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.

Designing a Green Neighborhood

  • "Green" single family homes built by GreenBuilt in the Cleveland EcoVillage. (Photo courtesy of Cleveland EcoVillage)

In recent decades, rust-belt cities have seen neighborhoods deteriorate and surrounding suburbs sprawl with little restraint. Now, formerly industrial cities are looking to redevelop old neighborhoods and attract new people. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lisa Ann Pinkerton looks at how one old neighborhood is using sustainable ideas to attract new residents:


In recent decades, rust-belt cities have seen neighborhoods deteriorate and surrounding suburbs sprawl with little restraint. Now, formerly industrial cities are looking to redevelop old neighborhoods and attract new people. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lisa Ann Pinkerton looks at how one old neighborhood is using sustainable ideas to attract new residents:

(sound of street)

The morning sun is peaking through an overcast sky along a street lined with simple Victorian style homes. In this Cleveland neighborhood, two of these homes are brand new. Unlike their century old neighbors, they’re green buildings… built with the environment in mind.

One, is the home of David and Jen Hovus. It was built to actively conserve resources and to have a low impact on the environment. For example, all of the lights are on timers.

“I had to go out of my way to find timers that would control compact fluorescent lights, so that I wasn’t wasting too much electricity.”

Even the fan venting moist air from the bathroom… is on a timer. The furnace too, is a high-efficiency unit.

(sound of walking)

Hovus’s environmentally friendly surroundings don’t stop at the backyard gate. He lives in a special neighborhood called the Cleveland EcoVillage. And on his way to work, he sees green building principles and sustainable practices all along the way. Like the community garden, where even the tool shed is made of recycled material.

“There was a 120-year-old maple tree that was cut down. Folks brought a portable saw mill and they sawed it into lumber and that’s what they used for the framing. It’s actually a strawbale construction as well.”

The idea to revive a struggling neighborhood with sustainable solutions, started with the city’s environmental planning organization, EcoCity Cleveland. Back in 1997, they investigated dozens of the cities neighborhoods. And choose the west side neighborhood where Hovus lives, because it was close to transit, had a strong Community Development organization and had support of the local councilman.

David Beach is EcoCity Cleveland’s Executive Director. He says besides environmentally sound buildings, the neighborhood gives the option of a car-free life.

“Where everything you need is with in walking distance. So you’re living space, your work place, and some of your shopping can be right in that one neighborhood. And then you hop on that rapid transit and in five minutes your downtown or you’re at the airport.”

Everything within a half-mile radius of the transit station is in the EcoVillage.
Resident David Hovus stands at the entrance, with fierce wind coming off of Lake Erie.

“This used to be… there was literally a set of stairs leading down to the platform. There was essentially a bus shelter on the platform and that was it. And if you didn’t actually know where the entrances were, you’d never know there was a train station here.”

So EcoCity Cleveland and the neighborhood convinced Cleveland’s Transit Authority to spend nearly $4 and a half million dollars on a new station, based on environmentally sound principles. It’s the only Green Transit Station in Ohio.

“And now we’d got a nice warm building that uses passive solar heating and a lot of green building features.”

Mandy Metcalf is the EcoVillage Project Director. She continues our tour of the neighborhood down a walking path.
Four blocks later, twenty new green-built town homes come into view. In the same simple Victorian style of the neighborhood, they blend right in. They’re also very energy efficient.

“One resident said that his January bill was only forty dollars for gas, which is pretty impressive.”

But, the majority of the homes in the EcoVillage are more than a century old and very energy inefficient. While they’re considered “affordable housing,” a mortgage payment on top of a heating bill of more than $300 dollars makes them difficult to afford. So Metcalf’s organization helped homeowners discover where their energy was being wasted.

“What the best things, the most cost effective things that they could do to retrofit their houses. And now we’re going to match them up with loan programs and encourage them to go through with it.”

While older homes are being updated, the Ecovillage is making plans to improve the green space surrounding the local rec center. And within two years, they hope to entice a green building grocery store to the area.

For the GLRC, this is Lisa Ann Pinkerton.

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