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May 24th
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House of Straw

cover01One Capitola couple lives the good life—in a home built primarily from bales of straw!

If you think back to your childhood, you may remember the wisdom found in the story of the Three Little Pigs. The story tells of three little pig brothers who decide to build houses. The first little pig builds his home out of straw, the second pig out of sticks and the third (and most intelligent) pig out of bricks. When the Big Bad Wolf comes a knocking, he huffs and he puffs and he blows down the first two flimsy houses. Straw and stick piglets are forced to run for cover in their more insightful brother’s brick abode lest they be devoured by the bacon-craving wolf. But technology has changed since this popular children’s tale of yore, and huffing puffing wolves hardly roam the streets of Santa Cruz County. In fact, now it is perfectly safe, acceptable and ecologically sound to build a home out of straw as local couple Kristin Jensen Sullivan and Mark Sullivan have successfully done.

After graduating from San Jose State University with matching degrees in environmental studies, the Sullivans felt determined to build a fully solar home. “In 1989 we both took a solar design class and we decided right then and there that we wanted to build a solar home someday,” Kristin says. “We then got very interested in straw bale homes and in 1998, we decided to look for a cover_strawhouselot in Santa Cruz County.” The couple collaborated with architect Kelly Lerner of One World Design in El Cerrito and local contractor Michele Landegger at Boa Constructor Green Building and Design in Watsonville. The Sullivans decided on a home of approximately 1,400 square feet. “We wanted a house that would reflect our values of conservation, and that was really a smaller sized house,” Kristin says. Another important aspect of building for the couple was that they wanted the home to fit in architecturally with the other homes on their Capitola Village street. “We wanted it to fit into the neighborhood,” Kristin explains. “Although the color might stand out because it’s a rust color. On the outside of the house we used non-toxic alternatives to paint. Basically you brush it on like regular paint and it comes on green but then rusts into a deep red due to the iron. We like to say our house rusted before we moved in,” she laughs.

At the time the Sullivans began building their environmentally sustainable home in 2001, it is estimated that there were only about 250 straw bale homes in California and approximately 1,700 nationwide. But the technology is far from new. In fact, according to Kristin who teaches environmental studies at De Anza College in Cupertino, “We know that straw bale homes have actually cover_straw_SouthSidebeen around since 1888 in Sand Hills, Nebraska.” But apparently the straw bale building code didn’t come into play until 1995. Since then, environmentally enthusiastic people like the Sullivans have jumped on the straw bale home bandwagon in a behemoth effort to conserve our planet’s rapidly declining resources.

Their monthly PG&E bill is sometimes zero, but generally averages out to around $130 for an entire year. That’s roughly a savings of 80 percent of what an average household would pay for heating and water.


Straw bale homes use a technology referred to as passive solar techniques as a way of heating and cooling a house. “The temperature of our home stays between 60 to 78 degrees year round with no other input,” Krisitin notes. “So about 359 days of the year that’s what we’re getting—either free heat or blocking the heat from the sun. It’s pretty amazing.”

In fact, the home is so efficiently designed that the Sullivans say their monthly PG&E bill is sometimes zero, but generally averages out to around $130 for an entire year. That’s roughly a savings of 80 percent of what an average household would pay for heating and water.

In addition to the solar benefits the straw bale house brings, the Sullivans have incorporated other energy saving methods into their home. “We have a solar thermal system that heats our water so we are only paying about 20 percent of what the average person pays on their water bill. So daily, we don’t really have to pay much to heat our water. We also have a one kilowatt system to generate our electricity and we have all energy efficient appliances.” And, Kristin adds mischievously, “We have a solar dryer—a clothesline!”

But what does a straw bale home entail and how does it work?

Kristin goes on to explain that the first principle of the home is in its passive design. “The special design heats the home in winter and cools the home in the summer,” she says. It seems there are four guiding principles to consider when attempting to build a straw bale home. They are glass (for maximum sun exposure), mass (concrete to take in heat during the day and release it at night), insulation (the straw, an extremely insulating waste product of harvesting rice) and orientation (long side of the home facing south for maximum sun exposure in the winter months). Each principle is utterly entwined with the others to make a home of this nature successful.

The Sullivans claim that building this type of home isn’t that much more expensive than building a custom home of any kind.

“Passive solar design just means to heat and cool the space by the sun,” Kristin says. “The costs were what they would have been for anybody to build a custom home. But again, you certainly save a lot on this type of home with the life cycle costs.” In addition, the Sullivans were able to save even more money on the home’s construction due to the sheer novelty of the project. During construction, over 200 family members, friends, interested members of the community and even Kristin’s environmental studies students (although she made it clear they would not receive extra credit) pitched in to assist with laying the straw bales and putting up the walls, much like a traditional barn raising in a Midwestern Amish community.

Since the home was completed in 2002, the Sullivans estimate that more than 7,000 people have paraded through on tours that are open to the public every other month. Everyone from students to city planners to builders have traipsed through the Sullivans’ home to see what the structure is like and to marvel at the wonder of a house made from straw. Since it was constructed, the home has also garnered media attention from both the local and national media, as well as being featured in books including “Energy Free: Homes for a Small Planet,” by Ann V. Edminster, and “The New Strawbale Home,” by Catherine Wanek.

A sturdy house made of straw that harnesses the power of the sun to generate energy? Save your breath Big Bad Wolf, because this house of straw isn’t going anywhere.

Kristen Jensen Sullivan will be at the Home and Garden Expo at the Cocoanut Grove on Sunday, March 28. Along with Michele Landegger of Boa Constructor Green Building and Design, she will be shedding light on the reality of sustainable home design—specifically her experience with a straw bale home—from noon to 1 p.m. Read more in our H&G insert.

{Before you go} Solar in a Straw Bale

Three tips from Kristin Jensen Sullivan
1. The first thing is that you should consider all of the aspects involved in passive design. Take into consideration those four elements that compose passive design (glass, mass, insulation, orientation). Do that first because that’s huge.

2. Secondly, make sure that the straw never gets wet before you use it to build. We kind of liken it to what you would do if you were out in the rain. We use big overhangs that act like an umbrella and we keep the straw up off the ground. Also, make sure the wall material is breathable so air can go in and out of the walls.
3. When building this type of home, take into consideration other energy efficiency measures. Light bulbs, water heater, solar thermal system, and weatherization. Make sure that you’ve read up on all of it so you know what you are getting yourself into.

 

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