NATURAL BUILDING PIONEERS:
Building an Earth-Friendly Home
by Simone Butler
First published in The Whole Life Times, 2001
In the coming times, as gas and oil prices hit the roof, eco-friendly homes will be in demand. A home built with straw bales as insulation uses a fraction of the energy of a regular home-and is much more quiet, nurturing and environmentally sensitive. I’ve been researching this topic since the mid-90s, with the intention of creating a community of these homes. I wrote the following article in 2001 for The Whole Life Times in Los Angeles. Since that time, more and more straw bale building has been happening in the Southern California area as well as the rest of the world. Check out San Diego builder Bob Bolles’ website for more information.
In 1996, WANDA DERENOUARD SAT ON A MOUNTAINTOP in Jamul, east of San Diego, gazing out at the lavender peak of sacred Mt. Kuchumaa just south of the Mexican border. As Wanda and a companion meditated on the stunning view, they agreed that there was something special about the land. She and her husband Erik had recently bought this rocky desert property, the site of a former gold mine and when Wanda’s friend suggested she build an environmentally friendly straw bale home on it, the idea sounded right.
Alas, the timing was wrong. Structures made of straw bales stacked and covered with plaster, despite their popularity in the Southwest region, were not yet approved to California code. (Though there are many other ways to build a non-toxic, energy-efficient building, straw bale has become the most popular due to its phenomenally high insulation value, ease of labor in stacking bales, and cheapness of straw as a building material.) “We [commissioned] plans for a different kind of home,” Wanda recalls, “but we didn’t build it.”
Wanda and Erik DeRenouard put their building plans on hold, but the following year brought good news. The post-and-beam method using straw bales as insulation, which creates a home that’s not only energy-efficient but resistant to fire and earthquakes, was included in the health and safety code. When they heard a straw bale home was being constructed to building code specification not far from their property, they eagerly investigated.
Another couple, Dick Dunham and Jeannie Kidwell, had employed the services of Hubbell & Hubbell-famed artist/builder James Hubbell, his architect son Drew and their intrepid team-to create one of the first straw bale homes in San Diego County. A long-time straw bale advocate who designed the first permitted structure within the city of San Diego-a seed bank constructed in a “barn raising” at the Wild Animal Park in 2000-Hubbell and his associates were becoming known for green design in San Diego.
The home Hubbell & Hubbell designed for Dunham and Kidwell is especially unique because it incorporates a massive boulder, the original “resident” of the site, as thermal mass to help keep the interior cool. The deRenouards were impressed, and immediately scheduled an appointment with Drew Hubbell.
Creating a Home
With project architect Juergen Zierler’s assistance, the deRenouards drew up plans for a 3,000 square-foot straw bale home and separate office to be built into the hillside, taking advantage of the earth’s thermal properties and including plenty of windows on the southern side to maximize passive solar heating and cooling.
In addition to such green details as recycled newspapers for ceiling insulation, the house was also wired for eventual inclusion of solar photovoltaic panels. “They are still very expensive,” Hubbell explained, adding that once the price comes down and they can afford to buy the panels, the deRenouards will be able to swing both ways: they’ll still be hooked into the utility grid, and can sell back the electricity they don’t need. The homes basic cost (without embellishments) was $110 per square foot, roughly equivalent to the average stick frame house. But savings will be substantial over time, as two-foot-thick bale walls greatly reduce heating and cooling costs.
Wanda, a realtor, and Erik, who owns a car dealership, spent plenty of time on the dusty work site supervising the proceedings during the two years it took to complete their home. “We also did a lot of hands on work,” she says. “I don’t know how you could do it any other way and get what you want.”
Building the house was a stressful process that tested their marriage, Wanda admits. But the result of the couple’s persistence is a home that feels like a temple.”It has a wonderful energy, different from a normal house,” explains Wanda, an outgoing woman in her 50s. “It’s very quiet and serene. It feels soft, because sound is muffled.”
Hubbell Senior’s artistic touches are evident throughout, from the mosaic-tiled swimming pool and fireplace to hand-crafted doors and stained glass windows. And elements of Feng Shui employed throughout the home, such as varied ceiling heights, reate a sense of flow. “It could also be the influence of Mt. Kuchumaa,” she adds, “but it seems to ask you to be more accountable, more true to who you are.”
Natural Building Boom
The deRenouards are riding the crest of a natural building wave. Straw bale construction, which began in the early 1900s in Nebraska, has grown rapidly over the last decade with thousands of barns, wineries, schools, homes and greenhouses now scattered throughout the world. The only real danger to the densely-packed bales is not fire, but moisture. Unless you add big roof overhangs to keep rain from soaking the walls water can seep in through cracks in the plaster and rot the bales, leading to infestation. That’s why straw bale building is best-suited for a drier climate.
