The house that straw built

Grey County home a masterpiece of ecological planning

Jun. 22, 2006.

KATHY FLAXMAN
SPECIAL TO THE STAR

Surrounded by saplings, wildflowers and running streams, it's easy to focus on respecting and preserving nature. When planning and building his home in Grey County, Richard Griffith took a particularly adventuresome route.

"It was time to act on my words and my beliefs," he says. "It was time to make a life-changing decision."

He opted to forego commonplace building conventions and materials, even a standard heating/cooling system. Instead his home is built using straw bales, which are noted for their enormous insulation properties — although, since even the hardiest of conservationists need warmth in the Canadian winter, the house has a large fireplace.

Today, tucked up in the picnic areas and cross-country ski trails of the Blue Mountains, Griffith enjoys the benefits of his choices. He's warm in winter, just fine in summer, too, and no heating bills trouble him as he watches for deer, wild turkeys and other wildlife.

This is his dream house.

Studies in Restoration Ecology at Niagara College in St. Catherines, following a stint at the University of Toronto studying English, led him to the conclusion that environmental problems were the result of human attempts to dominate and control nature in ways that were unnatural. Griffith became a permaculturalist, an advocate of an attitude toward design of housing communities and gardens based on the principles of nature.

"Permaculture is a design system based on patterns in nature. Nature wastes nothing and everything goes in cycles — that's a vital pattern that we have generally forgotten," he says.

An inheritance allowed him the opportunity to put his money where his mouth was.

"I could have gone either way," he recalls. "Get a nice job and a nice place or build this house. It was time for a life decision. I had been skiing up here for years and a friend told me about this land. Within a week, I owned the property and began to plan."

`I could have gone either way — get a nice job and a nice place or build this house. It was time for a life decision'

Richard Griffith

After a year, Griffith came up with a careful site plan for his 3.6-hectare property that orients the house to the south for the natural light and heeds the lay of the land and nearby trees. He hired Toronto-based architect Monica Kuhn and structural engineer Gerry Mason. Greg Allen and Mario Kani of Sustainable Edge Designs planned the mechanical systems.

And yes, there were those straw bales.

"I had seen a slide show of a straw-bale house," he recalls. "It was a beautiful-looking house. Of course, the beauty of the straw is its insulating properties.

"This house has been my opportunity to put my environmental beliefs into action."

 

 

 



"The beauty of the straw is its insulating properties." says Richard Griffith, owner of a straw-bale home, which has no furnace, but does have a fireplace, below. Right, the bales before walls are finished.

For engineer Mason, this was a challenge of research as well as design.

"Imagine building a home out of sponge cake," he says.

"When you pile bales of straw on top of one another, they squeeze out and become wider," he explains. "Also, they lack the vertical and tensile strength to hold a second floor or a roof. We built the house using a modified post-and-beam construction with a frame to hold the bales."

Building permit application forms were preceded by documented cases of other straw examples and extensive details of the exact methodology to be followed.

The straw's arrival was awesome, Griffith says — a load of 660 bales on a huge flatbed trailer arriving early on a July morning.

However, the structural issues were legion. To counteract the fact that straw would naturally wobble, Mason designed a system of wood dowels to be hammered into the centre of the bales and the whole works was covered with mesh and secured. "The dowels were very hard to put in, even with a sledge hammer," Mason notes.

The home is a masterpiece of ecological planning. It uses, wherever possible, natural, recycled and "waste" products.

"The joists and the big beams are all made up of laminated materials — essentially wood chips," Griffith says. "The basement walls are special blocks made up of wood chips with just enough cement to hold them together. They contain a special insulation called Roxul that is a natural product. Fire- and water-resistant, it doesn't produce toxic gasses and even has noise-reduction qualities."

Without a furnace, is the home truly warm in winter? My first visit was on a day that was nippy, with snow piled over a metre deep, but even the floor was warm and the fireplace was an inviting centerpiece.

"It's actually a masonry heater that heats by radiation," Griffith explains. The fire heats the stone. It takes about 24 hours to get the house up to 20C, but even if it were allowed to go out, the place wouldn't get cold for about 36 hours."

 

 

The fireplace forms one wall of the kitchen, where a door opens onto a small oven for bread, adding to the cozy ambience.

His fridge, a tiny propane model, is further evidence that however much cooking goes on in the room, power and resources are treated as precious. With only six solar panels on the roof, electricity use is minimal and most of the garbage goes straight to the composter.

"Everybody has to start somewhere," Griffith says of his environmental beliefs. "Your children and grandchildren will grow up with these practices."

The home's open plan enables heat to flow freely, as well as allowing space for entertaining and teaching (Griffith gives courses in environmental studies).

As a permaculture gardener, Griffith now plans to add a greenhouse to the kitchen and do further work on the landscaping and garden.

"The greenhouse will be warmed by the house and the house by the greenhouse," he says. "I would love to see whole subdivisions built using these techniques."

Kathy Flaxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer with an interest in housing related issues and sustainable development. You can reach her at kathy.flaxman@sympatico.ca.

 

One of those three pigs had it right the first time

Jun. 22, 2006.

Did the first of the three little pigs have a good idea after all? The insulation value of straw lies in the fact that it is hollow and the air is doing the work. Bales are 35 centimetres thick.

"If you have land in somewhere like Wyoming and you have a million or so bales of straw lying around, the idea of using it to build a house is appealing," says Gerry Mason, a structural engineer. "That's the type of application that inspired the first straw bale houses."

"Using straw bales is a viable construction technique," architect Monica Kuhn stresses. "We used a post and beam construction (to build Richard Griffith's house), but there are ways to make the straw load bearing. It has to be stored in a dry place, covered for a year."

 

 

Once that's out of the way, the golden blocks are surprisingly easy to work with and stack.

What about mice or bugs? "Straw is just cellulose. There is really no nutritive value," Griffith says. "The straw in this house will outlive me."

Griffith's house has cost him nothing to heat, as he has been able to cut down and supply his own wood for the masonry heater/fireplace, which consumes about five bush cords per heating season.

Finding insurance was an issue, however. "When I was looking there was an attitude of `what are you doing? Living in a haystack?'" Griffith recalls. He ended up getting insurance from the Co-operators in Collingwood at a cost of about $1,400 a year.

It's unlikely that straw-bale housing will become a trend in cities, where there is precious little room for 35-cm-deep walls. However, there are other such homes in Ontario and a Straw Bale Building Coalition, which holds a yearly open house tour across the province.

"I definitely think the concept is gaining popularity," Griffith says. "My firm may be building one this summer in Prince Edward County," adds Kuhn.

— Kathy Flaxman