Happily Ever After: A Romantic Straw Bale Home

A couple hand-builds a romantic, enduring straw bale home in a quiet mountain town. Then the story takes a surprising twist.

| July/August 2004

Not far from the Colorado/Wyoming border sits the tiny town of Walden, population 734, elevation 8,100 feet. Located between the Continental Divide and the Medicine Bow Mountains, the self-proclaimed “moose-watching capital of Colorado” remains a quiet place of grassy plains and sagebrush, home to third- and fourth-generation loggers and ranchers—even though it’s just sixty miles from the bustling ski resort town of Steamboat Springs.

For Emmanuelle Vital and Bradley Bartels, Walden is that rare place still inexplicably undiscovered, where outdoor adventure lies literally at their back door. On her first visit, Emmanuelle, a native of southern France, remembers thinking, “This place would make a beautiful home. We could be in the high plains of Mongolia or Peru.” Bradley, a native Coloradoan and builder by trade, saw a place that wasn’t so hip. “People aren’t flocking to Walden and buying up real estate,” he says. “It’s still affordable, still a working community.”

In 1998, the couple found an old Sears and Roebuck kit house for rent and settled into their first Walden winter. “There is a consistent wind in Walden with nothing but the barbed wire on the Wyoming state line to block it,” Bradley says. “We were freezing in that house. It was so drafty you couldn’t keep a candle lit.”

Primitive, enduring design

The couple had always planned to build a place of their own, and their living conditions lent urgency to their dream. When a homeowner offered Bradley seventeen scissor trusses in exchange for his help building a roof, the pair recognized their chance. They found a parcel of eight acres—close enough to town to commute by bike, far enough out to afford them some space—and in September 1999, they began building.

“We were after a real utilitarian house—low maintenance, a primitive design,” says Bradley. “We set out to build something different with the intention of wanting it to be there a couple hundred years or more. Straw bale appealed to us, but I’m not a big fan of load-bearing straw bale because of settling issues.” So he designed a house in which straw bale would provide the infill for a post-and-beam support structure. “Much of the lumber was locally harvested and milled,” he says. “That’s a lot less energy expenditure for shipping than goes into conventional stick frame.”

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