Green Building Archive

An Interview with Stephen and Rebekah Hren on Planet Green

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

On a recent trip down to Durham, North Carolina, I was lucky enough to stay with Stephen and Rebekah Hren, authors of The Carbon-Free Home. Their beautiful two-story house produces enough energy to fill all of their energy needs and is outfitted with all kinds of ingenious projects straight from their book. In front, a garden grows everything from artichokes to pomegranates, while chickens roam around in the backyard. They were gracious enough to talk to me about how we can become a more sustainable society.

What’s the simplest home project people can do to start towards having a carbon-free home?

Two biggies are phantom loads and hanging up clothes to dry instead of using an electric dryer. Phantom loads are things like TVs and computers and also battery chargers that often are on standby and therefore partially on at all times. Using a power strip or motion-activated outlet to turn these things on or off when not in use can often reduce their power consumption by three-quarters. By one estimate, if people in the US were more conscientious about not having phantom loads, that would save enough electricy to power the continent of Australia. Folks often say that solar power is expensive and only for the wealthy, but much of our book is focused on things that both renters and homeowners can do that gives them access to renewable energy and also saves them money. Probably our favorite is hanging up clothes to dry on a solar clothes dryer instead of using a fossil-fuel powered dryer. For a typical household, installing one of these solar devices is roughly equivalent to installing $8-10,000 of solar electric panels.

Read the whole article on…


The Carbon Free Home is available in our bookstore.

The Hrens’ new book, A Solar Buyer’s Guide for the Home and Office, is available for pre-order now!

Divorce your Dryer and Court Your Clothesline!

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

Behold the classic domestic duos of the past: Ricki and Lucy. Ozzie and Harriet. Bennifer. Tom and Jerry. Bush and Cheney. And most important of all, not to mention the most seriously detrimental to human society—um, make that second most serious—the washer and the dryer.

Readers may doubt the importance of separating the latter, but a divorce must be arranged. The dryer, as it were, is an energy-sucking, money-vaporizing, obsolete object that has served its last purpose. Feel free to recycle it, make better use of it, or fill it with water and use as a pleasant place for baby ducks to frolic in your yard. But seriously, if you want to save money this summer, you may have to part with your Maytag and those handy BounceTM sheets, and embrace other ways to dry your clothes.

According to Stephen and Rebekah Hren, authors of The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit, throwing out your dryer is a wicked way to save money this summer.

From the book:

Electric clothes dryers are a colossal waste of energy. They often draw around 6,000 watts. Six thousand! This is more than a typical heat pump or electric water heater, usually thought of as the hogs of the household. Simply put, you should not use this appliance. Gas dryers are more efficient because they use no electric-resistant heat, but they can still draw around 720 watts. That’s a lot, equivalent to about 60 compact fluorescents (not to mention the energy of the gas). You should plan on getting rid of electric heat dryers and hopefully gas-fired dryers as well if your climate allows.

Solar clothes drying shows this energy source at its finest. It’s a great example of simplicity combined with effectiveness. Hang up something wet in the sun, come back in a few hours, and voilà, it’s dry, clean, and fresh smelling. Like everything, having the proper tools to access this resource goes a very long way in making sure it’s effective and easy to do. Some of this depends on your climate and your own personal habits. We realize some parts of the country have very little sun in the winter, but if you set aside a bit of room, even in a closet or a spare bedroom, clothes hung on racks will dry fairly quickly in a heated house.

Just for the record, I am not an eco-psycho. I am a recent convert to the drying rack, and I choose to keep it covered in wet clothes, by a breezy window facing the sun. Actually, to be honest, I was sort of forced to shun the electric dryer—my boyfriend won’t let me turn the damn thing on. He’s a better man than I, with weightier morals. So yesterday while he was out of town, I cheated. I gathered together a bundle of cut-offs, sweatpants, and dirty socks and thought, Oh yes. Now’s my time. I’m gonna get my clothes real warm and dry. But as I began to open our dryer (which I’m about to get rid of), I caught sight of the indoor drying rack, waiting in the sun. I remembered the last batch of laundry, and how it smelled like clean grass. I thought of my electric bill. About my rapidly depleting checking account. The choice, in the end, is actually pretty obvious, and after a couple times using solar drying techniques (clotheslines included), my lazy reflex wore off. I now see it as meditating and investing in my solvent future. Out it goes!

