The Straw House Blog

It had always been my dream to build my own house and to live off the grid. I’m not interested in some sort of back to the land privation story where my environmentalism is steeped in hardship but rather a more of a modern kind of self-sufficiency, back to the land with all the benefits of modern technology. We live in the most fantastic time in history, my goal has always been to leverage all of the knowledge of the past with the advantages of today.

The house is straw-bale, off-grid, and passive solar. So what do all those buzz-words mean? You can read detailed descriptions on the House page, along with some suggested reading, links to resources (and contractors). Put simply:

If you’re interested in a specific technology, process or section of the house you can use the category’s below to focus your reading. If you’d like to just start at the beginning and start this crazy journey right from the beginning then the House Archive link at the top of the page is just for you.

You can follow the construction of the house from breaking ground for the foundation right up to present day as I continue to finish the interior and add new buildings and features to the property.

We started construction on the house in 2002 and we moved in March of 2003. We have weathered a blackout that took out the eastern seaboard, multiple ice storms, dead batteries, exploding generators, free-falling turbines and more cars in the ditch than we can count.

Fast forward 15 years and Joanne and I have gone our separate ways, I’m still in the house with my boys and we’ve continued to improve and expand. We’ve built a loft for the boys in the house, we make maple syrup in our sugar shack.

Straw Bale

Straw bale is a building method that has been around for over a 100 years. The straw bales are stacked, link bricks, in a running bond, coated with cement stucco, and on the interior walls a finishing coat of Venetian plaster (lime plaster mixed with crushed marble). Straw bales are inexpensive, renewable, easy to source, and easy to work with. Any kind of bales can be used so long as they are dry and tight.

Off Grid

Off-grid means that we are not connected to the electrical grid, water, sewer or gas mains. We create our own power with solar collectors and a wind generator. Simon at Generation Solar prepared a Load Analysis with us and specified a system to match. Our kitchen stove and back-up hot water heater are propane fired. On sunny days our primary source of heat is the sun itself coming through the windows and heating the concrete floor. On cloudy days, we have a radiant-in-floor heating system. The pumps in this system use electricity so as a backup we hope to add an efficient wood stove or fireplace insert soon.

Our hot water comes from a combination of two solar hot water heaters and a propane fired boiler, in the summer the propane boiler rarely comes on as the sun provides most of our hot water. In the winter, the boiler must run more frequently in order to make up for the increased number of cloudy days and for the drain brought on by the radiant-in-floor system. A large heat exchanger supplies domestic hot water and heat for the radiant-in-floor heating system.

 

Passive Solar

Passive solar refers to a design philosophy that involves the proper positioning of the house to allow the sun to heat the house in winter but not in the summer. This approach requires the architect to be very precise about roof overhangs and shading, since a mistake can result in a house that acts like a sauna in the summer if too much sun comes through the windows.

In our house on the summer solstice the sun comes about four inches into the house. On the winter solstice the sun shines much further - about thirty-four feet.