Humans and Nature: A Straw Bale Home in Sonoma County, California

Stroll down the apple orchards in western Sonoma County and you’ll experience the deep connection between Annie and Patsy’s home and nature.

| March/April 2004

  • One of the carpenters, Evan Lorie, designed and built this window above the cob bench, a favorite place for Annie and Patsy to reconnect in the evening.
    Photo By Michelle Montelbano
  • Annie and Patsy built the rough cob structure, then builder Tim Owen-Kennedy sculpted this fireplace, built on top of a standard metal box fireplace and flue.
    Photo By Michelle Montelbano
  • The house is built on five acres of apple orchard. A lap pool was a must-have for Annie and Patsy.
    Photo By Michelle Montelbano
  • Because there’s no bathroom door, a beautiful view of the orchard can be enjoyed from the straw bale window seat as well as the tub.
    Photo By Michelle Montelbano
  • Artisans who worked on the house handcrafted this handrail from manzanita and apple boughs found on the site.
    Photo By Michelle Montelbano
  • Light washes across the truth window in the sunny breakfast room.
    Photo By Michelle Montelbano
  • Varying roof overhangs create different microclimates around the house.
    Photo By Michelle Montelbano
  • Architect Darrel DeBoer designed and built these pivot-mounted doors of lightweight honeycomb with inlays of local hardwoods that eliminate almost all visible hardware.
    Photo By Michelle Montelbano
  • Downstairs, the home’s curving, undulating space has lots of texture.
    Photo By Michelle Montelbano
  • Patsy Young and Annie Scully worked closely with builder Tim Owen-Kennedy and architect Darrel De Boer.
    Photo By Michelle Montelbano
  • Varying roof overhangs create different microclimates around the house.
    Illustrations by Gayle Ford
  • Varying roof overhangs create different microclimates around the house.
    Illustrations by Gayle Ford
  • Varying roof overhangs create different microclimates around the house.
    Illustrations by Gayle Ford

“Everybody wants to come back,” says Patsy Young of her exquisitely detailed 1,200-square-foot straw bale home near Occidental, California. “They always think it is so warm.”

For Patsy and Annie Scully, schoolteachers in nearby Santa Rosa, the journey to this home began with the purchase of five acres of apple orchard in western Sonoma County’s rolling hills in 1998. Annie had learned about straw bale construction at Shenoa Learning Center in Philo, where the first California code-approved straw bale house had been built. While visiting the Real Goods Solar Living Center in nearby Hopland, they were referred to Tim Owen-Kennedy, who had formed a cooperative natural building company called Vital Systems. As Owen-Kennedy recalls, the future homeowners wanted a “modest little house for two people as ecological as we were willing to push it.”

Owen-Kennedy recommended architect Darrel DeBoer to help develop house plans. Armed with magazine photos, Annie and Patsy met with the architect on their new property. “We knew the exact spot where we wanted the house,” says Annie. “It just called itself out to us.” The three went back to a trailer placed as temporary living quarters to talk things over. They had a beer, and as Annie recalls, “By the time we were done with the beer, Darrel had captured the idea on paper.”

“Annie and Patsy showed me a couple of pictures, and I started sketching a view of a building that met those needs,” DeBoer says. “And oddly enough, maybe for the first time in my experience, that is what we ended up building.”



Teamwork and self-restraint

For Annie and Patsy, building with natural materials was never a question. “We wanted to do what made sense—a confluence of the warmth, the security, and the knowingness that it was the right thing to do for the planet,” Annie says. Patsy was a bit more cautious and in fact felt “disassociated” from the first straw bale buildings she saw. But as the house went up, she warmed to the process, and as the details took shape, she says, “It became truly ours.”






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