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

  • The dining area opens to pastoral views while welcoming the warm sun three seasons of the year. The roof overhang provides summer shade, and Joy and George plan to add trellises with deciduous vines to enhance that effect.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • Always trying to reuse and recycle when practical, Joy helped tear up about 1,500 feet of oak flooring during a salvaging project for Habitat for Humanity, then purchased some and had it installed upstairs. The balcony overlooking the two-and-a-half story great room also provides a place for the stereo speakers, which bounce music off the angled wood ceilings. “It makes a lovely, acoustically alive little concert hall,” says Joy.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • Sitting gently on the land, the home’s roof mirrors the lines of serene Buck Mountain nearby. Stucco arches frame views from the protective west and north porches.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • Joy and George are blessed to share their property with their son Doug, his wife, Kelly, and their granddaughter, Maggie. The younger Matthewses now live in the home that was already on the site, where Joy and George lived for a year as they directed and took part in the construction.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • After many discarded drawings for the floor mosaic in the entry, the “spirit” of the house guided Joy’s hand as she experimented with leftover pieces of tile. The design that emerged is an enhanced compass, reflecting the home’s solar orientation and openness to the elements. Southwestern Native American influences are there too, thanks to daughter Bonnie, who lives in New Mexico. Again, the design was brought to life by Doug’s skilled hands.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • In the South, where gourds grow wild, spring is the season for making organic birdhouses for sparrows, martins, and other small birds. Doug made the birdhouse shown here for his mother. To make your own birdhouse out of a green gourd, cut holes large enough for birds to get through, scrape out the seeds and pulp, and hang the gourd to dry. Poke holes through the top and run wires through for hanging. It’s that simple!
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • Expansive porches allow the Matthewses to enjoy Charlottes­ville’s moderate climate while they take in views of Buck Mountain and the surrounding rolling countryside.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • Joy’s storage unit in the recessed center of her kitchen island includes electrical outlets, so she can just pop up the blender or the food processor. Thin spaces flanking the built-in bookshelf were put to use for key and skewer storage.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • Neighbor and cabinetmaker Mike Mooney made the frame and doors for the traditional “truth window” out of old oak fence board from the property. Behind the doors, curious visitors can actually touch the uncovered straw.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline
  • A favorite mini-view is the narrow casement window in the southeast bedroom, which catches the first morning sunlight and throws the bright shaft onto the opposite wall. Next to
    Photo By Philip Beaurline

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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