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.