A new kind of home employs old-fashioned methods to solve modern problems in an co-friendlyway.

September 15, 2002|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

As the 90-degree temperatures, black roofs and concrete transform Baltimore into a toaster oven, Heather Bathon and Michael Furbish enjoy summer's remnants in a home made cool and quiet by 18-inch walls of tightly baled straw.

And each evening, they can contemplate their garden from a porch sheltered by a roof covered with a living quilt of green plants.

The simple farmhouse, 25 minutes south of the city, is a low-tech response to increasingly high-cost energy problems. Constructed mostly from local and sustainable materials, the Bathon-Furbish home stands as a monument to environmental talk translated into action.

Located near a creek in Anne Arundel County, the two-story house has the appearance of a farmhouse in Provence; although it's less than two years old, it projects a certain timelessness with lime plaster walls that are slowly weathering into stone. Inside the sun-filled great room, the soundproofing creates its own aura of calmness. The home seems both openhearted and welcoming.

"The house is comfortable, informal, relaxing -- like a cottage," says 44-year-old Michael Furbish, a systems engineer for LCM Inc., an architectural millwork company in Baltimore.

"We wanted to build the prototypical box farmhouse, the anti McMansion. But we also wanted to do something that would reduce our impact on the environment," says 40-year-old Bathon, who works as a psychiatric nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Questions raised

Bathon and Furbish are among a growing number of Americans who are incorporating environmental beliefs into the design of their homes. When they decided to construct their exterior walls with straw bales, however, they became local pioneers. They faced skepticism and a barrage of questions from building code inspectors.

In the United States, the straw-bale method was originally used by homesteaders who settled in treeless places, such as certain areas of Nebraska. Although modern straw-bale construction is well understood in western states, Anne Arundel officials needed proof that the county's first straw-bale house was not at greater risk for fire, mildew and insect infestation.

The couple's consulting environmental architect, Sigi Koko, presented documentation.

Properly prepared straw-bale walls are not more prone to fire because the bales' tightly packed nature leaves little room for oxygen. In addition, the walls' plaster and stucco finishes are fire-resistant.

On the matter of insects: Straw, unlike hay, contains no nutritional value and does not attract insects. Builders follow usual procedures for protecting the wood framing of their house against termites.

And moisture? Any trapped water should "wick" out of the interior through its "breathable" plaster walls.

After living 18 months in their straw-bale house, Bathon and Furbish are reaping the rewards of their highly insulated design: Lower heating and air-conditioning bills as well as a lovely stillness occasionally interrupted by their six-month-old daughter Georgia.

The living roof of succulent plants, installed by Emory Knoll Farms in Harford County, does its bit to absorb storm water, improve air quality and keep the house from heating up too much in the scorching summer sun. A rubber membrane covered by sod prevents water from passing through to the underlying roof.

The couple has also installed two composting toilets (in addition to a micro-flush unit that uses only two cups of water per flush.) The composting toilets, which do not use water, direct waste material through plastic pipes into a collecting bin in the basement. When it is time for the waste to be removed -- usually after a couple of months -- it is not only odorless but resembles earth. Bathon uses it in their flower garden.

And despite its fundamental earnestness, the 2,200-square-foot home could pass for something out of Architectural Digest, with its elegant south wall of doors and windows highlighted by an ochre-pigmented wash.

"To me, one of the biggest pluses of straw-bale construction is that the houses are so beautiful," Bathon says. "You get these deeply recessed windows and doors. And the walls are not plain drywall, they have a sensual texture to them. From an aesthetic point of view, these houses can be so satisfying."

Bathon credits her husband, who received his undergraduate degree in industrial engineering, with pushing the construction boundaries of their new home.

"I think that most of us -- myself included -- don't really understand how our houses work. We buy a home knowing that it's pretty or that it needs a new roof or whatever. Michael has a background in systems engineering and wanted to understand how the whole house worked. He wanted to know things like where the wood was coming from and where the concrete was coming from. He wanted to build a house that reduced the number of extraneous technological systems. That, coupled with environmental concerns, is what led us here," she says.

Energy efficiency

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