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Straw Becoming 'Green' Building Fashion Statement

CNS photo by Dorcas Taylor
Bill Hutchins says straw bale building fosters the "soulful connection between people and their home." (CNS photo by Dorcas Taylor)
By Dorcas Taylor
Capital News Service
Friday, Oct. 14, 2005

TAKOMA PARK, Md. - Technology and ingenuity have revived straw bale building - a resourceful and sustainable way to create living spaces - and one Maryland architect is proving its benefits by using straw to build an addition to his Takoma Park home.

On a sunny September day, volunteers and friends helped Bill Hutchins layer and stack straw bales on top of each other, pinning them together with bamboo. The group labored for free while Hutchins taught them how to build with renewable resources.

The work is "low in skill and very high in labor," Hutchins said, but "anything worth anything takes a long time."

Hutchins began working on the historic Holly Avenue bungalow about a month ago, although he received a building permit in March. Strict building guidelines mean the visible portions of the straw addition have to blend into the area.

The original home, a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom, Craftsman bungalow with wood siding, was transformed with a 2,100-square-foot rear addition of straw bale and wood.

By the time Hutchins and his volunteer crew finish, the home will have four bedrooms, a mudroom, a large family area, two offices, a separate downstairs apartment, and a living room that could double as a guest bedroom.

Straw is a waste product of wheat, barley, rye and other grains and is often used for animal bedding. Most farms have an abundance of straw, Hutchins said. In fact, he bought bales from a farmer in Boyds.

Before the area's first frost near the end of October, workers have to plaster the outside of the bales with a lime and sand mixture that will harden, making the bales firmer.

Metal harnesses, called laths, connect the wood and straw. Without the lath, Hutchins said, the plaster won't hold.

Inside, the bales will be smeared with earthen plaster -- a mix of sand, clay and straw -- and natural pigments, Hutchins said, creating a softer texture.

"For me it's just incredibly beautiful," Hutchins said. "There's so much vitality to it. It's just soft and sensual."

Hutchins also is building and insulating his home with salvaged wood, cellulose -- dampened recycled newspaper -- and cob, a mix of sand, clay and straw. He's also using orphan windows -- brand new windows sent back to distributors.

Through his architectural firm, Helicon Works, Hutchins promotes sustainable design to clients across the country. So far, three clients have built homes using straw bales. This is Hutchins' first straw bale home in Maryland.

"It's evolved over time," he said of his work. "I'm more interested in the soulful connection between people and their home."

The architect promotes "intelligent design," a method that includes limiting the number of windows on a home's west side because controlling the sun from that direction is difficult, building so sunlight enters rooms from east to west and insulating with sustainable materials.

Hutchins also is building with space conservation in mind. Some of the home's additional rooms will serve double functions, he said, cutting down on space, wasted energy and money. For example, a large bay window in the family room will also serve as a guest bed for visitors, instead of building a separate guest room.

Hutchins estimates he has used 225 bales of straw and will use another 50. While he hasn't kept close track, he estimated the addition will cost around $150 per square foot. But, Hutchins added, by reusing almost-new materials and utilizing free sweat labor, he has cut his costs by one-third.

Building with "green" materials is still more expensive than conventional methods. The average cost to build a home in the Northeast last year was $106.92 per square foot, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Proponents of green building say as demand for greener materials increases, prices will stabilize.

For Hutchins, the money he expects to save from using less energy offsets some of the higher construction costs, which could explain his lack of anxiety about the expected rise in heating cost this winter.

The Energy Information Administration this month said households using natural gas face an average $350 spike in their winter heating bills. People using heating oil and propane could see bills increase by $378 and $325, respectively.

Last winter, Hutchins heated his Silver Spring home with $400 worth of corn, which he used in the family's corn-burning stove. He plans to transport the stove to the finished Takoma Park home just as winter begins and expects to spend about the same this winter. He and his family hope to move in Nov. 1.

To decrease his energy dependency, Hutchins also plans to install solar panels on the roof which capture the suns rays and turn them into energy.

These environmentally friendly building techniques are growing in popularity.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, some 61,000 'green' homes were built nationwide between 1990 and 2004. Last year, more than 14,000 'green' homes were built nationally.

Copyright 2005 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism


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