A House Made of Straw

  • Joe and Shelly Trumpey and their daughters, Autumn and Evelyn. The family built their strawbale and adobe home with straw, sand, clay, field stone, and timber - all sourced nearby. (Photo by Steve Charles, Wabash College)

Most of us live in buildings made out of wood, concrete, steel or bricks. But some people are making their homes with bales of straw.

One couple in Grass Lake, Michigan, has spent the past two and a half years building a very energy-efficient home with straw bales. And it’s not just some little novelty project. Joe and Shelly Trumpey live in it, with their two daughters.

If you’re thinking Big Bad Wolf… Joe’s heard that one just a few times.

“That’s the most common joke, three little pigs, exactly.”

The Last Straw, a site about building strawbale homes

A blog about the Trumpeys from Joe’s alma mater


But the fairy tale jokes stop the minute you turn the corner on the country road… and see the Trumpey home. It’s big… two stories, and more than 2,000 square feet. The outside is red adobe and it has a green steel roof. The whole thing is supported by a traditional timber frame and field stones.

Joe says they wanted to build with natural materials that they could get locally. They’re almost entirely solar-powered. And they wanted to live in a really energy-efficient house. Straw can do that.

“It’s cheap and the size of the bale gives you a lot of insulation.”

(door jingling as it’s opened)

Inside, it’s cozy even though it’s 20 degrees out with a biting wind. Joe says that’s because the walls are so thick. They have an insulation value two to three times greater than a conventional home.

And yes, they have electricity, running water, indoor plumbing. There’s even a flat screen TV hanging on the wall. Everything looks so conventional, you’d never know the walls are filled with straw.

“Here I’ll show ya. All straw bale buildings have a truth window – here’s a little doorway (sound of opening door) that we can open up that’s not plastered by the adobe so you can actually see the straw behind and show you the truth.”

And there they are: stacked bales of wheat straw tied with a red rope. The seed’s been removed so critters won’t eat it. But there are bigger worries.

“When you’re building the building all the open straw is a huge fire hazard at that point so we were really careful not to have any smokers around and no open fires. Once it’s coated with mud the fire proofing is really in place.”

Joe says you also have to let the straw breathe so it won’t trap moisture. Otherwise the walls could rot. He says the adobe plaster on the outside of the straw allows air to flow.

Before they could even start building, they had to win over their building inspector. Straw bale buildings are not in Michigan building code.

Tom Nolte ended up being Joe’s guy. He says inspecting a straw home was a first for him.

“Joe had his idea laid out for me and I simply left him with if you can get me the engineering details to chronicle how the roof would be supported and how it all ties together, I’d say let’s go for it! (chuckles)”

Nolte says Joe did that, and he’s satisfied the house is perfectly sound.

But building your house in an unusual way is not easy. Shelly’s a 3rd grade teacher, and Joe’s a professor. Before and after their day jobs… they worked on their house. They dug 50 tons of field stones out of their farm field. Joe milled every piece of wood himself. Shelly built the 35-foot high stone fireplace.

“My advice is don’t tell your wife how much work it’s gonna be before you get started because she’ll never go along with it! (laughs) The girls too. None of us had any idea how much work it was gonna be. (pause) To Joe: You did? Joe: It was more than I planned, but still, I knew (laughs).”

Joe and Shelly went through all this because they wanted to prove it’s possible to have a comfortable home with a small impact. One that uses natural materials from within miles of their home.

“I think it’s a great example for my students and for my children, in terms of being respectful to nature and living in this earth.”

You can see photos and a design plan of the Trumpey home at environment-report dot org.
I’m Rebecca Williams.

Oldest Net-Zero House in America

  • Matt and Kelly Grocoff have taken the last major step to turn their 110-year-old home into the nation's oldest net-zero house, and Michigan's first. (Photo courtesy of Matt Grocoff)

The Environment Report has been following an effort to make a Michigan house the oldest net-zero house in America. That means in a year the home will produce as much energy or more than it uses. Lester Graham reports… the owners are at the point where they can reach that goal.

Matt and Kelly Grocoff bought an old house in a historic neighborhood in Ann Arbor a few years ago. Matt wanted to show that making an older home an energy efficient showcase made more sense than building new. He wanted to use it as an example for others. Kelly was just a little skeptical.

“When we first bought the house and Matt was talking about what he wanted to do and what some goals might be, part of me was sort of like yeah, yeah, you know. Matt’s a dreamer. He likes to think big. And it’s really happening.”

