Sunday, March 18, 2012


Patricia Maher and Rebecca Johnson are building a pair of straw bale houses at 181 North Maple Street in Akron, OH.  Ms. Maher’s house, above, is the first to be constructed.

Straw bale construction typically involves stacking bales of straw like bricks to act as bearing walls, which are then finished with adobe plaster on the exterior.1  Straw bale with adobe is not generally a part of the building tradition here in Ohio.  Though this building technique can be found in parts of the country with wet, cold climates, it is more often used in the hot, dry American Southwest.


In Ms. Maher’s house, the straw bales are employed in an unusual way.  The exterior walls are first framed conventionally, using wood studs, and wood siding for an exterior finish.  The 2 x 6 stud spaces are filled with a blown-in cellulose insulation made of shredded, recycled newspaper.  Then the building envelope is sealed on the inside with a one-inch layer of spray-on foam to prevent air leakage and minimize heat loss.  And finally, the straw bales are placed inboard of the wood studwalls and foam insulation. 

In the Second Floor Guest Bedroom, window header filled with cellulose 
and flanking walls with straw bale insulation are ready for application of earth plaster.

The thermal rating on the walls is an incredible R-59, per the builder, Calvin Smith.2  (The R-value for conventional studwall construction is about R-21 per DOE recommendations.)3  I was in the house on a recent day when the outside temperature was 35 degrees.  It was so warm, even without a furnace running, that the folks inside were comfortable working in tee-shirts.  The total heating bill for the house is projected to be about $300 per year.

 Earth plaster being applied to a curved window jamb.

The interior surface of the bales is finished with a 1-½ inch thick layer of ‘earth plaster’ made of clay, chopped straw, sand, and water.  The finished plaster surface can be integral stained or painted with a low-VOC, breathable paint. 

The exterior walls, including the straw bales, end up being almost two feet thick. So a really nice benefit of using this insulation method is that the windows and doors are set deep into the walls, with curved jambs, generous sills, and built-in window seats in some locations.  The thick walls provide a strong sense of enclosure and protection from the weather.  The thick insulation also results in a very quiet interior environment.

The best thing about this straw bale house, as an example of Green Architecture, is that the house is Architecture first, and then Green.  The house does not sacrifice its architectural integrity in order to incorporate sustainable elements.  It doesn’t hit you over the head with its “Green-ness.”

 Gadget green house by William McDonough.4

It’s not “gadget Green” or “gizmo Green” as Miami Beach Architect Steve Mouzon likes to call this new generation of buildings that place so much emphasis on their sustainable features that they lose sight of creating quality, comprehensible architecture.5

Buildings do not necessarily have to wear their “Green Badge of Sustainability” on their sleeves, shouting to the world, “Look how sustainable I am!  Look how trendy I am!  Look at all of my cool sustainable features!”  They can, ideally, just be both excellent architecture and highly sustainable.  Neither has to be sacrificed at the cost of the other.  In fact, all good architecture should inherently be sustainable.  Sustainability is simply a reasonable, responsible way of building.

The Akron straw bale house was designed by architect Joe Ferut, one of the best practitioners in Northeast Ohio, with the collaboration of its very involved and environmentally-minded owner.

Ms. Maher’s house does include many sustainable elements.  Besides the straw bale wall insulation, it features:
§      R-60 roof insulation
§      A long-lasting metal roof
§      A highly insulated, factory-engineered concrete panel basement wall system.6
§      It is built within an existing city, not in a new suburb.  This will reduce the amount of driving the owner will do, saving energy and reducing carbon emissions.  Building on an infill site also conserves farmland and protects wildlife habitat. 
§     The house is located just 150 feet from the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail.  Without having to get in her car, Ms. Maher can access a path for walking or biking north into the Cuyahoga Valley National Park or south to downtown Akron.

First and foremost, however, this is a well-designed house.  It has a simple form that feels familiar and recognizable.  Its high gabled roof makes for a memorable silhouette against the sky.  The house is sheathed in beautiful horizontal lap siding, with cedar shakes in the gables that add visual interest and character.  It is protected from the elements overhead by a dark brown standing seam metal roof. These are solid, durable, locally appropriate materials.  As architectural writer William Morgan puts it, the use of local building materials and methods gives “a respectful nod to . . . regional houses and barns, and, by extension, acknowledges a sense of place.” 7

The house has a generous and welcoming front porch, a gesture that will encourage socializing with neighbors. 

  Second Floor sleeping porch.

There is also a wonderful screened sleeping off the Master Bedroom on the Second Floor.  A sleeping porch is a perfectly sensible strategy for dealing with the warm nights of summer in Northeast Ohio.  It is easy to imagine the pleasures of sleeping out in the fresh air, with the sound of the crickets or a light rain lulling one off into a peaceful slumber.

All of these elements add up to a house that is thoughtfully designed to suit the particular needs, values, and aspirations of its owner, while being mindful of the planet’s limited resources. That, indeed, is the definition of good, responsible Architecture.

For more detailed information on straw bale construction, see this website:  For information on durability in wet climates, see this link:
2 For Calvin Smith’s specific information on the composition of the wall and roof construction, see this page:
From a DOE Insulation Factsheet:
4  Image is from an article by Alex Frangos, “The Green House of the Future”, The Wall Street Journal, 27 April 2009: 
5 Steve Mouzon is an advocate of “The Original Green,” traditional solutions for sustainable building.  His website is
For you tech heads (Steve!), more information on the basement wall construction system can be found at the Superior Walls website:
and also in an press release about the straw bale house at
7  William Morgan, Yankee Modern The Houses of Estes/Twombly (New York:  Princeton Architectural Press, 2010) p.18

Patricia’s blog about the house:
Calvin Smith Builders’ website:
Architect Joe Ferut’s website:
Article about the house on WKSU’s website:
Article about the house in the Akron Beacon Journal:

No comments:

Post a Comment