Mother Earth Living

A Cozy Farmhouse: A Curving Straw Bale Home and Farm

Warm, comfortable and at home in the countryside, this handbuilt Idaho dream house makes its own energy and provides space for a thriving organic farm.
By Molly Loomis
January/February 2011
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Powered by a wind turbine and solar power, Georgie Stanley’s home and organic farm are truly self-sufficient.
Photo By Michael Shopenn
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When Georgie Stanley began considering the perfect building site for a home on her 60-acre property in Idaho’s Teton Valley, the decisive factor was simple: Would she want to camp in this place? Though an unusual yardstick, it made perfect sense for the longtime mountain guide and outdoor educator. She surveyed the property until she found the perfect campsite location—tucked against a hill of aspens and conifers with views of three mountain ranges, sheltered from the wind and close to the water. In this idyllic spot, Georgie, then-husband Brian Charette, and their two children set up permanent “camp:” a gorgeous off-grid home powered by a variety of renewable technologies; a barn; a greenhouse; and several outbuildings for Georgie’s business, Snowdrift Farms. Surrounded by native aspens, conifers and sage, Georgie grows certified-organic fruits, vegetables and flowers, raises chickens, pigs and horses, and produces eggs, dairy and pork products. She feeds both her family and her community, selling fresh food via local farmer’s markets and to area grocery stores and restaurants.

A Lifelong Love Affair with the Land 

Having spent most of her life working as a mountain guide and organic farmer, Georgie prioritized preserving the natural landscape as she and Brian built their home. They chose straw bale construction and green building materials, sourced as close to home as possible, and planned to keep the footprint small. Georgie solidified her plans when she fell in love with a “hobbit house” sketched by her family friend, New York architect John (“Jack”) Beyer, based on her photos of the hills and mountains surrounding the site. Georgie loved how the house’s curving roofline mimicked the landscape. “When Jack draws it out, it’s so beautiful, you can’t go back,” she says.

Curves aren’t usually used in straw bale construction. In Beyer’s design, bales—never the most malleable material—would have to be hand-cut and fit into place where the house joined the roof. Fortunately, Brian, a builder who had already worked on six straw bale homes, was up for the challenge.

Today Georgie says the collaboration among herself, Brian and Jack is truly what made the project work. “I was always trying to make things cheaper, smaller, more modest,” she says. “I’m used to making do. But Brian and Jack understood details like a driveway big enough for a truck to turn around in; large enough walkways for pushing a stroller; how much space is needed for a couch; and adequate room in critical spaces to make shoveling snow easy.”

Bringing the Outside In 

Entering Georgie’s home is like entering a forest. Inspired by the groves of lodge pole pines and aspen south of the house, Beyer varied ceiling heights and spread exposed timber frames up toward the ceiling like tree branches, providing subtle delineation between rooms. A dropped ceiling in a corner lined with bookshelves and built-in sofas creates a cozy reading nook. An open ceiling makes the main room, which includes the kitchen, living and dining areas, feel spacious and airy. The open design shows off the ceiling’s beautiful craftsmanship, which follows the arcing roofline.

Though the house is not technically passive solar (a hill limits its southern exposure), large, triple-pane windows allow for ample eastern and western exposure and provide stunning views of Georgie’s favorite backcountry ski runs.

The home’s main heat sources are two highly efficient Tulikivi stoves. The stoves are not at all local—they were shipped from Europe—but they’re a necessity in a place where winter can last up to eight months. Brian also developed a unique radiant-heat floor system. “In winter, solar-heated water warms the 6-inch concrete slab floor,” Brian says. “In spring, excess solar heat beyond our domestic water needs is pumped through a second loop of pipes under the slab.” The floor gains heat all summer, then releases the heat throughout the winter.

A 5.9-kW solar system and a 6-kW wind turbine generate the home’s power, and a 40,000-gallon cistern stores rain and snowmelt. “The kids have bought into it,” Georgie says. “When we drive up the driveway and see the turbine going they shout, ‘Yeah, we’re making power!’”

Unconventional Flair 

Throughout the interior, local and responsible materials such as recycled glass and PaperStone countertops, bamboo cabinets, plaster walls, cork floors and reclaimed wood offer texture, beauty and a connection with the surrounding area. “We tried to find things that were locally sourced or, even better, like the straw bales, a waste product of something else,” Georgie says. “For example, the ceiling decking isn’t structural, so we used scrap boards from a local saw mill, planed them, gave them some linseed oil and fit them into place.”

A recycled glass backsplash made with glow-in-the-dark glass provides an unconventional nightlight for midnight snackers. Brian hand-finished the American Clay plaster walls for an exceptionally smooth finish. “This helped remove any micro bits of grit. It also helped my very calloused hands,” he says with a smile.

Georgie and Brian were dedicated to buying local products—which wasn’t always easy in rural Idaho. Stones from a local limestone quarry are in the foundation and retaining walls; the straw bales are from a nearby farmer, and Georgie and Brian enlisted local craftspeople for the doors and cabinetry.

“It was just the right way for us to go about building our home,” Georgie says. “There were always trade-offs in thinking outside the box: more labor, harder to figure systems out, harder to access products.” The payoff, she says, was working with talented residential companies such as Teton Timberframe, who helped make the unique design a reality.

