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Building a House of Straw
By Leif Enger
October 7, 1997

Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Remember the house of straw? Built by a hasty and foolish piglet, blown down with ease by a hungry wolf - the straw house was a warning to us all. Well, in fact, it turns out straw makes a pretty good house. Nebraska farmers knew it a century ago, and now houses made of straw bales are making a revival that's reached from New Mexico to New Zealand to Northern Minnesota.
SFX: Bale thumping into place, rustle rustle; Mark saying: "This wall here needs to be closed up. (rustle) It itches, but it's not as bad as fiberglass. I've insulated with fiberglass before, and it's miserable."
Mark and Liz Ames never thought they'd build a house from the ground up. But as others have found, there's something about straw bales that makes you think you can do it. Didn't you play with blocks as a kid? Or Legos?
Mostly we stack horizontally, but some places like this we have to go vertical. And sometimes we have to get the sledgehammer out, do a little fine tuning.
The Ames house sits on 70 acres of woods and pasture half an hour west of Duluth. With its green metal roof and half-log siding, it doesn't look like straw from the outside. But go on in: the ten-foot walls are light dry bales - nothing special, just everyday straw hauled in by a local farmer for two bucks a bale. Dimensional lumber supports the roof and frames the doors and windows. Straw dust hangs in the barn-like rafters; the place smells like a barn, minus the manure.
At first we estimated that it would take 600 bales. I think we actually overestimated. We put about 400 in. It has to be dry - you don't want to put bales in your walls that are moldy and musty and unpleasant.
Several years ago the Ames built a traditional house in the suburbs. It cost $120,000. This one will cost under $40,000 - though the savings, they point out, are in labor, not materials. For the Ames, straw was a practical means to a simpler life - Liz's nursing job in Duluth supports them financially, while Mark home-schools the kids.
Mark: We really want to focus on the things that are more meaningful in life; on relationships with people, on time to be together, on being able to do things together as a family. And the more weighed down with debt and the more cluttered life gets, the harder it is to do that.

SFX: straw being tossed around, conversation and laughing in background.

Though straw houses are scarce in Minnesota - there are probably fewer than ten - they have plenty of history elsewhere. After the steam baler was invented in the 1890s, farmers on the plains found squares of compressed straw could be stacked and plastered to make permanent, load-bearing walls. Straw was cheap, and often more available than wood. In Nebraska straw bales were used to build homes, stores, churches. Some have stood long enough to witness a revival of their kind.
Stetson: In the last year it's just exploded. I get twenty, thirty phone calls a day and they come from New Zealand, Australia, everywhere. I can't keep up with it any more.
John Stetson is the owner of Out on Bale by Mail - a Tucson Arizona company selling plans and materials for straw-bale houses. The bale resurgence is strongest in the Southwest, where hundreds of homes have gone up the past few years and building codes have been changed to accommodate them. Stetson and other self-labeled "baleheads" say the world is discovering what Nebraskans have known for a hundred years: that straw-bale homes are inexpensive, warm in winter and cool in summer, and quiet, as you might expect from a house with walls almost two feet thick. Never ask a balehead if this might be a fad - the geodesic dome of the 90s.
Stetson: Well, if this is a fad, then so is being environmentally conscious. So is saving money on your heating and cooling bills. It's a tremendous savings, you know, we're talking 80 percent savings on your heating and cooling costs. We're talking R45 to R55 insulation factors, which is amazing.

SFX: Electric drill, laying up the old sheetrock

Mark Ames - laying up sheetrock - tempers the balehead ardor. Yes, they expect to save money on heat. But straw-bale construction is unproved in Minnesota's cold, moist climate. Moisture is Ames' chief worry: if the straw gets wet and isn't allowed to dry, it'll rot - "Got to have breathable walls," he says. Another worry: they still haven't found an insurance company willing to cover a straw-bale home. And one more worry: winter's coming. He and Liz and four young boys are living in a 17-foot travel trailer until this place is done. Eleven-year-old John says it's like sleeping in an oven.
Would you guys ever build another house of straw?

John, 11: Mmm, no. I think I'd go with traditional stick construction.

Caleb, six: Yeah, that's what I would go!

John: Just make it out of wood, it's less work.

Mark: There are days when we've felt like lighting a match to the whole thing - ha ha ha - but as we step back and get perspective, we're still glad we've built with bales. And the proof will be in the pudding: come January, when it's forty below, we'll see just how comfortable it is.

Straw-bale homeowner Mark Ames. Workshops teaching bale construction are being planned for next summer in Minnesota and Wisconsin.