A Place to Call Home: Couple Building Energy-Efficient
Straw Bale House
Nicholson, Blake. "A Place to Call Home: Couple Building Energy-Efficient Straw Bale House." Forum, 25 August 2001, sec. 8A.
From the top of a hill south of here, Brad Crabtree
can see both his past and his future.
Volunteers help build a house made from
used lumber and naturally expired Ponderosa Pine trees Friday
in Kulm. The house also will have walls made from straw bales.
In a valley down below is the lake where he hunted duck as a youth.
To his left is the farmstead he bought, where he is building what
might be North Dakota's first straw bale house.
He and his wife Renee Gopal, and their 2-year-old daughter, Suria,
plan to spend the rest of their lives here, relying on the sun and
wind for power and their own inner strength to conquer the isolation
of a rural area with no close neighbors.
For a couple who once lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil, one of the largest
cities in the world, it will be an adjustment. But one they are
eager to make.
"It was that experience (in Brazil) that taught us the importance
of connection to place," Crabtree said Friday as he peered
down from the hilltop at the volunteers working on his new home.
The idea of straw bale homes originated with European immigrants
on the southern Great Plains who lacked lumber around the turn of
the 20th century and turned to straw bale homes for shelter.
The construction method is experiencing a small revival, although
it is more popular in the southwestern United States, said Pete
Gang, a Petaluma, Calif., architect who is helping Crabtree and
Gopal design and build their home.
While straw bale homes might not be cheaper than other forms of
construction, they are friendlier to the environment because they
use less wood, Gang and Crabtree said. They also are energy-efficient
and have other attributes such as thick walls that absorb sound.
On Friday, friends and volunteers began preparing to stack the
700 square bales that will become the walls of the house, under
Gang's direction. Gang, who specializes in the construction method,
said it will be the first straw bale home in North Dakota that he
is aware of.
"Nothing's really that complicated," he said. "It's
a simple, low-tech process. That's one of the things I find appealing."
Crabtree needed to convince bankers who financed the house that
it would withstand the harsh weather of the Plains, and would not
be more subject to fire or damage from moisture and rodents than
a typical house.
"We thought he was crazy," said Judy Holmgren, president
of the First Southwest Bank branch in Ellendale. "But he's
researched out everything possible. He's on the right track."
Kevin and Margaret Balfe of Washington, D.C., friends of Crabtree
and Gopal who are helping with construction this weekend, were not
surprised at all when the couple told them about the straw bale
"Renee and Brad are just so committed to this way of being
and this lifestyle," Margaret Balfe said. "This is just
the next step for them."
Sense of wholeness
Kim Christianson, a member of the North
Dakota Division of Communnity Services, helps assemble a wooden
sill that straw bales will sit on to form the house's walls.
The Bismarck couple hopes to move to the Dickey County farmstead
by the end of the year. Crabtree, 32, will continue working for
the North Dakota Consensus Council. He and Gopal, 36, also plan
to raise sheep and cattle.
For Gopal, who has never before lived in the country, the rural
lifestyle strikes her as both a little scary and exciting.
The couple will rely on cell phones, since no wires cross this
area, will home school their daughter, and will rely on a tractor
and snowplow to clear snow in the winter from the narrow, rutted
trail that provides the only way in and out of the farmstead.
They also will enjoy the peace and solitude, Gopal said.
"There is a sense of wholeness I get out here that I don't
get in the city," she said, peering at trees in the distance
shrouded by early morning fog and mist. "It's a little bit
risky, but it's different. You wake up to a day like this, it's
like a different face of nature."
Reprinted by permission of The Forum.