Couple building first straw-bale home in Linn County

Couple building first straw-bale home in Linn County
In this photo taken June 2, 2011, work continues on the straw-bale home of Don Andrews and Cheryl Haworth in Brownsville, Ore. Andrews and Haworth are building Linn County's first straw-bale house - at least as far as they and the county building department know. (AP Photo/Albany Democrat-Herald, Mark Ylen)

BROWNSVILLE, Ore. (AP) — If the Big Bad Wolf drops by, Don Andrews isn't worried about him huffing and puffing on his new straw house.

"No more than a person who builds a stick house," Andrews joked, nodding at the more traditional homes on School Avenue. "'Cause he blew that down, too."

Andrews, director of the nonprofit community service group Sharing Hands, and his partner, Cheryl Haworth, who retires this year from the FACT program at Greater Albany Public Schools, are building Linn County's first straw-bale house — at least as far as they and the county building department know.

The couple broke ground on their new home last fall. By the end of May, the foundation, wood framing and roof, along with part of the plumbing and part of the electrical work, had been completed. The hope is to be finished and moved in by Christmas, Andrews said.

Much of the work and materials is being done locally. The bales of wheat straw — some 325 of them — were purchased from Brownsville farmer Leroy Spurlin. Their plasterer, Geary Frost, lives just down the block.

The work of putting the bales together to make walls, however, was an international effort. About 20 volunteers from all over the United States and Canada converged on the Andrews-Haworth project May 30-June 4 for the work, part of a weeklong class organized through

Andrew Morrison of Ashland runs the web-based business and puts on workshops all over the world. Class participants pay to learn how to build the homes and put in a week's worth of work on a construction project. The project owners receive the labor in exchange for providing meals and a place to camp.

Haworth and Andrews joined one of Morrison's classes last fall and did a week's work on a home in Junction City, Calif.

Haworth, however, was sold on the idea of straw bale homes at least two decades before. Living in the heart of the nation's grass seed supply, she said, "I thought, how perfect! We should all be building straw houses."

A rich history

From reed huts to thatched roofs, humans have long used straw in construction. At that time in the mid-valley, however, little was known about its particulars. Haworth began reading, researching and visiting straw-built projects and convinced Andrews to sign on.

They liked what they learned. Morrison's work has indicated straw bale homes have roughly three times the insulation value of commercial framing and cost owners about 75 percent less to heat and cool. The compact bales are extremely resistant to fire, too: Picture trying to light a phone book as compared to a crumpled piece of paper, Morrison said.

A triple coating of lime-based plaster keeps the straw walls from exposure to mold or pests. Best of all, Morrison said, straw bale homes are made with a renewable resource, use less wood overall and make a place for what would otherwise be a waste product.

Haworth said she particularly appreciates the soundproofing qualities of the thick bales, which provide a sense of peace every time she enters.

"They just feel really quiet," she said. "It just has this cozy feel of enveloping you like a down comforter."

Up-front expenses

As for cons, a well-built straw bale home should save its owner money over time, but will likely cost more up front, Morrison said.

Andrews figures the overall cost of the three bedroom, 2,300-square-foot home will be close to $300,000, not including the land, which they already owned. Prices will vary greatly depending on the size and specifications of the structure and the amount of labor involved, not the materials, he said.

The bales take several days to install, compared with a traditional insulator who might be done spraying in an afternoon. For that reason, the couple chose to use bale walls for only the living portion of the home, not the garage; and only the first floor, not the second. Installing bales on multiple floors is possible, but requires a lot more time and labor.

In some areas, finding the necessary know-how among architects, contractors, building and planning departments and insurance agencies can be difficult, Morrison said.

"People say, 'Wait, you want to do what?'" he said. "It's a lack of understanding of what the process is."

A green construction state

From solar to living roofs — Haworth plans one of those next — Oregon has generally been receptive to forms of energy-efficient, environmentally friendly building.

The Oregon Residential Specialty Code began including straw bale construction in its permit procedures in the mid-1990s, said Richard Rogers of the state Building Codes Division. The complete regulations also can be found online through the Oregon Building Codes Division, Click the link to the left marked "Oregon Building Codes Online," scroll to the 2008 Oregon Residential Specialty Code, then check out Appendix R from the links in the list to the left.

Although neither the BCD nor the Oregon Home Builders Association track industry trends, both organizations say they'd be happy to help prospective straw bale builders find resources, said Rogers and Michael Freels, OHBA director of green building.

In Linn County, residential plans examiner Richard Pinkerton recommends calling building and planning departments with questions.

Andrews and Haworth say they enjoy explaining the work to passers-by, some of whom have become regulars. "We have half a dozen or so sidewalk supervisors," Andrews quipped.

And when it's finished, they'll be proud to show visitors the "truth window" — a removable panel in most straw bale homes that allows people to view the bales behind the plaster — "so they know you're telling the truth," Andrews said.


Information from: Albany Democrat-Herald,


Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.