Shelter and Serenity: A Straw Bale Home in Virginia

A snug straw bale home abutting the foothills northwest of Charlottesville, Virginia, provides protection from the heat, light, cold, and humidity as well as a peaceful haven for its owner-builders.

| March/April 2001

By the time they built their retirement cottage, Joy and George Matthews were experienced homebuilders. Without any formal training, Joy had already designed two houses for them, the second incorporating passive and active solar elements. She continued to follow trends in alternative building and renewable energy, and while flipping through Solar Today  magazine, she became aware of an emerging building technique using straw bales. Skeptical at first, Joy was intrigued enough to read more. And by the time she had finished The Straw Bale House, she was a disciple.

“Particularly when they talked about the organic feel and the sense of shelter, that appealed to me because that’s the way I feel about my home. It’s something that envelops you,” she says, “a haven of repose as well as an active place to live, work, and play comfortably and naturally.”

Joy was convinced that a straw bale home was the perfect solution for their newly purchased land in the foothills just northwest of Charlottesville, Virginia. At the top of a treeless, rolling hill, exposed to abundant sunlight and breezes from all sides, the home site’s exposure also meant breathtaking views in every direction, from fertile fenced pastures to majestic Buck Mountain and the Blue Ridge range. “We needed shelter from the hot summer sun as well as the winter cold, and a thick-walled, insulated house seemed ideal,” Joy says.

George and the Matthewses’ son, Doug, who had agreed to help build the home, were not so easily convinced. “I thought, are you out of your mind?” George laughs. Adds Doug: “I was skeptical as well. It was one of the first times I thought, gee, I’m more conservative than my mom.” Joy took George to visit Hanuman Bertschy’s straw bale home as well as a less-rustic straw bale home nearby. And, eventually, both he and Doug came around.

But the work had only just begun. Joy sought out technical papers and research reports on straw bale building and made copies for the head of the county building inspections department. When she and George met with him, they found him very receptive. They then asked Charlottesville architect Tom Fisher to turn her design plans into official, stamped drawings. “He nearly leapt out of his skin, he was so excited that someone wanted to build a straw bale house here,” Joy says. “And when Tom and I submitted the final plans to the county, they were quickly approved.”


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