Some things are just meant to be. Ken and Joanne Long’s three-story straw bale home perched above Lake Travis, outside of Austin, Texas, appears to be one of them.
For years, the empty nesters had been looking for a lakefront lot in the increasingly pricey Lake Travis area. They’d coveted a wooded half-acre on a peninsula formed by the meeting of Lake Travis and the Pedernales and Colorado rivers, with panoramic water views and easy boat access, but the asking price was well beyond their means. Frustrated but determined, they kept searching until one day in 1993 they got a call from a mortgage company, telling them their dream property had been foreclosed on. The land was on the market for half the original asking price—exactly what Ken and Joanne could pay.
They snapped it up, of course, and a few years later bought adjoining lots for a small guesthouse and the septic system. Over the next couple of years, they spent weekends building stone terraces and the guesthouse—and enjoying some boating, barbecuing, and beer drinking. “We wanted to get the feel of the land before we built,” Joanne says. Adds Ken: “We had a feel for where we wanted to be at certain times of the day to really enjoy the property.”
Ken and Joanne spent two years working on their home’s design. Joanne would sit down by the lake and look up the bluff, sketchpad in hand. She envisioned a tall building, spiraling up out of the bluff, with a nautically inspired watchtower and a porthole window. “I followed no principles but my own intuition,” she says. “I’m not so much into feng shui, but into energy movement. I would just sit and sketch, letting it flow.”
She calls the open, lodge-like style that emerged “New Age Craftsman” and considers it a reaction to our modern techno-age. “People want to feel grounded and earthy,” she says. “And if we don’t, we’re going to get out of balance.”
The freedom of straw bale
But what would this home be built out of? Ken and Joanne knew they wanted something casual, rustic, and comfortable—an informal feeling for a vacation-like spot. They considered and rejected several options, including a log cabin, before Joanne discovered straw bale, which was just starting to gain popularity in the Austin area.
“I visited a couple of houses built with straw bales—very basic designs,” Joanne says. “Inside, I felt like I was in the womb. I said, ‘I want this feel,’ although I didn’t want such a basic look. I wanted to make it into something sculptural and wonderful. I told Ken, ‘I don’t want it to be dumb-normal.’”
Skeptical at first, Ken accompanied Joanne to see a straw bale home being built in nearby Dripping Springs. “It looked comfortable,” he says. “I liked the non-formal finish. We weren’t that excited about anything for the lot until we discovered straw bale—and then we said, ‘Oh, that’s it.’ When it was right, there was no question.”
As an engineer and the primary builder of their home—which, in the end, became the tallest straw bale building in Texas—Ken was also excited by the freedom that straw bale offered. “There wasn’t a whole lot of information out there—also not a lot of rules,” he says. “The fun, for me, is figuring out what works and what doesn’t.”
Straw bale hadn’t reached the level of acceptance, even in the Austin area, that it has today. The couple’s friends made three little pigs jokes and predicted the home would be infested with rats. But the Longs did their homework and discovered that straw bale taverns built in Europe centuries ago are still standing. “It was a known art, and now it’s a lost art,” Ken says. “I like that.”
“People want what they’re familiar with—and that comfort zone is something you need to get over,” Joanne adds.
“You gotta let yourself go—be fine with experimenting and not worry about what somebody else might say,” Ken agrees. “If we thought a lot about it, we might have said, ‘This is too far out to be acceptable to most.’ But our only criteria was that we had to like it.”
Choosing straw bale construction simplified many of the smaller decisions that can plague homebuilders. Clay walls, earthen floors, and stone baseboards just seemed natural within the organic atmosphere created by the bale walls. “Those were all little experiments compared with the big decision to go with straw in the first place,” says Ken.
Quality, not quantity
Ken and Joanne hired a straw bale contractor just to get the building under way. The builders helped arrange a straw bale party, during which friends—many of them women—hoisted bales and pinned personal notes into the walls. “The whole house is filled with love letters,” Joanne says.
After the party, Ken took over, doing as much work as possible to keep costs down. He hired framers to put up beams for the 12-foot-high ceilings and the 28-foot-high peak in the living room, a stone crew to build the home’s three fireplaces and baseboards, and a stucco crew. Still, he says, there’s no denying that straw bale building is more expensive. “Even when you’re doing it yourself, you’re not doing straw bale to save money. If this were more cost effective, all builders would be doing it.”
Ken and Joanne’s home cost roughly $150 per square foot, but as Ken points out, they didn’t “cheap out” on the details. Because of the tall ceilings and the three-story living room space, the home’s 3,600 square feet of volume yield only 2,100 square feet of living space. The home includes features the couple wasn’t willing to compromise on: three fireplaces and extensive custom stonework, low-e Lincoln wood windows, three- to four-foot overhangs, and acoustic cedar ceilings and soffits. “This is our retirement home, and we’re going to live in it for the rest of our lives,” Joanne says. “So we said, for this quality, to get what we want, how small should we build?”
Both Ken and Joanne admit the home is still a bit larger than they intended—and if they could do it again, they’d make it smaller. “This is really more house than I need,” says Ken. “But maybe I’m just old—and tired.”
Joanne is quick to point out, however, that because of the straw bales’ insulating qualities and the deep overhangs, the home uses less energy on average than a typical suburban tract home. In summer, hot air funnels up the tower and out the porthole window, often mitigating the need for air conditioning. Summer energy bills are always less than $200—about half that of a conventionally built house of the same size—for both the home and the guesthouse, which Joanne runs as a spa and bed-and-breakfast. In December, the area’s coldest month, the couple’s energy bills for both buildings average $135.
When it came to finishing details, Joanne insisted that everything be healthy, nontoxic, and as environmentally friendly as possible. “There’s nothing toxic in this house—chemically or spiritually,” she says.
The couple chose cedar for ceilings, posts, and soffits because it grows like a weed in central Texas. The aromatic wood infused their home with a fresh scent, but after a while they felt like they were living in a gerbil’s nest. A coating of light latex sealer alleviated the smell. They used the same sealer for the earthen floors after their experiments with making sealer from cactus pods proved to be a slimy mess.
Joanne found her bathroom tile and Corian kitchen sink (the only plastic in the house) at the Austin Habitat for Humanity resale store. The countertops are poured cement, and the pine kitchen cabinets were handmade by a friend. An Irish cupboard from the 1830s is integrated into the kitchen design.
“I have a Celtic background, so there’s a lot of Celtic energy in this house,” says Joanne, who likes to reflect that heritage in the furnishings. She and Ken dine at a worn Irish trestle table, and she’s filled the house with family heirlooms, handmade furniture, and folk art. After the earthen floor was laid, she invited in Celtic dancers and a young girl performed an Irish blessing, “so that everyone who comes to the door will be greeted with a smile.”
Joanne also worked hard to balance the natural elements in the home, rife with wood, stone, and earth. The three fireplaces—one on the back porch—counterbalance the lake, and a koi pond in front mirrors it. The wind element moves through the house as air spirals up through the tower. “Most people pick up on the energy here,” she says. “They notice that it just feels different.”