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.

Construction revival
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 house.

"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.

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