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Please ... No 'Three Little Pig' Jokes : A Waste Product, Straw Is Being Used to Build Efficient, Affordable Houses

August 22, 1993|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Haederle is a free-lance writer based in Albuquerque, N.M

SANTA FE, N.M. — The small, earth-colored house tucked away in the pinon-covered hills outside of town looks like another of the myriad, expensive adobe homes that have sprung up here in the last decade.

Standing in the cool, antique-filled interior, owner Carol Anthony rejoices in its rounded, sculptural lines, describing her recently completed weekend getaway as "a real quiet sanctuary--you feel that you're really part of the earth."

But Anthony's home is very different from those nearby: It was built from straw bales.

With the help of some building professionals, Anthony and her friends stacked the bales like bricks atop a concrete foundation, using mud plaster and stucco to finish the inner and outer surfaces. "It's really grounded and solid," said Anthony, a Santa Fe painter who has heard the inevitable "Three Little Pigs" jokes about her house made of straw.

Anthony is among a growing number of homeowners who have embraced the idea of using straw, an agricultural waste product that happens to have superb insulating properties, to build affordable, energy-efficient houses.

But as straw-bale houses have gone up in at least 17 states, including California, many owner-builders have been skirting state or local building codes, which have no provisions for the building technique.

Others, aided by a network of contractors, architects and environmental consultants, have persuaded building officials to allow straw-bale construction on an experimental basis.

In New Mexico, for instance, the state Construction Industries Division has issued permits for 10 experimental straw-bale houses, most of which are due for completion by the end of the summer.

At the same time, the U.S. Agriculture Department has just approved a two-year, $200,000 demonstration program in New Mexico to see whether straw-bale houses really are more affordable.

In California, meanwhile, the state's first permitted straw-bale house has just been completed in Lone Pine, on Highway 395, in the Eastern Sierra. The 2,500-square-foot passive solar structure includes composting toilets and its own indoor marsh to process gray-water from sinks and showers.

And in the Southland, one highlight of this year's Anaheim Home and Garden Show will be the 1,800-square-foot straw bale demonstration house being built inside the Anaheim Convention Center. The show is being held through next Sunday.

Despite the recent attention, straw-bale houses have an image problem. For starters, straw is a homely, unglamorous material. And regulatory agencies question the structural strength of straw bales and wonder whether they're vulnerable to rot and insect damage.

Some of these concerns may arise because straw and hay are often confused.

Hay, which is highly nutritious, is made by cutting and drying grasses and grains, such as wheat, barley, rye, oats and rice. Straw is the dried-out, leftover stems after the grain has been removed and contains few nutrients.

The image problem is an obstacle that Santa Fe straw-bale consultant Tony Perry is determined to overcome.

Perry, a 62-year-old businessman and former British army officer, founded Straw-Bale Construction Management Inc. to assist people in designing and building affordable housing.

It was Perry who led the effort to obtain the experimental permits as part of a program to develop standards that could be incorporated into the building code.

Perry also was the one who approached the Agriculture Department about building demonstration houses, one of which will be put up in a northern New Mexico Latino village, with the other earmarked for an Indian pueblo.

On an afternoon late in June Perry tours a hillside construction site, seemingly oblivious to the shattering heat, discussing the merits of straw-bale construction.

The walls of the 3,200-square-foot home under construction are made of thick, tan bales of straw stacked between concrete-block pillars that will support the weight of the roof.

Perry says straw-bale construction will alleviate the nation's affordable housing problem while reducing the air pollution generated by farmers burning waste. Straw bales are inexpensive and low-tech--perfect for inexperienced owner-builders, he said.

"Clearly, straw bales lend themselves beautifully to 'sweat equity,' " Perry said. "It's good for the economy all the way around."

One of the nice things about straw is its insulating ability, Perry said. An 18- to 24-inch thick wall has an impressive R-54 insulating value. A typical 2-by-4 Fiberglas-insulated wood-framed wall, by comparison, provides about an R-14 insulating factor.

While researching energy costs for the housing proposal he made to the federal government, Perry found it would cost about $800 a year to heat a 1,000-square-foot frame house, but only $200 a year to heat the same size straw-bale house.

Perry got into the straw-bale business a few years ago after his wife, Polly, a local real estate agent, joined a community affordable housing task force.

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