The House that Straw Built

This green-friendly Vineyard Haven home started with bales of straw in its walls – to conserve wood, for insulation, and to save money.

In these times of runaway energy costs, it’s hard to believe heating, gas, and electricity for a house in downtown Vineyard Haven costs only $15 a month year-round. Even more unlikely is that the house’s primary building material is straw. Didn’t the Three Little Pigs story prove that wasn’t a good idea?
Steve Ruzanski and Emily Sims are more than satisfied with their straw bale home, which includes solar electric and hot water systems (something the three little pigs probably didn’t think of). Steve and Emily are also a little more conscious of the basics of living than the average homeowner because of the need for adjustments according to the weather. Emily, a yoga teacher and massage therapist, says, “It’s like being in tune with nature, participating rather than just demanding.”

Straw bale houses in the United States first appeared in the late 1800s in the northern Great Plains, where timber was lacking. With newly invented baling machines that compressed the straw into blocks, settlers with an immediate need for housing saw bales as a fast and easy resource to build a house. Meant to be temporary housing, straw bale homes proved comfortable through hot summers as well as cold, windy, snowy winters. But with the advent and availability of better building materials, interest in this type of house waned. That is, until the last twenty years or so, as people have begun to look at building options that are more environmentally sound – and interesting.

Ever since Steve was a teenager, he’d wanted to build an alternative kind of house. Later, he was inspired by his friend and former partner Wendy Breiby, an “earth crusader” who was instrumental in leading him to various ideas and people involved with sustainable living. By buying a house on the Island at the right time and fixing it up for rental, he began to acquire the equity to build his own house.

Then three years ago, Steve bought property on Clough Lane with the potential to build a second house sited in perfect relationship to the sun. In his career as a carpenter, Steve had done lots of woodwork for other people, and now it was time to build something of his own design, for his own satisfaction.

The straw bale house nestles into the back of the lot with shade trees on three sides (it’s behind the main house, which Steve renovated for rental – including solar hot water in the process). On the south-facing side, the roof is covered with twenty-two solar panels for electricity and two for hot water. The front wall is full of windows, bringing the sun’s heat directly inside – except in the summer when the roof overhang keeps the rooms shaded.  This is the one exterior wall that’s not full of straw, because of the difficulty of trimming around all the windows and doors. But the passive solar nature of the wall is a worthwhile trade-off.

Steve settled on straw bale construction for a number of reasons: It uses less lumber, helping to conserve the forests, and it allowed him to concentrate his design sensibilities on the fine woodwork that shows. It was also an opportunity to use a non-toxic insulation: straw, an agricultural byproduct.

Another reason for straw bale construction was the potential for community-building that the process offered, something that had always been on Steve’s mind as an important part of creating a home. Sharing the construction of the house and its alternative systems is important to Emily and Steve. He says, “Often there’s no real connection to how a house is made, what the bones look like. People really appreciate the opportunity to come and learn.”

Before the bales arrived, the house was minimally framed, looking somewhat like a carport. The main part of the construction process was like a barn raising, which happened primarily over a long weekend in late spring 2005. Altogether, about thirty people participated. The bales were stacked for walls the way bricks would be, with each bale pinned to the others and then attached to cross pieces. The primary structural strength, though, comes from the stucco applied inside and out. “Like a cookie with the filling inside,” says Steve. The outside walls are completely sealed, with no plumbing or electrical wires inside them – only here and there a moisture sensor.

He doesn’t expect problems with moisture though. Expert Paul Lacinski, who lives in western Massachusetts and is the co-author of Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates (Chelsea Green, 2000), and his crew, with help from Steve and Emily, applied the stucco. The first coat was an old-fashioned mud wall made of clay, sand, lime, and chopped straw. After a month of curing, they applied a skim coat of lime plaster. Steve finished the process with a colored lime wash. On the outside wall, he also applied a new product developed in Germany: a ground-up mineral that calcifies to become like an organic Tyvek, causing rain to sheet off the walls.

The house has a slightly earthy smell of clay and straw, and the organic, nonlinear look inherent to this type of construction. The curves of the walls and woodworking details match Steve’s philosophy of life. He says, “Things don’t stop and start; they meander. There’s never really a straight way to go in life; the road always curves around. It just adds more interest.” The design of the house itself evolved during construction, like a sculpture might respond to being worked. The position of rooms changed slightly and the theme of curves appeared in rafter tails, exposed joists, and triangular supports.

Steve used building materials produced within 500 miles whenever possible: The timbers came from Maine and the straw from New York state. He used leftover materials from other jobs and recycled objects, like a renovated 1953 gas cookstove, old doors for the bedroom found along a roadside in West Tisbury, and a big bathtub he noticed in someone’s backyard. The flooring includes sustainable products like bamboo, cork (trees are harvested every seven years), and old-fashioned linoleum made out of linseed oil.

The bathroom sink, a recycled wooden salad bowl, is set into a former treadle sewing machine table. The laminated counter is decorated with inlaid sea glass and wampum Steve and Emily found on the beach, as well as leaves from around the yard. Tiny flax seeds around the bowl look like stitches holding the sink in place. In a work trade, Steve acquired a very small wood stove that turned out to be the perfect size for the house. Filled up on a cold evening, the stove keeps them warm all night.

“The house is trying to blend the newer stuff with the tried and true. I wanted it to be firmly planted. I wanted it to feel like it’s going to be here for a while, that it’s part of the land here,” Steve says.

The solar water heater is a recycled one from Chris Fried, who sells and installs the systems. A sensor in the roof panels starts a pump running when the temperature there is warmer than the water in the basement. The water from the roof runs in a closed system into a 55-gallon drum in the basement that holds coiled pipe containing the domestic water supply, thereby heating it. When the water on the roof becomes cooler than the water in the basement, it all drains down, so freezing is never a problem. For very cloudy days, Steve and Emily have a backup electric water heater; they can turn it on from a switch in the bathroom and get enough hot water for a shower after fifteen minutes.

Maintenance of the various house systems is minimal, things like installation or removal of Plexiglas inner window panels or flicking a switch in the bedroom that starts a circulating fan to bring heat down from the ceiling in winter. A conventional house relies more on bringing in energy, while here, the energy is already going and the homeowner just needs to channel it. By opening or closing a door or window to make a temporary weather change, a person easily affects the underlying climate of the house. Steve and Emily never even need to use a fan in summer.

The homeowners say this kind of house is easy to live in – not that much different from a regular house. Steve thinks it could work on a larger scale as well. The cost of straw bale construction is comparable to traditional building methods, and possibly less if you and your friends stack the bales. Steve says there’s no reason a straw bale house can’t last as long as any other house; as is true in all building, the main concern is keeping the rain outside. (The oldest straw bale house in the United States is the Burke homestead just outside of Alliance, Nebraska; it was built in 1903.)

“It doesn’t lack the creature comforts we all expect from modern buildings – and it has the added dimension of allowing you to be involved,” Steve says.

“This kind of stuff is within reach of a lot more people.”