Straw Bale House

The house is in a dense residential neighborhood in Santa Cruz, Calif., on a lot that borders a park. Why straw bale? The clients wanted to “push the ecological envelope,” say architects David Arkin and Anni Tilt.

Is it time to try out an unconventional way of building? This energy-smart California home was built using straw bale construction.

Little supplementary energy is needed to heat the house, thanks to its compact plan, photovoltaic panels on the roof, and the efficient insulation provided by straw-bale walls. Deep overhangs and trellises shade the house in the summer, but not at the expense of natural light.

The house is designed to be net-zero and to leave a minimal carbon footprint. The only time natural gas is used in this home is for cooking.

In this compact plan, each space serves several functions. The exposed framing in the stairwell does double duty as bookcases.

Abundant daylight, fluorescent and LED lighting, and Energy Star rated appliances keep energy use at a minimum. When extra is needed, an electric air-to-water heat pump produces hot water for domestic use as well as for space heating through radiant tubing in the concrete slab on the main level, and a topping slab for the upstairs bath. That energy usage is offset by the PV panels on the roof.

While straw-bale walls wrap the north and west sides of the house, the wood-framed south wall has lots of windows, bringing daylight into the living spaces.

The scale of the double-height dining room is accentuated with a madrone tree column, found by the owners on a friend’s nearby property.

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