I was intrigued when I first saw photos of straw-bale houses in the Southwest. So was Rosendale’s Ben Simpson. The difference between us is that he was so smitten by these structures that he decided to build them himself. The result? Growing Places, Simpson’s ten-year-old building company that specializes in straw-bale houses. I’m happy just to write about his interest.
Simpson’s jaunt through sustainability began in 1996, when he was an organic-produce farmer at Windfall Farm in Montgomery. The owner of the farm asked him to construct a “green” greenhouse. “He wanted to grow sprouts to go with everything else we grew, so I built my first straw-bale structure with the help of a close friend who knew how to do it. Straw-bale walls are great insulation, between R35 and R40.”
Simpson had already participated in a workshop in the Southwest in the early 1990s. “There were a lot of them around, straw-bale houses and workshops on how to build them,” he said. At first he couldn’t see them being viable in Northeastern weather. “But the greenhouse turned out okay,” he said.
Armed with this new knowledge, the college-educated cartographer and geographer traveled through straw-bale territory in the West, taking in as much information as he could. “I did it on my own,” said the self-educated sustainable builder.
As luck would have it Simpson returned to this area after his travels and hooked up with Polly and Jay Armour at Four Winds Farm in Gardiner. The couple wanted a new barn for their expanding farm, and Simpson asked them if he could build it out of straw. “It took two years to build a multi-use farm space with underground root cellars, a 1200-square-foot commercial growing space, a solar greenhouse and a full bathroom.” From that barn on, Simpson’s Growing Places has constructed more than a dozen straw-bale houses in Ulster, Sullivan and Dutchess counties.
There are two distinct types of straw-bale houses: load-bearing and non-load-bearing. He explained the basic construction of the former.
“The load-bearing has no wood frame, but does have a conventional concrete foundation, with the bales stacked up on it,” Simpson said. “Every bale is then secured with oak stakes. Free-built wood window boxes sit on the bales; with a traditional wood box beam acting as a rafter. All the bales and beams are strapped to the foundation with polyester packing straps that are compressed every few days, and the bales settle as they’re tightened.”
“Non-load-bearing will use a timber frame,” added Simpson. “Or post-and-beam, where the bale is essentially fill, not holding up the building itself. It’s more of insulation than a building material.”
To finish both kinds of houses, Simpson uses an earth-plaster of clay and straw which is applied in three or four coats, and then finished-off with a traditional lime plaster (lime and sand). “Cement-stucco was used a lot in the 1980s and 1990s, but no more because it can trap moisture, and that is bad for straw-bale construction.” Wooden siding is also an option.
Philosophically, straw-bale building is the epitome of living local. Simpson gets his straw from Joe Hasbrouck’s farm on Hurley Mountain Road and his timber frames from Jordan Voelker’s Limber Tree Service in Woodstock. “These are non-toxic, non-industrial materials for living in a low-toxicity house,” he said.
The first concentration of 19th-century straw-bale houses were in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. There was a revival in the Southwest in the 1980s, said Simpson, “because of the high concentration of grasses and clay, like the traditional adobe houses.”
Growing Places builds from climate-specific designs, blueprints, stamped plans and permit services. The firm consults and provides practical and technical advice for all phases of construction, as well as hands on teaching for those that are general contractors for projects. They offer construction services as well as community workshops in foundation systems, straw-bale building design, passive solar design, natural plaster finishes and mechanical systems. Growing Places also can coordinate all aspects of building design and construction.
Simpson also belongs to the fast-growing Natural Builders of the Northeast (NBNE), who get together periodically to problem-solve. They are now ooking to expand straw-bale construction into inner-city Buffalo. “That would be a big but interesting step,” said Simpson, who notes that Habitat for Humanity has built straw-bale house in the Southwest. “Because of the weather it would be unusual, but the cost would be the same or less, according to the design, and low-income people could live in sustainable low-toxicity well-insulated buildings.”