Assess your own home’s energy efficiency

Related Environment Report stories featuring Matt Grocoff


Matt has worked with new technologies, new approaches, struggling with bureaucrats getting permits, working through red tape of the utility company. There were some mistakes along the way in trying to make the old house really efficient and now producing energy. But showing how it could be done was part of the idea.

(sound of solar panel installation)

On the day we were visiting this fall, the final major element was being installed… solar panels.

Matt says this is going to take the house from being super energy efficient—to actually producing more electricity than it uses.

“I actually read the other day, Newsweek had a quote, that solar panels will return 15-percent every year. Now, last time I checked savings accounts were zero-percent, CDs were 2.9-percent which is actually zero-percent after inflation, and the S & P 500 stock was under 3-percent. Investing in your own home is the best thing you can do right now especially in this economy.”

He says he’ll get his money back on this system in eight years.

But… that wouldn’t have been possible without some incentives. His utility company offers incentives and government tax credits covered 30-percent of the cost. While tax credits for things like insulation and other efficiencies end on December 31st, tax credits for solar enegy systems, geothermal heat pumps, residential wind turbines and fuel cells will be in place until the end of 2016. In the end… he’ll have out-of pocket expenses amounting to about 19-thousand dollars for a 56-thousand dollar solar installation.

“If it weren’t for those incentives, the payback would be much, much longer, but would still be beneficial. I also want to make the point that the systems are coming down in cost every year. I’m paying less than someone who installed solar two years ago. “

And experts predict the cost of solar panels will continue to go down.

“Four years from now, they’re saying that solar will be on par with coal as far as a per-kilowatt cost. That’s when these incentives may not be as necessary going forward.”

Now that those solar panels are installed, on average, Matt’s electricity bill will be zero dollars. And he’s being paid by his utility for producing renewable energy. Score!

All it took was some determination, some creative financing, and a view to the future.
Kelly Grocoff says it’s been an interesting learning experience.

“There are more resources than people might think. It’s just hard to find them. But, if we can do it, anybody can do it, almost anyone.”

Matt is quick to note… much of what they’ve learned is now online at his website, Greenovation-dot-TV, where you can see the house and a lot of information about how to do it yourself.

The Grocoff’s say they’ve preserved an old home, honoring the past in a way that stops energy waste and contributing to global warming, their way of honoring the future.

For The Environment Report… I’m Lester Graham.

Suing for Quiet Recreation in the Forest

  • A stand of red pine trees in the Huron-Manistee National Forest. (Photo courtesy of Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service)

A man who’s been dogging the U.S Forest Service to make some parts of the Huron Manistee Forest off limits to gun hunters and snowmobilers won his case in federal court this fall.

As Bob Allen reports, the Court says forest managers have to consider setting aside roughly 70,000 acres for quiet uses such as hiking, bird watching and cross country skiing:


Kurt Meister’s family has had a cottage near Cadillac since he was a kid. So he grew up exploring the woods and streams of the national forest.

(sound of Meister walking in the forest)

In recent years, he says, when he’d take his daughters for hikes in the fall and they’d hear gunshots, the girls would want to turn back and go home.

Meister says that’s why he raised questions about quiet recreation when the forest service updated its plan a couple of years ago.

MEISTER: “This case isn’t about hunting. It’s not about gun hunting. It’s not about stopping gun hunting. It’s simply saying it shouldn’t be everywhere. And if you make it everywhere, you’re affecting other people’s rights.”

Meister is trained as an attorney and he’s suing the forest service as one citizen.

It’s unusual to get as far as he has with his challenge.

That may be why managers didn’t seriously consider his suggestion to close parts of the forest to gun hunters and snowmobilers.

Jeff Pullen is a biologist in charge of writing the plan for the Huron Manistee.

PULLEN: “Really, if you look at the 2,000 or so comments we got on the plan, we had one person asking for this. And we felt, from an agency perspective, it didn’t seem reasonable to develop a separate alternative that looked at this issue that one person was raising.”

But the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals disagrees with the Forest Service.

It says the agency was arbitrary in its decisions.

What Kurt Meister is asking the court to do is set aside areas designated as non-motorized for quiet recreation.

Those are places where, on paper, the forest plan says a person can expect to be isolated from the sights and sounds of other humans.

But on the ground, Meister says, what happens is that snowmobile trails and cross country ski trails run side by side.

MEISTER: “Do the snowmobilers care? Probably not. Unless the cross country skiers get in their way they’re going to be OK with that. Do the cross country skiers care? Yeah, they care a lot because if they have to smell the exhaust fumes, if they can’t see the animals, if they can’t just enjoy the sounds and the quiet of the forest it’s a very different experience for them.”

Forest Service officials say they don’t have control over all the roads and trails that are laced throughout the Huron Manistee.

