Archive for Sustainable Homes

A review of the Natural Building Companion

Two years ago I saw a presentation by Ace McArleton, co-author of the Natural Building Companion, and based on that I knew I needed to order the book. For a while it sat on my shelf, alongside a collection of other books about building and natural building. However it has distinguished itself from its companions in the true test – when I have a question, or encounter a problem in my work as a straw bale builder, it is the first book I reach for. I now consider this book to be an essential reference for those planning to build with straw bales, clay-straw or other natural building materials – and while it is useful for the pros, it is still accessible for beginners.

Jacob Deva Racusin and Ace McArleton have spent the last decade working on high performance natural building – marrying the building science of the superinsulation and passive house movements with natural materials. The natural building movement in general has been moving to adopt better practices around managing heat loss, particularly making buildings more air tight, but the Natural Building Companion is the first book to address it comprehensively, and also to offer practical solutions to common problems.

For example, it’s common to couple straw bale construction with timber frame, however the junction of each post or beam with the plaster is likely to become an air leakage problem – movement of the building can even break caulking along these joints when it is used. The best solution to this problem is air fins that run behind the post and several inches under the plaster. Racusin and McArleton discuss proper installation, and share their experiences using different materials as air fins – and the choice of material is critical since the wrong choice can simply displace the crack from the post to the edge of the air fin, or cause other problems.
Bales squared before installation
A controversial topic in the bale building world is the use of cement-lime plasters. A track record in Ontario has shown that cement-lime plastered buildings can work in our climate, if designed properly. However I would agree with Racusin and McArleton that cement-lime plaster is not the best choice in this relatively wet, cool climate – and the authors offer a very good alternative plastering system that is more appropriate for our climate. A lime-stabilized earth base coat with a lime finish coat is a system we learned about from European builders, but we had just plastered our first house with this system when we discovered that there was a wealth of knowledge just across the border in Vermont. The authors have mastered this system and share the details of it in their book.

The treatment of moisture management is also thorough; like everything in this book it starts with design considerations and follows through to building techniques and detailing. The authors have also done extensive testing of their buildings post-construction to see how well they performed over time, while they were being lived in.

Vampire stakes

Vampire stakes

I even learned tricks to improve our bale work, such as squaring bales before installing them, or the use of “vampire stakes” to anchor straw bales to post and beam structures – the most functional and elegant system I have yet seen for doing this.

The book comes with an instructional DVD filmed at Yestermorrow, which shows exactly what they explain in the text, filmed at each step along the way. I’ve only consulted this a few times so far, but each time it clarified something that wasn’t quite translating from the page for me. Beginners to straw bale will likely want to watch it right through.

I have only picked out a handful of examples, but the Natural Building Companion covers every step from design, through construction, to finishing details, and does it all well. They take it from philosophical underpinnings to technical details of the systems they have evolved with their company New Frameworks.

In short, the authors nailed it, they have written a standard for the natural building world. Having used the book, and spent some time with the authors, I would also agree with Andrew C. Gottlieb that these are definitely builders I’d want to work side by side with, for their professionalism, expertise, and knack for having fun.

I would recommend their website and blog as a reference, in particular I’m keeping an eye on the development of their new system that aims to reach passive house standard while using straw bales. Here is a video of Racusin and McArleton discussing high-performance natural building.

The Dumont House

The first time I saw Rob Dumont’s house I was unimpressed. I was visiting an ex-girlfriend in Saskatoon, I mentioned that I was doing some research into sustainable homes, and she said “there’s one near here, we should walk by it.”

It just looked like any other house. The Dumont house is in the colonial revival style, it’s simply built and doesn’t stand out in the neighbourhood, which has a suburban feel to it (though it’s not far from the downtown). I’m used to seeing half million dollar ecohomes, so when you take away the architect and expensive finishes, solariums, thermal mass walls, radiant floors, etc., it’s hardly recognizable as an ecohouse. I arranged to go back later and visit Rob Dumont, who gave me a tour of his home and some other projects he was working on. What initially turned me off about the Dumont House (because it challenged my preconceptions) now makes it one of my favourite sustainable homes.

