Architect builds on to his Takoma Park home with straw


TAKOMA PARK - Technology and ingenuity have revived straw bale building - a resourceful and sustainable way to create living spaces, and one Maryland architect is proving its benefits by using straw to build an addition to his Takoma Park home.

On a sunny day last month, volunteers and friends helped Bill Hutchins layer and stack straw bales on top of each other, pinning them together with bamboo. The group labored for free while Hutchins taught them how to build with renewable resources.

The work is "low in skill and very high in labor," Hutchins said, but "anything worth anything takes a long time."

Hutchins began working on the historic Holly Avenue bungalow about a month ago, although he received a building permit in March. Strict building guidelines mean the visible portions of the straw addition have to blend into the area.

The original 600-square-foot, one-bedroom home, a Craftsman bungalow with wood siding, was transformed with a 2,100-square- foot rear addition of straw bales and wood.

By the time Hutchins and his volunteer crew finish, the home will have four bedrooms, a mudroom, a large family area, two offices, a separate downstairs apartment and a living room that could double as a guest bedroom.

Straw is a waste product of wheat, barley, rye and other grains and is often used for animal bedding. Most farms have an abundance of straw, Hutchins said. He bought bales from a farmer in Boyds.

Before the area's first frost near the end of this month, workers have to plaster the outside of the bales with a lime-and-sand mixture that will harden, making the bales firmer.

Metal harnesses, called laths, connect the wood and straw. Without the lath, Hutchins said, the plaster won't hold.

Inside, the bales will be smeared with earthen plaster - a mix of sand, clay and straw - and natural pigments, Hutchins said, creating a softer texture.

"For me, it's just incredibly beautiful," Hutchins said. "There's so much vitality to it. It's just soft and sensual."

Hutchins also is building and insulating his home with salvaged wood, dampened recycled newspaper and cob, a mix of sand, clay and straw. He is also using orphan windows - brand-new windows sent back to distributors.

Through his architectural firm, Helicon Works, Hutchins promotes sustainable design to clients across the country. So far, three clients have built homes using straw bales. This is Hutchins' first straw bale home in Maryland.

"It's evolved over time," he said of his work. "I'm more interested in the soulful connection between people and their home."

Hutchins also is building with space conservation in mind. Some of the home's additional rooms will serve double functions, he said, cutting down on space, wasted energy and money. For example, a large bay window in the family room will also serve as a guest bed for visitors, instead of building a separate guest room.

Hutchins estimates he has used 225 bales of straw and will use 50 more. While he hasn't kept close track, he estimated the addition will cost around $150 a square foot.

Building with "green" materials is still more expensive than conventional methods. The average cost to build a home in the Northeast last year was $106.92 a square foot, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Proponents of green building say that as demand for greener materials increases, prices will stabilize.

For Hutchins, the money he expects to save from using less energy offsets some of the higher construction costs, which could explain his lack of anxiety about the expected rise in heating cost this winter.

The Energy Information Administration this month said households using natural gas face an average $350 spike in their winter heating bills. People using heating oil and propane could see bills increase by $378 and $325, respectively.

Last winter, Hutchins heated his Silver Spring home with $400 worth of corn, which he used in the family's corn-burning stove. He plans to transport the stove to the finished Takoma Park home just as winter begins and expects to spend about the same this winter. He and his family hope to move in Nov. 1.

To decrease his energy dependency, Hutchins also plans to install solar panels, which capture the sun's rays and turn them into energy.

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