But planner Jeff Pullen says you can still find quiet places even outside the non-motorized areas to ski or snowshoe.

Pullen: “Simply by virtue of the fact that there aren’t snowmobile trails in those areas and there aren’t a lot of people using them to a large extent.”

Pullen says the forest service approach is to allow as many different types of users as possible in all areas of the forest while minimizing conflicts among them.

But Kurt Meister says with nearly a million acres in the Huron Manistee managers ought to be able to carve out places for all the different users to do their thing without interfering with anyone else.

He isn’t under any illusion, though, that in the end he’s going to get 70,000 acres set aside for quiet uses.

For the Environment Report, I’m Bob Allen.

Host tag: The Forest Service is now re-working their plan for the Huron-Manistee. They either have to include Kurt Meister’s suggestions or prove to the Court why his ideas won’t work.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Lice Boutique Tackles Parasites

  • Olivia Shaw receiving treatment at Rapunzel's lice boutique. (Photo by Mark Brush)

A how-to-delouse guide from the EPA

More about Rapunzel’s Lice Boutique

Info about lice from the FDA


Finding live bugs and tiny eggs in your hair is a shocker. And treating head lice is usually not a lot of fun, either. Many head lice treatments involve pesticides. But one Michigan woman has created a business that gets rid of lice without pesticides. Kyle Norris has more:

A couple of years ago, Sarah Casello-Rees’ head starting really itching. When she looked at her hair she saw things moving. Then she looked at her son’s head.

“And he was terribly infested. He just had a zoo of lice crawling all over his head.”

Casello-Rees had no experience with head lice…so she didn’t know what to do. Plus, her hair is thick & curly—and she felt there was no one she could turn to, to help treat her hair. Casello-Rees says that’s when her personal hell began.

“I was desperate and it was horrible. So at that point I thought maybe I could start a business that would help other families with this dilemma.”

And that’s what she’s done. Her business is called Rapunzel’s Lice Boutique. It’s a hair salon in Ann Arbor that treats head lice. And all treatments are pesticide-free.

Today the Shaw family children are at Rapunzel’s for a follow-up treatment.

(sound of Rapunzel’s staff chatting with the kids)

When Debbie Shaw first spotted lice in her kids’ hair she ran out and bought an over-the-counter product. But she wasn’t happy with it, because she says she knew it contained pesticides. And she says it didn’t work. So she likes the fact that Rapunzel’s does not use pesticides.

“I try to be as natural as possible I’m not against medications but the minimum is better. I don’t like to put foreign stuff in my children’s body or on their body.”

If you get treated at Rapunzel’s you actually come for three visits.

And that’s because lice are a double whammy. You’ve got the insects—lice—that suck blood from the scalp. And then you have their eggs, known as nits. The nits attach to the hair with a strong glue…and that makes it tough to remove the nits.

At Rapunzel’s, they spray your hair with natural enzymes which loosen the glue. [ambi spray]. Then the staff picks out the lice and nits. And last, they squirt a non-toxic, silicone oil called dimethicone, onto the hair, to kill any remaining creatures.

And that’s how they treat lice at Rapunzel’s.

At the store the two most common pesticides in lice products are permethrin and pyrethrum.

Dr. Barbara Frankowski is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. She says those two chemicals found in lice treatments are safe.

“They have a really good track record they’ve been around for a long time. They’re relatively easy to use. You do have to follow the directions carefully.”

But Frankowski says lice are developing resistance to some of these products, so they’re not as effective.

Other scientists take a more cautious approach.

Sonya Lunder is a senior analyst at Environmental Working Group. She says these pesticides are potent chemicals typically used in agriculture. But in this case, they’re used on children’s heads.

“I would worry that with a child their body systems are much smaller, they’re developing rapidly, that these chemicals could be mis-applied. And this is a potent nervous system toxicant.”

Both experts say it’s crucial to follow the exact directions for any lice treatment product. And they say an additional technique—like removing lice by hand—is also key, because many products only kill the live lice, not the nits.

So there are a lot of options and it can be hard to know what to do.

Rapunzel’s Lice Boutique owner, Sarah Casello-Rees, says many of her clients come to her as a last resort.

And her clients seem to appreciate the help. Like 10-year old Olivia Shaw.

“When you think about you’re in a lice place it’s kind of weird. When I found out I had lice I started to cry I was like, no, I can’t have lice. But when you’re done you’re like, yes!”

In fact, plenty of young clients have covered the walls of Rapunzel’s with their thank you letters and drawings of lice. For the Environment Report, I’m Kyle Norris.

