Field of dreams
Hamilton City farmers turn field waste into an eco-friendly home
The big, bad wolf has nothing on this straw-bale house. But then again, Greg Massa and Raquel Krach planned their home that way, and designed it to keep wolfish energy demands at bay, too.
In the midst of their rice fields, the Hamilton City couple, who run Massa Organics, growers of organic rice, wheat and almonds, built a straw-bale house that took a year to plan and another 18 months to build. To make way for their growing family they recently added 100 bales, bringing their home’s total to 550 bales and 2,700 square feet of living space.
Inspiration to build a straw-bale house was born out of necessity and eco-consciousness.
The couple used to live in a drafty farmhouse in Princeton, where Massa’s dad was born, but sentimentality for the old gave way to a chilling present as the couple burned through several cords of firewood during North State winters in a bid to stay warm.
That got them to thinking back to their days at UC Santa Cruz, when a favorite professor was building a straw-bale house, which in turn got them to thinking about the straw waste that their rice fields produced.
“There’s a lot of straw in the valley,” Massa said. “It’s a disposal problem, since you can’t burn it.”
So they decided to harvest the straw and harness Mother Nature.
The couple pored over books on straw-bale houses and eventually hired John Swearingen, the Berkeley-based designer of Skillful Means Sustainable Design and Construction, to plan the home next to the rice fields in Hamilton City.
Swearingen, who has designed and built straw-bale homes since 1982, oriented the house and windows to take advantage of passive solar energy, a plan that helps keep the home cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
“It’s not just straw,” Massa said. “Straw’s not magic. We put a lot of thought into the design.”
The home, which features a 14-foot-high ceiling in the main living area and two-foot-thick walls (the size of straw bales), has four-foot overhangs and smaller west-facing windows. The overhangs help to shade and protect the home, and the smaller windows help to keep out the sun’s rays during the hottest part of summertime days.
The plastered walls and built-in niches give the home an adobe feel, while the towering ceiling and windows in the living room invite nature in with views of the fields out back and a wisteria vine near the front door. Unless Massa pointed out his “truth window,” a framed spot near the front door that shows straw under glass, a visitor might never realize the residence is anything other than a cozy, country home.
The couple built most of the original house themselves, although they contracted the concrete foundation and the recent addition. To economize on time during the initial build, the family camped at the construction site, drawing water from the bathtub (initially the only source of running water in the home) and cooking on an outdoor grill.
“We put the kids in sleeping bags on the floor,” said Krach, who had two young children during the first phase of building.
With the kids tucked in, the couple went to work. Krach learned how to tile and finish cabinets; Massa learned the art of packing down straw bales and plastering over them. The couple—neither of whom had previous homebuilding experience—remember the process as an exhaustive but exhilarating time.
But even with built-in building material on their 250-acre organic farm, the home cost about $100 per square foot to build. Krach points to green products and a building system that isn’t as cookie-cutter as the process for constructing standard, stick-built homes.
As straw homes catch on in popularity—which Cindy Lan, a designer and architect with Skillful Means, believes they will—the price should come down. Building material is abundant and reasonable, and labor costs will recede as more people learn the trade, moving it from specialty building technique to mainstream, she said.
Skillful Means has built about 100 straw-bale homes since 1982 and is currently designing five in Northern California, Lan said. Most of the homes have been designed and built in rural areas, where owners have more space for a larger home footprint (due to the homes’ thick walls) that few small-lot urban areas can accommodate, she said.
Massa and Krach chose Skillful Means to design their home because of Swearingen’s track record and relative proximity to Hamilton City. Massa said he wasn’t aware of anyone designing or building straw-bale homes in the area when they began construction in 2001.
Fast-forward nearly nine years (and three more children later) and this family of seven is enjoying the comforts of its blue-trimmed straw-bale home. In August, when many of their friends struggled with $700 cooling bills, theirs was $100.
In the winter, rather than burning several cords of wood to stay warm, they burn less than one in a living-room wood heater. The home, where children bounce between light-splashed rooms, averages temperatures of between 68 and 76 degrees year-round, the couple say.
Massa hopes that more people build with straw.
“There’s so much straw in the valley, you could build every house” with it, he said.