By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
Alice McKaig is building a house of straw.
The sentence has a certain old-fashioned ring to it, and the Sentinel drove up Lookout Mountain to interview Ms. McKaig tormented by a half-memory there was some Biblical precept forbidding it.
But Ms. McKaig, who had paid better attention in Sunday school, was able to correct the Sentinel immediately: The passage is about building houses on sand. “It says to build it on rock,” she said. “If you build it on sand, it’s not stable.”
And Katey Culver, partner with her husband, architect Howard Switzer, in a design team that builds eco-friendly houses throughout the Southeast, remembered a passage that does relate to straw: “Solomon or somebody was demanding straw for the mud bricks for building the temple, because straw is what makes them strong,” she said.
Ms. McKaig’s house is being built with straw bales stacked one on top of the other to make up the walls. These walls will ultimately be sealed with a natural-base plaster that protects them from the elements and from insects, rodents and decay,
When the Sentinel arrived, though, they were still just straw bales. The bales were cunningly stacked around a post-and-beam framework, with spaces left for windows and doors, but the whole effect did not look that – well, permanent: Straw is an organic material that biodegrades, the Sentinel objected.
“So’s wood,” said architect Switzer, who had plainly heard this argument before. “If you tear it down and expose it to the elements, it’ll eventually rot. But as long as it’s protected and you maintain your roof and you keep water from getting into the walls, just like wood it’s not going to rot. You could go to the Pyramids right now and find straw in the mud bricks.”
Switzer and his wife, who have designed straw bale houses for clients in 10 states since 1994, pointed out that not only is straw an ancient building material worldwide, straw bale houses have been built in the United States since the baler was invented in 1850. The Burritt Museum in Huntsville, Ala., started life as a straw-bale mansion built by an eccentric doctor for his retirement in 1936, and other straw bale houses are still standing after over 100 years.
More recently, the straw-bale revival is part of the green-building trend that has been going on since at least the 1980s. “They have been building houses out West like this for quite a few years, and it’s just gradually spreading east,” said Ms. McKaig.
But let’s back up a minute and introduce our heroine properly. Though Alice McKaig spent most of her adult life in Chattanooga, where she worked as a computer programmer, she is a McKaig of McKaig Loop and that means she’s got Dade County coursing through her veins from a couple of centuries back.
The Sentinel asked her if she’d dreamed all those years of returning home and building her straw bale house on family land. “I never really dreamed of coming back to Dade County. I guess that was just always a given,” she replied. “But I always dreamed about those thick walls and those thick windowsills that you could sit in and look out at the scenery, and all the round corners of the stucco inside. When you walk in, it just looks soft.”
In fact, Ms. McKaig started her Dade home in 1999, when she found herself driving back and forth frequently to care for her aging mother. She got as far as building the basement and left it at that until she retired.
Then she switched directions. “Pretty early on, I got interested in saving the earth,” she said. But she hadn’t known specifically how that would relate to home-building until she came across the straw bale house concept on the Internet. “I visited some and I just loved them,” she said.
So she kept Googling until she found the Switzer/Culver team. “I had designed and had all the plans drawn for just a normal, everyday house, so it was kind of a challenge when I decided to go straw bale,” she said. “I asked Howard to retrofit it. He had to be a creative designer to get everything in here and make it fit.”
With that design work done, the initial construction was begun in September by local builder Anthony Hawes, whom Ms. McKaig hired to manage the project. “My brother was a building contractor and I didn’t even tell him what I was going to do, because I knew he would say, oh, that won’t work, don’t do that, you’ll waste your money,” said Ms. McKaig.
Last week, with the post-and-beam frame up and a roof on top, Switzer and his wife, who live in Linden, Tenn., came up for a few days to give the construction crew what they call Straw Bale 101 and Plaster 101. The sessions doubled as workshops to any volunteers interested in learning.
“This material is so non-skilled labor kind of material that you can quickly teach people how to do it,” said Ms Culver. “It empowers people to build their own homes.”
The straw bales – incidentally baled tighter than the kind you’d buy at the hardware store – function not just as walls but as insulation. “By baling it up like this, it becomes an R30 insulation, so about twice as good as what a typical house would be,” said Switzer.
And if all that straw sounds like a fire hazard, Switzer says the effect is actually the opposite: Properly plastered, the straw bales provide a two-hour firewall.
And builder Hawes says to remember that in a house fire, it’s not usually the flames that kill people: “The fire never gets to them because they’re dead from the toxic fumes from the stuff that the house is built out of.” Straw is much less toxic, he said.
After the straw bales are in place, the next step is to plaster them. “We use a several-thousand-year-old plaster recipe,” said Ms. Culver. “It’s used all over the planet except Antarctica and most of North America.”
Hydrated lime is left to sit in water for several weeks to make a putty, she said, then mixed with sand and a little local clay to give it a soft, natural color. “If you want different colors, then you can just go with the lime, which is very white, and then you can paint it, but not with a latex paint or an acrylic paint,” said Ms. Culver. “You have to use a natural paint, a clay paint, a flour paint, a milk paint, something that will breathe.”
Financially, Ms. Culver says the cost for the Frances McDonald straw bale house built recently in Chattanooga was $96 a square foot, less than the $125 Hawes sites for the average custom home. Switzer wasn’t so sure. “So far, all the numbers that we’ve gotten, it was a wash, basically,” he said.
The real point, he says, is that straw bales take a byproduct of agriculture and upcycle it into an eco-friendly and beautiful construction component. It’s all part of what is now being called “permaculture,” a philosophy of “stacking systems” artistically and scientifically, one notch up from what has heretofore been called sustainability, said Ms. Culver.
“We’re not looking just to be sustained. We want to thrive,” she said. “We’re looking for joy and abundance and greatness, not just sustainability. We want to enhance and beautify.”
“What did your brother say?” the Sentinel asked Ms. McKaig.
Hawes answered that one: Brother McKaig was worried the thick walls would cut into the square footage. “I told him, ‘Well, I’m just building for a little-bitty woman,’” said Hawes.
And that little-bitty woman is delighted with the house so far. Ms. McKaig says she recently posted online: “I’m building a house of straw. I hope it holds up better than the little pigs’.”
Which led to the Sentinel’s lightbulb moment: The straw house taboo hadn’t come from the Bible, it was the Big Bad Wolf. And who’s afraid of him?
To learn more about straw bale houses, readers may visit Switzer’s website, www.earthandstraw.com.