The First Straw: Building the First Straw Bale Home in Virginia

1 / 4
To meet building codes, Hanuman needed a vent for the four solar panels she uses as back-up power. Because the cement stucco that covers the home’s exterior lends itself to fanciful sculpting, a friend crafted this elephant eye vent. In Hindu belief, the elephant represents Lord Ganesh, the symbol of the Supreme Self. Hindus invoke Lord Ganesh, said to bestow worldly as well as spiritual success, before they begin any rite or undertake any project.
2 / 4
Based largely on permaculture principles, Hanuman’s garden is both bountiful and beautiful. “The concept of giving back at least as much as you take is totally in synch with how I try to live,” she says. “I wanted something that gave a lot, and I ­didn’t want a lawn to mow.” In her freeform garden, Hanuman groups many different species together, avoiding the monoculture type of planting that tends to attract pests. She builds up her soil with compost and organic matter for rich, healthy dirt. “I have gobs of big, fat worms,” she says. The result is a fertile bed for the herbs, flowers, and fruits that Hanuman grows. A fan of vining flowers, Hanuman planted a moonflower over her front door that produces five to six blossoms per night.
3 / 4
Hanuman and her husband, Ray, spend many peaceful moments in the garden surrounding the house. Hanuman had fond memories of her grandmother’s porch swing but lacked a porch on which to replicate it. So she hung the swing, a table, and plants on a pipe that her father hoisted between two trees.
4 / 4
Designed so that the southern sun beams all the way across the main room at Winter Solstice, Hanuman’s house is a natural passive solar collector. Locally made bricks absorb the radiant heat by day and release it back into the room at night. The interior walls are plastered with a mixture of clay from Hanuman’s yard (the Charlottesville area is said to have the best clay for adobe in the country), lime, and sand; the adobe gives

In 1995, Hanuman Bertschy was introduced to the idea of building homes with straw bales during a permaculture workshop. She immediately took a fancy to the concept. “I’m just basically natural,” she says. “And I’m somewhat allergic to anything synthetic. So this sounded like a great idea.”

About a year later, when she moved to Yogaville, an ashram founded by Sri Swami Satchidananda in Buckingham, Virginia, Hanuman began to pursue her new passion in earnest. She bought The Straw Bale House, by Bill and Athena Steen, David Bainbridge, and David Eisenberg (Chelsea Green, 1994), and began talking to other area residents who had researched this building method. What she learned from her neighbors wasn’t exactly encouraging–opposition from the conservative county building commissioners had kept would-be straw balers at bay–but Hanuman decided to take the leap.

“Until I went to the building inspector, I was ­really nervous that inspection would make the house impossible,” she says. “But the inspector was new in his position, and he was really willing to work with us. He even watched a video I gave him that I had ordered from The Last Straw [The Grassroots Journal of Straw Bale and Natural Building].” Hanuman recalls that the building inspector’s usual response to each phase of her unconventional plans was, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And in most cases, he let the plans move through.

The result is a simple, sweet, 950-square-foot home (the breadth of the bales means Hanuman has about 730 square feet of interior living space) that Hanuman managed to build for about $30 per square foot. Hanuman’s friends and neighbors from Yogaville and Twin Oaks, a nearby commune, helped raise 3,000 bales, and Hanuman laid the floor of locally fired bricks.

As cold weather moved in, Hanuman took refuge in her new home before the walls were plastered–a move she doesn’t recommend. “We had a big blizzard,” she says. “It was a cold winter. Straw’s a good insulator, but not until you get the stucco on.”

In addition, wheat moths infested the naked bales. Before she plastered, Hanuman sucked hundreds of them from the bales with a shop-vacuum daily. The moth problem ended once the bales were sealed, but Hanuman caulked around the ceiling beam and floors as an added precaution.

Sited with large southern windows to take advantage of passive solar gain, Hanuman’s home also reflects the charm and ingenuity of its creator. She salvaged most of the interior fixtures, including a bathroom corner
sink from the late 1800s, a 1950s kitchen sink, and a soapstone wood­burning stove from a local restaurant that was being torn down. She used extra marble from a recently built home on the ashram for her kitchen ­counters and incor­po­rated scrap tile from the Lotus, a large spiritual ­monument in the center of Yogaville, into her shower.

Hanuman admits her house doesn’t exactly fit its conservative, rural setting. “It’s an oddity–this is pretty out there for this county,” she says. “But it works.”

Since Hanuman’s house was built, several other Virginians have followed her lead and built themselves straw bale homes (see “Shelter and Serenity: A Straw Bale Home in Virginia“). That’s gratifying, Hanuman says, but the best part is the well-being her home brings to her and her husband, Ray Bertschy, who moved in about two years ago. She also relishes the reaction it garners from visitors. “Almost everybody who walks into this house says, ‘Wow, this feels so good.’ That’s a confirmation that what I felt was going to work is working. It’s very peaceful.”

Homeworks: Bringing the Best Ideas Home

Amish Style

In her quest for both simplicity and frugality, Hanuman Bertschy ordered her stove and refrigerator from Lehman’s, a purveyor of non-electric appliances and housewares to the Amish and other off-the-gridders since 1955.

Based in Kidron, Ohio, in the heart of Amish country, the company serves “our Amish friends and others seeking a simpler and more self-sufficient lifestyle,” according to president J. E. Lehman. With a 160-page print catalog and a searchable online database of 2,500 non-electric tools, appliances, and housewares including grain mills, gas refrigerators, and wood and kerosene stoves, Lehman’s ships products to 162 countries. Marketing director Glenda Lehman Ervin calls it a “low-tech superstore.”

“We have all those things you probably thought people ­didn’t use anymore or thought you couldn’t buy anymore–oil lamps, hand pumps, butter churners,” Ervin says. “We’ve searched the world for these things.”