16 inch double wallWhen Dumont built this house in 1992 it was one of the world’s most highly insulated homes – but the house, like Dumont himself, is understated. Dumont took the double wall system from the Saskatchewan Conservation House, stretched it out to a full 16 inch wall cavity, and filled this space with blown-in cellulose insulation (which is just recycled newspaper with borax added for fire proofing and pest control). There are about 16,000 lbs of cellulose in the house – but what makes this insulation system really special is that the two walls have very little framing between them, so there are far fewer pathways to lose heat through the wall, either through leakage where the insulation doesn’t meet the wood perfectly, or by ‘thermal bridging’ through the wood itself. It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said: wood is way worse insulation than insulation is. A 2×6 stud wall with R20 insulation batts has an overall insulation value of about R13. Rob Dumont’s walls are R60, the attic is R80, and the windows are R5. The whole house is carefully air sealed. It takes less than 1/4 of the energy to heat Dumont’s house that it would for a conventional house. In 2000 Dumont wrote an article describing the energy efficiency features of his home.

Hot water heat-exchangerAs we continued the house tour, Rob showed me some things that really could be added to any existing house. The first was a drain water heat exchanger, just a copper tube wrapped around the shower drain – as hot shower water comes down the drain pipe the cold incoming water in the coil is warmed. “On a shower it will recover about half of the heat that’s otherwise going down the drain,” said Dumont. He quipped that “I’m worried that with the price of copper, in a home invasion someone will steal it.” Still, barring home invasions, the economic payback is pretty quick – if your hot water heater is electric the heat exchanger will pay itself off in 5 or 6 years, with gas maybe double that. Next we looked at the hot water heater itself, which is a standard tank but wrapped with batt insulation and a thermal blanket adding up to about R28.“Without the insulation it loses about 100 watts of heat continuously,” Dumont said, “with the insulation it’s down to about 25 watts.”

Painting of the house by Phil

Because of the simplicity of the Dumont house, it wasn’t expensive to build. The insulation, upgraded windows, and a solar thermal heating system, added about 7% to the building cost. “If I’d put brick on the outside of the house instead of hardboard siding,” said Dumont, “the brick would have cost more than all of the energy conservation features. I’d much rather have an energy-efficient house than a brick house.” In fact, the energy efficiency finished paying for itself in 2008, after 16 years – now it’s turning a profit. And he pointed out other non-monetary benefits – no draftiness, no cold feet, and the nice aesthetic of the deep window ledges.

Rob Dumont, like many of the builders and designers I’ve met, started his work in the 1970’s, and spent some time wandering metaphorically alone in the desert in the 80’s and 90’s. “Society has got a very short attention span,” he said, “there are waves of interest, but mother nature bats last. I started working in the 70’s on the Saskatchewan Conservation House, one had to really keep the faith through a part of the time since, because not many people were very interested. I must admit back in 1973, with the oil shock, I thought the reasonable thing to do would be to change the way we do our houses radically. That was my youthful naivety at the time.” He showed me a book of solar homes that was written in the late 1970’s, a sort of hippie version of what I’m trying to do, and I realized that I’m just the latest emissary of societal interest, something Dumont has seen come and go. I feel like this time it may be different, but I’m not sure. “It’s encouraging,” said Dumont, but “it’s not nearly at the level I’d like it to be. EF Schumacher put it nicely, he said the wind may not always blow but at least we should have our sails up. That’s the way I feel.”

Rob and his wife Phil took me to see a college basketball game, in which the home team, the Huskies, thoroughly trounced the competition (both women’s and men’s teams). I pictured Rob in his younger days playing basketball, fit and idealistic, believing he could change the world. And he did – it just changes very slowly. I wonder, when I look back in another twenty or thirty years, how I will remember this time. As the beginning of real change, or as lost opportunity? All I know is that my visit with Rob Dumont left me more optimistic than when I arrived.

Biophilic design

At the first stop on a ferry trip down the Alaskan coast, I scrambled up a steep slope through a hemlock forest and my nose came close to the mossy carpet. the smell that greeted me was rich, earthy, it reminded me of a stout beer. I sat down, my back to a tree; a varied thrush sang its long human-sounding whistled notes in the distance. My eyes ran over the green carpet that covered every surface, following the contours of logs and roots, and climbing the lower trunks of trees. Feather moss, fern moss, lanky moss, cat-tail moss, electrified cat tail moss; the names are descriptive of the unique forms. I didn’t know why the varied branching shapes, quilting an irregular pattern across the forest floor, broken here or there by a fallen hemlock twig or cone, brought such a sense of contentment – now I understand more.

As the ferry sailed from Haines the sun was sinking low in the sky, and the snowy peaks of the coast mountains changed from fiery orange to cold blue.
I was on my way to O.U.R. Ecovillage, a community on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where I wanted to see buildings built out of earth, and meet the people who made them.

