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Ecological, Economical Design Under One Roof

For less than $20,000, a Maine couple built a home using recycled or renewable materials -- without giving up creature comforts.

October 30, 2005|Glenn Adams | Associated Press

MONROE, Maine — Miles off the paved highway and at the end of a long, bumpy driveway that cuts deep into the woods, Mick Womersley puts the finishing touches on his solar home. It's not your ordinary rural dwelling, even one designed to be ecologically sound.

Womersley, a human ecology professor, and his wife, Aimee Phillippi, live comfortably in a house built of about 200 bales of straw.

Their home bears no resemblance to the one blown down by the wolf in the children's story. Strong and solid, the walls have insulating capacity several times that of conventional homes.

Coming from a source that renews itself annually, straw is cheap, and it's not an attractive food source for insects. Its proponents note that once the tightly packed straw is covered with stucco, it catches fire at a higher temperature than wood.

All of which leave Womersley, who's in his 40s, and Phillippi, just shy of 30, cozy in the winter and cool in the summer. They have no mortgage and about $6,000 in credit debts from building the home they share with two dogs. They have no children.

Their home is separated from the woods road by vegetable gardens and a pigpen. It is off the power grid and self-contained.

Womersley takes special pride in the fact that it is built entirely from recycled or renewable materials. The construction cost came to less than $20,000.

"Every piece of junk that went into this house has a story," he said.

The wooden planking on the floor came from a former chicken barn. The large windows that admit floods of sunlight were donated by neighbors or bought secondhand, and one even came from Unity College, where Womersley and his marine biologist wife teach. The small private college offers a curriculum that emphasizes the environment and natural resources.

Wooden sheathing and studs that enclose the straw bales had previous uses before being salvaged by the couple. Much of the wooden framing in the post-and-beam structure was hewn from trees that were cut on the site, which Womersley thinks was an orchard long ago.

"This was an old farm; we're just reinhabiting it," he said as cool summer gusts swept across the lot, which Womersley is leasing for 99 years.

The project started in 2002, not as an experiment in environmentalism or a showcase in self-sufficiency, but rather out of financial necessity.

"I was paying rent in Belfast, and with utilities that was $900 a month," said Womersley, referring to the small coastal city about 20 miles to the south. "That's a lot of building materials.... We wanted a house that would save energy but would also be really cheap."

He cleared the land, dug trenches for a rubble base to a cinder-block foundation and built the kitchen section so he would have a place to live while the rest of the house went up.

Spring runoff that made a muddy mess of the driveway threatened to derail the project, but Womersley forged ahead. Mixing information he gleaned from books with his own ingenuity, he built framing to support the rest of the house and roof.

Erecting the straw walls involved much more than just piling up the oat and barley bales, which cost $2 to $7 each depending on what was available. The cost is far less than that of traditional building materials.

Once the bales were stacked, recycled foam board was placed along outside walls before they were covered with sheathing and cedar shingles. Inside, the bales were enclosed by adobe on chicken wire and topped by white lime plaster, leaving the roughhewn framing attractively exposed.

The main heating source is a wood-burning stove, though the house also has a propane stove and a refrigerator. Propane also heats the water, which is drawn from an old farm well.

Solar power provides the bulk of the couple's electricity. Power is stored in a bank of golf-cart batteries stowed neatly under a wooden step between rooms.

A fluorescent light brightened the home during a recent visit, and other fixtures were equipped with highly efficient bulbs. But Womersley, who thinks that living sustainably and comfortably aren't mutually exclusive, said his television viewing was unhindered by his energy-saving ways.

"You watch TV, and we're going to watch TV too," said Womersley, noting that the couple has Dish satellite service.

The couple did splurge on a $1,500 backup propane generator, which Womersley proudly fired up with the push of a button. It's especially useful as a heat backup in the coldest winter months to keep the 900-square-foot house cozy.

"We have a house here that runs on very little petroleum, and that might be important one of these days," said Womersley, whose doctorate from the University of Maryland was awarded for a dissertation on global environmental policy and religious environmentalism.

Although he takes his area of expertise seriously, Womersley thinks that environmental purists' ideas are often impractical and even elitist at times.

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