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

Owens dining room

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.

elderberry, echinacea, bee hive


Feb. 17-18, 2018
Belton, Texas

Sit in on dozens of practical workshops from the leading authorities on Natural Health, Organic Gardening, Real Food and more!