At O.U.R. Ecovillage I stayed in a building named the Sanctuary, on the edge of a cedar swamp. I sat for a while on a living cedar log, surrounded by showy yellow blooms of skunk cabbage, listening to the long complex song of the winter wren, like tiny raindrops on a still lake. Rain chains hanging from the corners of the living roof of the Sanctuary building echoed the wren’s song. As my ear was drawn to the patterns in the song, so my eye was drawn to the pattern in this chain of tiny bowls linking roof to earth, and the perpetual motion machine of the water trickling down it. Inside the building, my hand reached for rough earth plastered walls and the uneven smoothness of roundwood posts. My feet pressed against the cool softness of an oiled earthen floor. My eye traced the linear path of beams to their meeting with curved walls, and subconsciously I found pattern in thousands of details of this building, each of which represented a choice made by a builder, and a statement about beauty.

Traditionally beauty is in the realm of art, not science. Lately, however, the two may be intersecting. Biophilia is a word used by evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson to describe an evolved human affinity for nature. In 1961, as a young naturalist, Wilson first visited the rainforests of Surinam. As he became lost in the richness of the natural world here, he realized there was some larger idea that was eluding him. More than two decades later he would write “the image of the land I kept for many years symbolized the tangle of dreams and boyhood adventures from which I had originally departed, the home country of all naturalists, and the quiet refuge from which personal beliefs might be redeemed in a permanent and more nearly perfect form.” A poetic description of the naturalist’s experience, but Wilson came to believe that his own intense connections to nature are merely expressions of a broader human connection to the natural world, which has a genetic basis.

According to Wilson’s theory, being in contact with nature makes humans happier and healthier; and since it’s in our genes it is cross-cultural – everyone, rich or poor, rural or urban, will find solace in nature. One of the implications of this is that we may find something beautiful, or comfortable, because it emulates patterns found in nature. From there it’s only a short leap to design buildings that emulate natural patterns and processes. Termed biophilic design, it’s a leap that a number of architects and psychologists have already begun to make.

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie Black Robe, in which a Jesuit priest, lost in the Canadian forest, looks up into the trees and sees for a moment the columns in a cathedral. It’s a cinematic moment that has stuck with me when most other details of the movie have dropped away. Mathematician Nikos Salingaros suggests that some of the greatest religious architecture relies on natural patterns and symmetries to connect humans to the divine. According to Salingaros, “we engage emotionally with the built environment through architectural forms and surfaces. We experience our surroundings no differently than we experience natural environments, other living creatures, and other human beings.”

Biophilic design is not new; arguably it is best exemplified in traditional, or vernacular, architecture and often finds itself in opposition to modern, minimalist architecture. Consider some of the shared aspects of the forest and the sanctuary building. My senses were engaged. The earthy smell of moss in the forest, the faint odours of earth plasters and natural oils; songs of varied thrush and winter wren, the bell-like sound of the rain chains; the bark of a cedar tree and the feel of earth plaster that my hand instinctively reaches out to touch. We tend to think of what we see, but we engage the world with all of our senses.

Visually, I am drawn to ordered, but complex patterns. The parallel rafters as they meet the rounded wall, the rain chains. Or moss, like snowflakes never twice the same. This repetition of similar patterns has been called visual rhyming. Rhyming patterns occur on different scales, in the building or in the forest. Sometimes the pattern is only a texture when perceived from afar, but greater and greater detail is revealed as one moves closer. Michael N. Corbett describes this as an attraction to neither rigid uniformity nor wide variation, but rather small variations and imperfections in a general pattern. We are attracted to that which is made by hand, rather than by machine. At some very base level, it seems, we are all luddites.

This doesn’t imply that we all need to live in a cob house. Natural materials and design aspects can be incorporated into any building, and always have been. Many conventions in architecture and interior design probably derive from the natural world. I live in a 100-year-old building with wood floors and beautiful mouldings, and (recently added) earth plasters. I would say that many of the deliberate, and unconscious details of this building do reflect biophilic design. My addition of earth plaster only enhances this. The trouble with biophilic design is that so far we don’t really understand what it is, or what rules it follows. Even so, it’s a valuable concept to keep in mind while designing or choosing materials.

A good book of articles about biophilic design is edited by Stephen Kellert.

I haven’t seen this film yet, but I will when I have the chance.

Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life (Trailer) from Tamarack Media on Vimeo.

