes on Saturday’s tour.”
Promoters say another benefit of a straw bale home is peace and quiet.
“Tour visitors will experience how quiet these homes can be, which is particularly good in urban areas or for light sleepers,” said Arkin.
“When there’s a need for sanctity and quiet, our straw bale home is a fine retreat,” said Roemer. “We hear almost no street noise, and the temperature remains fairly constant and comfortable, both because of the bale insulation and because of the distributed mass of the plaster, both inside and out. On the tour, participants will see very sculptural walls of earthen plaster as well as refined, smooth lime-plastered walls.”
For a map of the homes on Saturday’s tour and descriptions of the sites, visit StrawBuilding.org and click on “Straw Bale Home Tour” under Coming Events.
Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. To suggest a business news feature, contact her at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.
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