Just two years ago, straw-bale construction was still so exotic that most Washington building inspectors wouldn’t OK the technique for new homes.
Now, thanks to well-documented success stories from around the country, local officials not only have approved construction of the first straw-bale house in Spokane, the city agreed to finance it.
The foundation, posts and roof are already in place at 2527 E. Eighth. The fun begins Saturday morning, when 30 volunteers begin stacking 50-pound bales to create 18-inch-thick walls that, once stuccoed, will be energy-efficient, sound proof and even fire-resistant.
Anyone curious about straw-bale construction is invited to attend a free slide presentation by Ted Butchard of GreenFire Institute this evening at 6:30 at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 4340 W. Fort George Wright Drive. Butchard, a Winthrop, Wash.-based designer, has taught numerous straw-bale workshops and will supervise this weekend’s wall-raising.
Though no more volunteers are needed, the public is invited to stop by the site and watch between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. (To avoid traffic congestion, visitors are asked to park their vehicles at the East Central Community Center, 500 S. Stone, or at Underhill Playground, Hartson and Regal, and walk several blocks to the site.)
Spearheading the city’s first straw-bale project is the Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs (SNAP), a non-profit agency dedicated to providing safe, decent, affordable housing.
SNAP project coordinator Julie Dhatt says the idea of building a demonstration straw-bale house was first discussed three years ago, “but funders weren’t open to the idea back then,” she says.
Then last fall, Margy Hall of the Washington Rural Communities Network began pursuing the concept as a way to generate demand for an agricultural byproduct - straw left over from wheat and blue-grass harvests - and things began falling into place.
Dhatt and others put together a thick packet of information to convince SNAP board members to back the proposal. City building officials were invited to participate. And Sandpoint architect Bruce Millard, an enthusiastic proponent of alternative building materials and methods, offered his design services.
The city agreed to provide a $65,000 deferred-interest loan using federal housing money. (The balance of the project budget - about $13,600 - includes donated materials and volunteer labor.) In return, SNAP will share information about straw-bale construction, and rent the home to low-income families for the next 30 years.
As word spread this spring that a straw-bale house was going up, volunteers came forward. Some, like Dhatt, are interested in straw’s potential to meet the region’s growing need for affordable, energy-efficient low-income housing. Others hope to build their own straw-bale houses, and see this as an opportunity to gain hands-on knowledge.
Straw-bale construction isn’t new. The technique was used successfully a century ago in parts of Nebraska where trees were scarce and the soil was too sandy for sod construction. In Europe, straw houses built 300 years ago still stand.
The current straw-bale renaissance began in the Southwest earlier this decade, helped along by publication of “The Straw Bale House” (Chelsea Green, $30) and the launching of several newsletters and Web sites.
Straw-bale pioneer Matts Myhrman publishes a quarterly journal called The Last Straw and owns the consulting firm Out On Bale (the fledgling industry suffers no shortage of puns). Myhrman has shared his message (including, occasionally, a song titled “Bale House Rock”) with mainstream America on “CBS This Morning,” “This Old House” and other national programs.
Several features explain straw bales’ appeal. They’re easy to build with - just impale the bottom row on steel bars sticking out of the foundation, then stack subsequent tiers like you would bricks. More rods are driven through upper bales to secure them, and, after wiring is installed by electricians, the walls are sealed with stucco or plaster.
Bales provide more than twice the insulation required by building codes, and the thick walls’ earthy, textured finish creates a cozy ambiance.
Since there’s almost no air inside the walls, they are less susceptible to fire than conventional wood structures. Nor are rodents, bugs or fungi a problem.
There are drawbacks, of course. Getting insurance and a bank loan can be difficult with any unorthodox home, and resale may be challenging.
But what’s really hurt the movement, says straw-bale advocate Dale Norton, is the inaccurate perception that building with straw is so much cheaper than using lumber.
Norton, who lives in a straw house north of Spokane and has been approached by several people interested in building with bales, says few articles about straw construction convey the value of donated labor. When owners’ and volunteers’ hours are calculated in dollars, straw-bale houses cost just as much as conventional residences.
The real payback, Norton says, comes from years of comfortable, healthy, energy-efficient living.
That’s what SNAP is counting on, says Dhatt.
“This project is a 30-year commitment,” she says, “so we’re very concerned with long-term costs like heating and maintenance. Those will kill you over the long haul.”
While straw-filled walls are a big part of what will distinguish SNAP’s new house on east Eighth Avenue, there are other innovative design features, too.
For starters, there’s something called a frost-protected shallow foundation that is less expensive than traditional foundations, since it only goes 18 inches deep - half the minimum depth of a conventional foundation - and can be poured without footings.
Part of the 1,000-square-foot floor will be covered with earth-and-cement pavers made by volunteers on-site, and the home may be heated by radiant floor heat.
Compact fluorescent lights and low-flow plumbing fixtures will reduce utility costs.
Outside will be compost bins and a vegetable garden.
Dhatt contributed the handsome fir posts that support the front-porch roof. She found the wood washed ashore in the San Juan Islands during a recent camping trip, and hauled it back to Spokane.
Those sturdy posts, coupled with deep window sills, a hip roof and 30-inch eaves, create a solid-looking structure with a feeling of permanence.
“We could have gone cheaper,” says architect Millard. “A gable would have saved money.
Eliminating the porch would have saved money.
“But we’re trying not to do a cheap-looking house. We want a straw house that looks good and works well with the neighborhood.”
“I definitely think this is a landmark project,” says Dhatt, “especially for Spokane. We’re opening the door for other building techniques to be tried, and to rethink the definition of affordable housing.
“We’ve already heard from the city that smaller jurisdictions are saying, ‘Well, if Spokane approved a straw-bale house, it must be OK.”’
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos Illustration by Bruce Millard
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: VOLUNTEERS NEEDED Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs maintains more than 150 affordable shelters, but the straw-bale house at 2527 E. Eighth is the first SNAP residence built with volunteer labor. Sixty volunteers will help stack 350 straw bales into walls this weekend. Later, apprentice plumbers, electricians and carpenters will finish the interior, and the Spokane Home Builders Association will provide cabinets. But volunteers are still needed for plastering and stucco crews. Among the buildng materials still needed are plasterboard, new plumbing fixtures, metal roofing, appliances, compact fluorescent light fixtures, concrete, window coverings, countertops and lumber. If you wish to donate time or materials to the straw-bale project, contact SNAP at 532-6225.