by Kevin Taylor
I think I've heard every Three Little Pig joke there is -- careful, don't step in the goo." Scott Weston, a burly man in a bright red jacket, is a blot of vivid color as he charts a course around a construction site in the Spokane Valley on a gray autumn afternoon, carefully steering past a pinkish swamp of leftover stucco mix.
At first glance, this suburban lot looks like any other construction site: the shells of two modest houses rising on a patch of scraped earth, surrounded by the materials and detritus of construction.
Except that a closer look shows that all the tan stuff covering the ground isn't sawdust at all. And behind one of the houses, at the end of a twisting extension cord, a beefy circular saw rests atop a hay bale. What's going on here?
Weston, stepping onto the concrete slab of one of the houses, was headed for the "truth window." Just inside the front door, a pane of glass set into a wooden picture frame, offers a glimpse into the fat, stucco walls. And what you see there is straw.
The Hauser Lake, Idaho, contractor runs Cedar Creek Builders, and he is constructing a pair of "Nebraska style" straw-bale houses right in the middle of rancher-ville at 12th Avenue and Blake in the Spokane Valley.
"One of our goals is to bring mainstream builders an awareness that this is not a joke," Weston says.
Indeed. This modest and ordinary-looking construction site is the front line of a -- well, let's go ahead and say it -- a grassroots effort by the local Soil Conservation District to promote the use of straw from area bluegrass fields as an environmentally friendly and energy-efficient construction material.
And there's enough to build lots and lots of homes, if the conservation district's Jim Armstrong has any say. Wiry and intense, Armstrong speaks with a visionary's zeal about using an annually renewable resource to build houses in a way that doesn't deplete dwindling natural resources, either in the forests or on the energy grid.
Straw-bale houses are nothing new, of course, but they carry something of a counterculture flavor -- often built by a landowner and friends out in the country. Weston, a contractor building the houses for the open market, with financial backing from the conservation district, represents a big step toward bringing straw construction right into town.
The one-story homes are nearing completion and are
priced competitively at $135,000. And even though
they cost about as much to build as (here's some construction slang you can casually drop into conversation later) a stick-built house, Weston, Armstrong and real estate agent Allen Reilly all point to projected huge savings in energy costs. The walls are 18 inches thick with tightly compressed straw at an insulation value of about R-30. Compare that to the R-19 of most homes. The houses are built with in-floor radiant heat and have many features that allow sunlight in the winter and block it in the summer.
"I hope it works. Because of the availability of the material, it'd be nice to see it go mainstream," says Randy Vissia, Spokane County's codes administrator, adding that Spokane County adopted building codes for straw-bale construction in 1996 and that since then, only six such structures have been built. The houses Weston is building are the first in which the roof rests directly on top of the bales, which bear the entire weight. There is no wood in the walls. In other methods, the load is taken by posts and beams with the straw-bales used only as in-fill.
"This is a big step. These homes are going to kick-start the industry," says Armstrong, public information officer for the conservation district. "We wanted to start a whole new industry, and we wanted to help the farmers."
There's irony to the conservation district's push for eco-friendly building. It flows right out of the political smoke of one of this area's most contentious environmental health issues -- the practice of field burning.
The Washington Department of Ecology in 1998 banned field burning by Spokane-area bluegrass growers. Now, after a controversial deal with the wheat growers that allowed permissible burn acreage to grow exponentially, the agency is in the midst of phasing out the burning of all grain and cereal crop field stubble in Eastern Washington.
"Our primary impetus was that growers are now forced to bale and remove residue -- that used to be burned -- at a cost of $1.2 million per year in Spokane County alone. And that's just to get it to the edge of the field. Then they have to pay someone to haul it off or have infrastructure to store it, because if it gets wet it's useless. It becomes waste," Armstrong says.
He adds that there is a potential to have hundreds of thousands of tons of straw available every year in Eastern Washington.
As he puts it: "We've got it running out of our ears, and there is no market for it."
The effort is welcome, says Jeff Krautkraemer of Pullman, chairman of Save Our Summers (SOS), a group that has been fighting to end field burning since the mid-1990s. Using the straw to build houses "is certainly better than burning it and putting it in the air," says Krautkraemer, who became involved with SOS in 1998 because of the effect of stubble burning on his son's asthma.
But Krautkraemer and others wonder if there will ever be the kind of market that Armstrong envisions.
"It has not caught on with contractors," says Maurice Bennett, director of the California Straw Builders Association, speaking by telephone from his home in Angels Camp. "Nowhere -- even in Arizona and New Mexico -- has it caught on as a mass-build sort of thing. It's still a boutique industry."
The California State Assembly, also responding to a field-burning ban, adopted legislation in 1995 that set out standards for straw construction. Spokane County's code is modeled, in part, on this bill.