Here are some tips on solar drying from The Carbon-Free Home:

  • Retractable clothesline: An excellent tool for the space-constrained. These come in a variety of lengths and are very simple to install indoors or out. Consider putting these inside near a passive solar wall. The sun will dry the clothes and raise the humidity of the room in wintertime, making it more comfortable inside.
  • Indoor drying rack: Avoid the cheaper models, as they can fall apart rather quickly. These are generally collapsible and can stand alone or be wall-mounted. I recommend having at least two. Being able to place these in sun or near a woodstove will greatly speed up drying time in the winter.
  • Outdoor drying rack: If you’ve got the room outdoors, a permanent outdoor rack is a very effective method for drying clothes, even when the temperatures barely get above freezing. It requires some time to mount properly, but it should function well for decades.
  • Clothespins: These are a necessity and come in two varieties: split or spring. Determine your preference and make sure you have plenty. Hanging clothes from pins rather than folding them over the line greatly speeds drying time and greatly reduces the odds that any clothing will fall off and get dirty. Folding clothes generally means two sides of the clothing are not exposed to the air at all. This more than doubles drying times.

The Hrens’ award-winning book, The Carbon-Free Home is available in our bookstore.

Check out a recent rave review in the Durham News!

Will Anderson: The Carbon-Zero House Builder

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Eco-builder Will Anderson (Homes for a Changing Climate: Adapting Our Homes and Communities to Cope with the Climate of the 21st Century) built a home that actually produces more energy than it consumes. Anderson modeled his home after the tree that forms its central pillar: the tree regenerated new solar cells every year and shut down every winter. In short, it was adaptable. As a young architecture student, Anderson challenged himself to build a home on the same ecological principles.

From the Telegraph UK:

The philosophy of my house is based on the tree that was in the middle of the plot of land and now forms the building’s central pillar. Trees are the most miraculous, sustainable urban structures. They make new solar cells every year and shut down in winter. They are completely adapted to the climate; that’s how I wanted my house to be.

Including buying the land, the house cost us £500,000, but we haven’t compromised on design: it really is a bespoke house. We have no energy bills so it’s very cheap to run and I’m not planning on selling up any time soon.

Read the whole article here.

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Not the Last Straw: Straw Bale Homes Come Back in a Big Way

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

They’re incredibly energy-efficient, fire-resistant, quiet, and have a cozy, organic feel to them. They’re straw bale homes, and though building them fell out of fashion in the 1920s, they’re making a comeback.

One of the most appealing aspects of a straw bale home is that the bales themselves are made of a naturally occurring recycled material. Straw is the waste by-product of crops like rice, wheat, and barley. Rather than burning them and releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, straw bale builders are capturing and using the material.

From Mother Nature Network:

After carpenter ants literally ate Philip Higgs’ studio in Boulder, Colo., he decided to rebuild anew — only this time, with straw.

“I wanted to build something that was going to be efficient and use passive solar techniques so that it wouldn’t use a lot of energy,” says Higgs.

Higgs is hardly alone.

Straw has been used as an insulating material for many centuries, and many bale homes built in the 1800s still exist in the U.S. and Europe today. Though building with straw fell out of favor with consumers around the 1920s, straw bale buildings’ popularity has surged in the past 20 years.

The buildings are especially popular in drier areas such as California, Arizona and Mexico. They also can be built in more humid regions, with the proper precautions.

According to straw bale experts, the material is as pest-resistant and waterproof as wood framing. And, contrary to popular belief, straw bales are actually quite fire-resistant due to the tightness of the bales, which keeps out oxygen, a necessary component for fire.

