Huff and puff all you like, Big Bad Wolf, Mary Ellen Blakey’s straw bale house isn’t coming down any time soon.
The walls of Blakey’s home in Clinton, New York, were constructed with bales of straw. The stacked bales – 1½ stories high – were smoothed with a garden-variety weed trimmer, then plastered and painted. The straw bale home is the first of its type in Oneida county.
A consultant for Syracuse University, Blakey designed the home herself, putting several years into the planning and just $140,000 into the construction. The result is a charming 814-square-foot home, with insulation that is 50% to 100% more efficient than fiberglass.
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Straw bale construction is only one facet of Blakey’s environmentally-friendly home. She designed the roof to extend two feet beyond the walls to effectively block sunlight and passively cool the home, and installed specialized windows. Three solar panels meet all her electrical needs. She grows vegetables in a backyard garden and cooks them using a solar oven. Her annual utility costs $500 total, or about $40 per month.
Blakey’s green home caught the attention of Richard Morris, founder of Green Local 175, an organization that promotes green economic development within a 175 mile radius in the community, from Utica to Rome. Over 100 people toured Blakey’s home during a tour organized by the group. Several are now considering constructing straw bale homes of their own. Surprised by all the interest, Blakey spent almost two hours explaining all the details to her visitors.
The 60-year-old hadn’t sought a leadership role in supporting green initiatives. “I just thought I was doing this for me,” Blakey said. “I think people really are hungry for an alternative,” she continued. “People have been so fascinated with this house.”
The Department of Energy reports a rising interest in straw bale home construction, fueled not only by environmental concerns, but by increasing costs in material and labor. Straw bales cost from $3 to $7 a bale, considerably less expensive than conventional materials. Straw bale walls are erected faster as well, sometimes during a single day with a “barn-raising” type of party.
The first straw buildings appeared in Nebraska in the 1890s, when early pioneers had few other options for building materials on the barren prairies. Their first attempt was not successful. Unplastered, it was soon eaten by cows. Plaster solved that problem, and yes, kept insects and moisture out, too. Two of those straw bale homes built a century ago are still in use today.
Straw bale construction is catching on. The city of Santa Clarita in California built a 25,000-square-foot administration building using straw bale walls, which opened in 2005, as part of their transit maintenance facility. A showcase of sustainable design, the building also features an under-floor HVAC system and solar panels.
Ms. Blakey can relate. Her primary goal in building her home was to reduce her carbon footprint, which is now just a quarter of what it once was.
As Blakey so rightly said, “It all depends on the choices you make.”
Story and photo via UticaOD