A huff and a puff won't blow house down

Sunday, August 7th 2005, 5:45 pm
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ Myrna Fletcher is building the first house in Norman made with straw bales _ and that ain't hay.

About 500 bales of tightly bound straw will insulate the 2,700-square-foot structure. Fletcher will build the home, with help from volunteers and friends, on her farm in front of her present house.

A foundation is in place and the bales are ready to go. Other materials are being gathered, but the construction pace depends on the flow of volunteers (that's easy) and money (a tad tougher). Yet, progress almost always continues.

``We started the plans two years ago, but I've wanted a straw-bale house for 12 years,'' Fletcher said.

Straw bales and mud will be key components to the house, but that won't make it a primitive structure. Norman architect Dave Boeck designed the home as a post-and-beam structure. A concrete foundation recently was poured, and the house will have sheet rock, plaster and interior cedar posts that are quite artistic for support.

The three-bedroom, 2 1/2-bathroom home will have large windows for beauty and ventilation, a safe room in its middle, and insulation that can't be beat _ thanks to the straw bales.

Fletcher and Boeck say straw provides oustanding insulation from noise and outdoor weather. Architects measure insulation by a scale called R-value, and Boeck said the straw-bale house will measure better than R-50.

``The standard requirement is R-19 for the home and R-32 for a roof,'' he said. Put another way, ``Normally, it would take about $200 a month to heat a house this size, but this could cost $20 to $30.'' For Fletcher, a widow on a fixed income, saving that much on energy would be a huge benefit.

Nevertheless, isn't straw vulnerable to fire, let alone the huffing and puffing big, bad wolf? Apparently not.

``First of all, straw is dry, dead stems of cereal grains; hay is cut green with moisture,'' Fletcher explained. ``Hay can spontaneously combust and can easily burn. Straw is already dead.''

She said her bales will be even less susceptible to fire because they are bound so tightly, there's too little room inside for oxygen to fuel the flames. Plus, the bales will be surrounded on either side by four inches of mud comprised of clay, sand and tiny straw pieces.

As for stability, Boeck said custom-designed steel brackets attached to posts will support the straw bales. The walls also will have lime plastering, applied slowly so it will dry properly into protective limestone.

The federal government agrees. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, ``Straw-bale buildings boast superinsulated walls, simple construction, low costs, and the conversion of an agricultural byproduct into a valued building material. Properly constructed and maintained, the straw-bale walls, stucco exterior and plaster interior remain water proof, fire resistant, and pest free.''

And while this will be Norman's first straw-bale house, it won't be the county's first straw structure. The Earth Elements Farm between Noble and Lexington recently expanded its bakery with a straw-bale room. Fletcher and others helped Earth Elements owner April Harrington with the design and its construction.

Once Fletcher was ready to build, a friend recommended Boeck. He had designed some energy-efficient and environmentally friendly architecture, and both he and Fletcher are part of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, a group that strives for greater use of natural, renewable resources. Even so, Fletcher's idea was new to him.

``She had this vision for a straw-bale house, so I did a lot of reading and she got the California straw-bale codes and then we designed the house,'' Boeck said.

Once the plans were drawn, Fletcher would need city approval to get a building permit. The process of educating Norman about straw-bale construction was on.

``The building inspectors wanted to be thorough, as they should, so there was a lot of discussion and they did a lot of research on their own,'' Boeck said.

City inspectors ultimately approved the project after insisting on a couple of concessions, like treating the lumber posts in the dirt floor, that Fletcher thought were reasonable. The house is new territory for experienced tradesmen as well, Boeck said, ``because nothing is out of a textbook.''

Fletcher said there will be a public workshop once the bales are ready to go up. That way, anyone interested can learn firsthand about this new old way to build houses.

``I'm hoping this will give people an opportunity to look ahead and build in different ways and not stick so much to tradition,'' Fletcher said.