A Straw Bale Home: Small, Secondhand, and Spectacular

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Aaron and Meghan relax in their Japanese-inspired sunken dining table made from cherry wood taken from Aaron's grandfather's farm in Vermont.
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Soft American Clay wall colors contrast with the brightly painted door taken from an old farm house. The "truth window"—a common feature in straw bale homes—gives viewers a peek into the walls' all-natural interior.
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The organic garden keeps the Powerses in produce nearly all year.
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A vertical window into Meghan's closet brings in natural light.
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Hand-poured concrete countertops create a clean, modern look that contrasts with the gentle curves of the straw-bale walls. Oiled wheat-board cabinets; a salvadged faucet, sink and metal ceiling; and artistic CFL pendants make the room both sleek and earthy.
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Straw bale homes' thick, earthen walls require deep windowsills, the perfect place to display a beautiful slab of salvaged beetlekilled pine. The deep sills become a display spot for artful odds and ends.
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Reused barnwood planks cover the dining area when it's not in use.
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The circular, redwood shower's curving exterior walls also serve as a visual centerpiece for the living room.
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A converted silo, which serves as an office and workshop, ties the Powerses' home to the region's rich agricultural heritage.
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A west-facing window brings sunlight into the hallway and creates a perfect nook for a small wheat-boad writing desk. The Powerses' use of spaces that would be "dead space" in many homes was vital to achieving their small floorplan.
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A 5-foot-deep sunken bathtub hides beneath the shower floor.
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The home's passive-solar design proves highly efficient during the long Idaho winters.

Looking at Meghan and Aaron Powers’ cozy cottage in the Idaho foothills, one would never imagine that 90 percent of the 836-square-foot, passive-solar straw bale home is made from materials salvaged from local landfills and demolition sites. But the gorgeous and innovative home the couple created makes eco-converts out of everyone who sees it.

When the couple met in 2003, Aaron (a professional builder) was already planning to build a straw bale home on a 5-acre lot in Victor, Idaho, just west of Grand Teton National Park. Meghan, an architect who specializes in green design, contributed ideas between climbing and skiing dates in the nearby mountains. They were fully collaborating on the shared vision of what would become their new home by the time they wed in the summer of 2006.

Using green building materials was an obvious priority, but Meghan and Aaron knew that minimizing their use of materials was even more fundamental to lessening the environmental impacts of building their home. “It hit us that the biggest way we could practice green building was first by reducing–figuring out how small a space we could realistically live in–and then finding as many ways to reuse materials as possible,” Meghan says.

Thinking small

Determined to avoid a construction loan, the couple kept their building footprint as small as possible. Unsure of just how small they could go, Meghan and Aaron laid their entire floor plan out on the concrete slab of a friend’s basement, fine tuning it until they were confident they had a design that would comfortably accommodate them and their two large dogs, even during the region’s long, cold winters.

“People build big homes because that’s what the real estate agents say they need for resale value,” Meghan says. “But there is no reason not to build on a smaller scale when you think of the number of spaces you don’t use. Or you can double your rooms’ uses.” Two of Aaron’s most inventive double uses of space include a sunken dining room table with built-in seating that hides beneath removable planks in the living room floor and a circular shower with a removable floor grate that covers a deep sunken bathtub. The shower’s exterior wall, a glowing column of gorgeous redwood, also functions as the home’s centerpiece–a space-saving trick that eliminates the need for additional walls separating the bathroom from the main living area. 

The couple also focused on giving function to areas typically relegated as dead space. High up on the walls, long shelves store books, picture albums and canned goods. Low ceilings in enclosed areas, such as closets and the utility room, allow the main ceiling to soar high above, creating the illusion of more space in the small house.

“Folks don’t get to see architecture on this scale very often,” Meghan says, recounting her most recent visitors: four ladies from a local church who stopped by for a tour after hearing about the house through word of mouth. “It’s great for folks to get to visit, experience what a house this size can feel like, and see that we’re normal people.”

Trash into treasure

The second step in Meghan and Aaron’s eco-friendly approach was to reuse as many materials as possible. And as luck would have it, just as they wrapped up their design plans, they caught wind of a large residence being torn down in neighboring Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Aaron and Meghan salvaged as much as they could from the house including all appliances, the tiles from a kitchen countertop, which they reconfigured into their bathroom floor, windows, doors and a garage door. Then they started searching the local landfills. “About the only place we didn’t look for stuff was the dead animal pit,” Meghan says.

Constructing the house and salvaging building materials kept the Powerses within their budget and green building ethics, but it wasn’t easy. “We were putting in upwards of 50 hours a week at our day jobs; then we’d get home at 10 at night from scavenging and read books on straw bale and natural plaster,” Aaron says. “It’s a miracle we’re still together,” Meghan laughs.

