Monday, 15 July 2024

Natural building takes root in Lake County


Straw bale houses have been around for a long time—the first on this continent was built in Nebraska in the 1890s—but interest in the construction has mushroomed in recent years. Earth-built buildings, like adobe, have been in use since humans started building.

Linda Drew of Lower Lake lives in a gracious 1,800-square-foot two-story straw bale house with an ethereal old world air that's a contrast to the home's designation as California's first permitted earth and plaster dwelling. Harbin Hot Springs in Middletown recently dedicated its straw bale temple.

Dr. John Knapp of Ukiah chose straw bale for for his 2,500-square-foot home in rural Redwood Valley. Organic walnut farmer Denise Rushing, new Third District Supervisor, looks out her Upper Lake window to a fanciful Hobbit cottage-in-progress.

Drew's description of an unfinished bale building covered with mud is “a big chocolate truffle.” That's where the Rushing project is, and is likely to remain for a while.

It started as a summer workshop led by Massey Burke, a traveling artisan who also works with Real Goods Solar Living Center in Hopland, itself a straw bale construction. Participants camped on-site as they stacked the bales, covered them (and themselves) with mud and carved out windows and inlaid decorative touches. Even without a roof, the interior was noticeably cooler on hot summer days.

One of the participants, several of whom camped on site, was architect Valentina Perez of Oaxaca, who planned to teach the techniques in Mexico. Another was Chloe Karl, who does the Home Care Connection show on KXBX radio (Thursdays, 10 a.m.) and was Grandmother Wisdom on KPFZ radio.

Drew said her home's insulation factor is R-57; Dr. Knapp said he doesn't know his, “but the house can be 20 degrees cooler on the inside, although we were a little pushed” during summer's 11 days of 100 degree-plus heat.

Neither house approaches the rock-bottom bargain often cited as a reason for building with bale. Drew's cost $228,00, or $126 per square foot, plus $20,000 for solar panels, Knapp's $160 per square foot at a time when building costs ran $100-$200 a square foot. “The economy comes in the long term savings on utilities,” he said. Both houses are off the grid, powered by solar panels, in part because of distance from Pacific Gas and Electric Services.

The Drew house walls went up over a weekend, with the help of 25 workers found through Willing Workers for Appropriate Technology an organization that connects workers and projects, with information at

Harbin's temple took a bit longer – ”way too long,” chuckled managing director Elke Murphy. Although the ADA-compliant building is in use for yoga classes and other events, it's been more than two years in construction and still awaits finishing touches, she said. Some construction was done by workshop participants working under builder Sunray Kelly—and the cost so far is $300,000-plus and counting.

Why choose natural building when modulars are cheap and fast to construct? The super-insulating qualities are a big factor for most builders, but all speak of the satisfactions of building with easily renewable materials and the pleasure of being in a natural building, much like the difference between gazing at a patch of flowers or a patch of masonry.

If you drive past Robinson Rancheria on Highway 20, Nice, you'll see an adobe brick building in progress. It will be a storage facility for heavy equipment. Carpenter Stoney Timmons said the technique is new to him and the workers, and there have been delays, mostly from broken bricks.

Phil Sees, a retired Mendocino County educator who has an adobe house in Scotts Valley and plans to build an adobe medieval castle, is consulting on the job. When finished, the building will have a Pomo headband, he said.

Sees noted his 1,000-square-foot adobe cottage “cost a little less than a stick-built house,” but provides a big savings return on utilities with its 20-inch thick walls. He said Lake County's Community Development Department was beyond cooperative in the planning stage: “Mary Jane Fagalde was very enthusiastic and encouraging.” Sees said he's working on the castle plans with Jim Fetzer of Ceago Vinegarden in Nice.

Russ Tucker of Benchmark Development in Willows, one of the largest straw bale suppliers in the industry, addressed the costs of a more modest straw bale building. He thinks 1,200 square feet is the smallest size that makes sense economically. The large footprint of two-foot wide bale walls requires a larger roof and foundation.

“In conventional building, a 1,200 square foot house will cost $125 to $150 per foot, including labor. With straw bale, to get that much living space, you need to add ten to 15 percent.” And, “the smaller the building the higher the percentage, because as the house gets larger the exterior walls are a smaller percentage of the total house.” His cost estimates are based on installed utilities within five feet of the pad, and do not include land.

“Straw bale building is very labor intensive—you're lifting 70 to 80 pound bales. There a lot of books out there all thinking on the same scale, an owner-builder who does much of the work, and a lot of times it doesn't work out that practical. We get a lot of calls for bales, people start building, and then harsh reality sets in and they find it's not as easy or as glamorous as presented in some of the books.”

The Rushing workshop project, 200 square feet, has so far cost $7.75 per square foot for materials, she said.

E-mail Sophie Annan Jensen at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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