Tiny Invasives & Sooper Yooper

  • Billy Cooper, the Sooper Yooper, swims after an invasive sea lamprey. (Illustration by Mark Heckman, courtesy of Thunder Bay Press)

Scientists are scrambling to keep up with teeny tiny invaders… bacteria and fungi.

A new study in the journal Ecology Letters finds there are more invasions by microbes… and very little is being done about them.

Elena Litchman is the author of the study.

She says there’s an invasive bacterium from the tropics that’s been spreading in lakes in Michigan. It can produce toxins and make people and animals sick.

“It could affect people who want to go swim in a local lake and that could be really unpleasant.”

Litchman says invasive bacteria and fungi are really hard to detect, so they just don’t get a lot of attention.

(music sting)

This is the Environment Report.

With 180 invasive species already in the Great Lakes… a superhero could come in handy.

There’s a new children’s book called Sooper Yooper: Undaunted Hero from the North Battles Alien Sea Creatures. It features Billy Cooper, an ex-Navy Seal who lives in the U.P. with his scuba-diving bulldog, Mighty Mac. In the book Cooper and Mighty Mac discover the Lakes are being invaded by blood-sucking sea lamprey and destructive zebra mussels.

The Michigan State University study on invasive microbes

More about Sooper Yooper


Clip of Mark reading from the book:

“‘Holy zooplankton!’ cried Cooper, spotting more proof of an invasion. Mighty Mac barked wildly from the shore. Sniffing out more menacing mollusks, he was doggone determined not to allow the problem to be buried.”

That’s Mark Newman. He’s the book’s author. Sooper Yooper was illustrated by artist Mark Heckman. He died in May after a two-year battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Heckman’s wife, Diane, is here along with Mark Newman.

Diane, this book was your husband’s idea. Why did he want to create Sooper Yooper?

DH: “Mark had a huge place in his heart for the environment and for kids and he wanted to just get kids more informed with the environment and how they can help protect the Great Lakes because they are our future.”

RW: So what was the process like for him, developing these characters?

DH: “Each page is an actual original painting and they’re beautiful. It took Mark, oh, a month or more per painting and they’re all acrylics.”

RW: They’re beautiful, and they’re funny. I especially love the one of Mighty Mac when he’s diving down to catch a sea lamprey in his mouth, and the way Billy Cooper’s portrayed – he’s sort of a cross between a lumberjack and a surfer.

DH: “Yes. Mark was always very physically fit, which had to do with his physique, Billy Cooper, in the book, and Mark loved bulldogs, so that is actually our bulldog in the book.”

RW: So, Mark Newman, you and Mark Heckman worked together to come up with the story. Billy Cooper doesn’t really seem to have any special superhuman powers… why is that?

MN: “We decided to just make him like you or I, so kids could get that message that they could be a superhero when it comes to saving the environment.”

RW: Except, I would note there’s a point in the book where he gets legislation passed in Congress with lightning speed, which would never happen…

MN: (laughs) “That’s a good point. But I tell kids if he has a superpower, he’s super smart.”

RW: Diane, what did your husband tell you he wanted kids to take away from this book?

DH: “Just that they can all be a superhero in their own right to help save the Great Lakes. Just to know they can make a huge difference in the environment. Mark was a great guy, he had a huge, huge personality, and in his 49 years of life he probably lived a couple lifetimes. He really got out and enjoyed life. He was a very fun guy and a joy to be around.”

RW: Thank you both so much for coming in to talk with me.

DH and MN: Thank you.

Diane Heckman is the wife of the late Mark Heckman. He illustrated the new children’s book, Sooper Yooper. Mark Newman is the book’s author.

You can see some of Mark Heckman’s illustrations from the book on our website, environment report dot org. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Radioactive Water Spill From Fermi 2

  • The Fermi 2 reactor, operated by DTE. (Photo courtesy of Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Everything’s back to normal at the Fermi 2 nuclear power plant in southeast Michigan after a spill last week.

A drain valve for a filtering system failed… and 100,000 gallons of slightly radioactive cooling water overflowed a holding tank. The water contaminated the shoes and outer clothing of some plant workers, but no one was harmed.

DTE Energy owns and operates Fermi 2. Guy Cerullo is with DTE.
He says most of the water was contained inside the plant… but about 100 gallons of that water escaped through a bathroom drain into the Monroe County sewer system. He says some sewage outside the plant had trace amounts of radiation. But he says it was well below federal limits.

“There is absolutely no danger to the public or even to plant employees even who responded to the overflow. Absolutely no danger whatsoever.”

Cerullo says all of the drain valves have been replaced.

