For sale: studio made of straw

Appraisers, North Lawrence couple disagree about value of rare structure

It may be beautiful and environmentally friendly, but it’s the only one around.

That’s the problem Scott and Victoria Garrette have run into as they prepare to sell their home at 305 Lincoln St. in North Lawrence. Behind the home sits a free-standing, 400-square-foot studio that the Garrettes built a few years back using bales of straw.

To the Garrettes – both of whom are artists – it’s an unusually valuable space, with high ceilings, a lot of natural light, splendid insulation and great acoustics afforded by the thick, straw walls.

But the Garrettes said they’ve been disappointed by the low value appraisers have placed on the building, a factor that could complicate matters when they put the home on the market this week. The couple are moving out of the area.

They believe appraisers are detracting from the value because of the unfamiliarity of straw-bale construction.

“I think basically our issue is, ‘What do you do when there’s nothing to compare it to, since that’s how you value homes?'” Scott Garrette said. “There’s no comparable buildings to this.”

A county appraiser said they might be right.

“It’s something that’s unique, and it’s hard to say what the value is because people just aren’t used to it,” said Steve Miles, appraisal manager for the Douglas County Appraiser’s Office. “I think there’s going to be some skepticism about it.”

An online registry of straw-bale buildings lists only 443 of the structures in the United States, with nine in Kansas.

The Garrettes started building their studio in 2003 and finished it in 2005.

As far as they know, it’s the only straw-bale structure in the city of Lawrence large enough to have required a building permit. They used post-and-beam construction to support the roof, and they built the walls with 70 bales of straw bought from a farmer near Lecompton. The walls are covered inside and out with clay plaster.

The couple estimates the structure’s value at close to $50,000, based on the work and materials they put into it. But they said appraisers had put the value around $15,000.

Their entire property, including their home and the studio, was appraised recently at about $97,000. They plan to set the property’s asking price at $159,900.

Because mortgage lenders generally won’t issue a loan for more than a home’s appraised value, the Garrettes are worried potential buyers won’t be able to buy the home unless they have a large amount of cash for a down payment.

“We know there’s going to be people who want to buy it. We just hope that they’ll be able to buy it,” Victoria Garrette said.