Strafford Couple Builds House Out of Straw
Susan Hodges and Tim Denny are building a house that won’t blow over anytime soon even though it will be made of straw—straw bales from nearby Canada and timbers that were cut on their land, that is.
The couple moved to Strafford from Georgia, where the summertime temperatures are 95° almost every day. They could not be happier to be settling in the shady trees of Vermont. Susan home-schooled their children, directed a non-profit advocating for midwives, and made custom wedding cakes; and Tim worked as a professor of plant pathology at the University of Georgia.
They have left that life and are excited to be building a new high performance house that is well insulated with a low-consumption of fossil fuels. The walls of their house will use 550 bales of compressed wheat straw to create an R value of 45-50. The house will be efficient and will hold the heat because of the mass created by the timber frame and the straw bale walls. They used as many local and sustainable materials as possible.
“We want to know where the products we use come from.” said Tim. They have hired experienced tradespeople from Strafford to help cut the timber frame, wire for electricity, and build the roof, but have done a lot of work themselves, being on the job every day for three months.
Susan Hodges and Tim Denny work on their house in South Strafford. The couple is making use of natural building supplies, particularly 550 bales of straw that, along with cellulose, will give their walls insulation value of R-50. (Herald/Tim Calabro)
Questions & Answers
People hear “straw bale house” and they have questions. Tim and Susan, who both have scientific backgrounds in plant pathology, are comfortable with the answers.
When asked about the possibility of rot, Tim replied, “Wheat straw has no protein or simple sugars, so there is nothing for microorganisms to feed on.”
The outside skin for the house is made of traditional wood siding and the inside walls will be made of an inside plaster skin, the running course of straw bales, a layer of dense-packed cellulose in a stud wall, wood sheathing, housewrap, an air channel, and then wood siding. They are going to be careful about detailing and make the house as airtight as possible.
“We are not purists,” explained Tim.
If they have to use some foam insulation they will, but they’re following the advice of consultant Jacob Deva Racusin who wrote “The Natural Building Companion.” They also used Sarah Susank’s books, including “The Not So Big House,” to design their floor plan.
The idea is to build a house that is not any larger than needed. A separate dining room can sit empty for most of the year, so their plan aims to make every part of the house useful. The downstairs is designed with a large welcoming entryway, a mudroom on the side, and a 30-ft. hallway to create a sightline to the windows looking out from the spacious kitchen. The approximately 10 ft. x 12 ft. bedroom, which is just big enough for a bed and two end tables, is adjacent to a large walk-in closet with a window. They can close off the upstairs until it is needed for visitors.
Heating this house in the winter shouldn’t be too difficult. Susan chuckled when she described hoping to be camping in the house by Thanksgiving. Following guidelines from Efficiency Vermont and using a cold climate heat pump or “mini-split” to heat the house won’t require a big woodpile to stack or daily fires to burn.
With the method of embodied energy and using heat that is available even in cold air, when the wolf comes huffing and puffing outside their door, it will only add to the warmth in their house for the cold months to come.
This first appeared in The Herald of Randolph Sept. 10, 2015