“We’re very confident that a larger amount could not escape from the site. There are all kinds of precautions in place.”

The Fermi plant had been shut down since late October for routine refueling and maintenance. The plant is back up and running now, at 60% power.

This incident at the Fermi 2 plant is considered so minor, it did not violate any federal safety laws or policies. But the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is aware of this event and NRC inspectors are following up on it.

Viktoria Mitlyng is with the NRC. DTE Energy says this release of radioactive water was tiny… and of absolutely no risk to human health. Are they right?

NRC’s preliminary report on the Fermi 2 spill


Mitlyng: Yes. This incident did not affect equipment that’s related to operating the plant safely. The radiation levels were very low in the water. Plant workers did not get exposed. There was a little bit of radiation on their shoes, but that kind of radiation cannot get inside the body. And in terms of there being a small amount of radioactivity in the sewage, that amount was below NRC’s regulatory limits.

DTE measured radioactivity of .0007 millirems in sewage a few yards from the plant. DTE says that dropped to nondetectable levels in the sewage system long before reaching populated areas. How does that level of radioactivity compare to naturally occurring background radiation we’re exposed to on a daily basis?

Mitlyng: You know, everybody gets dental x-rays, right? When you get a dental x-ray you get 2 millirems of radiation. So the amount measured in the sewer was 1/ 2,000th approximately of what you would get in a dental x-ray.

How do we know this kind of thing won’t happen again at a higher level that might be a problem for people?

Mitlyng: Fermi has not had even low-level problems or findings that NRC identified or the plant identified. So you know, the plant is operating safely, it’s operating well. We’re not guaranteed anything, I suppose.

Viktoria Mitlyng is with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Thank you.

Mitlyng: Thank you!

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Snyder Shuffles Environment Agencies

  • Governor-elect Rick Snyder speaking at the Michigan Farm Bureau. (Photo by Lindsey Smith)

Governor-elect Rick Snyder is already shuffling things in Lansing. He’s planning to split up the Department of Natural Resources and Environment… back into two separate agencies.

If you’re already thinking: uh, why do I care?… these are the people in charge of protecting air and water quality, regulating farms, overseeing hunting and fishing. So, who’s in charge matters a lot.

Governor-elect Snyder’s decision is a reversal of an action by Governor Granholm. Granholm combined the Department of Natural Resources with the Department of Environmental Quality. Now, Governor-elect Snyder wants to split them apart again. Here’s what he said when he made the announcement this week:

“Protecting our env is absolutely critical. The issue we have to look at is how do you balance sound science with good economics?”


Snyder said he wants to streamline and speed up permits for businesses in the state. He says splitting up these two agencies is the best way to do that.

He also announced new directors for these environmental agencies. He named Dan Wyant to be the director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Now, Wyant has a history in Lansing. He’s the former director of the department of agriculture under both Governor Engler and Governor Granholm.

This appointment has some mixed reviews around the state. One of the most vocal critics of this pick is David Holtz. He’s the executive director of the group Progress Michigan. So what are you concerned will happen with Dan Wyant as the director of the DEQ?

Holtz: Well, the concern is two things. If his track record with Engler is a clue to how he’s going to enforce things in Michigan, the concern is there won’t be enforcement. And when you take that in context of the move from Governor-elect Snyder toward a lot of softening of regulations, the combination of those two will probably mean that we’re going to have more pollution in our lakes, rivers and streams. We hope not. But we know for a fact that if polluters believe they can get away with polluting, they’re going to do it in some cases, and that means dirtier water.

Some environmental groups are taking more of a “let’s wait and see” approach. How do you know that Dan Wyant won’t protect air and water quality in the state?

Holtz: Well, we don’t know. And that’s why when I criticized the appointment it wasn’t a prediction of what would happen in the future, but it was based on you know, his track record. We can hope that Mr. Snyder believes that strong enforcement of environmental laws are important to Michigan, protecting our Great Lakes ecosystem’s important and that his DEQ director will.

So these two agencies have been split apart by Governor Engler, put back together by Governor Granholm, and now they’re about to be pulled apart by Governor-elect Snyder. Why does this matter?

Holtz: Well, I think your average person really doesn’t care if there’s one or two or three or six. I think what they want is these agencies to do their job and do it well and do it as efficiently as possible so they aren’t wasting tax money. But what they will pay attention to is whether we’re seeing products that are safe, whether the place where they fish or where they swim, whether the water’s clean or not. That’s how it’ll play out in most people’s lives.

All right, well, I really appreciate your time.

Holtz: Thank you, Rebecca.

David Holtz is the executive director of Progress Michigan. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.