February 12, 2004

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Barbara King:
The Eye
It's what's inside that counts
*There is something downright joyful about straw-bale homes, with a humble beauty that is beyond skin deep.




A house-raising

A house-raising

(Eva Soltes)

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A NEW MEXICO potter was the first to mention straw-bale houses to me, but I didn't pay much attention to him because it seemed like just another goofy, planless plan in his dream-a-minute artist's life. He'd build one out in the desert mountains, he told me in his dreamy dreamer's voice, do it all himself; it would be simple, affordable, environmentally correct and, most of all, beautiful. Believe it or not, beautiful.

I imagined it while he spoke, this fragile house of straw, the menacing winds of winter howling through it, the sun singeing it, vermin munching away at it through the night. OK, it had a certain fey appeal, like so many eccentric gestures, but this was his wonkiest notion yet, and I was getting too old to fake encouragement. You've got to be kidding was my desperately unoriginal response.

Soon thereafter, I left for California, and the potter might or might not have built his. I doubt it, but I hope he did.

I now know straw-bale construction to be everything he claimed it was. And something more, something I was too restless to let him explain in what seemed to me his latest holy fool reincarnation. No storm was going to blow it down or high temperature set it ablaze. No pest would fill its belly full of the walls. The tough and fibrous straw, as it happens, makes about as sturdy and safe a house as you can suppose. Think earthquake-resistant (acts as a shock absorber). Think fire-resistant (bales bound so tightly oxygen can't move through them).

You'll be easily persuaded about the stalwart character traits of straw-bale houses if you talk to any one of these people: John Swearingen, president of Skillful Means (www.skillful-means.com), a California design/building firm; Janet Johnston, an architect with the firm who designed composer Lou Harrison's amazing vaulted house; Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox, pioneering researchers and advocates; Bill Steen, author of several books on straw bale (www.caneloproject.com); or Maurice Bennett, executive director of California Straw Building Assn. (www.strawbuilding.org), a nonprofit organization made up of architects, engineers, builders and aficionados.

By the time they've told you even just a little of what they've learned and what they believe, you'll be ready to order those bales and start stacking them in the shape of your house-to-come which, as the potter rightly maintained, you can do yourself. "It's incredibly owner-builder friendly," says Myhrman. More and more people are discovering the material, and "Californians surprise, surprise are leading the way," says Knox, who is Myhrman's wife.

"Straw bale lends itself to owner-building," says Swearingen, whose firm is the largest builder of straw-bale structures in California, including residences, lodges and meditation retreats. "You don't have to have a lot of technical skill. It's a very forgiving material, with a kind of informality and relaxed quality. It's wonky, already imperfect, so you won't even notice if a wall is not exactly straight."

What you will notice, all these cheerleading experts mention over and over, is the aestheticism of the finished product. To begin with, the bales are about 2 feet thick, so not only is your house brilliantly insulated cool in summer, warm in winter it also takes on a three-dimensional aspect, like an old stone building in Europe. That's after you've plastered over the bales, of course.

"The walls have so much presence," says Swearingen with the infectious ardor of all straw bale's aforementioned promoters. "With wood frame and Sheetrock, you have to figure out how to make it interesting paintings, paint, faux effects. But in a straw-bale house, the texture and palette are already there; the light hits it in a different way. You don't have to do anything to make it interesting. It is, intrinsically."

Perhaps, Knox says, that's why so many artists have taken to straw-bale construction in the last few years: "They're so beautiful those deep window openings you can sculpt or round off. There's nothing else quite like that rounded sculptability."

Everyone who goes inside one, Swearingen and Myhrman and Johnston insist, senses their difference. "You feel truly nested," says Knox. "And I think people tap into some cellular memory, when they were so connected to their home place." That pretty much reflects Swearingen's observation, that people "immediately, and intuitively, understand" a straw-bale house when they see one, getting downright joyful. "It's like a hot-air balloon," says Swearingen. "Everyone loves it."

And not least, I'd bet, because of straw's homely nature: It's a throwaway product, a waste material, the refuse of grain after the harvest, not even worthy of tilling back into the soil. Yet, a few Nebraskan homesteaders in the early 1900s discovered its value, forced by a shortage of trees on the plains to use their wits. They recognized the potential of the solid hay blocks, and built their homes, barns, churches, schools out of them.

Thanks to the rediscovery of its star quality in the '90s, straw bale came back and its popularity is ever on the rise, crossing all socioeconomic lines and showing off its adaptability in all manner of architectural styles.

Witness Lou Harrison's astonishing house, and how a little overlooked and unwanted plain Jane of a material transformed a plot of ground with its memorable, idiosyncratic beauty.

And who doesn't love a hot-air balloon and a Cinderella story?


Barbara King is editor of the Home section. She can be reached at barbara.king@latimes.com.


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