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Straw Bale Homes In San Diego Are Not Just For Three Little Pigs

A straw bale house under construction at Coral Tree Farm in Encinitas, July 2...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: A straw bale house under construction at Coral Tree Farm in Encinitas, July 29, 2017.

When you hear about a straw bale building, you might think of a big bad wolf huffing and puffing. But these houses are not just in fairy tales.

Builders in San Diego County are turning to straw bales as natural and energy efficient insulation.

One such builder, Rebecca Tasker, co-owns the green building company Simple Construct, and is currently working on a straw bale greenhouse for Coral Tree Farm, a nonprofit educational farm in Encinitas.

"The first time I saw a straw bale building I was like, I can do this, it's like big fuzzy legos, you can just stick the legos together and you have a house," Tasker said while showing off the building.

She said construction is fairly simple. She builds a foundation, then a frame for the straw bales.

"And then we stacked the straw bales, so it's just like what you think, they just stack up in the wall," she said.

Photo caption:

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Rebecca Tasker shows off a window seat in a straw bale greenhouse she is building in Encinitas, July 29, 2017.

Next she will surround the bales with clay, leaving just a small so-called truth window where visitors can see the straw bales inside.

"Because sometimes once you have the walls covered in plaster, people don't actually believe you that it's made of straw," she said. "So we'll have a little window you can open up and say, 'really, it's really, really straw.'"

Straw bale construction is popular throughout the southwest, and it is slowly catching on in San Diego County.

In terms of permitting, "the county of San Diego is great, they've really embraced straw bale building," Tasker said.

The county's first straw bale home was built just six years ago in Borrego Springs by Drew Hubbell, son of famed architect James Hubbell.

Builders in San Diego County are turning to straw bales as natural and energy efficient insulation. So far there are 60 permitted straw bale buildings in the county and one in the city of San Diego.

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Now there are 60 permitted straw bale buildings in San Diego County and one in the city of San Diego, Tasker said. She said there are many reasons to build with straw, including its lower costs, durability and non-toxic components.

"It's at least twice as well insulated as a conventional building," she said. "It's a waste product, it's an agricultural byproduct of the production of grain. So this was already being produced anyway, there aren't a lot of uses for it, so to be able to upcycle it into fantastic insulation is kind of a win-win for everybody."

But there are some downsides to straw building. Walls have to be as thick as the bales, or about two feet. So structures like the 120-square-foot greenhouse in Encinitas either will lose the square footage inside or will need to be built bigger to accommodate the walls.

Like standard insulation, the bales also have to be protected from moisture, and the weight of the walls mean straw bale is usually used for smaller buildings, instead of stacking up multiple floors.

But Tasker said it does not have to be that way.

"It can be anything from a five-story office building to a small craftsman home," she said. "Here in California, with earthquakes, it's generally more efficient to stay on a single level because they are heavy walls."

Laurel Mehl, the owner of Coral Tree Farm, said when she was ready to build a new greenhouse, the decision to use straw bale was a natural one because she has a long family history of environmentally friendly practices.

"I'm approaching 60 years working on this land, and my parents owned it some time before that as well," she said. "I chose this because I'm a strong environmentalist, my mother was a strong environmentalist."

Mehl is looking forward to her finished greenhouse, which will be done soon. When it is, it will be a low-light greenhouse used to grow turmeric and ginger.

And no big bad wolves should be able to blow it down.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

A worker does construction on a straw bale greenhouse in Encinitas, July 29, 2017.


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Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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