Harold Orr’s Superinsulated Retrofits

Recently I had the privilege of interviewing Harold Orr, who was the project leader on the Saskatchewan Conservation House in the late 1970’s. He was involved in the invention of the residential HRV, and blower door tests, and his work influenced the Passive House and Net Zero movements. Now in his eighties, his brain contains a library of information on energy efficient building, and he talked to me for two hours straight. Orr’s main passion for the past several decades has been superinsulated retrofits of existing buildings, and he says the need for deep energy retrofits was obvious to him from early on.

The Saskatchewan Conservation House, now seen as a milestone in energy efficient building, was finished in 1977. “We recognized that as a first step,” Orr tells me, “the next step was to see if we can do this on a larger scale.” The province of Saskatchewan organized a competition, in which builders submitted proposals for a showcase of energy efficient homes – the challenge was to design and build homes that use only 25% of the heating of a conventional house. Orr was involved, along with Rob Dumont, in evaluating the proposals, “but we realized even as we did this that the number of houses that we build every year in a city is a small percentage of the houses that are already in a city.” Only in cities with a major building boom can you achieve a significant energy reduction, Orr explains, “so we were concerned about how we might do this on a conventional house.”

Orr and Dumont started looking for a house to retrofit and study the results, and by the end of 1981 they had found one in Saskatoon. This was the same year that the Superinsulated Retrofit Book, by Marshall and Argue, was published, describing double wall retrofits. The house Orr and Dumont had found was a 1968 bungalow with 2×4 stud walls and 2.95 air changes per hour (slightly better than the average house of that era).

“We decided to do a major energy retrofit on the house, and we wanted to bring it up very close to the level of the Saskatchewan Conservation House,” Orr says. The whole process of this renovation is described in a report that Orr wrote with Robert Dumont. They performed blower door tests at each stage of the renovation to see how air-tightness of the house was affected. They took off the stucco and wrapped the walls with polyethylene, which was sealed down to the foundation and up to the top plate of the house, and not surprisingly the house was considerably more air-tight. Next they hung a second 2×4 wall off the exterior of the house, with an eight inch gap between the old and new wall. By the time they had insulated the cavity and the new wall, the combined insulation (including the existing insulation in the old wall) was about R50.

“That did the walls quite well, but we wondered what on earth to do about the roof,” Orr says. “Because one of the major problems in housing is the leakage between the house and the attic space.” Because of wood shrinkage there is nearly always a gap where the drywall meets the top plate, which Orr estimates is commonly 1/16 of an inch. Drywall is also not normally air tight at the floorline – so in most older houses air can travel behind the drywall, from the living space into the attic.

“So we thought why don’t we cut the tail end of the rafters off so it’s nice and smooth at the edge of the wall,” Orr recounts, “and we’ll put a piece of plywood over the raw edges that we’ve cut off, and then we can carry the vapour barrier that we’ve already put on the outside of the wall right over the roof and down the other side.” This is what is now known as the chainsaw retrofit – a time lapse of a later chainsaw retrofit was filmed by Orr’s son Robert.

“So anyway we’ve got the vapour barrier on the roof and we’ve got it tight,” says Orr. “Now we put 2×8’s, one at the edge of the roof, one at the peak of the roof and one half way in between. On top of this we put new rafters down the roof. In the 2×8 we put R28 and in the 2×4 rafters we put R12 which gives us R40 on the roof. Plus the insulation we already had in the attic which is likely around R20. Now the we’ve got R60 in the roof. We’ve got the outside walls of the house and the roof done, and we’ve got the house very very tight.” In fact Orr says that the 1981 retrofit was almost identical in its performance to the Saskatchewan Conservation House.

Orr has worked on a number of retrofits since, most recently a four-suite apartment in Regina. This renovation of basement, walls and roof had a cost of about 11$ per square foot for materials (including metal roofing), and about the same again for labour. Because the retrofit turned it from an undesirable to a desirable place to live, with commensurate increase in rent that could be charged, it has an eight year payback time – making it a phenomenal investment.

So the economics of the double wall, or superinsulated, retrofit are not bleak, though it’s a large investment, and finding the right contractor to do it is going to be important. But how does it compare to just tacking some foam to the outside of the house and re-siding it? According to Orr there is no comparison.

“I took four walls and assessed them,” Orr says. “One I put 2 inches of styrofoam on, at R5 per inch that would be R10. When you put 2 inches on you really have to strap it, because you cannot put siding on over 2 inches of styrofoam. And unfortunately 1×3 strapping is the same price as 2×4’s. So if you’re putting strapping on, why not use 2×4’s?” And why not center them away from the wall, for a double wall retrofit? Since foam insulation is so much more expensive than batt insulation, says Orr, “I can put in R60 for the same price as R10. Now you’ve got to persuade me that R10 is better than R60.” That’s just materials, labour will change that somewhat, but the point is made.

