CONSTRUCTION & DEVELOPMENT: Interest building in straw bale homes

In the fairy tale, the straw house was the first to get blown down by the wolf. But in reality, homes constructed with straw can be as durable as brick.

Concerns about our environment and our dwindling natural resources are causing many to research and build using alternative methods of home construction. Straw bale home construction is one such method in the growing trend to live “gently upon the Earth.”

Keith Breuker constructed his own straw bale home in Benzie County and has been living in it for nearly a year. He also conducts workshops on straw bale building techniques.

“We needed a house and had rented for a long time,” he said. “We looked around and didn’t see what we liked, so we decided to build our own and to build as environmentally-friendly as we could. My wife, Deborah Poineau, talked me into the whole idea. I am an engineer by trade and was pretty skeptical of the whole thing.”

Breuker started by researching, and then they both attended a workshop in Tucson, Ariz. in 1997.

“We decided at the clinic to build a new home,” he says.

Climate was a big consideration. Many straw bale homes have been built in Arizona, New Mexico and California. Would the climate here in northern Michigan be suitable? This question was a major consideration, but then Breuker found out about a straw bale home in Nova Scotia that had been maintained for several years without any climate problems.

Straw bale construction is basically used for making the walls of the home, stacking bales of straw in the same manner as one would stack bricks. There are a couple of different techniques. Breuker reinforced the bales by compressing them from top to bottom with strapping material, then tying together bamboo poles, which have been placed inside and out, with twine. This process makes the walls stiff. The interior and exterior are plastered with adobe, a mixture of clay, sand and chopped straw, and then coated with a clear protectant.

“Our siding is the adobe plaster,” explains Breuker. “We have a regular shingle roof and have insulated the ceiling with blown-in cellulose.”

The straw bale acts as insulation for both heat and sound.

“I don’t hear people driving up until they knock on the door,” says Breuker. “We have a fair amount of south-facing windows, enough to heat the house in the winter when the sun is out.”

When the sun is not out, they use a small propane space heater. In the summer, the house stays naturally cool. There is no visible straw. For flooring, they chose an earthen floor, a mixture of clay, sand and gravel, which has been treated with several coats of linseed oil to make it hard.

Judy Cunningham, a resident of Manistee County, is in the process of building her own straw bale home. Six years ago she helped some friends build a straw bale cottage.

“It was a community project–very exciting! It really impressed me,” she said. “In 1996, I found some property and in 1997 started building.”

She drew up plans herself. Cunningham does not see it as just building a house, but as a whole way of living. She plans alternative water and energy systems, as well.

“We need to change the way we live. I wanted to design a way to live that doesn’t waste resources and energy, then to share it. It is not only better for the earth, but better for you, too.”

She had a builder put up the frame, roof and build a foundation. The square footage outside will be 840, and 675 inside. The walls take up 18 feet all around. Cunningham will also have a lot of south-facing windows and will be powered by solar energy.

The outer layer of her home will be a lime plaster for weather proofing and protection. Her yearly maintenance will include painting a wash of lime and paint over the outside.

“Lime is a good insect and mold repellent,” explains Cunningham.

She designed a square house, rather than rectangular, which has the least amount of outdoor exposure and a more efficient heating system.

“I’m a city girl and have lived in apartments all my life. If I can do it, anybody in this world can do it,” she says.

Some may worry about fire, moisture and/or infestation in a home made out of straw bales. Breuker says fire is the least of the worries, as a plastered straw bale is extremely fire resistant when properly done. Infestation has also not been known to be a problem, as long as a good plaster job is done.

“It is important to pay attention to the details,” Breuker declares. Moisture is the one serious consideration. “You’ve got to keep them dry,” says Breuker, who built moisture sensors into the walls to track moisture content.

If you’re interested in learning more about straw bale home construction, several clinics are on tap for this summer. Judy Cunningham will be hosting a clinic May 20-21. For information or to register, call 882-2157 or 889-4860. Otherwise, contact the Eco Learning Center at 620-4775 for a workshop schedule. BIZNEWS