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A house made of straw

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The big bad wolf gave straw houses a pretty bad reputation. But it turns out straw bale houses are incredibly strong and energy efficient. The century-old building material is making a comeback as an eco-friendly choice for modern home construction. And these homeowners aren't afraid of a little wind. One woman is even building a straw bale house in the sometimes cold, blustery climate of the east. Joyce Kryszak tells us her story.

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Transcript: Joyce Kryszak, September 9, 2009

The big bad wolf gave straw houses a pretty bad reputation. But it turns out straw bale houses are incredibly strong and energy efficient. The century-old building material is making a comeback as an eco-friendly choice for modern home construction. And these homeowners aren't afraid of a little wind. One woman is even building a straw bale house in the sometimes cold, blustery climate of the east. Joyce Kryszak tells us her story:

This does kind of start out like a fairy tale. On the edge of the industrial city of Buffalo, New York there's an ordinary little village. It's dotted with aging, modest houses.

Carrie Zaenglein used to live here. That is until she lost her village home to fire two years ago. But that didn't frighten the quiet-spoken young woman away. Zainglein says it just gave her a chance to rebuild. Only this time she's building her dream home out of straw.

"I've always been interested in green building and doing things the environmentally friendly way, so I figured while I had a chance to start over I would do it the way I wanted to do it," said Zainglein.

But how to go about it? You see, straw bale houses are growing more popular in the southwest. But you won't find straw house builders listed in the yellow pages of most eastern cities.

So, Zainglein did a little searching on the web and found Dave Lanfear. Turns out, he's building a company devoted to straw bale house construction. And Lanfear doesn't care how much he's teased about it.

"Yeah, I hear the same kind of jokes, I think, the three little pigs... and the same type of questions, but I just have to laugh. Yeah, I hear them,"

Lanfear just digs right in and gets to work plastering Carrie's two-story contemporary style house.

Lanfear says to do it right you have to get dirty. He fills the wood frame with tightly packed straw bales. Next, the walls are coated inside and out with layers of clay plaster. It's made with clay dug right from the site. Lanfear says it's very organic and sustainable. But he says it also withstands the test of time.

"There are homes in Nebraska they didn't even know that they were straw bale - they were actually hay bale. The walls got open, they were doing repairs and they discovered this hay in there and it actually looked fresh and they were a hundred years old."

He says that's because the plaster seals out the moisture but still allows the walls to breathe. That prevents mold and keeps the house sound. It also gets high marks for fire safety. And because the wheat straw is a just a bunch of hollow tubes it creates the air space that makes it a good insulator. Virtually everything about the house is eco-friendly.

The house also has solar heat and power. And it's made mostly with reused materials. Even the trees cut down to make room for the house were brought inside and used for the framing. And Zaingline says rebuilding on her same small lot near the city means she's not adding to urban sprawl. She likes to think straw bale houses could be a trend.

"The difference you can make, even though you're only one person. I think it's important for everyone to make these changes even if their small."

Zaingline says her little straw bale house stands up just as well as any house made out of sticks or brick. It might just stand up to the bluster of critics too.

For The Environment Report, I'm Joyce Kryszak.

Copyright 2009. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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