Orr has more to say, however, adding that “when you put styrofoam on the outside of a house you’re not making the house any tighter, all you’re doing is reducing the heat loss through the walls. If you take a look at a pie chart in terms of where the heat goes in a house, you’ll find that roughly 10% of your heat loss goes through the outside walls.”  About 30 to 40 % of your total heat loss is due to air leakage, another 10% for the ceiling, 10% for the windows and doors, and about 30% for the basement. “You have to tackle the big hunks,” says Orr, “and the big hunks are air leakage and uninsulated basement.”

Air leakage in a typical house, from Keeping the Heat In

“I think the problem is that people don’t properly analyze where the heat is going. Get the book called keeping the heat in, it’s a publication of Natural Resources Canada [available as a free download], and anybody doing any work of this type should get this book and study it. If you look at where the heat goes the big chunk is air leakage, and usually putting styrofoam on the outside isn’t going to affect anything.”

I close the interview by asking why, so many years after retirement, he’s still doing this kind of work.

“It’s a passion with me,” he says. “I enjoy it. And I’m enough of a scotsman that it bothers me to see people wasting their money. I go by houses every day and I see them putting on an inch and a half of styrofoam, and lord help me – why don’t you do something for the same price and do it better?”

More information


History of the Chainsaw Retrofit


Will straw bale buildings last?

After seeing problems in a few straw bale buildings, I’ve been thinking about this lately: is it a truly durable building system? By which I mean, will  a straw bale house measure its lifespan in centuries rather than decades? I’ve concluded that most will, some won’t. The ones that won’t are predictable, however, and for the most part they break the rules.

This wall is ready to be replastered after wet straw was removed. It had no overhang at all.

Architects occasionally design straw bale homes with no roof overhang, for instance. I’ve seen this twice, and in both cases an overhang was added before construction was completed. In one of them there were already some moisture issues a year or so after the wall was closed in. Water was sheeting down the wall in spring rain storms and working in through cracks. These were a few horizontal cracks which had reopened after crack filling. Straw at the base of the wall was saturated and had to be replaced – which was not as hard as I thought, and in a weird way I found that encouraging for the question of longevity. With the overhang in place I think this will be one that does last.

Other houses that I worry about don’t break the rules so blatantly, rather they push them a little, but they are on exposed sites. Driving rain is the enemy of straw bale houses, and gable ends are particularly susceptible. If you’re thinking of building a straw bale house on an exposed site – a hill or a lakeshore, or any site where you might consider using a wind turbine – your design must be impeccable. You might want to consider a bungalow with good overhangs all the way around, you should certainly avoid a large gable end on a windward side of the house. Gable ends in general should have some kind of skirt roof, and you may want to consider siding the upper part if it’s large or particularly exposed.

Cement-lime plaster tends to make things worse. There’s an unfortunate tendency to gravitate towards cement-lime on very exposed sites because it is the most durable plaster. Cement-lime won’t erode away under driving rain, but it will trap in moisture more effectively than any other plaster. High lime content helps a lot, but pure lime is better, or an earth-lime hybrid system; in rare cases exterior earth plasters may even work on their own (note that the right paint is important for earth and lime plasters). In any case, if you’re very worried about your plaster eroding under driving rain, you probably have a design problem and cement-lime plaster is likely to make it worse. You need to redesign, or possibly you just shouldn’t be building a straw bale house there. An oft-overlooked alternative that can eliminate most external moisture issues, even on exposed sites, is to use siding or rainscreen over bale walls. And keep in mind that whatever you build on an exposed site, bale or otherwise, you’ll need good design and attention to detail.

Cracks must be filled. I’ve seen a house that went maybe 8 years without crack filling and painting, and it was fine! But I’ve also seen disastrous results from unfilled cracks. Again, the site seems to make all the difference, but there’s no sense pushing your luck. Fill your cracks within a few months, or if you plaster in the fall, wait until the following spring or early summer – but not years.

This sounds like a whole lot of bad news, so why build straw bale at all? Is it worth the hassle, and is it really a sustainable wall system? To put this in perspective, when a 100-year-old hay-bale house was dismantled in Nebraska the hay was in such good shape that cows ate it. Or consider that straw bale building is not alone in having had its share of mistakes – modern building practices have created a “perfect storm” of stucco failures on conventionally built homes. In some ways, bale walls are better, they can be more resilient than some conventional wall systems. As soon as you add  insulation to a wall you’re inviting moisture problems – the more insulation you use, the harder it is for the wall to dry out if any moisture gets in, because the middle of the wall tends to stay cool. Superinsulated homes are built to have very low air leakage for energy efficiency, but also because air leakage can cause moisture problems if water condenses in the wall.

