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Soaking up the straw

Casey Bright stood before a crowd of Helman Elementary first- and second-graders on a field trip to a home construction site Tuesday afternoon with a mystery object under a green cloth. He whisked away the sheet to unveil the star of the show: a bale of straw.

Bright, owner of Casey Bright Custom Builders, is building one of the few straw bale homes in Ashland. It is his first such house in nearly 28 years of building, but straw bale is growing in popularity and like the children sitting before him, he said he believes it is the wave of the future.

"I find it really fun and interesting and exciting to get into what I see as the future," he said. "One of the things that I loved was that it's not necessarily cheaper or more expensive to build this way. It's just different."

Bright is working with straw bale expert Robert Atkins to construct a sustainable home for Larry and Anna Suttmann Kenworthy in the hills outside of Ashland. Straw bale is the essence of sustainability, Atkins said, because it uses less energy and fewer materials.

Straw bale specs

Straw bale homes have conventional foundations and roofs, but because they use only posts spaced six to eight feet apart rather than the traditional 16-inch stud spacing, the homes use one-third less wood than conventional designs. Once constructed, their thick straw walls will insulate the space twice as effectively, Atkins said. Larry Kenworthy upped the sustainability factor by milling fallen Douglas fir trees already on his property to supply nearly half of the lumber.

The bales of straw come from rice fields in the Sacramento Valley, where farmers typically burn their fields to clear them of the straw. The same cellulose that makes it impossible for farmers to simply plow under the old straw is what provides the superior insulation, said Atkins, who has built 23 straw bale homes in Oregon and California since 1996.

Every acre of rice farmland produces about 50 bales of straw, and Kenworthy's home will use almost 200 bales of straw, or 4 acres that won't have to be burned, Atkins said. The total cost to purchase and deliver those bales was just $1,500, Atkins said.

Once the straw is put in place, it is secured with chicken wire then plastered over on both sides. The plaster helps prevent mold, the biggest threat to the longevity of straw bale homes. Recent improvements have lowered those risks, and the homes last indefinitely if the straw is kept dry, he said.

The straw is not palatable to termites, and the tightly packed bales have earned a two-hour fire rating, an attractive proposition for insurance companies. Atkins has built with other alternative methods such as rammed earth and cob homes but prefers straw bale because so far it alone qualifies for insurance.

The benefits of straw bale transcend political boundaries, increasingly appealing to liberals and conservatives alike, he said.

"I definitely have built homes for very conservative people," he said. "They love the energy savings and the quiet of it. It's not just for environmentalists."

Not just for kids

The field trip was popular among parents as well as kids, attracting 10 parent chaperones for the 20-student class.

"I personally came along on the field trip because I'm interested in straw bale homes," said parent Michael Stringer, who hoped to use the experience to teach his 6-year-old daughter Ella how expensive it is to heat and cool homes. "I think it's great that Casey is not only building the house but opening it up to the kids."

The class has been studying maps and watching the construction at their school, so teacher Kari Smith saw a great connection when the class was invited to the Kenworthys' house. Before the trip, students learned that straw comes from the earth and other elements of sustainability.

"I think they get it," she said. "We talked about recycling and composting. It all fits in the same vein, I think."

Atkins said he always tries to make his projects a learning experience, and Bright's son, Riley, was in the visiting class. After a brief introduction to straw, the real fun began, with stations to practice hammering, cutting slices of straw bales, plugging gaps in the wall with loose straw and spreading gravel.

"I thought it was really fun," said Bobby Hodgins. "I've seen some houses in building, but not like this."

Kenworthy told the kids when he was their age, he spent hours building straw forts and tunnels.

"I'm totally surprised that as an adult, I'm building another fort," he said.

But he's also building in the earth-friendly manner he's always dreamed of and said he believes that when it comes time to sell, his house will be in high demand.

"I don't know why you'd build anything else these days," he said.

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.