Certainly, it seems to be catching on in Southern California. San Diego-based Bob Bolles of Sustainable Building Solutions, a straw bale consultant to owner-builders, says he has 14 projects in the works right now, ranging from Pioneertown and Sky Valley in San Bernardino County, to Alpine and Descanso in San Diego County. And recently deceased composer Lou Harrison’s Egyptian-style straw bale retreat in Joshua Tree won a major structural engineering award for engineer Dave Mars, in a salute to its fortess-like vaulted roof.
One major advantage of straw bale construction is that it’s been tested and approved to many state codes where, ironically, even older methods like traditional adobe and rammed earth have not. Still, the city or county you live in must approve your plans before you can get a permit, and many building officials are unfamiliar with straw bale materials or downright disapproving of them. In California, it’ particularly tough because of earthquake standards. The Hubbell studio went through a lengthy process with the City of San Diego before finally getting plans approved for the seed bank. “They really make you jump through hoops if they don’t understand it,” noted Hubbell.
The experience of The Ojai Foundation’s Center for Living Council is instructive. Many readers will be familiar with this mountaintop educational center in Ojai, just north of Ventura. At one time informally known as the “Wizard’s Camp” for its celebration of shamanic elders and cutting edge scientists, the Foundation has been experimenting with natural materials for the last 20 years. Touring the grounds, you’ll see thick-walled earth block storage sheds and a whimsical cob-and-earth bag variation. Being under 120 square feet in size, none of these structures required a permit. But when it came time for something bigger-such as an 850 square foot straw bale reception center with an adobe exterior-the Foundation became the first in Ventura Co. to attempt a legal straw bale structure.
When county building officials were first approached with the idea, says Foundation Director Marlow Hotchkiss, “They were not receptive; in fact they were flatly skeptical.” The straw bale part, he adds, is only 300 square feet of the total structure, which is just one story high. “It’s not a big deal; nobody’s sleeping in it. Nonetheless, we have been subjected to every conceivable test.
Marlow says he understands the country’s mandate, however. “After all,” he grins, “it’s called ‘Building and Safety,’ not ‘Building and Innovation.’” Ventura County, he adds, has the cleanest legal record in the sate. “Their structures are built exactly to code. They win their lawsuits. They know this is going to be a demonstration project, with people coming from all over to look at it, so they’re gonna make sure their nose is clean.”
After six months of plan checks, the Foundation finally got its permit approved on Valentine’s Day-just two-and-a-half months before the expiration of its $56,000 state grant to build with recycled materials (part of California mandate to reduce the amount of material sent to landfills.) The estimated cost of the Gateway Center is $80,000 (plus an extra $14,000 for permits, architects and engineers’ fees); what’s not covered by he grant will come from donations. Designed by Ojai Valley architect Jane Carroll and featuring a vine-covered pergola, curved bancos in an open-air patio and a half-moon shaped reception area, the building will be finished in ongoing workshops through the spring.
According to Hotchkiss, who’s been with the Foundation for almost 20 years, the earth-building program has only just begun. “We envision having a mini-village-like atmosphere with a variety of earthern structures that support our programs,” he says. Next up will be the long-awaited, 12-sided Council House, a combination sanctuary, kiva and classroom. Conceived by groups of people sitting in council, it will be made of sustainably-harvested wood and recycled steel frames, and covered with mud plasters. Bermed into the hillside, the design features radiant heated bamboo floors and north-facing curved windows. Permits are in place and the foundation has already been poured.
In the future, expect to see more variations on the earth-friendly theme popping up all over. Cob construction, a mixture of clay, straw and sand once popular in the British Isles, is experiencing a revival in California and Oregon, thanks largely to the efforts of lanto Evans of the Cob Cottage Company. A simple, low-tech method of forming “cobs” or loaves with your hands, then stacking and sculpting them into curved walls, cob is a soul-satisfying yet time-intensive way to build a home. California got its first permitted cob structure six years ago.
Architect Nader Khalili of Cal-Earth in the high desert of Hesperia, Calif. has pioneered an ingenious method called Superadobe, in which long bags are filled with earth and coiled to create inexpensive, super-insulated and earthquake-proof structures. The city of Hesperia has been won over by the architect’s techniques, granted him permits, and even hired him to create a 9,000-square-foot nature center. New-fangled methods like papercrete (paper mixed with a small amount of concrete, then poured into forms or blocks) push the natural building envelope even further.
If you’re still wondering why anyone would go through all the hassle and expense that it takes to become a natural building pioneer, you probably have never been inside one of these earthy, thick-walled dwellings. Sleep overnight in one sometime-the experience is guaranteed to make you a convert. Not to mention the savings on gas and electric bills!
Tips for Getting Started:
- Find out if your city’s building department is receptive.
- Gather the research that’s already out there.
- Locate an architect who is familiar with and enthusiastic about straw bale building.
- Set up minimum standards for your straw bales, making certain each bale is a standard size.
- Plan extra time for the permit process, which is sure to take longer than you thought.
© 2001 Simone Butler. All rights reserved.