“Everybody wants to come back,” says Patsy Young of her exquisitely detailed 1,200-square-foot straw bale home near Occidental, California. “They always think it is so warm.”
For Patsy and Annie Scully, schoolteachers in nearby Santa Rosa, the journey to this home began with the purchase of five acres of apple orchard in western Sonoma County’s rolling hills in 1998. Annie had learned about straw bale construction at Shenoa Learning Center in Philo, where the first California code-approved straw bale house had been built. While visiting the Real Goods Solar Living Center in nearby Hopland, they were referred to Tim Owen-Kennedy, who had formed a cooperative natural building company called Vital Systems. As Owen-Kennedy recalls, the future homeowners wanted a “modest little house for two people as ecological as we were willing to push it.”
Owen-Kennedy recommended architect Darrel DeBoer to help develop house plans. Armed with magazine photos, Annie and Patsy met with the architect on their new property. “We knew the exact spot where we wanted the house,” says Annie. “It just called itself out to us.” The three went back to a trailer placed as temporary living quarters to talk things over. They had a beer, and as Annie recalls, “By the time we were done with the beer, Darrel had captured the idea on paper.”
“Annie and Patsy showed me a couple of pictures, and I started sketching a view of a building that met those needs,” DeBoer says. “And oddly enough, maybe for the first time in my experience, that is what we ended up building.”
Teamwork and self-restraint
For Annie and Patsy, building with natural materials was never a question. “We wanted to do what made sense—a confluence of the warmth, the security, and the knowingness that it was the right thing to do for the planet,” Annie says. Patsy was a bit more cautious and in fact felt “disassociated” from the first straw bale buildings she saw. But as the house went up, she warmed to the process, and as the details took shape, she says, “It became truly ours.”
Because DeBoer had not designed a straw bale house before, Owen-Kennedy developed many of the details on-site; the architect and builder were such a close-knit team that the boundaries between their roles blurred. “The idea here,” DeBoer explains, “was to try and relax and figure out what was the right answer without pointing fingers.” Owen-Kennedy often worked out design details in clay models while DeBoer did some of the construction. “I think that architects should be able to build just about anything that they tell someone else to build,” DeBoer adds. “It encourages self-restraint.”
Although the plans submitted to the county were fairly minimal to allow more freedom during construction, the team’s relationship with Sonoma County officials was good. “As soon as you establish with them that you are really serious and have done your homework, they really relax,” says DeBoer. “The key is establishing your credibility. When we were through, I remember the building inspector’s comment that this was her favorite building—she had completely removed that wall of skepticism you are often met with initially.”
Integrity in the details
The house is built around a balloon-frame two-story tower, which acts as the structural core for perimeter walls ranging from straw bale to straw clay to cob. The main living space opens into a kitchen and dining area on the east; a stair goes up to a mezzanine bedroom, which in turn has a sleeping loft reached by a small ladder—“a loft on top of a loft,” as DeBoer puts it. Glazed sliding door panels on the house’s undulating southern façade let in the sun’s heat. The home’s passive solar features perform so well that Annie and Patsy rarely use the fireplace or radiant heating system.
Materials were chosen for their ecological suitability. “We were always scavenging,” Owen-Kennedy says. “My foreman Evan found a barn that had blown down in a storm. That was all the redwood for the project.” The team used recycled madrone chunks for the floor and rough-sprayed clay paint with high sand content (which cost only twenty cents per square foot) for the walls.
But it’s the details that really make the house sing. “The crew added so much to the richness of it,” DeBoer says. “They really took ownership of the details.”
Owen-Kennedy describes this crew as largely “a group of artists learning to become builders.” When he became the de facto site manager after the original foreman left the project, he was forced to leave many decisions to the crew while he attended to other projects. The artists brought an emphasis on quality unprecedented in conventional construction. “The young people who worked here—their ideas, their caring to do more than just the minimum—really brought a lot of feeling to the house,” Patsy says.
“My friend Rob Williams, an amazing woodworker, did this carving of a little flower and it ended up being used as a mandala where the trim was coming together over the south doors,” Owen-Kennedy recalls.
Annie and Patsy contributed as well, creating the rough cob fireplace before Owen-Kennedy did the final sculpting. For Patsy, “The best part of the house is the work itself.”
A few wrinkles
Construction was hampered early on by some setbacks. What was originally assessed as a flat site actually had a thirty-inch drop, and concrete piers had to be placed deep into the soil to satisfy county requirements.
The earthen floor was a particular challenge. In the sunroom, the crew tested an earthen floor sample that “made a cracked plaster look that was just gorgeous,” says Owen-Kennedy. Annie and Patsy wanted some big cracks in the great room floor, and DeBoer suggested filling them with a different grout color. To achieve this, the crew held back on the floor’s fiber content, used more clay than sand, and added a bit of cement (to protect the floor from Annie and Patsy’s two dogs). “I wish I had done a larger sample of that,” Owen-Kennedy admits. Although this mix did well in the sunroom, the crew tried a shortcut in the great room that ended in disaster. Instead of a well-mixed straw clay insulation layer, they simply poured clay on top of a layer of straw. As a result, the floor wouldn’t compact. In a contradictory effort to get the floor to crack, the crew didn’t compact and level the sand subfloor, which caused the earthen floor to shrink differentially and in some places pull away, creating hollow spots. They had to pour in a watery self-leveling cement to stabilize the sand and fill the cracks with a high-strength grout. Making a virtue out of necessity, Owen-Kennedy used flagstones to replace some of the damaged earth floor—to great aesthetic effect. The rough floor is a highlight of the house.
In every natural home, Owen-Kennedy counsels, homeowners should be prepared for these types of issues: “variability of natural materials, lack of predictability, and the nature of a project where you are doing much of the design on-site.” The owners acknowledge that it was sometimes difficult. “It’s sort of like, if you knew how much pain childbirth and the raising of a child would be, you might choose otherwise,” Annie muses. “But with this house, you kind of fall in love and deal with what comes.” It was all worth it, agrees Patsy. “We come home every night and know we are very, very blessed to be here.”
“If the house caught on fire and was gone tomorrow, we still have inside our hearts all the relationships,” Annie concludes. “And that’s an extraordinary thing. It’s the piece that we probably least expected—how much we would come to care for the people we were working with.”