The House That Rice Built
Everyone is interested in energy conservation these days, and for good reason: conservation saves you money. This point is felt especially during our sweltering summer heatwaves, when it seems that most of your paycheck goes straight to PG&E to pay for your air conditioning. There are lots of things you can do to tighten up your house, but if you are building new, then your options really open up. Because of our temperature extremes and a large amount of rice production, one of the best options for this area is building a strawbale house.
In 2001, after living for several years in a leaky old farmhouse (the curtains moved when the wind blew!), we were ready to build a new house on our farm. We knew we wanted a house that could withstand the heat and maintain a steady temperature mostly by itself. As rice farmers, we had an ample supply of rice straw to work with. And so, our dream became reality as we designed and built our strawbale house.
Strawbale homes first appeared over 100 years ago in the sandhills of Nebraska. With few trees to supply lumber, settlers baled prairie grasses and stacked the bales like bricks to form the walls of the house. Some of these structures are still standing, and became the model for the strawbale revival that started in the 1990s. With walls that are two feet thick, the insulating properties of bales are outstanding. Coated with plaster or stucco on both sides, bale walls are rodent-proof, fire-proof, and yes, bullet-proof!
But bales are not magic, and a poorly designed house built with bales can easily become a house that performs poorly, with high energy bills. In our case, we took the passive solar design of our house very seriously, because we didn’t want a house that would be hard to cool. Thus, we sited the house between two large oak trees that provide both morning and afternoon shade. The house has four-foot overhangs to keep the sun off the walls. East and West facing windows are small, so that they let in less direct sunlight. Our ceilings are very high: a minimum of 10 feet, rising to nearly 20 feet in our great room. The high ceilings increase the volume of the house, allowing hot air a place to go, as well as increasing the amount of cement plaster in the house. The cement acts as a thermal sink, which can suck up tremendous amounts of heat.
We also probably work a bit harder than most people at keeping the house cool in the summer. We open windows at night after the outside temperature has dropped below the inside temperature. The design of the house allows us to vent the hot air without using fans. In the morning, as the outside temperature creeps past 70 degrees, we shut the windows and let the house coast through the day. If we can get the house down to 70 degrees overnight, we usually won’t need air conditioning except during heat waves.
In addition to their energy efficiency, strawbale homes have a unique esthetic quality. The thick walls open up possibilities for things like shelves that are recessed into the walls, or broad window seats. We love the soft, bumpy appearance of our walls, created by plastering directly over the irregular surface of the bales.
There are challenges to building with bales also. You absolutely must start with dry bales and keep them dry to prevent rotting. Bales are heavy, and it takes a lot of muscle power to stack the walls. We hosted a wall-raising party to get this done, and had about 100 very kind people show up to help us get our walls built (we owe lots of favors!). Bale walls are also very thick, thus increasing the footprint of your house quite dramatically.
People often ask about the cost of building a strawbale house as opposed to other forms of construction. In reality, I think strawbale costs about the same as any custom home, or maybe slightly more due to the extra roof and foundation that is required for the thick walls. However, those relatively minor upfront costs are very quickly recovered in the reduced energy bills that you will see over the lifespan of the house, saving you many thousands of dollars.
If we had to do it over again, there are certainly things we would change about our house. But I can guarantee you that we would definitely build it with bales!