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

  • The arch in the hallway leading from the entry reminds the couple of a trip to Morocco, where such architectural details are common.
    Photo By Joe Coca
  • The wood blocks in Louis’s bedroom niche belonged to Bradley’s father when he was a boy
    Photo By Joe Coca
  • A bowl from Chihuahua, Mexico serves as a sink in the bathroom. The mirror is one of Emmanuelle’s many unique contributions to the home.
    Photo By Joe Coca
  • Emmanuelle purchased the leopard-print chair so she would have a place to sit while breastfeeding her son. “I didn’t want something that looked too Granny,” she says. “I wanted something fun.” The chair, in Emmanuelle’s lower-level studio, faces the south where it’s always sunny.
    Photo By Joe Coca
  • In designing the great room, Emmanuelle and Bradley sought to create an open space where friends could gather. Dark coffee stain gives the concrete countertops a leathery look. The table and chairs are a find from Mexico.
    Photo By Joe Coca
  • Native Coloradoan Bradley Bartels says he and wife Emmanuelle Vital chose to settle in Walden because it was affordable and down to earth. The material they selected for their first home, straw bale, offered similar attributes.
    Photo By Joe Coca
  • “The view is so open,” says Emmanuelle Vital of the straw bale house set on eight acres of open plains. “On a full moon, you can go out on the deck, and it feels like you have the light on.”
    Photo By Joe Coca
  • A porthole serves as the “truth window,” affording visitors the opportunity to see what really lies behind the interior walls.
    Photo By Joe Coca
  • The stairway niches were inspired by a photo the couple found in a French home magazine. Emmanuelle picked up these baskets at Pier One, and they designed the stairway around them
    Photo By Joe Coca
  • The master bath’s jetted tub is nestled between a glass-block shower wall and a window overlooking the plains. Tiles above the window were hand cut and inset with iridescent accent tile.
    Photo By Joe Coca
  • Emmanuelle combined her love of horses and the ocean when she created this seahorse mosaic from broken Mexican tile.
    Photo By Joe Coca
  • A post-and-beam structure supports the two-story straw bale home, thanks to Bradley’s innovative design.

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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