Although it took Michele and Dale Doucette five years to plan their straw bale house and two years to build it, they agree it was worth the wait. Their home reflects the life they live: simple in design and elegant in detail.
Set on 22 acres in Wilmington, Vermont, the 3,200-square-foot house fits right into the landscape. Local stones set in the stucco perimeter around the base connect the house to the earth. Locally sourced timber and straw bales make up the frame and the walls. The indigo metal roof mirrors the surrounding mountain peaks at dusk.
When imagining their home, the Doucettes knew they wanted to live close to nature’s cycles and to conserve energy. They read everything they could about solar power, visited many straw bale homes and decided to go off the electrical grid. They also paid close attention to the way their family moves. “Bodies and houses are very similar,” says Michele, a chiropractor and Zero Balancing energy worker. “You can optimize the way energy moves through both for better health.”
To transform their ideas into workable blueprints, they turned to architect Joseph Cincotta of LineSync Architecture, a longtime friend who also lives in Wilmington. “The design evolved from Michele and Dale’s initial idea of having separate work and living spaces to one barnlike structure that houses both efficiently,” Cincotta says. Michele’s chiropractic office and Dale’s woodworking shop both are located on the main floor. Their living space, which they share with their sons, Justin and Beau, is on the upper floor.
The family’s sun-drenched living space includes an open kitchen and a living room that accesses a deck. The master bedroom and a full bath are at one end of the house; at the other end, the boys share a large suite that includes a living area, loft and small private alcoves with beds and desks.
Building a straw bale structure in the New England climate took some architectural innovation. Vermont gets cold—really cold. Ice can wreak havoc on a foundation when the earth expands and contracts. To get around this, Cincotta used Frost-Protected Shallow Foundation technology, developed in Norway in the 1950s. This innovative method involves digging down only 18 inches instead of the usual 5 feet, then pouring the concrete slab over crushed stone and a blanket of 2-inch-thick rigid insulation that extends past the perimeter of the house by 2 feet. This way, the fight between warm and cold earth remains outside the building, away from the foundation, Cincotta says.
To keep the straw bale walls dry during rain and snowmelt, Cincotta raised the bales off the ground using a 6-inch-high perimeter wall built with stay-in-place concrete forms that sit directly on the slab. This construction also allows for an interior stud wall. Plastered so it looks like the rest of the straw bale walls, it offers easy access to wiring and plumbing. Though the Doucettes don’t plan to leave their home anytime soon, Dale appreciates the flexibility of this feature both for himself and future owners. “I was able to wire the house with resale in mind and put in enough electrical outlets to meet code,” he says.
Knowing the Doucettes wanted to do much of the building themselves, Cincotta used his knowledge of commercial buildings to make construction easier. As is done in steel building construction in his native New York City, he recommended raising the frame and roof first. With the foundation, timber frame and roof already in place, the Doucettes could set the straw bales in the middle, keeping them dry.
Nearly 20 people came to a festive bale-raising party, and the group set and secured most of the bales in one day. Instead of being stacked between posts, the Doucette’s bales wrap around the timber frame. This unique method, also inspired by glass-clad steel buildings, increases insulation value. “Conceptually, I thought of the wall as a warm blanket around the frame,” Cincotta says.
The Doucettes spent the next winter spraying the walls with clay plaster, then hand-troweling them with lime plaster. These long hours turned the rough house into a home. “People have an impression that they’re going to walk into a straw bale house and it’s going to be huttish,” Michele says. “Ours has a down-to-earth feeling but also a simple elegance.”
Today, the Doucettes have a comfortable home—and it includes nearly everything they wanted. They power their homestead with 10 solar panels and a wind turbine. A propane generator provides extra heat in winter. An outbuilding currently houses the homestead’s batteries, along with chickens and guinea hens, but Dale plans to move the batteries to a heated section of the new barn he’s building to get longer life out of them. He’d also like to add more solar panels to the barn roof and increase their battery storage from 24 volts to 48, thereby reducing propane use. “Propane is our only addiction,” he says.
Once the barn is done, he’ll move his workshop there. Michele and Dale would like to turn the space freed up on the ground floor into a family room where the teenagers can hang out with friends. And despite the in-floor radiant heat used throughout the house, they’re considering adding a woodstove to that room. “A fireplace is the only thing we’re lacking. It would be good to have a place to nestle in and warm up on cold winter days,” says Dale, who was involved in nearly every aspect of the building process, from construction to finish work.
The Doucettes’ home is evolving with the family, and they’re as thoughtful about what they put into the house now as they were in the beginning. “If you’re going to build something,” Michele says, “build it with love and intention.
A Conversation with the Homeowners
What was your favorite part of building this house?
Michele Doucette: The plastering process was incredibly labor intensive, but really a labor of love. When you’re hand-troweling plaster onto a wall, you’re literally putting your whole self into the structure.
Dale Doucette: I enjoyed stacking the bales at our bale-raising party. And working side by side with my brother and my dad on the plumbing was great.
What’s your favorite room?
Michele: The kitchen. It’s been four years, and I still really enjoy the feel of the soapstone counters.
Dale: I like them all. Everywhere I look I see something I’ve made.
What would you do differently?
Michele: I would have gone the distance to get the right concrete stain for the floor.
Dale: Put in a fireplace.
The Good Stuff
• Home is nestled into the site’s slope so the north and west walls are sheltered by trees.
• Southern exposure allows for passive solar heating.
• Family’s living and working spaces housed under one roof.
• Water supplied by well on property.
• Timber frame made of sustainably harvested fir.
• Walls built with local straw bales, clay and lime plaster.
• Increased insulation value due to unique bale positioning.
• Straw bales are raised off the ground to protect them from water.
• Frost-Protected Shallow Foundation technology minimizes excavation requirements and heat loss.
• Low-maintenance, metal-clad roof insulated with blown-in cellulose (recycled paper and plant fiber).
• Most energy generated by solar panels and a wind turbine.
• No-VOC paints
• Floors are finished concrete, wood and tile.
• Natural citrus linseed oil used to seal cedar trim.
• Radiant in-floor heating
• Crosscurrents through energy-efficient windows (produced in northeastern Canada) eliminate need for air conditioning.
• Open stairwell enhances ventilation.
• Local stones used in construction.
• Bathroom incorporates remnants from other parts of the house.
• Energy Star appliances
• No dryer; clothes are air and sun dried.
• Organic gardens; chickens provide eggs.