UW Today

September 14, 2011

A straw-bale house: Built for one, built by hand

News and Information

When Marilyn Ostergren began her straw-bale house on Bainbridge Island nine years ago, the only structure she had built previously was a chicken coop.

But Ostergren, 48, is curious by nature – shes studying for a UW doctorate in information science. Most recently, she helped create a sustainability dashboard which reports on UW Seattles efforts to be environmentally responsible.

The house became Ostergrens personal project. Only 300 square feet on a one-acre plot, the house is very simply finished and decidedly low-tech. Ostergren likes it that way.

The daughter of a Bellevue engineer, Ostergren took a shop course in junior high school because she likes to build things. She is also a keen believer in sustainable architecture, aware how some modern buildings permanently disrupt the landscape. Compare those buildings, she said, to lovely ruins of old stone structures. “I wanted to build a house such that if it were ever abandoned, it would degrade gracefully rather than leave a permanent scar,” she said recently.

To begin, Ostergren read books and talked with people knowledgeable about sustainable architecture. Straw-bale houses attracted her because straw is a simple, low-impact product that insulates well. Straw structures have been around since the Paleolithic age. In several Nebraska counties between 1896 and 1945, about 70 straw-bale buildings — homes, churches, schools, office, farm structures – were constructed. In 1990, nine were reportedly still standing.

Ostergrens design work included laying a string footprint in the yard of a farmhouse where she was living as a caretaker, and building a scale model from paper, sticks and string. Instead of a rectangle, which Ostergren felt would be boring, she chose a cruciform layout.

Her architect, Terry Phelan of Living Shelter Design in Issaquah, who has designed about 20 straw-bale structures, thought a timber frame would be too expensive. So Ostergren located Salisbury Woodworking on Bainbridge, where owners agreed to create a mortise-and-tenon timber frame from locally-milled douglas fir priced within her budget.

“I wanted to be involved as much as possible. I wanted to understand everything about the house, and do as much of the work as possible,” Ostergren said. “When I didnt know how to do something, I went and found someone who was willing to teach me.”

She also continued reading, including books on electrical wiring.

When the timber frame was finished, Ostergren hired other professionals to guide her. A builder who advised Ostergren wound up buying the parcel next to hers. Friends helped with tasks that required more than two hands – stacking straw bales eight feet high and installing roof panels, for example. She even visited the farm where 120-plus bales of straw, each 18 inches thick, came from.

When it came time to apply three layers of lime plaster over the straw, Ostergren had learned what to do by reading. And she did it.

The house has an on-demand hot water heater and wall-mounted heaters, but Ostergren doesnt want anything more complicated. When its cold, she bundles up, drinks tea and works from a platform bed raised about four feet from the floor. She rigged another platform in the middle of the house so it can be used as a table or raised to the ceiling, out of the way. Ostergren heats food in a rice cooker and buys lots of fresh items rather than have a refrigerator. Some things – this season, mainly fruit such as plums, apples and raspberries – come from her garden, watered from a cistern that catches rain from the roof. She has a wringer washing machine, and dries clothes on the flat roof made of plywood and synthetic rubber used in inner tubes. Near French doors at the front of the house is an upholstered easy chair, a reading lamp and a cello with Bachs Minuet No. 2 on a music stand.

All told, the house cost about $90,000, the land another $80,000.

And Ostergren is content. “I think about what I can do without rather than what I can add,” she said. “And what I have feels like plenty.”

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