Fortunately, Meghan and Aaron had help. Siblings, friends and parents housed in an ad-hoc array of tents, RVs and a tipi helped with the construction. Meghan points out details made possible by the help, such as the handmade bathroom sink made by her sister and mother–both potters–and the large steel door that another sister scraped for days with a wire brush to create a modern brushed finish.

New techniques, old ties

The homeowners also wanted to incorporate elements of the Teton Valley’s rich agrarian history into their house. The golden barley straw revealed in the home’s “truth window”–a feature in many straw bale homes that allows viewers to peer into the straw-filled wall interiors–mirrors the crops in the surrounding fields, as do the walls’ earthen textures. The reclaimed doors throughout the house match those on the abandoned barns just down the road.

Next to the house sits an old 30-foot grain silo from a neighboring farmer’s field, which Meghan and Aaron resurrected into a two-floor studio, workshop and garage. Downstairs in the workshop, Aaron can concentrate on projects related to his contracting business, Natural Dwellings; upstairs is Meghan’s office, which doubles as a guest bedroom.

The Powerses’ land ethic doesn’t end there. In the spirit of the homesteaders whose descendants still populate the valley, the couple has an extensive garden that provides much of their food throughout the year–not an easy feat in Idaho’s short, temperamental growing season. They also raise chickens, pigs, cows and geese, which they feed with food from their garden and barley dregs from the local brewery. In turn, the animals provide meat, eggs and manure to fertilize the garden.

“During the construction, Meghan said, ‘If I could raise my own meat, maybe I’d eat it,'” Aaron says, “so my dad went out and ordered two piglets the next day.”

As in most homes, the kitchen is the heart of the Powerses’ house. But for Meghan, it takes on added significance. “The kitchen is the part of the house that ties us to everything we like about this place,” she says. “The garden, the animals, the chicken we’re cooking for dinner right now.” 

A Chat With the Homeowners

What books are on your nightstands?

Meghan: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
Aaron: The Places in Between by Rory Steward and Flying the Mountains: A Training Manual for Flying Single-Engine Aircraft by Fletcher Anderson.

Netflix or the local video store?

Meghan: Local. And we pay every penny because we’re always getting late fees.

What’s the house’s best hiding spot for clutter?

Meghan: There’s no hiding spot! That’s one of the catches of having a small house.

What sorts of leftovers are in the fridge right now?

Aaron: We almost always have burrito makings.

What’s your favorite way to pass a snowy day inside?

Meghan: Baking bread.
Aaron: Surfing heavy-machinery websites.

Do you have any tips for living in small spaces?

Meghan: Having a lot of outdoor living areas like our outdoor kitchen and garden really helps.

What was the most challenging aspect of building the house?

Because everything is reclaimed, you can’t say, ‘I want this-size window.’ You have to work backward sometimes.

What part of the house are you most happy with?

The way the passive solar performs. After two years we hadn’t used our radiant floor heating once, so this winter we drained it.

What was the lowest moment of the design and building process?

The tarps leaked, and three-quarters to 80 percent of the straw was gone. “Quit” was going through our heads. But we called around and managed to find someone who still had some straw.

Tips for Reclaiming Building Materials

? Start close to home. Let family, friends and neighbors know what you’re looking for. Some may have things you need languishing in basements and garages.

? Contact local contractors, builders, architects, lumberyards and even realtors about any future teardowns in your area.

? Check with your local landfill about scavenging regulations. Some dumps allow it; others don’t.

? Make sure to emphasize that you understand you are fully responsible for yourself while scavenging and won’t hold anyone liable.

? Check out salvage stores such as Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores. If you find useful materials elsewhere that you can’t use, ReStores may trade you for something you need.

? Often stores are stuck with misordered doors and windows. Check in with suppliers for potential large savings.

? Visit personally with contractors to assure them you won’t become a liability.

? Come prepared with a truck and/or trailer for hauling and appropriate work clothing, including work gloves and thick-soled shoes.

The Good Stuff

? Approximately 90 percent of the house is constructed from reclaimed materials including appliances, doors, windows, floor tiles, garage doors, chimney pipe, granite countertops, corrugated steel ceiling and roofing, and lumber.
? Passive solar design
? Post-and-beam construction with straw bale infill; straw from local farmer
? Interior wall plaster is a handmade earthen mix of straw, sand, local clay and natural Loma plaster from American Clay.
? Exterior plaster is lime- and sand-based.
? Blown-in recycled-content cellulose insulation and Bonded Logic recycled denim insulation
? Homemade casein milk paint
? Wheatboard cabinets and shelving
? Windowsills of beetle-killed pine scavenged from the dump
? Adobe floor made with local clay, sand and straw, finished with BioShield oil and wax
? Redwood shower is built from scavenged boards from a pool room in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
? A silo bought secondhand from a local farmer functions as a studio, workshop and garage.

Architect: Meghan Hanson Powers, Natural Dwellings Design, (307) 690-6618
Builder: Aaron Powers, Natural Dwellings, (208) 709-5377