March 6, 2011 in Features

Built with straw, Boise home saves owner plenty of green

Anna Webb Idaho Statesman
 

BOISE – After a year in his straw-bale home on Boise Avenue, Mark Lung says the house has saved him money, conserved resources, provided a comfortable environment through four seasons and convinced its owners, and maybe a few visitors, that straw has life far beyond the fields.

“I can’t imagine living in anything else. Straw is amazing,” says Lung, a former professor of natural sciences who grew up in Boise.

Built with 240 bales of straw harvested from Meridian, Idaho, fields – plus a stucco made of dirt, sand and pigment to color the walls blue, gold and moss green – Lung’s residence looks like a traditional home, albeit one with an American Southwest sensibility.

Certain elements are standard in the 1,900-square-foot house: doors, windows, the roof. Only the walls are mud and straw.

But the house is anything but traditional when it comes to the money it saves Lung and his family.

Their energy costs for the entire year? About $500.

“We gambled that we wouldn’t need A/C, and didn’t put it in,” Lung says.

It was a good bet. He ran the numbers last summer: While temperatures outside were swinging between 54 and 95 degrees, inside it was a comfortable 69 to 74 degrees.

Unlike walls in a traditional home, which are about six inches thick, a straw-bale wall is 18 to 23 inches thick, providing greater insulation against winter cold, summer heat and sound.

Lung also paid attention to how the house is oriented. Large windows on the south side help warm the house. Inside, warm air rises to a loft. A ceiling fan helps move the warm air to the back of the house through carefully positioned holes in the loft walls.

An additional detail: Lung made the holes in the loft walls line up with a row of skylights in the roof. When the sun shines in January, the rays beam all the way through to the back of the house.

Lung lived in a straw-bale house in Gunnison, Colo., before moving back to Idaho. He didn’t plan on being a straw evangelist, but the house has attracted a lot of attention in its first year.

He estimates 600 people, including students, architects, fans of sustainability and “random” others have toured his house so far. The house even won a special excellence award from the city for green building.

Not only was the Lung house “grown by a Meridian farmer,” as he says, it makes good use of straw, a waste product after grain is harvested.

“They like to say that ‘hay is for horses, straw is for houses,’ ” Lung says.

Lung’s builder, Ron Hixson from the local company Earthcraft, says he’s built a second straw-bale house this year. He recently received three calls from potential clients interested in building with straw.

Hixson says he was skeptical of straw-bale housing at first. Straw may be cheaper than traditional building materials, but labor costs – the hours it takes to carve the bales with chainsaws once they’re assembled, applying numerous layers of mud plaster – can add up.

“The whole time I was building I was looking at the negatives,” Hixson says. “I kept thinking, ‘I could build a double wall here, fill it with insulation and just get it done.’ ”

But the livability of straw won him over.

“The feeling of a straw-bale house isn’t always definable on paper,” says Hixson. “If you’re a person oriented towards finding peace of mind by being outside, taking a hike, then living in a straw-bale home is more in that realm.”

He’s been building for 40 years, including in the Arizona desert, where dense materials like adobe, concrete and cinder blocks help keep buildings cool.

“We have high desert conditions in Idaho, too, but cold is more of an issue here,” he says.

The cellular structure of straw-bale, as opposed to the solid mass of adobe and similar materials, provides better insulation against cold, making it better for Idaho.

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