The Art of Home: Straw-Bale Building in Colorado

A couple builds an artistic, nature-inspired dream home with the help of their community – and without a construction loan.


| March/April 2012



Bathroom

Salvaged wood planks give the bathroom a sauna feel. Naomi created the mosaic countertop out of scrap stained glass pieces.

Photo By Paul Weinrauch

When singer-songwriter and professional organizer Naomi Maddux and her husband, Rick, a woodworker, got the opportunity to purchase land through a cooperative deal between Boulder County and the original land owners, they were inspired to begin work on their dream home—one built thoughtfully and artistically, taking inspiration from the natural beauty that surrounds it. And with the help of their community, they were able to realize their dreams without a construction loan, using a post-and-beam frame with straw-bale infill and nearly 75 percent reclaimed building materials. Rick says the creative impulse has been with him since childhood. “I’ve always known I had to make things,” he says. “I was the kid who took things apart to see how they worked. My mom would say, ‘Could you please put the toaster oven back together?’ And now that’s what I do for a living.”

For Naomi, building the home outside Boulder, Colorado, helped her express her creativity in new ways. “I became a glass artist in the process,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about it before, but building this house opened me to create in a visually artistic way.”

Rick and Naomi agree that they owe the gorgeous results of their giant art project to their collaboration, which, for both, pushed their boundaries and stretched their notions of what a home could be. “It was the combination of his skills and my capacities, which over time became stronger,” Naomi says. “Soon I was able to communicate my vision to Rick, and he would tell me what was possible.”

When they started the design process, the two knew a few basics: They wanted to build the home they’d live in for the rest of their lives; and they wanted to take their time, design it well and avoid going into debt. “We made, I’d say, 13 or 14 sketches of ideas,” Rick says. “We had everything from kidney shapes to earthships—all sorts of drawings. We finally agreed on a design that included flow and simplicity, and was something we could build ourselves, by hand.” Next, they each identified elements they did and did not want in a home and designed around that wish list. “We wanted it to feel warm and welcoming, so we paid attention to that in our vision,” Rick says. “We both don’t like that, in most American houses, the first thing you see is the garage door. So we decided to put the garage out of sight. Then we said, ‘Let’s put it underground and grow a live roof on top.’”

The site itself, a woody lot at the base of the Rocky Mountains, determined some of the design elements. The southern-facing slope of the hillside invited a passive solar orientation. By orienting the house to the south and incorporating properly sized overhangs, they assured all rooms would face the warming winter sun, yet be protected from hot summer rays. The pair also knew they wanted the home to feel spacious without actually being large, so they chose an open floorplan with no hallways. “If you can see from one side of a living space to the other, even if it’s only 30 feet wide, you get a 30-foot view,” Rick says. “Our house is 50 feet wide, and when you walk in you can see from one side to the other. It feels big even though it’s only on a 20-by-50-foot footprint.”

Gathering Reclaimed Building Materials

As the design took shape, Rick and Naomi turned to determining their building materials. They had both long been interested in straw-bale building, so they began to research the technique. “In this region, straw-bale building makes sense,” Naomi says. “I love the aesthetics and the materials, and I love doing things with my hands. Straw-bale construction is something laypeople can do easily if they have the time and inclination.”





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