The Curiel Residence: Straw Bale Offers Affordability, Comfort and Beauty

Kim and Fred Curiel made the construction of their new home a community affair, bringing friends and neighbors together one weekend to cut and stack the straw bales that would eventually be the exterior walls of their new home.  Years after completion, the Curiels are still inviting the community into their home to share the importance of a healthy indoor environment and how straw bale walls keep their interior comfortable year round.  GreenPoint Rated recently sat down with Kim to talk about her family’s original motivation to use straw bales as a building material and learn about her favorite outcome from the home after living in it for almost a decade.

The exterior of the Curiels' straw bale home. The deep porch overhang adds further insulation from weather.

Q: What was the original inspiration to build a straw bale home?
A: We were first inspired by an article in the Mother Earth News Magazine back in 1983.  They featured a number of different sustainable homes including one that was made from straw bale, an adobe, an underground home, and a yurt.  The article listed the pros and cons of each and we were instantly drawn to the straw bale construction for a number of different reasons:

  • the beauty of  straw bale construction
  • the ability to shape the walls how you want them
  • it’s a quickly renewable material and a second cash crop for farmers
  • it’s a fire resistant material
  • it’s an easy material to build with, which keeps construction costs low

Some of the other building types featured had similar attributes, but none had all the pros that the straw bale home could offer.  The ultimate decision was made when I walked into a straw bale home open to the public in Redding.  It was 95 degrees outside and 65 degrees inside, and when I asked if the owner had air conditioning, she said “oh no.”  She even noted that when they first moved into the home they thought the thermometer was broken, because the temperature had stayed the same degree mark through the entire winter.  “The only time it moved was when we turned on the oven to bake some cookies, and then the temperature went up a bit.”
The ability to keep the house at the same temperature without heating or cooling really appealed to us, and the decision was literally made that day to have a straw bale house.

Interior wall detail. Straw bale homes have deep walls that give the interior a warm, protected ambiance.

Q: So straw bale really is easy enough that it could save any homeowner on construction costs?
A: Absolutely.  We had a straw bale raising party with 100 friends and neighbors that put together the exterior straw bale walls over the course of a weekend.  Afterwards, I did all the finish work on the bales with a laborer for the next two weeks.

Q: So what is the estimate of the total cost of your 3,000 square foot home?
A: The land was $210,000.  Land Improvements including the driveway came in at $50,000.  Building permits and payments to the city cost roughly $30,000. Total house construction came to $410,000

Q: That’s pretty impressive! Other than the straw bale aspect, were there any other strategies to make the home more affordable?
A: We got a large report on the solar power system.  We used some salvaged materials (lights, doors, wood).  We only needed a third of the lumber for a house of this size because of the straw bales used on the exterior walls.  And I installed a huge open shelving pantry instead of using cabinets which also saved wood and money.

Q: Some people believe that the overall mass of a passively heated and cooled home like one made with straw bales tends to feel like living in a cave.  How did building with this specific material affect the interior of your home?
A: We have two dormer windows on the south facing wall.  They look like the second story of the home, but really they are light wells.  Because they bring in so much light, I do not have to turn on any lights during the day.
Light wells alter the feel of the house and really make it feel open.  We have a neighbor whose house is five times as big as ours, but does not feel as open.  It’s because of the ceilings and the inkling light in our big great room.  Half of the first floor is entirely open.

The thick straw bale walls keep the home warm in winter and cool in summer.

Q: Is there anything you would suggest to individual homeowners looking to build with straw bale?
A: Yes.  I would recommend trying to minimize the cuts they need to make. This can be done during the drawing process and will save homeowners additional time during construction. We had a few walls that required us to do to custom cuts on the straw bale through from top to bottom and they took forever.

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