Straw bale walls can likely handle small to moderate moisture loads better than conventional wall systems because of the vapour permeable plaster skins on either side, and because the straw itself can act as a large reservoir for moisture without ill effects, so long as it does not exceed an upper limit, and the conditions occur for drying. It’s still very important to air seal a straw bale home properly, and many natural builders have been slow to realize how important air sealing is. In my experience those days are over and air sealing is a priority for most natural builders, which means some kind of air fin behind all plaster joints, and of course good detailing around electrical boxes etc.. This is not just a question of energy efficiency, but also is likely to extend the life of the home.

There are other benefits to straw bale, of course, that I should mention briefly: A relatively high R value (at least double that of a 2×6 stud wall with batt insulation, but still less than most superinsulated homes); low embodied energy and local sourcing of the building materials; and aesthetics. Straw bale is not for everyone, and is certainly not the only ecological way to build, but it has a role to play when done correctly.

A literature is beginning to develop around moisture control in straw bale walls. Here’s a short list of important resources

Design of Straw Bale Buildings

Moisture Movement and Mould Management in Straw Bale Walls for a Cold Climate

Moisture Properties of Plaster and Stucco for Straw bale Buildings

Building Science for Strawbale Buildings

Many of the best practices of design, air detailing, flashing, and other details of conventional homes also apply to straw bale homes, and for this one of the best resources is the Builder’s Guide to Cold Climates.

The common origins of Superinsulation, Passivhaus, and Net Zero homes

A lot of valuable lessons were learned as a result of the oil crises of the 1970’s. Unfortunately in the 1980’s many of the conservation initiatives from the 70’s were abandoned – but the skills, knowledge and awareness garnered at the time were not lost, and we’re benefiting from them today. In building science big strides were made in insulation and air sealing of houses, and a lot of this knowledge came out of two projects in Illinois and Saskatchewan.

In 1976 a group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign developed a design which they named the “Lo-Cal” house, which used two adjacent stud walls, with alternating studs, to achieve R30 insulation and eliminate thermal bridging through the framing. The term “superinsulation” was coined by Wayne Schick, project leader, to describe the high insulation levels used in the walls, attic, and basement. Several houses, duplexes  and condos based on the Lo-Cal design were built in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois between 1977-79.

The Saskatchewan Conservation House was built in Regina in 1977, using similar principles but went further with R40 walls. Again the walls were built out of two stud walls, and the extra 10 insulation points were gained by adding a cavity between them. The whole wall assembly was filled with blown-in cellulose insulation. Another thing that these two projects had in common was a science-based approach, with extensive modeling of the designs, and monitoring of real-world performance.

One of the most important things that both the Saskatchewan and Illinois teams learned was that in most houses the heat is simply slipping through the cracks, and they needed to develop techniques to dramatically increase the air-tightness of buildings. When they realized they were removing all the natural / accidental ventilation from the house, the Saskatchewan team created one of the world´s first air to air heat exchangers, or heat recovery ventilators (HRVs). There´s now a global market for HRVs, and in most cold climate areas some type of air sealing is now required by building codes. In Canada the creation of the R2000 system (a voluntary system for building efficient homes) was credited to lessons learned from the Saskatchewan Conservation House.

The lessons of sealing and air exchange have been widely adopted, but the idea of superinsulating a house to R40 or above, or emphasizing passive solar heating, have remained relatively on the fringe. One of the people who noticed the Lo-Cal and Saskatchewan Houses was Wolfgang Feist, the originator of the Passivhaus standard – a very rigorous system of building that is popular particularly in Europe where there are some 20,000 certified passive houses. Feist lists Harold Orr, an engineer who worked on the Saskatchewan House, as one of his influences. And it’s probably no coincidence that Urbana-Champaign, origin of the Lo-Cal house, is one of the centers for the passive house movement in the United States.

Rob Dumont, one of the engineers who worked on the Saskatchewan House, went on to build his own house in 1990, which at the time was the most highly insulated house in the world. Surprisingly, the extra insulation, upgraded windows, and a solar thermal heating system, only added about 7% to the building cost. “If I´d put brick on the outside of the house instead of siding,” says Dumont, “the brick would have cost more than all of the energy conservation features. I´d much rather have an energy-efficient house than a brick house.” In fact, the energy efficiency finished paying for itself in 2008, after 16 years – now it´s all gravy.

