Chelsea Green Publishing

Chelsea Green Blog

Solar, Wind, Plaster, and Straw: Building with Soul and Sustainability

Julie Lineberger and Joseph Cincotta of LineSync Architecture designed their home with straw-bale, plaster, and a little bit of Yankee ingenuity. Taking advantage of passive solar design principles, and meeting their electricity needs with solar power, wind, and propane tanks for backup, they were able to take their southern Vermont house off the grid.
In “The Three Little Pigs,” the big, bad wolf huffs and puffs and easily blows down the first piglet’s straw house. But with rising energy costs playing the wolf at the door, don’t dismiss straw houses too quickly. In southern Vermont, Dale and Michele Doucette and their two sons enjoy a large, comfortable home made of straw bales stacked to surround a post-and-beam frame like a blanket. “Straw walls typically have an R factor ranging from 30 to 50—and if you factor in ‘air tightness,’ they can save energy on the order of an R-70 fiberglass wall,” says architect Joseph Cincotta, M.Arch. ’88, who designed the Vermont straw-bale house and even helped sheathe the straw in two layers of plaster. “The typical wooden-stud wall has an R factor of about 12.” (R factor is an index of an insulating material’s resistance to heat transfer.) The energy efficiency of the Doucettes’ straw-bale house has enabled them to leave the power grid behind; they meet their needs with solar and wind power, backed up by propane tanks. Straw has other advantages: it contains a natural fire retardant, for example, making it less flammable than wood. “It’s really hard to light a bale of straw,” Cincotta explains. Yet straw, like wood, is subject to damage by moisture—rot. So Cincotta took pains to keep rain water off the walls, widening the typical 12- to 18-inch roof overhang to 36 inches. “Sun and rain wear buildings down,” he says, “so good overhang is always good practice.” Nor did they put straw directly on the concrete foundations, he says. “The first 16 inches of wall are completely waterproof—concrete and foam—raindrops splash up well below the first bale of straw.” Finally, they took care to ensure that window sills and door openings would not trap water, and that any water that did somehow enter the walls would not remain there, using lime plaster—an old type used in the 1800s—both inside and outside the stacks of straw. “Lime plaster has more clay in it than cement plaster, so it is more porous,” Cincotta explains. “Moisture travels to dryness like heat to cold, so plaster that breathes allows wet straw to dry out.” Furthermore, the fact that straw bales aren’t perfect cubes influenced the design. “I was inspired by the straw to try things I wouldn’t do in a wood home,” Cincotta says. The front door, for example, is arched. Cutting wooden arches, forming them, and bending sheetrock are expensive and time-consuming tasks, but arches are far easier to build with straw bales, whose shape is flexible, not rigid. And arches “tend to be a welcoming gesture,” Cincotta says. Influenced by the softer curves of straw bales, he also used curved lines on an outdoor deck and a soapstone kitchen countertop. Even the home’s plastered walls are not perfectly even and flat. “We embraced the handmade feel of that,” says the architect. “Those walls have character, and give a sense of soul to the place.”
Read the whole article here.


The Limits to Growth and Greece: Systemic or Financial Collapse?

Could it be that the ongoing Greek collapse is a symptom of the more general collapse that the Limits to Growth model generates for the first two decades of the 21st century? Author Ugo Bardi (Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet) examines the correlation between what is unfolding between Greece […] Read More..

Permaculture Q&A: Mulching Options for Your Garden

As Permaculture Month continues, we are making our expert authors available to answer your burning permaculture questions. If you have a question to submit, fill out this form. This week, Lottie from Florida asked if there are other garden mulch options that are as effective as hay. Josh Trought, one of our soil building and garden management […] Read More..

Designing Your Own Solar Cooker & Dehydrator

In today’s world, nearly everything we use, from phones and computers to cars and kitchen appliances, requires energy derived from fossil fuels. Wouldn’t it be nice to offset some of that energy use by harnessing the renewable power of the sun? Josh Trought, founder of D Acres—an educational center in New Hampshire that researches, applies, […] Read More..

Building a Sustainable Community: The D Acres Model

If you were going to create a community-based homestead or farm from scratch, where would you start? What building materials would you use? What crops would you grow and what animals would you raise? How would you develop an organizational structure and connect with your community? And, how would you make sure all of this […] Read More..

A Man Apart: Remembering Bill Coperthwaite’s Radical Life

A Man Apart is the story—part family memoir and part biography—of Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow’s longtime friendship with Bill Coperthwaite (A Handmade Life), whose unusual, and even radical, life and fierce ideals helped them examine and understand their own. Framed by Coperthwaite’s sudden death and brought alive through the month-long adventure of building with […] Read More..