“It’s a hand-built home,” Georgie says. “The people who made it worked hard, were paid for their efforts and enjoyed working on such a unique house. Living in this house is peaceful, open and light.”

Little Things Add Up 

What may seem like luxuries are actually keys to this home’s energy- and water-saving design. All of these little savings make it possible to live comfortably off-grid.

• Motion sensors in the master bedroom and kitchen prime the system with hot water. No more running the tap until the water gets warm.

• Bedroom light switches have timers. In a house with two small children, it’s easy to leave lights on mistakenly.

• A master switch eliminates phantom loads in the home’s highest energy-use areas.
 
• LED lights throughout the house save energy.

• Kohler’s Tea for Two, a deep, narrow bathtub, saves space and water.

• Dual-flush toilets in all bathrooms save water.

A Chat with Georgie 

What book is on your nightstand?
The Help by Kathryn Stockett—I’m going for pure entertainment right now. But a book I read recently that really affected me was Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth.

What’s always in your fridge?
Snowdrift Farms’ greens

What’s your favorite way to spend a snowy winter day? Skiing! Then reading books to the kids and making bread or pizza in the Tulikivi.

What’s the best winter dish to make from Snowdrift’s harvest?
A rootbake with beets, onions, carrots and potatoes.

Snowdrift: A Forward-Thinking Farm 

Unless you’re growing seed potatoes, farming at 6,000 feet in the Northern Rockies is no easy feat. But Georgie Stanley has climbed and guided on mountains across the planet, including the Himalayas, home to the world’s highest peaks. She wasn’t about to let a little bit of snow get in her way.

Georgie and longtime friend and Snowdrift Farms co-owner Sue Miller are committed to the health benefits of eating local, organic food and the energy conservation inherent in eating more produce and less meat. Georgie and Sue practice what they preach, growing USDA-certified organic produce using biodynamic techniques on a farm powered by solar and wind.

Snowdrift offers a wide variety of fresh produce including multiple varieties of salad greens, tomatoes, basil and dark leafy greens such as kale and bok choy. Though they only grow vegetables, herbs and flower bouquets in summer and fall, the Snowdrift Farms staff stays busy year-round producing eggs and delicious pork products from its organically fed chickens and pigs.

Molly Loomis’ passive-solar home in Teton Valley, Idaho, is a perfect place to combine her love of the outdoors with her work as a writer.  

The Good Stuff 

Architect: Jack Beyer, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners.
Builder: Brian Charette,  solarbri@yahoo.com
Interior Design and Landscaping: Homeowners
Construction: Strawbale and timberframe
House Size: 3,000 square feet
Bedrooms: 3
Bathrooms: 2 1/2

Energy 

Heating/Cooling System: Heating is the insulated earthbed, solar heat; lots of open windows and fans that direct airflow throughout the house. XX-Specs on the solar thermal hot water system.

Electricity: 5.9 kW solar system; 6 kW Proven wind turbine; this is all fed into a 1560 amp 48 volt battery.

Lighting: Compact fluorescents and LEDs. A master switch controls phantom loads in high use rooms like the reading/TV area and the office. Large, three pane windows, allow for lots of natural light.

Appliances: High efficiency Bosch appliances

Insulation: Straw bales and urethane

Water Conservation: 40,000-gallon cistern for rain and snowmelt. Motion sensor in master bath and kitchen starts circulating domestic hot water through the pipes, providing nearly instant hot water at the taps as a way to conserve water.

Landscaping: Fruits and vegetables! The home adjoins Stanley’s business, Snowdrift Farms, an organic farm that sells fruits, vegetables, flowers, meat and dairy products. 

Materials 

Exterior: Straw bales; Rasta Block Eco Product; reclaimed trestle wood for timber frame construction; reclaimed barn wood for eves; foundation and retaining wall rock from local limestone quarry

Interior: Ceiling and baseboards reclaimed from local mill; doors made from reclaimed wood; Paperstone counters; recycled glass countertops from Enviroglass, Sandhill Industry and IceStone; cork flooring in upstairs bedrooms

Roof: Standing seam, Coreten roofing. The panels were formed on site.

Floors/Walls: Concrete floors stained with iron sulphate, which is a fertilizer (rust colored) and sealed with linseed oil (this turned the rust orange into a mocha brown); Roman Concrete limestone plaster and American clay with mineral pigment for color

Fixtures: bamboo cabinets; tripled paned windows; dual flush toilets; on-demand hot water

Resources 

Jack Beyer, Beyer Blinder Belle
Architects and Planners
New York  

Brian Charette
Felt, Idaho
solarbri@yahoo.com
builder

Kitchen & Bath 

Caroma
dual-flush toilets

EnviroGLAS 
recycled glass countertops

IceStone 
recycled glass countertops

Oceanside Glasstile
recycled-content glass tiles

PaperStone 
recycled paper countertops

Sandhill Industries 
recycled glass countertops

Renewable Energy  

Mitsubishi Electric 
solar panels

Proven Energy 
wind turbine

Radiantec 
solar thermal system

Whole House 

American Clay
earthen plaster
 
Bosch 
high-efficiency appliances

Pella
triple-pane windows

Tulikiv
i
stoves


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