A Straw Bale Home: Small, Secondhand, and Spectacular

An Idaho couple's salvage savvy gives this snug straw bale home its character.

| November/December 2008

  • Aaron and Meghan relax in their Japanese-inspired sunken dining table made from cherry wood taken from Aaron's grandfather's farm in Vermont.
  • Soft American Clay wall colors contrast with the brightly painted door taken from an old farm house. The "truth window"—a common feature in straw bale homes—gives viewers a peek into the walls' all-natural interior.
  • The organic garden keeps the Powerses in produce nearly all year.
  • A vertical window into Meghan's closet brings in natural light.
  • Hand-poured concrete countertops create a clean, modern look that contrasts with the gentle curves of the straw-bale walls. Oiled wheat-board cabinets; a salvadged faucet, sink and metal ceiling; and artistic CFL pendants make the room both sleek and earthy.
  • Straw bale homes' thick, earthen walls require deep windowsills, the perfect place to display a beautiful slab of salvaged beetlekilled pine. The deep sills become a display spot for artful odds and ends.
  • Reused barnwood planks cover the dining area when it's not in use.
  • The circular, redwood shower's curving exterior walls also serve as a visual centerpiece for the living room.
  • A converted silo, which serves as an office and workshop, ties the Powerses' home to the region's rich agricultural heritage.
  • A west-facing window brings sunlight into the hallway and creates a perfect nook for a small wheat-boad writing desk. The Powerses' use of spaces that would be "dead space" in many homes was vital to achieving their small floorplan.
  • A 5-foot-deep sunken bathtub hides beneath the shower floor.
  • The home's passive-solar design proves highly efficient during the long Idaho winters.
    Photos By Betsy Morrison

Looking at Meghan and Aaron Powers’ cozy cottage in the Idaho foothills, one would never imagine that 90 percent of the 836-square-foot, passive-solar straw bale home is made from materials salvaged from local landfills and demolition sites. But the gorgeous and innovative home the couple created makes eco-converts out of everyone who sees it.

When the couple met in 2003, Aaron (a professional builder) was already planning to build a straw bale home on a 5-acre lot in Victor, Idaho, just west of Grand Teton National Park. Meghan, an architect who specializes in green design, contributed ideas between climbing and skiing dates in the nearby mountains. They were fully collaborating on the shared vision of what would become their new home by the time they wed in the summer of 2006.

Using green building materials was an obvious priority, but Meghan and Aaron knew that minimizing their use of materials was even more fundamental to lessening the environmental impacts of building their home. “It hit us that the biggest way we could practice green building was first by reducing—figuring out how small a space we could realistically live in—and then finding as many ways to reuse materials as possible,” Meghan says.

Thinking small 

Determined to avoid a construction loan, the couple kept their building footprint as small as possible. Unsure of just how small they could go, Meghan and Aaron laid their entire floor plan out on the concrete slab of a friend’s basement, fine tuning it until they were confident they had a design that would comfortably accommodate them and their two large dogs, even during the region’s long, cold winters.

“People build big homes because that’s what the real estate agents say they need for resale value,” Meghan says. “But there is no reason not to build on a smaller scale when you think of the number of spaces you don’t use. Or you can double your rooms’ uses.” Two of Aaron’s most inventive double uses of space include a sunken dining room table with built-in seating that hides beneath removable planks in the living room floor and a circular shower with a removable floor grate that covers a deep sunken bathtub. The shower’s exterior wall, a glowing column of gorgeous redwood, also functions as the home’s centerpiece—a space-saving trick that eliminates the need for additional walls separating the bathroom from the main living area. 

The couple also focused on giving function to areas typically relegated as dead space. High up on the walls, long shelves store books, picture albums and canned goods. Low ceilings in enclosed areas, such as closets and the utility room, allow the main ceiling to soar high above, creating the illusion of more space in the small house.

“Folks don’t get to see architecture on this scale very often,” Meghan says, recounting her most recent visitors: four ladies from a local church who stopped by for a tour after hearing about the house through word of mouth. “It’s great for folks to get to visit, experience what a house this size can feel like, and see that we’re normal people.”
 
Trash into treasure

The second step in Meghan and Aaron’s eco-friendly approach was to reuse as many materials as possible. And as luck would have it, just as they wrapped up their design plans, they caught wind of a large residence being torn down in neighboring Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Aaron and Meghan salvaged as much as they could from the house including all appliances, the tiles from a kitchen countertop, which they reconfigured into their bathroom floor, windows, doors and a garage door. Then they started searching the local landfills. “About the only place we didn’t look for stuff was the dead animal pit,” Meghan says.

Constructing the house and salvaging building materials kept the Powerses within their budget and green building ethics, but it wasn’t easy. “We were putting in upwards of 50 hours a week at our day jobs; then we’d get home at 10 at night from scavenging and read books on straw bale and natural plaster,” Aaron says. “It’s a miracle we’re still together,” Meghan laughs.

Fortunately, Meghan and Aaron had help. Siblings, friends and parents housed in an ad-hoc array of tents, RVs and a tipi helped with the construction. Meghan points out details made possible by the help, such as the handmade bathroom sink made by her sister and mother—both potters—and the large steel door that another sister scraped for days with a wire brush to create a modern brushed finish. 

New techniques, old ties

The homeowners also wanted to incorporate elements of the Teton Valley’s rich agrarian history into their house. The golden barley straw revealed in the home’s “truth window”—a feature in many straw bale homes that allows viewers to peer into the straw-filled wall interiors—mirrors the crops in the surrounding fields, as do the walls’ earthen textures. The reclaimed doors throughout the house match those on the abandoned barns just down the road.

Next to the house sits an old 30-foot grain silo from a neighboring farmer’s field, which Meghan and Aaron resurrected into a two-floor studio, workshop and garage. Downstairs in the workshop, Aaron can concentrate on projects related to his contracting business, Natural Dwellings; upstairs is Meghan’s office, which doubles as a guest bedroom.

The Powerses’ land ethic doesn’t end there. In the spirit of the homesteaders whose descendants still populate the valley, the couple has an extensive garden that provides much of their food throughout the year—not an easy feat in Idaho’s short, temperamental growing season. They also raise chickens, pigs, cows and geese, which they feed with food from their garden and barley dregs from the local brewery. In turn, the animals provide meat, eggs and manure to fertilize the garden.

“During the construction, Meghan said, ‘If I could raise my own meat, maybe I’d eat it,’” Aaron says, “so my dad went out and ordered two piglets the next day.”

As in most homes, the kitchen is the heart of the Powerses’ house. But for Meghan, it takes on added significance. “The kitchen is the part of the house that ties us to everything we like about this place,” she says. “The garden, the animals, the chicken we’re cooking for dinner right now.” 




A Chat With the Homeowners 

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