If you build a home of straw, will you end up like the first of the three little pigs – in misadventure? Not anymore. Straw bale homes are sturdy, permanent and have a high insulation value, which helps with energy conservation. In this Our Northwest Home feature, Mary Hawkins learns about building and living off-the-grid in a straw bale home.
Hawkins: Deb McKinnon is an ER doctor in Moscow, Idaho. Her husband, Tom Ordway is an equestrian trainer and official. They moved from Maine to the Palouse with their 2 sons in the 90s and bought a 100 acre parcel of land in Princeton, Idaho. They wanted to put their environmental values into action.
McKinnon: You’re going to say you’re an environmentalist. It’s easy. Talk is cheap. But what isn’t cheap is doing it and making it work and showing people that it can work.
Hawkins: The horses needed accomodation – so first they dug a well and built a barn. For power, they chose wind over solar, along with a backup diesel generator. Power storage is a bank of forklift batteries. Permits were a challenge, because building codes were not in place for post and beam infill.
McKinnon: I think it was about $15,000 worth of permits and codes and getting this engineer to talk with that engineer – to analyze this and that. I paid some engineer 300 dollars to analyze a bolt.
And then there was worry about the fire code. Well, bales don’t really burn. They’re very compact. You can hardly make a straw bale burn with [like] a torch – because they’re too compact. And these are sealed in stucco – cement inside and out.
Hawkins: Post and beam infill structures are framed with timber, as opposed to load-bearing straw bale buildings. After the structure is framed, the roof goes on. Then the structure is in-filled with bales. In the cement of the foundation, rebar is installed and bales are added.
McKinnon: So the first bale goes “chh” into the rebar in the cement. The next couple of bales, you drive a piece of rebar down through. It’s quite stable. You have these metal cross bars every so often. It’s got mesh wherever the bales and the wood mesh meet. And I think on the outside, we may have put chicken wire over the whole thing just [claps twice] to help it adhere a little bit more.
Hawkins: They tried hand-stuccoing their pumphouse.
McKinnon: …and it was clear quickly that was not the way to go. That it was going to take us the rest of our natural lives.
Hawkins: So they hired a crew to come and blow stucco over their structure.
McKinnon and Ordway installed heating coils in their cement floors, which were stained to look like tiles. She’s not crazy about the in-floor heating, because it doesn’t respond quickly. She often will fire up the woodstove in their living room to take the chill out of the air.
The home is spacious and colorful, with simple furnishings and decorations. Their kitchen, bathrooms and laundry rooms contain conventional appliances. They have satellite television and internet. Except for the two windmills, you would know that the place is not on the grid.
McKinnon: When my son lived here we had every video game known to man. We have satellite TV. The key is unplugging the darn things – new or old – will save you more power than anything else.
Hawkins: Standby or trickle power will quickly drawdown a well of batteries, so shutting down power after using an appliance is a habit in McKinnon’s home. If Deb McKinnon were building now, she’d do a few things differently. She would install a grey-water system. She would build a one-story home for ease of construction. Without soccer-playing sons in the picture she’d install solar panels, although her windmills have been very reliable so far. She would also install her generator a little closer to the house to save power. Winters so far from town have proved isolating and make commuting hard. So last winter, McKinnon and Ordway moved their horses, dogs and cats to a small place in Lewiston. She was able to more easily care for her animals and meet with friends.
McKinnon: I like to do things and I don’t want to not go to town because it’s a forty minute drive on a winter night. I want to be able to call a cab when I’m 80 and still go.
Hawkins: Posted right now on Our Northwest is a twelve minute video, which include lots of shots of the construction process as well as footage of the interior of their home. Go to N-W-P-R dot org and click on “Our Northwest”. I’m Mary Hawkins.