One reason that straw bale buildings are incredibly energy efficient is because of their thick walls and tightly packed bales. One industry Web site claims that a typical straw bale wall is roughly three times as energy efficient as a conventional wall.

Building with straw bales also finds a use for what would otherwise be a waste material. Straw is the inedible stalk from crops like rice, wheat, barley and rye. Because the material doesn’t decompose quickly, farmers can’t simply plow the straw back into the ground, so instead they typically burn it, creating blackened skies and releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide.

Read the whole article here.


Celebrate the Winter Solstice by Using Windows to Heat Your Home

Monday, December 21st, 2009

By James Kachadorian, author of The Passive Solar House, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Complete Guide to Heating and Cooling Your Home

Most people think that solar heating involves some sort of complicated roof top add on feature to a home. In a passive solar home, windows are the primary means of collecting free solar energy. South faced windows are extremely efficient solar collectors. Clear dual glazed (double pane) windows allow up to 91% of the incident sunlight to pass through them. Once the sunlight is in the home and strikes an object, the sunlight turns to heat. The heat is then trapped in the house. This is referred to as the “greenhouse” effect. The greenhouse effect, as it relates to our planet, is written about extensively as a negative effect but the greenhouse effect is quite beneficial to a passive solar home. A passive solar home works without any mechanical assist; that is, a passive solar home collects solar heat and stores the heat for use when the sun goes down. The low angle of the winter sun “turns” vertical south faced windows “on” as solar collectors and the high angle of the sun in summer “turns off” south faced vertical glass in summer. Today is the winter solstice which means that the sun is at its lowest angle in the sky. At north latitude 40 degrees, a south faced window collects more than twice the amount of solar heat in December than it does in June. As can be seen in the solar home pictured, the low winter sun will penetrate the home 22’ at solar noon on December 21 and conversely will only penetrate inches in the same home at solar noon, June 21.

All the home owner has to is face the home true south and properly size the amount of south faced glass. Too much south faced glass will actually overheat a solar home in winter. Too little glass will make the home dark and cave like. The idea is to have just the right amount of glass for the size and location of the home.

We can expect a passive solar home to be about 50% efficient in northern New England and the 60 – 70% efficient in Virginia. This means that up to half the heat needs to come from another source. Recently wood pellet stoves have become a popular way to provide the balance of the heat needed in winter. Wood pellet stoves are an attractive option for several reasons:

  •   Wood pellets are made from wood products that normally go to waste.
  •   Wood pellets burn very clean and are a renewable source of energy.

The stove pictured has a rear hopper into which the pellets are loaded. The stove has two small electric blowers – One to circulate the heat and one to feed the pellets into the burn chamber.

Another nice advantage of the wood pellet stove is that it runs automatically. Slight disadvantages are that you can hear the small electric motors running and the stove does need electricity to run. A stove such as the one pictured will use about 100 watts an hour to run amounting to pennies a day in electrical cost. For those of you that are using my book, The Passive Solar House, to calculate the amount of wood pellets needed per season, select the wood back-up heat option on the included CD. Determine the number of cords of wood needed and multiply it by 2/3 to obtain the number of tons of wood pellets needed per season.

Malcolm Wells, Champion of “Gentle Architecture,” Dies at 83

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Malcolm Wells, a pioneer of underground building and natural design, has died.

Wells died of congestive heart failure in Brewster, Mass., home of the Underground Art Gallery where he resided. His theories of “gentle architecture,” influenced by an environmental awareness of the destructive footprints of man-made structures, would themselves influence generations of green builders to follow.

From the New York Times:

Malcolm Wells, an iconoclastic architect who tirelessly advocated environmentally responsible design and who promoted the idea of earth-sheltered architecture — that is, buildings at least partly underground — died Nov. 27 in Brewster, Mass., on Cape Cod. He was 83.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his son Sam said. Over the last decade his father had suffered a series of strokes, he said.

