March 22, 2007


Living better using less—
Village straw bale home can take the heat — and the cold

Beth, right, and Andy Holyoke helped Lindie Keaton, left, and Joel Smith (not pictured) build an energy-efficient straw bale house at 123 Cliff Street. Villagers are invited to attend an open house on Sunday, March, 25 from 2 to 4 p.m.

When Lindie Keaton and Joel Smith decided to buy a home together in the village last year, they began looking for something that would be first, affordable and second, energy efficient. They scoured the town and found nothing that fit the bill. And they certainly found nothing as economical and as energy efficient as the new straw bale house they recently built on a small lot on Cliff Street. Thanks to experienced builders Beth and Andy Holyoke, this month the couple is moving into a home that cost them less to build than a conventional house of equal size and will likely cut their gas and electric bills by about two-thirds.

The Holyokes built their first straw bale house nearly 10 years ago for Andy’s parents. They built the second in 2005 with Kaethi Seidl and Bob Brecha on South High Street, and they have built several secondary straw bale structures in between. As a builder, Andy Holyoke said it came down to two things.

“We believe in global warming, and in building there are so many inefficiencies in terms of the energy used to build something and how long it lasts,” he said. “Straw bale seemed like a good piece of the puzzle.”

The public is invited to walk through this model of earth-friendly construction on Sunday, March 25, from 2 to 4 p.m., to see how some residents have chosen to respond to global warming and the rise in the cost of energy. The home is located at 123 Cliff Street.

The most defining characteristic of the new straw bale house is its brown earthen plaster walls made of all local clay, straw and sand. The one-inch layer of plaster inside and outside encloses a 15-inch layer of insulating straw packed tightly enough to withstand a forest fire and hold a great deal of heat in the house, according to Beth Holyoke. The roof is insulated with 12 inches of cellulose, or recycled newspaper, all of which gives the house an insulation value around R33, Andy Holyoke said, as compared to the Greene County building code which allows an insulation value as low as R19.

In addition to holding heat well, the house has the ability to produce heat, for free, with the help of four solar collectors on the roof that use the sun’s energy to heat the home’s water, along with an on-demand water heater for additional need. That water is also pumped underneath the cement floor and used as radiant heating for the two-story space.

Keaton spent months doing research on windows, which are traditionally a big source of heat loss, she said. By orienting the house so the five large picture windows collect heat from the sun’s extreme southern angle in the winter, she was able to turn a heat sink into a source of solar gain. She then did the reverse for the east, north and west sides of the home by installing triple paned gas-filled Gilkey windows that prevent the sun from heating the air and provide maximum insulation. She also plans to seal off all the windows at night with perhaps a combination of bubble wrap lined with fabric.

The cozy, colorful inside of Keaton and Smith’s home belies the high-tech systems that make it energy efficient. From its built-in window seats and recycled wood trim and doors to the tree sculpted out of clay on the bedroom wall belonging to Keaton’s son Landon Rhoads, the two-bedroom, single-bath home looks and feels as comfortable and attractive as a conventionally built home. In Keaton’s mind, she and Smith didn’t have to give up anything to gain energy efficiency. In fact, Smith said, what they gave up was the cost of building.

The couple budgeted $126,000 for the 1,500 square-foot straw bale house, not including the land, and the Holyokes were able to finish it significantly under budget, Smith said. Partly because they helped with the labor and partly because the materials used to build straw bale homes are relatively inexpensive, the home turned out to be quite affordable.

According to the research Beth and Andy Holyoke have done comparing straw bale to adobe brick, ice block styrofoam and several other energy efficient construction methods, straw bale offers the most insulation for the money, Beth Holyoke said.

Keaton and Smith can also expect to save money in the future in operating costs. According to data compiled by Brecha’s students from the University of Dayton, his and Seidl’s 1,300 square foot straw bale house used about one-fifth the natural gas that the average homeowner in the Midwest consumes, which is an estimated 910 cubic feet per year. Their house, with three occupants, also used about one fourth the electricity, or 2,529 kilowatt hours per year, that the average homeowner uses, which is estimated to be about 8,937 kilowatt hours a year.

The occupants of Brecha and Seidl’s home spent approximately $200 on heating bills last year, Holyoke said, and during the summer the household incurred no gas bills at all.

Last month the house on Cliff Street, though not fully occupied, used $60 of natural gas, which is nearly half the $115 gas bill for the 1,200 square foot Home, Inc. house Keaton currently lives in. Keaton’s Home, Inc. house was built in 2001 and is relatively efficient, but cannot compete with the straw bale house.

“Home, Inc. homes perform better than the average home, but the straw bale home’s performance is unreal,” she said.

Utility bills will fall even lower in the summer, as the straw bale house has no air conditioning. According to Andy Holyoke, it will keep cool in the summer using the shade of the roof’s one and a half foot overhang and by opening it up at night and closing it during the day. Ceiling fans will also help cool the house where the cement floors and insulation fail in the dead heat of mid-August, he said.

Keaton and Smith also chose to install energy efficient appliances, such as a Gerber dual flush toilet that provides the option to use 1.1 or 1.6 gallons of water to accommodate various flushing needs. The couple installed compact fluorescent light bulbs throughout the house and made a point of purchasing energy efficient appliances in the kitchen and bathroom, such as a stackable front loading washer and dryer that use less water and energy.

In order to maintain an environmentally conscientious lifestyle, Keaton’s first inclination was to purchase an existing house rather than adding another building footprint on the land, she said. But by building a small home on a small lot inside the village and making it as energy-efficient as possible, she feels her house can be a model of what is possible for others who value conservation.

“If we were going to do it, at least we’re building a house using less energy, and we can be an example to show what could be done,” she said.


The History of Yellow Springs