Building bale by bale
August 24, 2004
The scene was reminiscent of a barn-raising, but without the barn.There were, however, plenty of straw bales around, but they weren’t used to feed cows. Rather, they were used to raise the walls of a Donner Lake home on a recent Saturday. About 20 volunteers toted around the bales of rice straw that lay by the hundreds on the home’s unfinished floor.The walls of the two-story house went up foot by foot, straw bale by straw bale.The home is the future abode of Justin and Gia States and is the first of its kind in Truckee. The roof structure and floors are made using traditional wood framing, but the interior walls are stacks of rice straw bales, a natural byproduct of the rice farming industry that has high insulative value.
The States are completing a quiet, energy efficient structure, thanks to a building material that has been used in building for hundreds of years. And now the technique is experiencing a surprising renaissance within the country’s green building movement. Straw-bale construction is progressive, but old; alternative, yet traditional: It’s old-school and cutting edge all at the same time. Constructing houses out of straw first gained popularity in the United States around the turn of the century with the invention of the baling machine. Historians point to northwestern Nebraska as the likely genesis of the country’s’ straw-bale building, as hay was used as a substitute for lumber on the plains. The oldest existing straw bale home is the 1903 Burke homestead, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and ,at over 100 years old, still withstands the ravages of northern prairie weather.In Nevada County, building with straw has a much shorter history. Shawn Blue, a friend of the States, was at Donner Lake on Saturday helping with the construction. He built what he believes was the first straw-bale house in Nevada County in 1996, just off of state Route 20 near Grass Valley. A year and a half ago, Shawn and his wife Lisa built their own straw-bale home in Nevada City.”It’s an extreme difference,” said Blue. “You wake up in the morning and you’re barely dressed and you don’t feel the cold at all.”
As somewhat of a pioneer of the idea in the area, he is glad to see the building method catching on.”The whole county seems to be very much more receptive to the idea now,” said Blue. “It’s not so alternative now that everybody is doing it.”The straw cuts out the high and low temperatures in the interior of the house, and also deadens outside noise, providing a very effective sound barrier for houses near freeways or train tracks, said Blue.Gar Duke, Gia State’s brother who helped design the house, said that the straw provides two or three times the insulation of a normal home, and is much less flammable than average insulation if used correctly. You can also be creative in shaping the interior of the house with straw, he noted.”It’s a lot more malleable to work with,” said Duke, who has a Master’s degree in ecological design. “It feels a lot different when you’re in a straw-bale house.”
The straw will be plastered over with a one-inch coating of earth plaster, eliminating the need for dry-wall, said Duke. The only drawback to the process is that the thickness of the walls, which will measure just over 18 inches, slightly reduces the home’s interior space.But Blue said that the insulative quality of the construction will produce dramatic energy savings during Truckee’s winters. “It’s good to see [straw-bale houses] at higher elevations,” said Blue. “I think it’s perfect for this kind of climate.”The cost for the material is surprisingly cheap, when you figure that sheetrock, insulation and additional lumber would have to be purchased. The States used 260 bales of straw on their home, which cost them $1,300. Most of the labor, thanks to their friends, was free.”It’s a neat community builder,” said Duke. “You get a lot of people to help out on the project. You don’t see that much anymore.”