Bearded, affable, self-deprecating and appalled by the destructive footprint that buildings, roads and parking lots can leave on the earth, Mr. Wells was dedicated to what he called gentle architecture, something that would, as he put it, “leave the land no worse than you found it.”

Writing in Architectural Digest in 1971, he set forth 15 goals that he said all new buildings should strive to meet. Among them were to use and store solar energy, to consume their own waste, to provide wildlife habitat and human habitat, and to be beautiful.

To that end, his designs incorporated the land. He designed some homes (and other buildings) that seemingly burrowed into hillsides, and others whose main living space was subterranean, perhaps with above-ground lean-to roofs or atria and skylights to let in the sun. In general, his roofs were covered with layers of earth, suitable for gardens or other green growth.

Read the whole article here.

Photo: Jay Elliott

Passive Solar Technique: Let Nature Heat Your Home

Monday, November 9th, 2009

Homeowners are increasingly worried about their dependence on fossil fuels. They’re also more and more intrigued by the information about solar energy. Why? Because it saves money, benefits the planet, and makes for a comfortable house that requires little in the name of back-up fuel.

James Kachadorian, civil engineer and founder of Green Mountain Homes, has all the information a homeowner needs in order to implement a passive solar house. Read on!

The following is an excerpt from The Passive Solar House: The Complete Guide to Heating and Cooling Your Home by James Kachadorian. It has been adapted for the web.

During the summer of 1973, the U.S. economy was booming. We were all whizzing down the highway at 70 miles per hour, the legal speed limit. Gasoline was about 39 cents per gallon, and the posted price of Gulf crude oil was $2.59 per barrel. That year, my wife Lea and I had purchased a lovely old Vermont farmhouse, heated by a coal-stoking boiler that had been converted to oil. The base of this monster boiler was about three feet by six feet, and when it fired, it literally shook the house. We tapped our domestic hot water directly off the boiler, so we had to run the unit all four seasons: Every time we needed hot water, the boiler in the basement fired up. We were burning about 2,500 gallons of fuel oil each year, and in the coldest winter months, it was not unusual to get an oil delivery every two weeks.

Since we had no other way to heat our home, we were entirely dependent on the oil-gobbling monster, and on our biweekly oil deliveries to survive the Vermont winter. Our only alternative source of heat was an open fireplace. Though aesthetically pleasing, the fi replace actually took more heat out of the house than it gave off.

At that time, I was the vice president and general manager of a prefabricated post-and-beam home operation. Like others, I shared the industry opinion that the heating contractor’s job was to install the heating system that the homeowner wanted. As designers and home producers, we were not responsible for that part of new home construction. Home building plans were typically insensitive to the position of the sun. Our prefabricated home packages were labeled simply “front, back, right side, left side,” not “south, east, west, north.” We offered little or no advice on siting, except that we needed enough room to get a tractor-trailer to the job site.

To give you an idea how little energy effi ciency was considered in 1973 in house design (an area of home construction that has since received enormous attention), our homes had single glazed windows and patio doors; R-13 wall and R-20 roof insulation were considered more than adequate. (“R” is the thermal resistance of any housing component; a high R-value means a higher insulating value. Today’s homes typically have much higher R-values.) Homeowners in the 1970s rarely asked about the R-values of their home components, and our sales discussions were less about energy efficiency than about how the house would look and whether it would have vaulted ceilings.

The point is, we were not yet approaching the task of design and construction in an integrated, comprehensive way. We had not yet recognized that all aspects of a design must be coordinated, and that every member of the design team, including the future resident, needs to be thinking about how the home will be heated from the first moment they step onto the site.


