Our Straw Bale Dream Home

A central Washington couple explores sustainable straw bale construction and build a beautiful dream home.

| December 2004/January 2005

David and Margie Van Cleve did their homework when it came time to build their dream house near Yakima, Wash. As civil and chemical engineers, respectively, they knew early decisions would have lasting influences on their home’s comfort, durability and energy efficiency. With that interest in mind, they analyzed every design choice for its effect on their pocketbook — and the planet.

For several years, the Van Cleves had been thinking about building their dream home. David’s work as a civil engineer brought them to central Washington state, where they happily settled “for the duration.” They knew they wanted their home to resemble a country farmhouse and blend in with the region, which is famous for its fruit orchards. Based on their research, David had drawn a floor plan they liked, but they could not visualize how the outside would look.

Committed to energy conservation, the Van Cleves also wanted a well-insulated house that was not of standard “stick-built” construction. “We had looked into straw bale, but it seemed too exotic,” Margie says. “We were actually thinking of going with foam-insulated concrete forms or stress-skin panels.”

Then they found Washington architect Terry Phelan of Living Shelter Design, who specializes in sustainable design. Phelan told the Van Cleves that the central Washington climate, with its low annual rainfall and extreme seasonal temperature swings, was perfect for straw bale, and that she could give them pointers on building with straw. And “Margie’s face lit up,” Phelan says.

Having previously lived in New Mexico, Margie loves the look and feel of the thick-walled adobe buildings that are Southwestern hallmarks. She imagined their cats lounging on wide, sunny windowsills with the curved edges that are so easily created with straw bales. And because her job allows her to telecommute, she needed a quiet workroom. In discussions with Phelan, they came up with the idea of creating a loft office, to utilize space under the tall, gabled roof.

“Terry took our layout and came back with a house of reasonable size,” David says. “The design looked livable, and the outside looked like a nice, friendly house that would fit in with our neighborhood.”

12/29/2008 5:13:38 PM

At $312,000 bucks for a 2400 square foot house, this type of a home is far beyond the reach of most folks. And what? No solar panels on the roof? For that kind of money one would think this duo of engineers would have gone with less in the way of luxury wood trim and allocated 10% of that $312,000 to a full-scale grid-tie and storage solar energy system. Hey, I've lived in eastern Washington state, not only is there plenty of sun, but stiff winds blow steady much of the time -- where's their wind-generator? Sure, it's a nice-looking effort, but considering the how litte green alternatives they actually got for all of their money (straw bales walls are supposed to be *cheap* you know, and so is geothermal heat-sourcing), coupled with the fact that they are still using coal-generated grid electricity, I just don't see how this can qualify as any kind of geunine "green dream home".

12/27/2008 5:37:08 PM

I'd like to see pictures of that litter-pan setup. Five humans, 10 cats, 1300 sqft-- I'd like to see pictures of anything that incorporates the words "litter pans" and "space saving." I love strawbale construction. Sturdy, warm, renewable-- I just wish it was more viable for wetter climates, and I wish someone could tell me if it can be worked with in areas that may become prone to earth shift. There may be some jealousy afoot in my next comment. For a mechanical engineer and a housewife, $55 per sqft is a reach; $130 per sqft is out of even fantasy range. With that in mind, from the bottom of my spacious 1300 square feet, where in the heck does one get the idea that a 2400 sqft house for 2-3 people is actually green??? I appreciate all the lengths they've gone to to need less heat, less maintainance, less and less, and I do allow that people need to know that "living green" doesn't have to mean "eschewing all luxury and living on top of each other in a canvas yurt," (even if some sick little ascetic in my does fantasize about it weekly), but that's still a lot of unnecessary space there.

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