Try to huff and puff – It’ll take more than that to blow down this straw house
In the classic tale “The Three Little Pigs”, the wolf wasn’t kidding when he said to the first little pig, “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.” After all, the silly pig had built his house of straw.
Well, straw has come a long way since then. Today, straw-bale construction has become a household word in the alternative housing community. It’s strong, offers good insulation, and is “green” – natural, nontoxic, nonpolluting, and not requiring gobs of energy to produce.
Still, to those not in the know, straw bale could conjure images of a modest, funky little abode, something on the order of the witch’s place in “Hansel and Gretel,” yet another fairy tale.
But wait, there’s a straw bale house in south Nevada County that is a whopping 3,500 square feet of grace, beauty and sophistication. Indeed, its 21-foot high central room has an elegance that one might find on the cover of a house-and-garden magazine.
Chuck Horton and Brenda Tello Horton, both in their early 40s, built the house as more than just a home to live in comfortably. Rather, the business consultant and the real estate agent, who have been married for seven years, are on a mission to influence people to build residential and commercial buildings that are healthy both for the environment and the people inside them.
“We wanted to build a house that was sustainable,” Chuck Horton said, “one that will last long after we’re gone, but that the earth could (eventually) reclaim.”
Although the house started with 500 straw bales, it did not end there. The house is easier on the environment in many ways, thanks to close to 30 features including earth plaster, strawboard, reclaimed wood, SIP panels, nontoxic paints, salvage (including many of the doors throughout and the old school lockers in the laundry room), built-in shelves that preclude buying more furniture, and recycled blue jeans cotton insulation.
The energy usage is minimal. Having moved in this past December, the Hortons were surprised that the radiant heating in the floor didn’t activate much – “We’ve had to wear slippers more than we thought,” Brenda laughs. The house simply maintains temperature well. To take the chill off, they fired up their special Rumford fireplace that has an efficiency rating of up to 50 percent and easily heats 1,000 square feet.
Air conditioning isn’t needed, and an impressive roof-mounted solar array provides their electricity.
This energy efficiency of a well-insulated straw bale home using passive solar is echoed by another home owner, Eric Botner of French Corral, who says he uses no more than a half cord of wood in a home with no other heat source than a fireplace. “For 60-90 days of the year, when everyone else has a fire going, I don’t. In fact, I was sitting in a T-shirt in the house when it was hailing last May.”
Rather than lay flooring that would, considering the sheer square footage, use up more valuable resources, the Hortons chose to have the cement foundation serve as their floor, uncovered except for small colorful handmade natural-fiber area rugs.
“Natural staining from rain, dirt, leaves, even some spilled wine, gives interesting patterns,” Chuck Horton said.
The house’s contractor was Keith Robertson, who has built seven other straw-bale homes, including the first legal one in the county. Robertson said that while other countries are ahead of the United States in alternative construction, we’re learning rapidly.
“The state (of California) is behind straw bale,” he said, “and because of that the county building department people are positive, although we’ve had to do a lot of educating.”
As far as the Hortons are concerned, their mission to turn people on to the concept continues.
Toward that end, they are generous with opening their home, as in the recent eco-home tour that not only raised money for a local Waldorf school, but also exposed more than 800 people to the concept of a straw-bale house.
The house has been on Sacramento TV, and the couple has even made an educational video about it. Chuck Horton is using his “green” leanings to influence other businesses, and Brenda is helping clients who are interested purchase alternative homes.
Both are committed, they say, “to making the world a better place.”
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