Launch Slideshow

Straw Bale House

Straw bale walls provide good insulation. But that’s just one reason why this Santa Cruz house is so energy-smart.

Straw Bale House

Straw bale walls provide good insulation. But that’s just one reason why this Santa Cruz house is so energy-smart.

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    Edward Caldwell

    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.

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    Edward Caldwell

    The clients also needed a house that was roomy enough for a family of six, and that had a second separate living area that could be used as a place where aging parents could live or rented out for additional income.

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    Edward Caldwell

    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.

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    Brian Pontolilo

    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.

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    Edward Caldwell

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

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    Edward Caldwell

    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.

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    Edward Caldwell

    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.

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    Edward Caldwell

    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.

When a couple from Santa Cruz said they wanted to “push the ecological envelope,” architects David Arkin and Anni Tilt thought a straw bale house could be just the thing. But the architects didn’t stop there. Their clients needed enough room for four kids, and they hoped to include a space that could be rented out for additional income or for aging parents to come live. A sprawling manse was exactly what the clients didn’t want, so Arkin and Tilt built a house with a compact plan and an energy-smart, low-impact sensibility. With four bedrooms, an office, and a one-bedroom apartment with its own entrance, the house measures 2,500 square feet total. For a family of six, that’s modest.

Abundant natural light, fluorescent and LED lighting, and Energy Star-rated appliances keep energy use minimal. When extra is needed, a heat pump kicks in hot water for space heating and domestic use. This usage is in turn offset by photovoltaic panels on the roof. Another thing: There’s not a fan or an air-conditioner in sight. That’s because the windows—especially the ones in the dining room that are two stories high—provide natural ventilation. Recycled and salvaged doors, interior windows, flooring, and driftwood pickets reduce environmental impact. They give character, too, and the sense that a house like this one is especially at home in Central California. For a closer look, check out the slide show.