Conrad Nobert, owner of the Mill Creek House in Edmonton had the same experience with cost. “We got 80 to 85 % of the way to net zero, versus a conventional home, for about 20 to 25 thousand,” says Nobert. “So you would call that a net 0 ready house.” When Conrad talks about net zero, he means that the house will produce as much energy as it uses, by balancing energy use with energy production from solar panels on the roof. It sounds easy – just keep adding solar panels until you reach net zero – but in fact very few houses have enough room on the roof, or even on the property, to compensate for the energy they´re using for heat and electricity. The Mill Creek House uses similar systems to the Saskatchewan House, only better – it has double stud walls, spaced 16´´ apart to get R60 walls, an advanced HRV, and triple glazed windows that are R8.

Peter Amerongen, who built the Mill Creek House, credits his career as a builder of super-insulated houses to a talk he attended about the Saskatchewan House. “I heard Harold Orr in 1978 and it just stopped me in my tracks,” says Amerongen. Ever since then, Amerongen has been building R2000 or better homes. Before building his first net zero house, Amerongen went on a pilgrimage to Rob Dumont’s house to learn what he could from it. Then he took it even further.

Likewise the Passive House movement has gone far beyond its inspiration of a few superinsulated homes built during the late ’70’s. But the original superinsulated homes should not be forgotten, if nothing else for their simplicity and affordability, as evidenced by Rob Dumont’s 7% incremental cost to build the world’s (then) most highly insulated home. What that tells me is that we should be building all our homes to a much higher standard. And I’m sure that change will continue to happen, slowly. Meanwhile the Passive House and Net Zero homes are the pioneers that we can look to for examples of how far we can go.

More information about the Lo-Cal House can be found in a presentation by Michael McCulley.

The Original Nebraska Straw Bale Buildings

For a long time I wanted to see the original 100-year-old straw bale buildings in Nebraska, so on a drive across the continent I included Nebraska on the tour. My first stop was Arthur Nebraska, where I met up with Jake and Lucille Cross.

Jake Cross took me to see the Martin/Monhart house, a home that was built in 1925 out of baled late-season hay. It was formerly owned by his wife Lucille’s parents. What struck me most about this house is how normal it looks. Modern straw bale homes emphasize the straw, with rounded corners, unique plasters, and often slightly wavy or uneven walls. My first thought was that the inside of the Martin/Monhart house had drywall over top of the bale walls, they were straight and flat and covered with wallpaper. This could have been my grandparents’ house. Jake had me stand right beside the wall and look down its length; from this vantage point a slight wave could be seen where the wall meets the ceiling- what I mistook for drywall was the bale wall itself. Only in the windows could the depth of the walls be seen, showing the tremendous insulation value of nearly two feet of baled hay. Lucille told me the story of the day a tornado roared through the town, tearing up trees, blowing out windows and sounding like a freight train running through the middle of town. As soon as the tornado had passed Lucille went to check on her parents only a block away from the path of destruction. “We found them playing cards,” she recounted, “they had no idea a tornado had passed, they didn´t believe us at first.” Bales are a great insulator against sound as well as temperature. Standing there surrounded by the old furniture, I could imagine the couple peacefully playing cards, blissfully unaware of the destruction that came so close.

The Martin/Monhart house was one of the later homes to be built in the original wave of Nebraska bale building. One of the first was an 1886 school house, which suffered an ignominious fate. Unfenced and unstuccoed, by 1902 it was reported that

The sandhills of Nebraska

the building had been eaten by cows. The invention of straw and hay bale homes in the sandhills of Nebraska was almost inevitable because of a combination of factors. The first was the invention of the horse powered hay press (hay baler) around the 1870’s-1880’s, which for the first time created the raw material for bale homes. Secondly, the traditional Nebraska sod house didn´t work all that well in the sandhills. The turf on the uplands tended to fall apart easily and the soil in the lowlands was too valuable for growing crops to use it as a building material, if any alternative could be found. Nebraska resourcefulness and technological progress met in the sandhills and the bale house was born.

The Haslow House

After leaving Arthur, I Visited the Haslow house, which took me through the heart of the sandhills.

I pull over to the side of the road. It’s perfectly still, but stormclouds form great anvils on the horizon. In the sandhills, especially around sunset, the land and the sky somehow seem equally real and equally fanciful, as though reality lives somewhere in between. The sandhills have a surprisingly dramatic, otherworldly beauty to them.

