House of straw
Alven Flanders long has been a progressive thinker. He was known as quite the hipster parent as he and his wife, Pinky, shepherded three sons through parochial and public schools in North Highlands. In the 1960s, he introduced the kids who gathered at all hours in his comfortable tract home to jazz and sandals with recycled tire-tread soles, and he grew a ponytail that he still sports today. He spent 20 years in the construction business, was an active Boy Scout leader, retired as a clerk for the state and worked on a New Mexico ranch seasonally. Three years ago, he built a straw-bale home on a country lane near Interstate 80 and Greenback Lane. While steering clear of obvious “laziest piggy” quips, SN&R chatted with Flanders about living amid stacks of straw.
What was the genesis of your straw-bale home?
Well, way back when, my wife and I lived in greater downtown east Valdez, N.M., in an adobe house. When my wife had to return to Sacramento to treat her ailing kidneys, we left all that behind. We decided to build an adobe house here but ran up against a lot of negative stuff. First, where do you get the adobe? Second, design conflicts arose between building codes and what we wanted to build. So, adobe was out, and we went with straw bales that, when finished, look like adobe walls.
So, a straw-bale house looks nothing like its storybook counterpart?
No [laughs]. It has a Southwestern look. The bales, which are about 4 feet by 2 feet by 18 inches each, are covered with exterior stucco and interior Sheetrock and plaster. The thick-wall effect is similar to that of abode: a homey, next-to-the-womb, secure type of feeling. It is easy to heat and keep clean, so we were attracted to both the aesthetic and conservation or “green” values. For skeptics, there is a traditional “truth window” inside, a square hole in the wall in which you can see the straw. I put a little window door there with a shelf and a statue.
How many straw bales did you use?
[Laughs.] I couldn’t begin to tell you. I guess 300 and something. They are cheaper than current building material and, if straw-bale structures were in more demand, material cost would decrease even more. The house also has tile floors and wood ceiling beams called vigas that look like telephone poles.
Any trouble with the county?
The county, I think, wrote their book on this house [laughs]. They had a set of code requirements that came out of Butte County that were about six years old. Fortunately, my contractor was aware of all the changes, so he wrote letters and answered their questions. They came out, took pictures and wrote notes. It was a fun project: We all got educated together.
Has the house become a kind of personal statement for you?
It certainly shows a lot of individuality. As far as I could find out, it was the first straw-bale home in Sacramento County, even though we are surrounded by straw-bale homes in El Dorado County, Yuba and Sutter. There are a couple of other structures that are straw-bale, but they are not homes. But now I understand a couple of families in the area are in the process now of building.
Just how energy efficient is a straw-bale home?
My gas bill runs about $4 or $5 a month. The electric bill is about average. I use florescent lights and other conservation measures. I have one of the highest-efficiency washing machines I could find and an old-fashioned solar dryer: the clothesline out back. Right now, a ceiling fan stirs the heat up from a wood stove to keep the back bedrooms generally at 68 degrees. In the summer, I toss some water and ice cubes into a little room swamper, open the window and suck in the cooler night air with fans.
Did your home raise much of a ruckus in your neighborhood?
Well, some people found news of my project on a straw-bale advertisement of some sort and followed it from beginning to end. Even in the last couple of months, I’ve had people come by. Basically, they stop in front of the house with a strange look on their face. I go outside and offer them a tour. They are always welcome and are amazed at what I’ve crammed into 1,600 square feet.
How could someone ask you a question or two about straw-bale houses?
I check my e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) every night before I go to bed in the neighborhood of 1 a.m. Of course, I have to play a little solitaire, so sometimes, if I don’t win right away, I get to bed by maybe 2 o’clock.
How old are you now, Al?
I’m coming up on 81 in January. Thank God I’ve still got the strength to get out and do some work. I had the chain saw out the other day. I had to buzz some wood for the fire, and I thought, "God, you know, this is pretty neat. I’m going on 81 and still cutting with a chain saw."