In 1973, an international crisis forever changed the way Americans thought about home heating costs. After Israel took Jerusalem in the “Six Day War,” Arab oil-producing nations became increasingly frustrated with the United States’ policy toward Israel. In the fall of 1973, these oil-producing nations began to utilize oil pricing and production as a means to influence international policy. In October 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) met and unilaterally raised oil prices 70 percent. The impact of this price hike on U.S. homeowners who heated with oil was spectacular. Fuel oil prices soared.

Then the oil embargo hit. In November 1973, all Arab oil-producing states stopped shipping oil to the United States. By December 1973, the official OPEC member-price was $11.65 per barrel—a whopping 450 percent increase from the $2.59-per-barrel price of the previous summer. Iran reported receiving bids as high as $17.00 per barrel, which translated to $27.00 per barrel in New York City.

In addition to giant price increases, oil supplies became uncertain and the United States, which depended on foreign oil for fully half its consumption, was facing the real possibility of fuel rationing for the first time since World War II.

Richard Nixon was president, and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, spent most of that winter in what was termed “shuttle diplomacy,” racing from country to country attempting to bring a resolution to the crisis. He didn’t succeed until March 18, 1974, when the embargo against the United States was lifted. It had lasted five months.

As the international oil crisis was played out over those five months, every oil delivery to our home was marked by a price increase, invariably without notice. Worse, our supplier could not assure delivery. My wife and I had two small children, an energy dinosaur of a house, and no other way to keep warm but to burn huge amounts of oil. We couldn’t even “escape” to a warmer climate, because there were long lines at the gasoline pumps. We had never felt so dependent on others as we did that winter. It was plain scary!

We have done a little better recently, as today only one-fourth of U.S. oil comes from OPEC. Most imports come from more stable Western sources, and are so diversifi ed that a full-scale war in the Persian Gulf in 1991 caused
no gas lines at home. However, we are still over 50 percent dependent on foreign oil sources.

All the concerns about energy seem to have reached a boiling point in September and October 2005. Back-to-back hurricanes in the Gulf region of the United States crippled our refining and fuel distribution capabilities, and oil and propane gas soared to new record highs.


I have a background in engineering, and the energy crisis of 1973–1974 provided an incentive for me to investigate solar heating. It was obvious to me that as a country, we had forgotten the basics of good energy management. I just knew that there must be a better way to design and build houses that would capture the sun’s heat and work in harmony with nature. I also have a background in business, and I realized that the energy crisis had opened up a market ready for new ideas about how to heat homes. The energy crisis had shaken us all into action.

The years immediately following the 1970s energy crisis saw a remarkable emergence of new ideas about solar energy. Solar conferences were held, and the public was treated to frequent articles that described new solar home designs in popular magazines. The results of this collective effort were largely positive. Many new ideas were tested. Some succeeded, and others failed, but building specifications focused on energy efficiency developed during that time have now become standard practice. For example, double-pane high-performance glass is now used almost universally in windows and patio doors. Standard wall insulation is now R-20. That was previously the roof standard; standard roof insulation is now R-32. The science of vapor barriers took huge leaps forward, and highly effective vapor barriers are now standard. Exterior house wraps, such as Typar and Tyvek, are applied on most new construction to tighten up air leaks. Appliances are now more energy efficient. Heating systems have undergone major improvements. These days, it is even common for “smart houses” to monitor lighting and to turn lamps and heating equipment on and off according to need. In sum, we are now building better energy-efficient houses, in large part due to the wake-up call we got in the winter of 1973–1974.


WATCH: The Blue Vinyl Trailer

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

UPDATE: It was just pointed out to me by one of our FaceBook fans that Blue Vinyl isn’t exactly new. A quick IMDB search confirms it’s from 2002. To which I say, what the hell! It’s new to me!

PS: Keep on keeping us honest, FaceBook fans. Community involvement is our bread and butter.


I just watched the trailer for Blue Vinyl, a new documentary about the polyvinyl chloride industry and one woman’s quest to replace this ubiquitous, toxic building material with natural alternatives—beginning with the vinyl siding on her parents’ house.

