Building with Straw Bales

I grew up in Lynchburg, VA, climbing trees and building forts in the woods behind our house until I was 16 years old. My dad, Mike Parker, is an architect, and took a job at First Citizens Bank in Raleigh in 1997 and we moved to Wake Forest shortly thereafter. I went to high school at Wake Forest-Rolesville HS and graduated in 2000, with a strong urge to be outdoors and explore the world. I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, got a degree in Biology in 2004, and moved to Yosemite National Park to explore the wilderness and study wild edible and medicinal plants. I got a job building high end custom mountain homes in Lake Tahoe, CA and learned the skills of building a home from the ground up. I did this for 6 years, and learned a lot from a few master craftsmen. In 2006, my ambition got the better of me, and I bought a $300,000 tear-down house in the overpriced real estate market of Lake Tahoe, thinking I would remodel it, start building some assets, and maybe turn it for a profit. In 2008, the market collapsed and I was almost instantly upside-down in a gutted home. I worked tirelessly to finish remodeling the home in order to sell it. It took almost four years to remodel, and every penny I could make to pay for it. I sold the house for less than I paid for it, and barely escaped a terrible financial situation. 

At that point, I was broke, spent, and really eager to get back to a life in North Carolina, where I could grow food year-round and be closer to family. I moved to Silk Hope in 2011 - because 10 years prior, while in college, I had experienced the good-natured, free-thinking community of Pittsboro and had been intrigued ever since. Revisiting old friends in Silk Hope when I moved back, I rediscovered the beautiful and fertile land that is here in Chatham County. I quickly realized that this was the place I wanted to build a homestead and someday raise a family. 

I found work in construction almost immediately upon moving back to NC, and started Heirloom Builders, Inc. at the end of 2010. I've always been interested in building things with wood. I developed a real passion for building fine homes and custom cabinetry while living in California, so I chose to continue on that path when I moved home. I set up shop in Silk Hope. And started building cabinetry and took on every challenging project that I could get my hands on. A lot of the larger projects that I work on require custom beams for large open spans, or particularly unique and beautiful woods for custom cabinetry. My friend, Leif Diamant, who helped me get started in Chatham County, turned me on to a bunch of logs from a neighbor's driveway clearing. At that point, since I had been living out of my truck for 6 months, and working all the time, I had saved enough money to buy a small portable sawmill. So I did. This gave me the opportunity to mill those logs from the driveway clearing and start accumulating wood to build my own house.

Ever since I was a kid, I've been building things with my hands. I love the idea of simple. And love even more the idea of efficiency. I learned about building with cob at a festival in California and thought it seemed pretty cool. I took a cob building workshop a couple years later and realized how much work it is to build with cob. Shortly after, I heard about building homes with strawbale walls. So I took a strawbale building workshop in California. I was sold. It made so much sense. You can build the walls of a home, with the help of some friends, in a couple days. With waste material (straw). It's cheap, easy, fun, and amazingly energy efficient. The walls of a strawbale home are almost 2 feet thick, and super-insulating. 

When I took out a 30 year loan to buy a house in California, I crunched the numbers to see how much money I would spend on that home over the life of the mortgage. Over double! Once I realized that I would pay the bank more money in interest than the home was ever even worth, I never wanted to take on a mortgage again. Building my home with straw and timbers that I milled myself seemed like the answer. 

In North Carolina, and especially Chatham County, straw bales are cheap and easy to come by. So they make the perfect wall system for a house. The idea is simple. A post and beam frame, built just like a barn, with strawbales stacked like bricks in between the posts, to create the walls and insulation, in one step. 

A well-built house has a good hat and good shoes. That means it needs a strong and durable roof with large overhangs to protect the walls and windows from wind and rain. It also means a house needs a well-designed foundation to hold it up over time and keep destructive bugs and rodents out and surface rainwater away from the walls. This is easy with a little thought and advanced planning. The idea is to build a roof with 3 foot overhangs all the way around and use metal roofing. I like metal roofs because they last the longest and catching rainwater is a lot easier (and cleaner). The foundation should be elevated at least 8-12 inches above grade, to prevent the possibility of surface water making its way into the home.

When we build with straw bales, we have to realize that this material is organic. It can deteriorate over time if we're not particular about keeping the bales dry. We put treated 4x4's on top of a concrete foundation to elevate the bales off of the concrete. This prevents moisture from wicking up into the bales. We think of the wall as a system. It needs to breath and be independently stable on its own. So we prevent water damage at the bottom as described, and allow for ventilation at the roof. We produce a lot of moisture inside our homes, showering, cooking, and drying laundry. No matter how hard you try to keep water out of the walls, it will get in. The key is to allow the wall to breath that moisture out. We use breathable insulation above the bale walls at the roof vent and a breathable earthen plaster to finish and seal the strawbale walls themselves. A strawbale home with earthen plaster breathes so much humidity from the indoor air, that air conditioning is rarely needed. When you design a home to use natural resources, and build it as a working system, you spend much less on energy to maintain and condition the home over time. My strawbale home out-performs any other home I've built, and the cost is no greater than an average home.

Most of us are raised in a world where we rely completely on the system to provide our basic needs (food, water, electricity) and distribute our waste. I'm building a home that generates it own electricity, heat, and clean water. I'm growing my own food and milling my own lumber. I've learned that the system that provides our clean water, our food, our electricity, and our financial security is teetering on the edge of collapse. And in some cities, the system has already collapsed. We are too smart to leave ourselves so vulnerable. It's time that we start exploring ways to provide basic necessities for ourselves. Clearly, we can't wait for the government to do what's best for us. My intent is to explore and test alternative systems that can provide our basic needs with less energy and maintenance over time. 

I was recently featured on an episode of "America Unplugged," which focused on my mission to explore a balance of self-reliance and community. The producers did a great job of representing my philosophy and the community scene out here in Silk Hope. The episode is now available on YouTube. They also focused in on the systems of my house that run entirely on solar energy. 

I choose to spend my time and money developing ways to build homes better, more energy efficient, and not reliant on any outside sources. Every time we spend a dollar, we cast a vote. Do you put your hard-earned money in a corporate system that sends its money oversees? Or do you spend money within your local community that will gradually come back to you? 

Building homes with straw bales is becoming more common place in North Carolina. It's all over the western United States and catching on pretty fast. Straw bale construction just makes sense. You simply can't find a better value when you consider the cost, the energy-efficient nature, the reuse of a waste product in the fields, the support for local community when you buy local products, and the feeling you get inside a strawbale home. It's amazing.