Huff & puff all you can

Low-tech marvel: Anne Arundel County's first straw-bale house is expected to be not only quiet and cozy but also energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.

June 25, 2000|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

The signs are everywhere: This is no ordinary house being built.

Straw bales, not piles of wood, are stacked out front under a blue tarp. Inside, construction is in full swing but there is almost no noise - only the susurrant thump of bales sliding across a wood floor, the gentle hum of conversation and everywhere, the spicy-sweet fragrance of straw.

Heather Bathon, Michael Furbish, a couple of architects and a lot of friends and family are building Anne Arundel County's first straw-bale dwelling. Tucked on 5.25 wooded acres fronting Cornfield Creek, the Bathon-Furbish house has been an educational experience for everyone involved - and it's not even finished yet.

"Our original three goals were: We wanted the modern conveniences of today's building, we wanted it to be a competitive price, and we wanted to pursue sustainable concepts," said Furbish, an industrial engineer.

Bathon, his wife and a psychiatric nurse, sums it up with characteristic succinctness: "We were after energy conservation."

When it is finished, the house will have achieved all three goals. It will be environmentally friendly but comfortable with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a great room downstairs and a finished basement - about 2,400 square feet in all.

It will have cost about $80 a square foot, well below the standard quote of $100 a square foot for new homes, for a total price tag of $192,000. It will be constructed largely of renewable resources gathered locally.

Furbish and Bathon hope their house will do one more thing, too: inspire others to explore low-tech, environmentally friendly construction practices that don't have to look weird or be inconvenient.

"We did not want it to look like a yurt [a circular dwelling]," said Bathon. "We didn't want it to be a campsite. We wanted a nice house to live in."

That universal yearning was the starting point for an unusual journey to a home. Bathon and Furbish read "The Straw Bale House" before they chose straw-bale construction - a very old technique that is enjoying new popularity - because of its energy efficiency and its use of an existing, renewable resource. Straw is an agricultural byproduct, affordable and abundant everywhere.

As is typical in straw-bale construction, the Bathon-Furbish house has a wood frame (they used poplar in a post-and-beam structure) and walls of straw set on an existing concrete foundation that was slightly built up. The bales are stacked to form the exterior walls, anchored with bamboo poles that run through the bales vertically, then covered with an earth plaster - a mix of clay, sand, lime and water.

The plaster protects the straw but also "breathes," allowing air to pass through and preventing mold or bacteria from growing inside the bales. The result will be a quiet, energy-efficient house with 18-inch thick walls and a plaster exterior.

The house meets or exceeds the rigorous standards of Anne Arundel County's building code - a process that required a lot of conversations and documentation.

"Both sides had to do a little research," said Bill Bryant, county code enforcement administrator. "The code doesn't give us readily definable terms for this type of construction." The plans went back and forth three or four times, about twice what is typical, but were approved after the architects provided extensive documentation about the construction process.

"At first they thought it was really nutty," Bathon said of the parade of county inspectors who visited the site in the early stages of design and construction. "Then they thought it was really cool."

Bryant said he spoke with other county building officials and colleagues in Arizona, where straw-bale construction is more common, in researching the Bathon-Furbish plan. And he concedes that, while he finally concluded the house is structurally sound, he was initially dubious about whether a straw-bale house could be made a safe place to live.

"I'm an old farm boy from Ohio, and I've seen plenty of hay fires," he said. He was concerned that the straw-bale walls would burn too easily, that the house would become riddled with insects, or covered in mildew, because of the alternative building materials in use.

Bathon and Furbish used two architects in designing and constructing the house. Kirk Allbright, of Allbright Architects in Annapolis, drew the design. Sigi Koko, of Down to Earth, a firm specializing in natural design and construction, worked with Allbright, Bathon and Furbish to resolve the code issues, guide the construction process and reassure Bryant and the county that the house would be safe.

"The permitting was unusual," said Allbright. "They wanted a lot of documentation that this was safe with respect to fire, mildew, a number of different concerns."

He, Koko, Bathon and Furbish say they hope that the permitting process will become easier as straw-bale construction becomes more common - and Bryant said the house has helped define the code standards for the county.

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