Look closely and you’ll see at least two Chelsea Green books prominently displayed at a conference of green builders: The Rammed Earth House and The Straw Bale House. Just goes to show you, when it comes to green building, we’re on the cutting edge.

Not that I’m bragging or anything. I’m just saying.

Oh, go watch the trailer.


Related articles:

Aging Self Sufficiently: In Your Own Home

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

How many people do you know, who are worried about their aging parents? Or maybe you’re an aging person yourself. In this economic climate, it’s so scary to think about caring for loved ones–not to mention ourselves–when the money’s run out. Worse still, the burden an aging parent must fear they’re bestowing upon their kids. But when it comes down to it, everyone wants to retain their independence, no matter how old. And there are ways we can, thankfully, that do not involve a nursing home.

From PlanetGreen:

Let’s be honest: in modern U.S. culture, we don’t necessarily respect old age. I mean, yes—we visit grandma. But how many people do you know whose grandparents (or parents), once they hit a certain age, are sent to assisted living centers? Granted, everyone’s trying to get by, make their money, put food on their kids’ tables, but it seems like nursing homes are the most common answer to “what should I do with my aging parents?” —at least for those who can afford it. But it doesn’t have to be; there is a way for your aging loved ones to stay safe and independent in their own home, as they age.

According to Adelaide Altman, author of ElderHouse: Staying Safe and Independent in Your Own Home As You Age:

Science has shown that successful aging depends on good lifetime habits; to a lesser extent, good genes; and, to an increasingly greater extent, an environment favorable to your physical and emotional selves. Your own home is of primary importance, and deserves more than a random pile of mental promissory notes: you will fix those steps…you will do something about that kitchen…you will install a grab bar in the bathtub. Prepare now for future safety, accessibility, and comfort, for yourself and those who matter to you. And do it now.

Someone in their 60s recently said to me: “I don’t want it to get to the point of being too late.” According to her, one never knows what can happen. Instead of waiting for her health to deteriorate, or for a fall to disable her, she’s taking her life into her own hands. She’s considering ways to downsize her house, and make more manageable her possessions and responsibilities, so that her kids are not the bearers of her burdens. But they’re not about to put her in a home—one, because they can’t afford the expense, and two because she’s a free-spirited woman who loves life, and values her independence. For as long as possible, she’s going to do it on her own. [...]

Read the entire article here.

Why Build With Straw Bale?

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Haven’t you ever wondered, what IS a straw bale house?

The following is an excerpt from Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates by Paul Lacinski and Michael Bergeron. It has been adapted for the web.


Why are bales a good choice in a cold climate? Can bale walls be designed to withstand the vagaries of weather in the snow belt? These are questions we’ve been asking of ourselves for a good many years, and they have now become the guiding questions behind this book. To begin at the beginning, however, we must ponder this question of why. The idea of building a wall of bales seems to entice people’s imaginations. Why bales? We have come to believe that people are searching for alternatives to the plywood palace, to the modular mentality that has come to dominate the mainstream construction industry. Most new houses today are made of the same materials: machined sticks and sheets of wood, plastic, metal, and gypsum. They are usually assembled according to the same set of principles, so that once you’ve built a few, they get pretty boring. Except for that small percentage in which a designer, owner, or builder puts some real thought into creating a form and finish that suits the owner and the site, these houses somehow feel the same.

There are three main reasons that straw bale construction is different. First of all, bale walls look very different from sheetrock walls. They look like the product of a human, rather than the product of a machine. Though bales are a new material (which makes design work challenging and fun), the feel of the finished wall harkens back to the preindustrial era. It seems that as our lives become increasingly technological, more and more people want to surround themselves with spaces that feel handmade and timeless.

Process is the second reason. Conventional construction is mathematical and precise, while bales and plaster are sloppy and intuitive. These characteristics are inviting to amateur builders, not only because they make bale construction easy to learn, but because they stand in contrast to the obsessive efficiency that most of us have had to accept as a part of the industrial economy. People see bale construction as a chance to cut loose.

