Building with Awareness: An Off-the-Grid Straw Bale and Adobe Home

Living off-grid in his 830-square-foot home has helped Ted Owens become more aware of resource conservation.
November 2010 Web
http://www.motherearthliving.com/Green-Homes/building-with-awareness-off-the-grid-straw-bale-and-adobe-home.aspx
South-facing windows, an insulated building envelope and mass materials make this 830-square-foot cottage comfortable and energy-efficient.


Photograph from "The Hybrid House" by Catherine Wanek. Reprinted with permission of Gibbs Smith.

The following is an excerpt from The Hybrid House: Designing with Sun, Wind, Water and Earth by Catherine Wanek (Gibbs Smith, 2010). 

For owner and builder Ted Owens, his home is the culmination of years of work and several passions—for solar energy; for simple, elegant design; and for creative media-making. Even with the small size, the house turned into a massive project for a first-time owner/builder. The designer/filmmaker spent years researching and designing, two years building the house, and another year making an artful documentary of the step-by-step process.

Ted found inspiration in the traditional designs of northern New Mexico adobe homes, and in the book A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. “It makes you think about how the house flows and where your eye goes. Small spaces always have a view outside. Windows should illuminate all rooms with natural light from two directions.” Ted sought to design an aesthetic, ergonomic, and efficient home, and to demonstrate that livability is not dependent on size.

The resulting labor of love is a compact, finely crafted hybrid of timber, straw bales, adobe, and stone that is powered by the sun and collects and stores rainwater. Its solar orientation is enhanced by a thick adobe wall, concrete floors, and clay and gypsum plasters enclosed within 18-inch-thick strawbale walls (about R-30) and 15 inches of cellulose insulation in the ceiling (about R-40). This combination of south-facing windows, an insulated building envelope, and mass materials inside is the basic recipe for a comfortable and energy-efficient home.

From the ground up, Ted made choices to minimize embodied energy and maximize on-site resources. Utilizing a “rubble trench” foundation, he saved more than half of the concrete normally used to support a structure. He also plumbed the house to water the landscape with “gray water” from the shower and sink, which saves on both water and waste systems.

Ted chose “Energy Star” appliances for his kitchen, which lowered his need for electricity. He also became very conscious of contemporary electronics, which often suck electrical power even while they are turned off. This can spell disaster for an off-the-grid solar system.

To eliminate some of these “phantom loads,” Ted installed his stereo and TV on a separate wall switch that he can manually turn off when not in use. A low-wattage lamp plugged into the same circuit serves as a reminder whether they are on or off.

Living off of the grid has helped Ted become more aware of resource conservation, and he found that small changes could have big results. This helped him develop new habits and a new ecological consciousness. This is one reason his video about the construction process of his home is called “Building with Awareness.” The DVD shows step-by-step the path he took in reducing his home’s carbon footprint almost to zero.

The Good Stuff 

Location: Corrales, New Mexico

Designer/Owner/Builder: Ted Owens, design generalist

Year Built: 1998–2000

Square Footage: 830

Bedrooms/Baths: Loft bedroom, 1 bath

Approximate cost: $100/sq. ft. (including solar system, not including owner/builder labor)

Climate: High-altitude desert with hot summers and cold winters, seasonal heavy rains and occasional heavy snow potential

Site Specifics: Gently sloped lot with southern exposure

Sustainable Strategies: Passive solar design, strawbale exterior walls, corrugated metal roof, adobe interior mass walls, earth plasters, cellulose ceiling insulation, rubble trench foundation, radiant floor heat, salvaged oak flooring, double-pane low-E windows, photovoltaic solar panels, rainwater catchment and storage, gray-water system.