LJWorld Green

Straw-bale home touted for efficiency and aesthetics

The Eichler family - mom Monika, dad David, 5-month-old Elyse and six-year-old Lauren - live in a straw bale home in Leavenworth County just northeast of Lawrence.

The Eichler family - mom Monika, dad David, 5-month-old Elyse and six-year-old Lauren - live in a straw bale home in Leavenworth County just northeast of Lawrence.

September 22, 2008


Living inside a straw-bale home

Seven years ago, David and Monika Eichler considered all kinds of green building methods before settling on a straw-bale home. They liked that it was a waste product and would gave the home a rustic and aged look.

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.


onrywmn 9 years, 7 months ago

Why bother writing the story if you're not going to show us what it looks like????????????? DUH!

LogicMan 9 years, 7 months ago

Interesting! Any problems with insects, leakage, settling, getting insurance, mortgage, etc. so far?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years, 7 months ago

There are disadvantages to any method of construction. Straw bale is no exception. It also has many advantages, and if someone wishes to undertake doing it correctly, the method works fine in Kansas.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years, 7 months ago

"On the down side:horses, goats, sheep."Actually, not a problem at all- the straw is in highly compressed bales that are incased in relatively impermeable layers of stuccos of various materials.

gr 9 years, 7 months ago

So anyone know the difference between a straw house and building a house with double walls and blowing ground-up straw (umm, how about cellulose) in between them?

Aileen Dingus 9 years, 7 months ago

Marion- I believe you're incorrect on this one. A properly sealed -and maintained- straw bale wall has about the same problems as a "regular" wall when it comes to moisture control. The emphasis is on proper and maintained. Any wall that is improperly installed or maintained will have moisture problems, insect problems, mold issues and the like.It may be a little more work to maintain a straw bale house here than in, say- New Mexico, but when done right they're just as viable here as anywhere. Don't just take my word for it though, I recommend you check out Bill and Athena Steen's strawbale books as well as "Serious Straw Bale" by Paul Lacinski and Michael Bergeron, or "Straw Bale Building" by Chris Magwood and Peter Mack. There are also straw bale home groups who welcome questions and tours. You can find some here: http://www.thelaststraw.org/

tangential_reasoners_anonymous 9 years, 7 months ago

tin: "Didn't anyone learn anything from the story of the 3 little pigs?"Now there's a third pig? Lipstick!

bluerose 9 years, 7 months ago

eeeeerrrrrrrr! LJW!! picture, please!i love straw bale structures and a gallery of photos would be so pleasant for my lunch hour. also, show that door, please!

bluerose 9 years, 7 months ago

thanks for updating with a gallery LJW!(no thanks for the ad-laden video though!)thanks, crossfire, for the website! excellent eye & mind candy!

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years, 7 months ago

It's considered a workshop, not a residential structure, clown. There are fewer restrictions on how such buildings are built.I believe you could build a straw bale house in Lawrence or Douglas County, but you'd have to hire a structural engineer to put their stamp on all non-conforming components, which would run the cost up considerably on a method that is already more expensive than standard construction.

tin 9 years, 7 months ago

Didn't anyone learn anything from the story of the 3 little pigs?

webmocker 9 years, 7 months ago

"And each month, they save between $400 and $800 on their utility bills."I think straw bale homes are wonderful, and am a fan of energy efficient building, even when it costs more upfront. If I were building new, I might build one. That said, I live in a 2500+ square foot house built in the early 1970s, with at best average energy efficiency for the time, and have never had electric and gas bills combined over $400 in one month. What is their comparison house, a 3000 foot mobile home with no insulation?

classclown 9 years, 7 months ago

Isn't there one of these houses in Lawrence? Why didn't they do their story on it? I seem to remember a story about it. Something about the owners wanted to sell it but it wasn't worth the money they put into it or something.

Chris Golledge 9 years, 7 months ago

Mocker, ditto. A really bad month for me is still under $300.It would be more interesting to know what their average energy costs for a month are.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years, 7 months ago

You're misinformed, Marion. But what else is new.If done properly, as in with proper design and execution, straw bale construction is a perfectly good method for this area, especially since wheat straw bales are readily available. It's very labor intensive, so upfront costs are somewhat high, but you do end up with a very energy efficient house, which can be a very substantial structure.

Tom McCune 9 years, 7 months ago

There was a very famous West-coast house builder in the 1950s and 1960s named Eichler. Any relation?I must say I'm with Marion on this one. I've had respiratory problems all of my life and I wouldn't risk the mold problems. It might be OK at first, but after a few years?....

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