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County Huffing and Puffing Over Straw-Bale Hut

Officials want Meiners Oaks worm farmer to secure proper permits for his unusual office.

January 13, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

Pierre Constans, worm farmer and landscape designer, stood back and gazed at his little straw hut.

"Are you familiar with the 'Three Little Pigs'?" he asked.

In the children's tale, the Big Bad Wolf blows down houses to get at the fat little pigs inside. And the house of straw is first to go.

"I don't know if the county of Ventura is big or bad," said the Meiners Oaks entrepreneur. "But I wish they would stop focusing on me."

Constans, 60, has erected Ventura County's first straw-bale building, but its fate is in doubt: In his zeal to build a cheap, ecologically sound office, Constans failed to get any permits.

"I needed an office," he said in his thick French accent. "If I had known it would cause all this trouble, I would have built it with sticks."

Local authorities insist they have no problem with straw as a building material, but they say proper procedures must be followed.

"Pierre hasn't gotten any permits at all," said Jack Phillips, building official for Ventura County. "We have him listed in violation, and he is working with us on getting a conditional-use permit."

Constans, born in Paris and raised on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, seems baffled by the whole thing. He didn't think he needed permits for such a small building, and he's still not sure who complained about the office.

"I don't care about having the first straw-bale building," he said. "It just seemed like an easy way to get into business."

Cheap and plentiful, straw and grass have been used for thousands of years to build homes. In marshy areas of Iraq, cavernous meeting halls and ornate mosques have been built of reeds. Throughout Europe, straw houses -- some more than 200 years old -- still dot the landscape. And in the U.S., straw was used by settlers in places such as Nebraska, where timber was scarce.

In the early 1980s, ecological awareness and low prices revived interest in straw buildings. There are 300 to 500 straw-bale houses in California today, mostly in the foothill regions of the Sierra Nevada and along the Central Coast, said Maurice Bennett, executive director of the California Straw Building Assn., based in Angels Camp.

Bennett said the homes are about 10% to 15% cheaper than standard wooden houses.

"They stay cool in summer and warm in winter," he said. "It's environmentally friendly, and from an acoustic point of view, it's phenomenal. At my straw home, it's like living in a monastery. I could never go back to living in a stick house."

In some structures, the bales are mere insulation. But in others, including Constans', the straw is the chief construction material. It's pierced with iron stabilizing rods for strength, covered in wire, stuccoed and painted.

As office buildings go, Constans' 10-by-20-foot place is rather modest.

It sits on a muddy, one-acre lot where, Constans said, he "wrangles 300,000 head of worm," which spend their days in dark trays feasting on moldering coffee grounds. "They seem to like the French roast and Colombian best," he said.

Along with worm wrangling, Constans does landscape consulting and makes a plant and soil nutrient that he markets from his new straw digs.

Constans and a few friends spent a week last February stacking the roughly 40 bales that make up the office. The bales were $5 each, but the iron bars, electricity, stucco, floor and wire jacked the price up to about $3,000. Constans is painting the outside lemon yellow.

The inside is spartan but cozy. A bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling illuminates a fax machine, an old desk and a computer. Electricity comes from an outside outlet. Family pictures hang on the wall, and an empty champagne bottle sits on the desk.

Regardless of size or legality, Phillips said Constans has the first straw structure in the county. "We get a lot of inquiries each year, but people don't seem to follow through on it," he said. "The straw bales are often just infill, not structural supports."

Phillips said his office gets all sorts of proposals. "We always get the tire-house idea or sometimes a cement house," he said. "Most of these ideas never see the light of day, for economic reasons."

The Ojai Foundation is currently erecting a straw-bale reception center for its guests; so far, all its permits are in order.

"I think we will have the first legally permitted straw-bale structure in the county," said Marlow Hotchkiss, director of the foundation, which has experimented with alternative building materials for 20 years.

The building, up to 900 square feet with an adobe exterior, could be done by May 1.

"I think what Pierre is doing is probably harmless, but I'm sure the county doesn't," Hotchkiss said. "I would characterize the county as skeptical about straw bale, not proactive. They are concerned about buildings falling down on people."

Phillips said the straw buildings must be structurally sound and earthquake-proof and meet fire codes. "You need intense engineering on it," he said. "I think once you compare it with standard [wood], there isn't much cost advantage to straw bale."

Even so, Constans wants to keep his office. He is trying to raise $780 to apply for a conditional-use permit. If the building is in compliance, Phillips said, the permit could be issued.

In the meantime, drivers slow down to gawk at his house on Rice Road. He is routinely asked to build walls and additions out of straw.

"I am not a builder," he said wearily, "but suddenly I'm an expert."

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