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Straw-bale homes show promise in fire protection, earthquake saf - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Straw-bale homes show promise in fire protection, earthquake safety

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After massive wildfires wiped out entire neighborhoods in Northern and Southern California, you may have wondered why homes can't be built to better resist burning.

As it happens, the San Luis Sustainability Group, founded by a former Cal Poly architecture professor, has an answer to that -- and some innovative ideas to solve other problems as well.

"The only thing left up was the stucco walls," notes Ken Haggard as he leafs through a photo album full of images of the ruins of his former home in the hills outside Santa Margarita. It burned to the ground back in 1994 and Haggard knew there would be another blaze eventually.

Before rebuilding, he wanted to find a design that could take the heat. After much research, he settled on what some might call an unlikely material: tightly baled rice straw, a waste material farmers in the Central Valley are keen to part with.

"They were basically having to dump diesel fuel on the fields because it's so resistant to burning," explains Scott Clark, a designer with the firm.

Haggard says that was just the beginning of the environmental problems.

"They were producing more air pollution from burning rice straw than all utilities combined in California. So the state was anxious to get some use for this straw."

Rice straw's high silica content means flames have trouble taking hold, especially when the straw is tightly packed. Haggard says it's like trying to burn a phone book. It also turns out that termites and other bugs don't care for it and because it flexes, it's more forgiving in an earthquake than many other building materials.

Still, the county had to be convinced. Haggard gathered all of his research for a big demonstration as if he were presenting a thesis to his peers.

"So they saw us coming with this big package of data and said, 'Oh God! Here's Haggard with another lecture! More lectures!' and they just said, 'Don't make us read all that crap! Just submit, will ya? Submit and we'll look at it and pass it.'" He laughs thinking about it.

Here's how it works: You build the home's skeleton -- either post-and-beam or conventional stick framing -- then the bales fit in the spaces between.

"You're stacking them just like bricks or blocks, so it goes pretty fast," Clark says. "People come just to learn it and they put up the walls."

He points to the interior of his two-story home and office, neatly finished with white stucco: "All went up in a weekend."

The bales are covered with an inch-and-a-half of stucco both inside and out.

"That gives you a two-hour fireproof rating -- at least double that of standard construction," Haggard says.

He gives us a tour of his expansive office and home with soaring ceilings and high-arching timber framing.

"This is our -- what we call a truth window. In the straw bale business, to convince everybody that you're actually using straw bale, you leave a window into it."

He points to a small diamond shape framed into the interior stucco, where you can see a tightly packed tuft of straw held by chicken wire.

"The other advantage of the bales is that you can curve them," he says with a smile. "You get curves for no extra cost. You can kick them and make the curve and bend them."

He takes the tour outside, where the building's sweeping, curvy exterior is Tolkien-esque. Haggard says the end result is a highly insulated home that's cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and super quiet.

"As it cools down at night, you open up the building and let it ventilate and basically you're re-charging this thermal mass for the next day," he says, pointing at the furry blonde bricks awaiting new layers of stucco.

But Ken Haggard says that's just the start of what's possible with a smart, sustainable home. In the office with towering ceilings, he points to the exterior walls where the windows lead to the steep hills covered with brush and coast live oaks.

"The solar side is masonry, windows, and the metal tanks," Haggard explains, knocking on large, rectangular water tanks built right into the south-facing wall. The tanks warming in the sun heat the home and office as well as the water. But the design also allows the heat to dissipate when you don't want it. Windows are shaded against intense summer sun but oriented to capture the winter's rays. Even the rain is put to work.

"Part of this green design is to collect water off the roofs."

Haggard routes the structure's rainfall into a nearby pond but says any home can be built with a cistern that will collect the thousands of gallons of water that land on each of our houses every year -- water that can supply landscaping and an innovative, inexpensive system that will slow a wildfire's approach: roof sprinklers.

"The key is having a big quantity of water," Haggard explains. "The cistern thing would be great for that and would also help the whole California water situation because you wouldn't have to pump as much groundwater."

Ken says there's also no reason why your home can't also power your cars. For years, his straw-bale home and office were completely off the grid with no connection to outside utilities. But when he and his partner, Polly Cooper, and others in the office purchased electric vehicles, he invited PG&E to extend electrical service to the complex.

Photovoltaics on the roof generate all the electricity for the office and home, and those cars, plus more that can be sold back to the utility company. And for those rare stretches of days when it's cloudy, Haggard and company can draw from the power lines.

"We're using PG&E as a battery," Haggard smiles.

He says the cost of including those smart features with straw-bale construction will total about 10 percent more than conventional construction but you'll have a more fire-resistant home that will heat and cool itself and provide hot water and nearly free electricity that'll start paying you back immediately.

For more information on the San Luis Sustainability Group's many projects around the county, go to slosustainability.com.

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