Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Warm and Cool Homes – Part Three:

The Burns’ Straw Bale Home

The Burns’ straw-bale home (Andrea

Wes Golomb

This is the third in a series of articles based on Wes Golomb’s newly published book and video series, Warm and Cool Homes, Building a Comfy, Healthy, Net-Zero Home You’ll Want to Live in Forever. The book is a look at five high performance homes, four of them net-zero, and the techniques and technologies used to build them.

Andrea and Jeff Burns built their nearly net-zero home before most people even conceived of the idea. Built from local materials, heated with wood and passive solar, and powered by 1.2 kW of photovoltaic energy, their off-the-grid home provides sufficient heat and hot water and a good portion of their food.

Andrea and Jeff Burns live deliberately. They value connection with the land and wanted to build a home with local, non-toxic materials. They desire to live as sustainably as possible and choose which technologies to incorporate into their home. They planned the house to be off the grid for economic and political reasons. Installing a PV system was the same cost as running power lines from the grid. Jeff opposed the building of the Seabrook nuclear power plant beginning in 1976 and vowed to not use electricity from, or pay for, the plant. Today, three decades after the Public Service Company of New Hampshire went bankrupt, Jeff and his family live off the grid while the rest of the state continues to pay off this boondoggle every month. When the price came down, they added more panels which charged their batteries faster.

The Burns’ 2,000 square-foot home is built with straw bales which has been a common building material in the southwestern United States but remain fairly unusual in rural New Hampshire. The Burns family liked the idea of building with straw bales because they are renewable, non-toxic, and have a high R-value.

The main section of the home uses oat straw grown on Tom Abbott’s farm just a few miles from the building site, while the addition was built using rye straw grown in Claremont, New Hampshire.

Andrea was quick to answer the three most common questions about straw-bale homes.

First, what about fire?

Straw bales are tightly bound and five times more fire retardant than wood. While building the house, we threw a bale of straw into a bonfire. The next morning, when the fire was out, a singed bale of hay was left in the fire pit.

Second, what about animals?

Straw bales contain no food and are packed so tightly that there is no place for animals to reside.

Third, what about rot or decay?

The bales are coated with plaster, which keeps them dry. The plaster is made from clay, sand, water, and chopped straw to provide strength. The final coat contains lime and sand, which makes it waterproof. The plaster also serves as an effective air barrier and has the wonderful property of wicking any moisture out of the bales. During a recent remodeling project, we opened several bales of straw and saw no signs of decay.

The interior of the Burns’ home. The passive solar design helps to heat the house in winter and shade it in the summer. (Wes Golomb)

Passive Solar Design

This home incorporates passive solar design features including windows to the south, thermal mass, and a roof overhang. In the winter, when the leaves fall from the trees and the sun is lower in the sky, sunlight streams deep into the house, warming the air and heating the thermal mass.

In the summer, when the sun is high, the overhang shades the inside of the house. In the winter, the window treatments are lowered to keep heat in. The thermal mass radiates the stored heat and the well-insulated and air-sealed shell holds the heat, and, as the house slowly cools, the thermal mass radiates its stored heat into the home, keeping it warm.

The wood stove also supplies hot water. Cold water is run through a heat exchanger in the flue and then transferred to an insulated storage tank for radiant heat and domestic hot water.

The Burnses elected to use standard double-pane windows with insulated quilts. They open the quilts in the morning and close them at night. This effectively limits heat loss on cold nights.

In the summer Andrea reports that people have come into the house and proclaimed, “I didn’t know you could air condition an off-the-grid house.” In fact, there is no air conditioner. Rather, the combination of insulated windows and a well-insulated, air-sealed shell keeps the house comfortably cool in summer and warm in winter.

All the electricity for this house is provided by a small photovoltaic system (1.2 kW) and a backup generator, which uses about 100 gallons of gasoline a year (this is the only fossil fuel used by this nearly net-zero home).

This small input of electricity is a defining factor in the Burns family’s lifestyle. The appliances and electronics that characterize most American households are virtually non-existent in this house. There is a Sun Frost refrigerator and freezer.

Andrea was clear about it, “I have all the modern conveniences—TV, computer, internet, kitchen appliances, and a sewing machine. I wouldn’t want to live any other way. The big difference is that we turn stuff off.”

After more than twenty years of happily living this way the Burnses reaffirm daily that this how they want to live.

Wes Golomb, is a long-time clean energy and climate advocate from Deerfield, NH.

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