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Originally published September 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 24, 2007 at 9:58 AM

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Straw-bale house won't blow away

After 11 years in a straw-bale home, Erik Lindbergh has only good things to say. "It's not like the three little pigs, with the big bad...

Seattle Times business reporter

After 11 years in a straw-bale home, Erik Lindbergh has only good things to say.

"It's not like the three little pigs, with the big bad wolf who's going to blow it away," Lindbergh said.

His house in Kitsap County has stacks of straw bales inside its walls, which are covered with stucco and plaster. The home has outlived rainstorms and an earthquake.

Straw-bale homes have proved durable thus far, but they haven't caught on with the mainstream in Western Washington. In the past 10 years, King County has granted only four building permits for straw-bale houses and is now reviewing a fifth, said Chris Ricketts, a building official for the county.

These homes are more popular in areas with drier climates, such as the Southwest. Experts emphasize these homes can last here — as long as they are built right. Attention to detail is a must.

Lindbergh learned that lesson when water leaked through a skylight and into the bales during heavy rainstorms.

"We put on a really cheap roof," he said. "We were on a low budget."

Lindbergh replaced the roof and straw bales and hasn't faced the same ordeal since.

With Western Washington's wet weather, it's important to have good roof overhangs and keep bales off the ground to avoid moisture wicking from the ground, said Terry Phelan, an architect for Issaquah-based Living Shelter Design.

Sites that have good "solar action" and air flow are best for these homes, she said.

The bale part of the wall is usually 18 to 22 inches thick, which provides heavy insulation, plus an inch or two of stucco and plaster to protect the straw.

"They have an R value of 30 to 35, which is almost twice as much as what a standard wall actually delivers," said Phelan.

"I joke about the walls," said Lindbergh. "They're probably bulletproof."

Another major concern might be fire, but the tightly compressed straw bales would burn very slowly, said Bruce Glenn, a designer and builder of straw-bale homes.

An advantage of a straw-bale home is its energy efficiency. As a renewable waste product of grain harvests, straw takes little energy to produce, said Glenn.

Since 1996, architect Phelan has worked on about 14 straw-bale homes, some of which are in Eastern Washington. Her company conducts three-day workshops that provide hands-on experience during construction on a straw-bale building.

She said a variety of people attend the workshops, including college students, architects, contractors and those who'd like to build their own straw-bale homes.

Straw-bale homes generally cost less than conventional houses, but not by much.

And after a day of landscaping million-dollar houses, Dean Edenstrom doesn't even feel a tinge of jealousy coming home to his straw-bale home in Olympia.

"I just feel good when I walk in," he said. "It feels different from other houses."

Edenstrom said the thick walls provide a quiet indoor atmosphere. Though the walls are solid, they also "breathe," said Edenstrom, who said his house ventilates naturally through its porous walls.

Lindbergh and Edenstrom both got their hands dirty and got involved with the construction of their homes.

Lindbergh acted as general contractor and hired neighbors and friends to help build the 900-square-foot, one-bedroom home. It took about nine months.

"It was a great way to connect with the community," he said.

"We had straw-bale wall-raising parties."

Four years ago, the home was expanded to a 2,100-square-foot three-bedroom house.

Passers-by are so curious about the home that Lindbergh had to put up a private sign on the driveway.

"We had a lot of looky-loos coming up the driveway," he said.

Lindbergh is a bit worried about his house's resale value though he hasn't tried to sell it.

He hopes it will gain acceptance as more are built. Nonetheless, he said he would "absolutely" recommend straw-bale homes, which he believes are long-lasting.

"I think it'll stand for a hundred years," he said.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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