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A Straw-Bale Forever Home: Efficiency and Teamwork in Ohio

By Camille LeFevre Home Features Editor
Oct 3, 2020

When she was 60, Janet Kious, a retired registered nurse, Zen Buddhist, and environmental activist, decided to build a new home where she and her husband Gus, president of a healthcare organization, could age in place. She wanted to do a lot of the design and construction herself, with her own hands. So, she turned to architect Charles Miller, of C2 Architects in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Charles is a friend who is also active in the environmental groups in which Kious and her husband are involved.

"Janet got this brainstorm and called us," recalls Miller, whose firm focuses on sustainable design. "She told me she wanted a cob house. I said, 'Jan, I don't think you can pull that off in Cleveland Heights. But I know a guy who builds with straw bales.' And she loved that idea."

Adds Kious, "The idea was to build a home with natural materials. My son has worked on a SIP house, and I know about other sustainable construction technologies. After doing my research, I realized rammed earth or cob wouldn't work in this climate. So, when Chuck brought up straw bales, we got permission from the city and started building."

In December 2006, the team broke ground on a lot next to the Kious's existing home (which they later sold). In April 2008, the couple moved into a Craftsman-style home with an Asian aesthetic. The house has two stories on the front that drop off in the back toward the swimming pool. They insulated the home with 305 straw bales from a nearby farm. Here's a video about the home's construction.

Straw Bale Front Door
Straw Bale Front Door

Building With Straw Bales

One challenge to building an 1,800-square-foot home with straw bales, Miller points out in the video, is the labor. Chris Fox, of Strawbale Studio, took on the challenge with help from upwards of 30 volunteers. "Janet sent out emails to everyone she knew, then made a giant pot of soup to feed everyone who helped out," Miller says.

Kious adds that "Our four kids live here, dozens of people volunteered, and the builder notified people in surrounding states who are interested in straw-bale to come and work with us. Friends that didn't want to build helped us out with meals."

The straw bales are nonstructural and provide insulation. "The structure is similar to a timber frame using engineered lumber," Miller explains. A team of Amish workers did the framing and dug the basement. "It's a post and beam structure, with heavy beams. Once the frame was up and the roof on, we filled the walls in with the bales like bricks, and tied the system together." The walls are 20-inches thick and R-45. The roof rafters, filled with spray foam, are R-60.

Next came three layers of plaster on the inside and the outside. Kious mixed the final-coat colors herself. "I used red-oak sawdust mixed with clay, lime, sand, and wheat paste for the walls in the main room," she explains. A deep-blue wall in Gus's study is a mix of clay, lime, sand, and straw—stirred up in a garbage can—"with lots of pigment added."

Loft View
Straw Bale Loft View

Sustainable Building Materials and Appliances

The Kious's decided not to install in-floor heat after Fox told them they'd be too warm. Instead, they went with a small Lennox super-efficient gas furnace. The house has operable, triple-pane windows positioned for maximum cross ventilation. Ceiling fans also reduce the need for air conditioning in the hot months.  

Also included in the home are Energy Star appliances, dual-flush toilets, and Pex plumbing. The deck is TimberTechRecyclable carpet squares cover the basement floor. 

Straw Bale House Workbench
Salvaged Workbench

Reuse and Salvage

Janet Kious furnished the home with antiques and salvaged materials, including the arched front door. The kitchen island is a century-old Amish carpenter's bench. "It's on wheels and has spaces for everything," she says. She purchased the Victorian-era oak pocket door between the living room and den from eBay. She also found a marble bookcase with glass shelves. The master suite has a recycled bathroom sink. "I try to reuse things as much as possible," she says.

The Kious's son Chris crafted other pieces: With the team at his company, A Piece of Cleveland, he designs and constructs furnishings from materials salvaged from old buildings in the Cleveland area.

Aging in Place

The Kious's made sure their home has universal access so they can age-in-place comfortably. Using ADA principles, the couple and Miller made sure the doors are all at least 36-inches wide. The shower is wide enough to push in a wheelchair.

Currently, the homeowners lease out a guest suite on the lower level of the home on Airbnb. The suite, which has its own entrance, could also serve as the residence for an in-home health aide or caretaker in the future.

Straw Bale House Garden
Straw Bale House Garden

Sustainable Landscaping

The home has a Japanese-style rain garden out front with a multi-level water feature. Downspouts divert rainwater into the garden, where Janet, a Master Gardener, grows fruits and vegetables. The front of the house features large overhangs and a deep porch. 

In the backyard, behind the in-ground swimming pool, is a dry stream bed where, eventually, recirculated water will flow into a "pond" filled with rocks and other features for the grandchildren to play in.

The Corona Cottage

The Kious's weren't allowed to put a thatched roof on their home and opted for asphalt. But Janet is currently busy constructing what she calls her "Corona cottage," a Japanese teahouse in the backyard that she's been working on during the COVID-19 pandemic. Along freeways and country roads, she's been cutting down reeds for the thatched roof.

She's also been mixing new batches of plaster. "I found a recipe for the outside walls using fresh cow dung, sand, clay, and handfuls of cattail fluff," she enthuses. "So, I've been traveling around the countryside looking for fresh cow dung during the virus. Fortunately, I have a friend on a farm about 100 miles away. I went there and filled up my buckets, then sieved the dung to get the grass out." 

Straw Bale Exterior View
Straw Bale Exterior View

"Janet has a good eye, and she's very self-reliant," says Miller. "Both Gus and Janet are so charismatic you can never say no to them."

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Camille LeFevre

Article by:

Camille LeFevre

Camille LeFevre is an architecture and design writer based in the Twin Cities.