Third, bale construction feels like an alternative to ecological waste. It’s akin to recycling. Recycling enjoys broad support across the political spectrum, because it’s obvious, it’s easy, and it gives people a sense that they can at least do something that is not harmful to the planet. While our agriculture is far from perfect, it does produce a lot of straw, so using some of it for construction makes intuitive sense.

Bruce Millard, a thoughtful architect from Sandpoint, Idaho, has developed this idea about building with bales a bit further. “Once people try this type of construction, they absorb it and agree with it, and begin to recognize it as a concept, as a psychological departure from the idea that industry is somehow more sophisticated than nature. It brings the left and the right together; it functions as a stepping block into an ecological way of building and living. People begin to ask, ‘How can I put this to work in the rest of my life?’”

Bruce sees the bale itself as a short-lived material. “We will soon realize that straw is very valuable—it will start going into particleboard and panelized materials, and it might be mixed with wood fiber for paper production.” Bruce uses the bale as an introduction to a whole array of recycled-content panels and blocks.

Bales also tend to serve as an introduction to traditional natural building techniques from around the world, all of which have much longer track records than the bale itself. Loose straw has been used for millennia in combination with clay and sand, for everything from plasters to load-bearing walls. Five-hundred-year-old examples of straw and clay infill are still in use in Germany, and this material has actually been rewetted and put back into wall cavities during restoration. Thatch makes a beautiful, durable, insulative roof. These and other techniques must be explored and developed if we are to continue to create decent housing for future generations on this planet. (See chapter 15, “Beyond the Bale.”)

Why Build a House of Straw Bales?

“Didn’t you learn anything from the first little pig?”

A mouthful of oatmeal and an earful of propaganda against building with straw; many of us were spoon-fed this breakfast throughout our childhoods. How is it, then, that perfectly sane people can consider living in a house whose walls are bales of straw? Maybe urbanization, suburbanization, and the decrease in the North American wolf population has lulled them into a sense of complacency about this domestic predator. Or maybe bales make such unusual walls that many of us are just willing to take the risk.


The most compelling among many reasons to build with bales is the quiet beauty of bale walls. Unlike walls of panelized materials, which require layers of ornamentation to bring life to their unnaturally uniform surfaces, bale walls look and feel as if they were made by hand. Their deep windowsills and gentle undulations lend a comfortably safe, quiet feeling to the interior of a home, while the plaster finish softly gathers and reflects light, changing in subtle ways as the sun shifts through each day and season. The effect is a heightened connection between indoor and outdoor worlds, an especially important relationship in climates where people spend a good part of the year inside buildings.

“We fell in love with the deep windowsills and rounded corners.”
“I like the massive feel, and the flexibility, of the bales; you can do anything with them, curvy or straight.”
“The house has a solid, embracing feeling, like it has its arms wrapped around me.”

Paul often describes bale walls as “plastered stone for the person of moderate means.” This is not to imply that bale walls don’t have a character of their own, which they certainly do; the point is that the massive, rounded feel of the bale wall is reminiscent of the old-world solidity of stone. (Bale walls also offer far more insulation value than stone walls, but we’ll get to that later.) Part of the appeal of bale buildings is that they just feel safe. Storms can be howling outside, or cars roaring along a nearby highway at twice the reasonable rate, and after the (good-quality) door clicks shut on a straw bale house, you will find yourself in near total silence. This sort of quiet allows the home to act as a refuge for the psyche; a place where the senses can escape the busy din of the postindustrial world.

Insulation Value

Straw bale houses may look and feel like plastered stone or earth houses, but they are in a different thermal category, entirely. Old stone houses are cold. New stone houses are typically built with foam insulation, either sandwiched between two independent stone walls, or blown onto the inside face of the stone. Both of these methods are quite expensive. Plastered bales, on the other hand, provide a highly insulative wall at a price that is competitive with quality conventional construction. [...]

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