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Straw Homes. Come To Town

Once only found in the country, straw-bale houses have begun clearing building permit hurdles in urban areas.


The straw-bale house, once found only in the sticks, is coming to town.

From Santa Barbara to San Diego, building officials are giving their blessing to straw-bale houses that are cropping up between tract homes and alongside beach bungalows.

Matt Buckmaster and his wife, Jan Vucinich, are among the first in Southern California to obtain permits for straw-bale homes. Buckmaster is building the two-story house himself, with occasional help from contractors, in the suburbs just outside Santa Barbara.

Tucked behind a dilapidated redwood barn at the end of a long driveway, the 1,600-square-foot home has a commanding view of suburban houses below.

At a "bale raising" last fall, neighbors and friends helped the couple stack bales in the home's post-and-beam framework. The bales were then skewered with reinforcing bar and covered with chicken wire and stucco.

Buckmaster, 38, a feed store owner, spent many long days and nights mastering straw-bale building techniques. But he and Vucinich, 40, a preschool director, remain good-natured trailblazers for the growing straw-bale movement.

"I would love to see more people get turned on to the notion," Buckmaster said. "That was definitely part of why we did it, to illustrate what can be done."

The couple's home cost $200,000, cheaper than a conventional house, largely because Buckmaster acted as general contractor.

Built Without Permits in Past

Until recently, most straw-bale houses were built without permits in rural areas where the nearest neighbor was around the bend or over the next hill.

But California and Oregon, and some jurisdictions in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado, have amended their building codes to allow straw homes.

Armed with tests that prove straw-bale houses' ability to retard fire, repel pests and rodents and withstand moisture and earthquakes, property owners are applying for--and obtaining--permits to build with straw.

"Five or six years ago you would have had a hard time finding building officials that would consider a straw-bale house," said Bob Fowler, chief building official for the city of Pasadena and a well-known proponent of alternative building methods.

"But I would dare say now that if you walked in with plans that have an engineer's stamp on them, they would probably issue permits."

Law Amended to Allow Structures

Following standards set in the Pima County/City of Tucson Uniform Building Code, California lawmakers amended the state's Health and Safety Code in 1996 to allow straw-bale structures. Local jurisdictions can adopt these guidelines or use them as a reference.

About half of the state's 58 counties have adopted these standards and have permitted straw-bale structures, according to the California Straw Building Assn., a 4-year-old group of architects, builders and engineers with about 100 active members.

The number of permitted straw-bale homes in the state doubled last year to about 200, the group said.

These homes are concentrated in Mendocino, San Luis Obispo and San Diego counties and in the state's Central Valley and its gold country, said Bruce King, a structural engineer in Sausalito and author of "Buildings of Earth and Straw: Structural Design for Rammed Earth and Straw-Bale Architecture."

But building with straw is still quite difficult in the state's most urbanized areas, including Los Angeles County, where officials have yet to review an application for a permit for a straw-bale home.

Given the cost of land in Los Angeles, home builders are likely to shy away from a technique whose 22-inch-thick walls hog precious square footage, Fowler said. Straw builders may also have a tough time finding a structural engineer familiar with the material to sign off on their plans--a requirement here because of seismic issues, he added.

Advantages of Using Straw

Straw-bale proponents believe that the resistance in highly urbanized areas will change as more people become aware of the advantages to building with straw.

The first straw-bale houses in the United States were built in the Nebraska Sand Hills in the early 1900s. About 25 of these homes survive today. The practice then spread to the south but petered out as conventional building materials became available in the mid-1900s.

The straw-bale renaissance in the United States began in the late 1980s, primarily in Arizona and New Mexico, where the style is well suited to the hot, dry climate.

The renewed interest in straw homes was prompted largely by their hardiness and their energy efficiency. They can last twice as long as wood-frame homes and save up to 75% on heating and cooling costs.

Straw-bale construction can also reduce building costs. Depending on the "sweat equity" of the builder and the home's design and amenities, straw homes can run from $20 to $75 a square foot. Conventional wood-frame houses typically cost $45 to $75 a square foot.

But because the shell of a home constitutes only about 10% of its total cost, custom straw home prices often rank near conventional home costs.

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