By the time they built their retirement cottage, Joy and George Matthews were experienced homebuilders. Without any formal training, Joy had already designed two houses for them, the second incorporating passive and active solar elements. She continued to follow trends in alternative building and renewable energy, and while flipping through Solar Today magazine, she became aware of an emerging building technique using straw bales. Skeptical at first, Joy was intrigued enough to read more. And by the time she had finished The Straw Bale House, she was a disciple.
“Particularly when they talked about the organic feel and the sense of shelter, that appealed to me because that’s the way I feel about my home. It’s something that envelops you,” she says, “a haven of repose as well as an active place to live, work, and play comfortably and naturally.”
Joy was convinced that a straw bale home was the perfect solution for their newly purchased land in the foothills just northwest of Charlottesville, Virginia. At the top of a treeless, rolling hill, exposed to abundant sunlight and breezes from all sides, the home site’s exposure also meant breathtaking views in every direction, from fertile fenced pastures to majestic Buck Mountain and the Blue Ridge range. “We needed shelter from the hot summer sun as well as the winter cold, and a thick-walled, insulated house seemed ideal,” Joy says.
George and the Matthewses’ son, Doug, who had agreed to help build the home, were not so easily convinced. “I thought, are you out of your mind?” George laughs. Adds Doug: “I was skeptical as well. It was one of the first times I thought, gee, I’m more conservative than my mom.” Joy took George to visit Hanuman Bertschy’s straw bale home as well as a less-rustic straw bale home nearby. And, eventually, both he and Doug came around.
But the work had only just begun. Joy sought out technical papers and research reports on straw bale building and made copies for the head of the county building inspections department. When she and George met with him, they found him very receptive. They then asked Charlottesville architect Tom Fisher to turn her design plans into official, stamped drawings. “He nearly leapt out of his skin, he was so excited that someone wanted to build a straw bale house here,” Joy says. “And when Tom and I submitted the final plans to the county, they were quickly approved.”
Because most straw bale building has been done in the arid Southwest, dealing with the infamous Southern humidity was a concern. “That was my primary worry,” Doug says. “I knew that, structurally, the house was not going to fall down; the basic post and beam structure and the thick stuccoed walls seemed more substantial to me than regular stick frame housing. But I was very much concerned that this thing was going to get rained on a lot and had to stand the high summer humidity.”
So the Matthewses insisted on overkill. “We used every trick mentioned in the straw bale book to make sure moisture didn’t penetrate or wick up into the bales,” Doug says. Three-hundred-and-fifty-five bales were stacked to the rafters in a newly built concrete-block garage and shop. Joy and Doug were religious about keeping the bales dry before and during construction.
The carpentry crew, under the supervision of Paul Minnerly, erected a post and beam structure. Then the second floor, roof, and porches were framed and finished—all before any straw bales were laid up. George questioned whether they should include a vapor barrier for added insurance, but in the end they all agreed that the walls should breathe. “We can tell you in twenty years whether that was the right decision,” he says. But so far, “we’ve never seen any kind of condensation on either the inner or the outer walls.”
Snug and Sunny
As construction progressed, the generous upstairs space afforded by the size and pitch of the roof seemed too good to leave unfinished. Joy and George’s little retirement cottage grew into a 2,600-square-foot two-story house. But in the interest of economy, Joy kept the design simple. To maximize views, catch breezes, and take advantage of the sun, she designed a simple rectangle that runs east to west. On the south side, large expanses of insulated glass provide passive solar gain that augments a solar hot water radiant floor heating system with a propane boiler backup. “In the winter, you can really feel the effects of the straw bale insulation,” Joy says. “Very often the solar gain is enough that the boiler doesn’t come on until the middle of the night or even morning.”
“There are three elements at work here: passive solar gain, strong insulation in the straw bales, and radiant floor heating,” Doug explains. “That makes the environment respond much more organically, with gentle changes. George agrees. “This house is snug. I have a feeling of serenity and real enclosure.”
Joy, Doug, a few stalwart members of the carpentry crew, and a volunteer who wanted to learn about straw bale building lifted every bale in the house. “It seems like a lot of labor for a small number of people,” Doug says, “but because everything’s custom and my tendencies run toward precision, we ended up cutting a lot of bales and retying them. I don’t think there was ever a time we felt that if only we had ten more people we would have gotten all this done today. We would stack several bales, then have to cut one—and it would have been inefficient to have people standing around while we did that.”
Joy and Doug harvested a runaway stand of bamboo from their old neighborhood to make stakes that held the courses of bales in place. Joy cut about 400 stakes with sharply angled points using a chop saw for the first time, “with efficiency and no fear.”
To surface shave the stacked bales, Doug developed a special jig using a circular saw mounted on a moveable carriage with counterweights. The invention yielded uncommonly smooth walls. Once chicken wire was stretched across the bale walls inside and out, then stitched in place, a stucco crew went to work. Joy chose to leave the stucco unpainted. For the soft off-white of the final exterior coat, she visited the stucco manufacturing plant and sat down with the color mixers to try out different hues on an actual bale of straw. “This caused some hilarity among the workers as they tried to imagine a house made of straw,” she says.
Joy was sorry to say good-bye to the uncovered straw bale walls, which she likens to a big brown rug. “When the stucco was first blown on in there, I almost cried,” she says. “Like going from the negative to the positive—all of a sudden the window bucks and walls were white and the fir-framed windows the only remaining brown; it was quite a dramatic change.”
But for Joy, living the metamorphosis is what makes building a thrill. “It’s always a great experience—for a time, you can walk through walls, see views through all the spaces that eventually get closed up. And after, you always know the quality of what’s beneath your feet and behind those walls,” she says. “A lot of people don’t want to, or don’t know how to, be involved in the formulating of their own living space. For other people, there’s no way they couldn’t be. I’m in the latter category.” George is quick to agree. “Because of the personal effort we put into this house, both mental and physical, it has almost become an extension of ourselves,” he says.