"The bill has, in the opinion of many here, not done much to encourage building with rice straw," says Margery Winter, the legislation coordinator for the Codes and Standards Division of the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
From her office in Sacramento, she goes on to say that the legislature's top-down approach hasn't worked.
"Just because it's in the law doesn't mean it has credibility," she says, noting there is skepticism that lawmakers know anything about building.
"Not many engineers or architects are familiar with building with rice straw," Winter says. And building inspectors tend to look askance at laws that have yet to make it into state building codes.
Before anything changes, Winter sees a long process in which all the parties -- builders, lenders, fire marshals, rice growers, building inspectors -- need to get together and create a building code based on the real-world characteristics of straw bales as a construction material.
"When you get through that, then you have a lot of people familiar with that process -- and that has not happened here," Winter says.
But Spokane's Armstrong happens
to be a visionary with a wide streak
of common sense, and he has already moved straw-bale construction a few steps from obscurity toward respectability. Last winter, he pulled together a focus group that included representatives from banks, mortgage companies, appraisers, homebuilder associations and regulators.
"That was a good effort by Jim," says Spokane County's Vissia, a member of the group. "At the first meeting it was, 'Okay, who do we need to be involved in this?' They tried to get bankers and appraisers on board because they don't have a clue how to deal with something like this."
Questions abounded. What about fire safety? Settling? Rot? R-values? When you try to appraise a house with load-bearing straw walls, what do you compare it to?
Armstrong has been heartened by the response from the county -- Vissia has taken his staff to the site in order to gain familiarity with the building techniques -- and from firms such as Western Capital Mortgage and Windermere Realty.
But he's not stopping there. There have been open houses at the site every Tuesday this fall so the curious can come and see the homes being built. Armstrong also plans a series of workshops this winter, when people in the building trades have more free time, with sessions aimed at lenders, appraisers, contractors and real-estate agents.
"We realize with what we are doing we have to educate the public, the builders, the lenders -- the whole gamut of the building industry -- because there are those questions. Everybody wants to know, what about fire safety, what about mice, what about bugs, what about moisture?" Armstrong ticked the familiar questions off on his fingers.
The straw bales are so compressed, they have a burn rating of about two hours, Armstrong says, while stud walls are rated at 20 or 30 minutes. The compression of the straw and layers of stucco that seal them serve as protection against pests and moisture, he says. There is no plumbing in the walls, and the electrical wires that run up to the rafters are held in flexible metal conduit as protection should the walls shift or settle.
After the bales are stacked, a series of cables are run from the foundation, up over the top, and back to the slab. These cables are then cinched tight to compress the straw and allow it to bear the weight of the house. The bales are further tied together with wire mesh. Construction workers can have the unusual experience of passing a giant sewing needle back and forth through the wall to bind the mesh to the bales with twine.
"There are a lot of things here that a typical builder has never done," Weston says with a smile.
Weston and his crew have seen builders cruise past the site in their pickups, rubbernecking. Some have stopped in for a closer look.
"Builders are skeptical. Then they start asking questions," Weston says.
And straw-bale houses do come with certain quirks.
"I was talking to a guy the other day who was asking about R-values, and I gave the standard spiel about R-30 and he was impressed. But then he says, 'Look at the wall. It's not straight.' And I says, 'Yeah! Isn't that great?' He was surprised by my reaction to his reaction. Our society is so conditioned to straight and linear that we're not used to something like this,'' Weston says, patting the fat stucco wall.
Until the homes are sold, builders will probably remain skeptical, says Dave Bauer, executive officer of the Spokane Home Builders Association.
"It's such a revolutionary kind of thing that it will be awhile before this finds its way into the mainstream," he says. He explained the industry conservatism by telling the tale of Good Cents home construction. The techniques to super insulate houses were hailed at the time as a great way to save on energy costs. But houses were wrapped so tight that gasses could build inside to toxic levels. In Western Washington, he says, houses that can't breathe have created mold problems.
"When we came up with the Good Cents concept, who could foresee these problems coming down the road?" he asks. Bauer did say builders have made strides in embracing new concepts including recycled and waste wood and even certain plastics. "It's remarkable how far green construction has come, simply because natural resources are being used up."
Builders, Reilly adds, "are waiting for the S-O-L-D sign to go up. That will be the proof in the pudding that we cannot only build it, but sell it."
Armstrong and Reilly estimated that
450 people had visited the
building site by mid-October. Reilly says he had about a dozen people who were seriously interested in either buying one of the two houses or having a contractor build one for them.
"I think this is going to take off. We got a lot of people excited," Armstrong says.
"Getting this into the mainstream is why we did it," Weston says. "We wanted that shock value, and I think we got it."
So with apologies to the builder, it seems that skeptics may huff and puff, but they won't blow these houses down.