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Habitat-Spokane builds first straw-bale, energy efficient home

Washington State University architecture design students recently helped Habitat for Humanity-Spokane draw plans for a straw-bale house. Then architecture construction students began working with volunteers to build that house at 1915 N. Waldo St. in Spokane.  

Habitat’s vision is that the house will be environmentally compatible with the surrounding community and economically viable for the homeowner. 

It is their first venture into that form of construction as part of their move toward green, nontoxic, energy-efficient building, said Kelly Lerner of One-World Design Architecture.

Habitat - Kelly Lerner
Kelly Lerner, architect, demonstrates construction techniques.

Kelly is teaching a WSU class on advanced construction for architecture and interior architecture students.  Last term, Matt Melcher’s design studio class designed the house. 

Before the 18-inch straw bales began to be placed for the exterior walls on April 22, the home’s post-and-beam wood frame and the roof were completed.  In addition to bales’ serving as insulation, hot-water tubes run under the floor to heat each room.  A passive solar design will let sunshine in during the winter and keep it out in the summer.

Stacked like huge bricks, straw-bale walls can be built quickly, saving time and tools,  said Michone Preston, director of Habitat- Spokane. 

Habitat - Straw stapling
Volunteer staples chicken wire around window frame.

Chicken wire and stucco cover the surface of bales, sealing out moisture to prevent rotting. 

Although not yet common in Spokane, straw-bale home construction is not a new concept, Michone said.  Builders have used straw bales in homes for hundreds of years, because of the structural advantages.

Straw bales, she said, provide superior insulation, reduce outside noise and are a cheap, quick, volunteer-friendly, non-toxic, breathable construction material.

Because Kelly specializes in energy-efficient construction techniques, much of her work has been with straw bale.

“It has two to three times the insulation value of a stud-frame wall and can save a homeowner 25 to 50 percent on energy costs,” she said. 

Habitat Strawhouse
Straw-bale house is at Union and Waldo Streets.

“In addition, straw is a waste product in the Inland Northwest where farmers might otherwise burn fields of barley or wheat straw.  It’s a waste product waiting to be used, which makes a nice synergy.

“Use of energy-efficient materials for Habitat houses is especially important because the owners are low-income and rising energy prices impact them more than those in higher income brackets.  Energy is a larger chunk of their budget,” she said.

Kelly, who grew up influenced by Mennonite teachings on stewardship of the community, the planet and the natural world, has helped build 50 houses in the United States.

Habitat - Kelly
Kelly staples the chicken wire.

She has worked with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency in China, Mongolia and Argentina to introduce energy-efficient straw-bale house technology, starting  in 1997 in Mongolia.  Since then, she has spent a few months each year overseas. 

She has built 600 homes in China, saving homeowners about 65 percent on energy costs where high-sulfur coal is used to run energy plants.  For her work in China, she received the 2005 World Habitat Award.

After graduating in 1985 in Spanish, sociology and women’s studies from Goshen College, a Mennonite liberal arts college in northern Indiana, Kelly wanted to go into international development.

Habitat work on straw house
Volunteers measure chicken wire cover for straw.

“The school’s motto, ‘Culture for Service,’ is what architecture is about for me,” said Kelly, who moved to San Francisco to work as an apprentice and then as a potter for several years, followed by a few years in social services.

Soon she realized her passion was in building—influenced by working with her parents on remodeling and building family homes in her growing years.

After earning a master’s degree in architecture at the University of Oregon in 1994, she worked in the San Francisco Bay area until moving to Spokane nearly three years ago.

“For me, architecture is a way of being a good steward of the earth and helping other people be good stewards of the earth,” Kelly said. 

“Conventional building techniques are not earth friendly, not good stewardship of resources, because they use large quantities of fossil fuels, made from sunlight stored for millions of years.  The supply of fossil fuels will come to an end.  We squander them by building buildings that are not energy efficient.”

Kelly seeks to build houses that are not only energy efficient but also supply their own energy with solar heat, a wood stove, solar hot water and a wind generator. 

Since 1987, Habitat for Humanity-Spokane has built 157 simple, decent, affordable homes for low-income families in Spokane.

For information, call 534-2552. .ext. 21 or visit www.one-world-design.com.

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - © May 2006