From field to fabulous: Straw bales build house of gold

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CARROLLTON, Ohio — Diana Dally can’t wait to finish building her dream house.

She’s daydreaming of soaking in the spa-size bathtub that will overlook her 2-acre lake and the giant hemlock. She envisions shuffling barefoot across heated floors in the depths of winter.

It’ll feel good to be in the new house, she says.

But Dally and her husband, Paul Feezel, agree nothing will feel better than knowing their home feels good to Mother Earth, too.

The couple doesn’t consider themselves tree-huggers or environmental activists or anything close to that, but they decided to splurge on construction of their dream home.

At the top of their wish list? Building the place out of straw.

* * *

Feezel hunted grouse on this property southwest of Carrollton as a teen, and when he spotted a For Sale ad for the picturesque location in Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, he jumped.

The couple was married on the lake’s banks six years ago. She moved from Euclid, he from Cuyahoga Falls, into an 800-square-foot trailer-turned-house that day.

Their new property was perfect, Diana said, with a single-board tree swing overlooking the 2-acre pond and its myriad geese, white amurs and wildlife.

But the house was drab, cramped, and not exactly her dream — or his.

Like many newlyweds, the couple gathered home-building advice from friends and relatives. But one friend, Mark, gave them a real eye-opener.

A NASA rocket scientist by day and eco-friendly builder by night, the man had used ancient technology — straw or prairie grass and stucco mud — to build a small structure at his home in Strongsville, Ohio.

They were inquisitive, impressed and immediately taken with the idea.

* * *

Feezel calls his home an experiment, a bit of a gamble and a complete success.

Sitting on a second-floor window seat — the walls are about 20 inches thick, thanks to a full-size straw bale and several inches of plaster mud inside and out — Feezel says he’s still in awe.

“We didn’t want to wait until we were retired to have our dream home. We’ll build it in our 30s and will enjoy it for a lot of years,” Feezel said.

* * *

Excavation began in April 2004.

The home’s cement-block foundation is probably its most traditional feature: The couple admits they couldn’t come up with another environmentally-sound method to carry such a heavy load.

The 2,500-square-foot home is an estimated 40 tons of timbers, 15 tons of plaster and 7 tons of straw.

With just the beams and timbers standing late last fall, Diana and Paul faced a decision: They could continue with their straw plan, or turn to pink insulation, drywall and vinyl siding.

Their friends — who mostly just wanted to see if a straw house could really be built — kept after them, Feezel said.

“We want the luxuries of hot water without having to build the fire. We’re really pretty conventional people,” said Feezel, a project manager who telecommutes to Cleveland. Dally is a nurse practitioner in Carrollton.

“But we really thought this was a cool idea.”

And so they pushed on.

* * *

Volunteers came from New York and Michigan and Kentucky and Illinois to see this house and offer their hands.

Most of the college students and families and grandparents were people the couple had never met. But they’d heard of Diana and Paul’s project on Web sites and Google searches and at sustainable housing conferences.

They showed up for a day or a week, camped out on the lake’s shore and put in 10- or 12-hour days.

The drawback of building a straw house is labor, Feezel says. It takes a long time for every little process.

There’s no machine to automatically cut or stack or tie the bales, to check for plumb walls, to rip down an entire wall and start again.

And so Feezel and Dally and two experts and their crew of new friends did it.

They stacked 400 bales like bricks, offset and snaking ’round and ’round until the walls were two stories tall, reaching toward the treetops of the nearby woodlot.

And when they got to a corner or a tight space, they went to the portable sawmill set up on the property to cut the bales.

“Cutting the bales was OK, it was the carrying that got interesting,” Dally said. “You had to be really careful or the thing would go boing,” she motioned.

“The first time we saw a wall of bales up, we freaked out. We said ‘We’re really doing this.'”

* * *

Picture the walls in your own home: Lumber studs, insulation in between, and a drywall covering.

In this country home, the straw is the insulation.

The lumber studs are replaced with bamboo rods as tall as the house. No metal can touch the straw because that wicks condensation, and bamboo is cheaper than rebar anyhow, Feezel said.

“We didn’t want to wait until we were retired to have our dream home. We’ll build it in our 30s and will enjoy it for a lot of years.”

Paul Feezel, Homeowner

Volunteers tied each bale to the bamboo rods four times, a move that gives the walls surprising strength, Feezel said.

And, like any task that involves straw, there were broken bales and piles of chaff. It didn’t go unused.

Volunteers stuffed it by the handful in the wall openings around the windows or chopped it and mixed it into the clay and sand plaster.

They sprayed that goop across the walls, inside and out, to finish their project.

Then Paul and Diana chickened out, daunted by Ohio’s unpredictable climate. High winds, driving rain and the almost-promise of constant snow pushed them to add a rainscreen to three sides of the house.

The screen — rough-sawn boards from trees on and near the property — will still let the bales and plaster breathe but shelter it from too much moisture.

But any farmer worth his salt knows a bale exposed to just a bit of moisture can turn into a sponge. Won’t the bales rot and fall apart?

No way, says Feezel.

The whole house is breathable. It will take temperature changes slowly and ward off condensation to keep the bales safe and dry.

* * *

“We wanted a 100-year house: technology where appropriate, but nature where we could. We’re informed moderates. We like to know our impact on our community and the earth,” Feezel said.

They’re confident their energy-efficient home will adjust to Ohio temperatures. Their straw and mud structure has three times the insulation of a typical home.

A wall of windows overlooking the lake features coated glass that will absorb rays in the wintertime and deflect them in the summer. They’ve also set the windows to open one direction to catch southerly breezes.

Still, Feezel hedged his bets: He put in a ventilator for central air and a propane-powered fireplace upstairs.

He and Diana also wanted to buy local where possible, and their home plan and rural location worked out perfectly.

They bought wheat straw bales from a neighbor a half-mile up the road.

Field stones found on the property are built into the two-story fireplace.

The house’s exposed frame is red pine timbers that used to tower where the house was built, from trees rooted where the couple’s steel barn now stands, from the logs they pulled out when they built trails across their 80 acres.

And in their quest for the dream home, they spared little expense. They figure the home costs them $100 per square foot — right about what a traditional home this size might cost, they say — but that’s only because they went all out on the details of their wish list.

* * *

Diana and Paul are sure there will be visitors who just can’t believe they’ve done it.

For the nonbelievers, there’s the truth window, a feature all straw bale houses have, Dally said.

The window, tucked just inside the home’s formal entrance and in sight of every visitor, proves that this place really is made of straw.

“When people see that, all of a sudden that straw bale gasp turns to an ahh,” Dally said.

Standing by the formal entryway, the couple holds hands and smiles.

“It’s finally what we envisioned it might look like,” Feezel says.

And Dally, anxious to move in, suggests their new place may be on a tour of homes this Christmas.

“Better make that 2006,” Feezel grins.

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