Rich Haslow is a rancher who runs the operations of the Nebraska Boys Ranch. In some ways he´s pretty traditional, for instance he´s one of the few farmers around who still stores his hay in stacks instead of bales.

Interior of the Haslow House

Someone had a baling machine here at least once though, in 1913. That was the year Jason Snow built a house here out of rushes baled from a shallow lake that still lies behind the house, and which to this day remains filled with a thick cover of tall rushes (it is named Rush Lake). This baling up of whatever was at hand to use as a building material was typical. Many of the original bale homes were made from wild prairie grasses dominated by little bluestem, harvested from the hills late in the season and carted down to the stationary horse-powered hay press to be made into bales. Other houses were built from various straws such as rye straw, or from rushes as the Haslow house was. The term stationary hay press is a bit deceiving, as they tended to move from farm to farm, hired out for a few days at a time to bale hay for sale, storage, or building.

The Haslow house was built in the traditional “Nebraska style,” or load bearing form. This simply means that the weight of the roof sits directly on the straw wall with no wood framing. Post and beam homes with straw in-fill are more common than load bearing ones in modern straw bale construction (though both are common), but the original bale buildings were made to use as little wood as possible. Just as in sod houses, no wood was needed to support the roof in bale buildings.

A doorway through the straw bale wall shows its width

Nebraska style buildings have stood the test of time – the Haslow house still wears its original coat of 1913 stucco, which is in good shape other than a little cracking and settling. The hay used in these houses has little or no rot after nearly 100 years. Standing in his 100-year-old bale home, Rich Haslow related a story to that effect. “They tore down one of these old bale houses near Lakeside, they spread the hay out on the ground and the cows ate it!” The only problem in his own house was that the hay can trigger Rich´s allergies, which is a problem that is not usually seen in newer bale buildings. Modern bale buildings are nearly always built with straw, which is less likely to have issues with rot, or allergies – perhaps that´s the difference, or maybe there are just more gaps in the wall 100 years later. Despite the allergies Rich said “we have no complaints. It´s a good little house.”




The traditional Nebraska Soddy

Before I left he took me to see a nearby sod house. Rich and Rhonda Halsow started their marriage in this house, while his parents were living in the bale house. “We think we might be the only couple of our generation that started off our marriage in a sod house,” Rhonda said. Fitting, perhaps that they followed it up with a bale home. A thunderstorm was crossing the horizon as I drove off.

Steve Sauer’s Tiny appartment

After reading an article originally published in the Seattle Times, I really wanted to see Steve Sauer’s tiny appartment while I was in Seattle. The article about the 182 square foot appartment includes some quotes of Sauer

What I really wanted was one place with exactly what I needed and wanted. Quality is more important than quantity for me, and extra space only a problem

I wanted to compress my home to squirt me back out to the community

Steve Sauer in his tiny kitchen

I wanted to see the appartment because tiny appartments make that much more sense ecologically than tiny homes. And Sauer seemed interesting, if perhaps a bit of a true believer. What I found was more nuanced.

Sauer showed me around his appartment, which involved walking a mere few steps. The use of space was clever, the appartment is designed in layers with the bed above the living space, and a sitting area by the window that just accomodates a tall person standing, with a low TV lounge area under it. Some of the design was Japanese inspired, where real-estate values require people to live in very small spaces. Also, Steve Sauer has a masters degree in whole systems design, and took the design on as a personal challenge to do more with less.
Steve Sauer's tiny appartmentAfter the ‘tour’ we sat down to talk. Sauer believes everything he’s quoted as saying in the media, but there’s another much more conflicted side to him. He described the idea of the tiny appartment as “fraught with peril.” He loves the simplicity, and he wanted to show what was possible, but he’s having trouble with the idea of actually living there. For one thing there’s sporting goods, he says. And tools. He has a storage space next door that is full of overflow from the tiny appartment. And he has a one bedroom condo nearby. He’s mostly been living there while he worked on the miniature dwelling.

Now before anyone is tempted to claim moral superiority, Sauer’s combined living space is still smaller than the majority of Americans’ and he feels the need to downsize – he just isn’t sure how yet. The appartment feels a bit too small, the condo a bit too big. At some point he’ll let go of one of them. In the meantime his appartment exemplifies the way space can be used, and the lesson is to figure out exactly what space you need; to be realistic. I’ve often thought that the tiny house movement was, above all, a challenge to the rest of us to use less, but not neccessarily a challenge to be taken literally. My visit to the tiny appartment confirmed both those things.

efficient use of space and light in a bathroom The storage area next door