The house that rice built
July/Aug. 2009 California Country magazine
By Brandon T. Souza
Using a waste product, helping the environment to create a beautiful home.
Greg Massa and his wife, Raquel Krach, were never comfortable in their old farmhouse. The roof leaked, the windows were drafty and it was costing them a small fortune to heat and cool the home during the varying seasons.
Thinking back to their days in graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the couple recalled a retiring professor who had planned to build a home out of straw bales. It was an uncommon practice at that time, but the idea stuck. In 2001—fed up with nickel-and-dime repairs to their Glenn County homestead—the couple decided to build a straw house for themselves and their two children.
As rice farmers, Massa and Krach had to look no further than their own backyard for an abundance of rice straw, a byproduct left standing knee-high each fall after harvest. California regulations significantly limit the burning of the product as a disposal method, so farmers like Massa and Krach are always on the lookout for new and creative ways to use the straw in an environmentally friendly manner—such as making bales that can be used in construction.
With building costs comparative to those of conventional houses, Massa and Krach set out to design a home that would reflect their personalities while being flexible for their growing family.
“We told the designer that we wanted to feel like we were outside when we’re really inside. We wanted a house that would connect us to our family farm,” said Massa, who also grows organic almonds and wheat.
The initial assembly of the structure involved the hiring of an engineering firm to build a frame for the home that could hold up its roof since the straw bales do not provide any type of structural support. The post and beam frame design makes the residence more earthquake proof than most American homes.
“When there’s an earthquake someday, the straw bale houses will be the last left,” joked Massa.
Once the roof and framing were in place, the fun and camaraderie began as nearly 100 friends and family joined Massa and Krach for a “bale-raising party,” in which the rice straw bales—a hefty 80 pounds each—were placed in between the 2-foot-wide wall framing of the home. As the bales were laid down, a thin mixture of mud and chopped straw was spread over the top of each bale before the next layer of bales was placed on top, ensuring a tight seal of insulation. The party took the better part of three days.
“The coolest thing about having a straw bale house is that everyone comes out to help build it because it’s such a great concept,” said Krach, remembering how much fun the family had during the gathering.
After the bales were in place with wiring and plumbing neatly tucked in between, a thick coating of plaster was put directly on the sides of the bales to seal the structure. The resulting walls are not perfectly straight, as the bales are not straight, but they have smooth undulations and beautiful curves.
“We can easily hang objects on the walls, but choose not to. Our windows are our art,” said Massa, noting the views from the living room’s dual-pane panoramic windows that overlook their rice fields.
But good views aren’t the only benefits that Massa and Krach’s home provides. Energy efficiency is another.
With the addition of three more bedrooms and one more bath in 2008 to better accommodate their five children, the home that required a total of 500 bales now measures just over 2,600 square feet. Yet Massa and Krach say they rarely see an energy bill in the summer that exceeds $100.
“Keep in mind that it gets really hot out here in the summer,” said Massa, noting their Hamilton City summer days that often top 100 degrees. “We don’t even have to turn on our air conditioner until it gets 95 outside.”
Strategically placed between two large oak trees that provide significant shade on the east and west sides, Massa and Krach’s straw house boasts a wealth of energy-saving features that keep its overall operational costs down.
The home’s eaves, for instance, span 4 feet out from the walls, preventing the afternoon sun from directly hitting the home and heating its interior. Additionally, the east and west elevation windows are placed far back from the exterior of the 2-foot walls to again prevent direct sunlight from penetrating inside. The south and north windows are placed more toward the middle of the walls, allowing the family to have large sills that act as shelves.
During the summer, Massa and Krach open up the home’s windows in the evening to allow the cement foundation and walls to cool down. In the morning, they close the windows to hold the temperature steady throughout the day. In the winter, a small wood stove in the living room is used occasionally to provide heat when necessary, but typically the residence stays a comfortable 70 to 75 degrees.
“The straw acts as great insulation and the mass of the cement, both in the walls and on the floor, moderates the temperature,” said Massa. “It’s so nice to have a house that’s the same temperature all the time.”
And Massa says that those concerned about straw bale homes being a fire hazard have nothing to worry about. In fact, they are more rodent proof, bug proof and fireproof than conventional construction homes.
“They’re probably bulletproof, too,” joked Massa, although he acknowledges he’s never tried it for himself.
Thinking about building a straw house?
Construction of straw-built homes is on the rise in the Golden State, according to the California Straw Building Association.
“It’s definitely growing in popularity, although we, too, have been affected by the tightening of the housing market,” said director Joy Bennett. “Using a waste product and helping the environment is such a great feeling. You get a beautiful home. And it’s fun, too!”
The Calaveras County-based association holds workshops and conferences throughout the year, including an Aug. 7-9,2009 workshop on earth plastering. For more information, call 209-785-7077, visit www.strawbuilding.org or e-mail email@example.com.
Another good resource is Skillful Means (www.skillful-means.com), the Berkeley-based design and construction firm that assisted with the Massa family’s home. Principal John Swearingen is a founding member of the California Straw Building Association.
For more information about Massa Organics, visit www.massaorganics.com.
Brandon T. Souza is a reporter in Sacramento. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.