On the outskirts of David and Monika Eichler's airy kitchen is a set of elaborately carved doors built into a thick wall.
Designed to look as though they came out of a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, the doors are a window into the 900 bales of straw sandwiched inside the house.
These "doors of truth," as David Eichler calls them, are a must-have for any straw-bale home. It's the only indication that this stucco home sitting northeast of Lawrence, just over the Leavenworth County line, is more than what it seems.
More than seven years ago, when David Eichler, a public school behavioral consultant, and his wife, a social work researcher at Kansas University, were contemplating building a house, they knew they wanted something environmentally friendly.
They looked at earth-rammed and earth-bermed homes and homes with passive solar envelopes and structural-insulated panels.
It took them three years to decide that it was a straw-bale home that seemed just right. They liked that straw was a regional waste product and would give the home an old-European look.
However, building their fairy-tale home meant banishment from Douglas County, where building codes made using nontraditional building materials an expensive and time-consuming process.
"At the time we applied for the building permit, we were told no one was successfully able to do it. That's not saying you couldn't, but it was going to take a lot of work to convince the county," David Eichler said.
The couple took an easier path and decided to build their home just across the border in Leavenworth County.
Codes deter straw bale
From old-school straw bales to cutting-edge structural insulated panels, more and more homeowners are using earth-friendly building materials. And, it can leave some building officials scratching their heads.
As the owner of the energy and environmental consulting business Hathmore Technologies, Sharla Riead said building codes can be a common problem. But it's one that can usually be resolved.
"It's just a case of explaining or helping educate the code officials and giving them the ammunition they need to approve something that should be allowed," she said.
The extra steps and money can deter some from building straw-bale homes, said Joyce Coppinger, owner of a straw-bale building consulting business in Lincoln, Neb.
"It depends on how willing they are to work with the people," she said.
Scattered throughout the hills and valleys of Leavenworth and Jefferson counties are straw-bale homes.
Keith Dabney, Douglas County's director of zoning and codes, said he knows of no home in Douglas County made of straw. And he admits that building codes are part of the reason. Douglas County is one of about 10 counties in the state that enforce building codes. Many rural counties lack either building codes or code enforcement.
"(Homeowners) feel it would be easier if they didn't have someone looking over them, so they go somewhere else," Dabney said.
Stephen Lane, a Lawrence architect who has specialized in green building, said he had two Douglas County clients shelve plans for building straw-bale homes.
Douglas County resident John Clem also abandoned the idea.
"There has never been one built in the county, and it would've put me basically through hell if I pursued it," he said.
In the end, Clem was happier with the alternative: a home made using insulating concrete forms. He is now a distributor for the product, which entails an easier and less expensive approval process and still provides a high level of insulation.
An extra step
Douglas County building codes don't prohibit the construction of straw-bale home. But the county does require a detailed engineer's report, vouching for the material's structural integrity.
That report makes sure the home won't blow down or collapse, Dabney said.
"The thing I always tell someone is, 'It is your home now. But five or 10 years from now, someone else may own it. And they are entitled to it being safe and free from burning down.' And that is what it does, it protects them also," Dabney said.
Homes using alternative building materials have been approved in Douglas County. Dabney pointed to one made of recycled tires outside Baldwin City and another one that used a series of domes and had a 6-foot dirt roof.
Of course, engineering analysis - at the homeowner's expense - was required before those homes were approved.
As green building becomes more popular, building officials are looking to beef up on their knowledge of new materials. Riead's consulting company, based in Blue Springs, Mo., just received an invitation to train building officials in Lee's Summit.
Perhaps not in the Midwest, but in other parts of the country, Riead said, new codes are being adopted to include more eco-friendly building methods.
"It is extra steps and extra hassle; it would be nice to have an update to the codes that takes it all into account," she said.
A good bet
Seven years after construction, the Eichlers are still enchanted with their straw-bale home.
The straw is used to insulate the home, giving it a well-above-average rating for insulation. And, because there is little room for moisture or air to get into the bales, the risk for fire is lower than many traditional homes.
Still, the Eichlers conceded that building the straw-bale home was a bit of a bet.
The couple acted as the general contractor, used Lane as their architect and hired Manhattan builder Rod Harms as a consultant.
The Eichlers installed other green features, such as a geothermal heating and cooling system, insulating concrete forms in the basement, thermal shades on the windows, Energy Star appliances and wood floors made out of renewable bamboo.
As for the green price tag, using the eco-friendly features added about 20 percent onto the cost of building the 3,600-foot house. But David Eichler estimates in the seven years they have lived in the home, the geothermal system has paid for itself. And each month, they save between $400 and $800 on their utility bills.
"It was a gamble that paid off," he said.