Built by the Bale

In a Hood River County first, Pine Grove couple constructs eye-catching home made of straw

It’s a round house made of straw on Glass.

Glass Road, that is. The straw bale home, owned by Dan and Connie Clark, is thought to be the first one to be built and actually lived in in Hood River County.

It’s garnered more than a few double-takes during the past year, as it took shape among the orchards of the middle valley.

What it did not garner were many call-backs from local builders the Clarks tried to hire.

“They heard it was round and straw bale and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” Dan says.

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The Clarks moved to the Hood River Valley two years ago and bought a small organic orchard near Pine Grove. The couple, who have two children ages 10 and 13, wanted to build an energy-efficient home on the property and after researching several methods, they decided on straw bale.

Straw bale construction has been around in this country for more than a century. In the late 1800s, pioneers on the treeless Nebraska prairie began building their homes from bales of straw because there was little wood available. Many of those early straw bale homes are still standing and in good condition.

Straw bale construction has seen a revival in recent years — particularly in the Southwest — as an environmentally-friendly way to build energy-efficient homes. Straw bales have an insulation rating value of between R-35 and R-50 (depending on who you ask). Even the lower end of that scale is as good or better than many traditionally-insulated homes.

In addition to being energy efficient and requiring less wood than stick-built homes, using straw bales for construction is a clean way to deal with agricultural waste that usually has to be burned. Straw bale construction has also gained popularity because it’s “natural,” and eliminates the need for synthetic insulation and other traditional building products that some people think are toxic.

As techniques have become perfected, more straw bale homes and buildings are beginning to show up even in wetter climes, including Oregon. In Ashland, students at the local high school built a straw bale classroom last year. A builder in Jacksonville is currently creating a straw bale “village” of more than a dozen homes.

The Clarks researched straw bale homes extensively and eventually worked with a local architect, Dardo Salas, to come up with a workable plan. The round design was the way the Clarks decided to address an age-old quandary of homes big and small: no matter what the size or layout of the house, people like to gather in the kitchen.

“We’ve had a couple of ‘traditional’ houses,” Dan says. “It’s always been the same thing. You might have a big home, but everybody stands in the kitchen.” So they designed the house with the kitchen as the centerpiece — literally; the center point of the home is directly in the middle of a kitchen island in the middle of the kitchen. A long bar is the only thing that separates the kitchen from the living room, making the whole space feel like one open, airy room. Bedrooms open from the sides of the kitchen and an attic “turret” is accessed by stairs in the master bedroom.

“Everything is three steps from the kitchen,” Dan says — which is exactly what they wanted.

Despite joking about not being able to find a builder, Dan had planned to do most of the construction himself, with the hope of getting someone to help with the finish work. Tobias Ammon, a carpenter from Germany who has lived in the Hood River Valley for years, heard about the Clark’s house midway through construction and showed up at the job site. Tobias, who has a self-described “craze with straw bales,” has studied straw bale construction for years and plans to build his own straw bale home in the Upper Valley next year.

Dan was glad to have someone around with knowledge of straw bale construction, and the two of them finished the house together.

Straw bale homes are generally built in one of two ways: with the bales themselves bearing the weight of the roof, or in combination with post-and-beam construction for supporting the roof.

The Clark’s home was built primarily with the bales supporting the roof.

“We’re right on the edge of the weight limit you can have on bale walls,” Dan says, so some wood beams were used to add additional support. The 1,700 square foot home required about 160 straw bales, according to Dan, which he bought from a farmer who had them stored in a barn near Salem.

After the framing and bales were up, and the roof in place, the final step was applying stucco to the outside. The inch-thick layer of stucco — along with features like pea gravel between the bottom row of bales and the foundation, a strip of metal flashing along the outside lower edge of the bales, and a two-foot roof overhang — helps ensure that the bales stay dry.

A couple of 10-inch “windows” inside the house allow access to the bales, where Dan can check the moisture level by inserting a moisture meter.

“It’s also so you can say, ‘This is a straw bale house,’” Tobias says.

The Clarks recently had their final inspection and are officially moved in.

“The inspectors were really fantastic,” Dan says. “They were very interested in the project and wanted to see it done well.”

The Clarks used expensive finish materials — including slate and travertine floor tiles and high-end wood — and stress that building a straw bale home is not necessarily less expensive than traditional construction.

But the house is “warm and comfortable,” Dan says. “Everything seems like it will last and be low maintenance. It turned out better than we hoped.”

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For more information about straw bale construction, contact Tobias Ammon at Old World Carpentry and Furniture, 352-6210.

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