Straw house not exactly what you might think

CUTLINE: Jonas Lenth, Solace Lenth, Sarah McGee, and Dave Lenth (l-r) pose inside the straw-bale house that they are constructing on the bank of Otter Creek outside West Union.





Straw house not exactly what you might think

Brian Smith
Contributing Writer


As you approach the building site of Dave Lenth and Sarah McGee’s house, it looks much like any other home being constructed in the country. Upon closer inspection, however, you note that the walls are filled with bales of straw. That’s right, straw. Dave and Sarah are taking the idea of a house made of straw and turning it into a reality. 

Construction on the house, which sits just southeast of West Union on a bluff overlooking Otter Creek, was begun last July. The couple are currently living on the property while they continue construction, which they hope will be mostly completed by this winter.

“Building a straw-bale house is something that we have always dreamed of doing,” said Sarah.

She, along with her husband, Dave, and their two children, Jonas (17) and Solace (10), are doing much of the work on the house themselves. They are also getting a lot of guidance and help from others as they work toward completion of the project.

Dave has had some experience, having helped build a straw house before several years ago when he worked at a Christian camp.

He is appreciative of the technical assistance they are getting from others, stating, “We have gotten lots of help from people who have some experience doing this sort of thing. A lot of times it amounts to them telling us what to do and us doing it!”

There are about 250 bales of straw arranged in one layer to form the walls of the house. The bales are custom-cut to be three feet long (in most cases), and are held together by a mesh of two-inch galvanized wire on the inside and outside. Eventually, a baling needle will be used to “stitch” the walls together tightly, so as to pull everything together before 1.25 inches of plaster is added inside and out.

The bales sit on an 18-inch track with gravel placed underneath, which will help to provide a water barrier. Moisture is a concern with straw-bale houses, at least until the plaster has been added to seal up everything. Mice, insects, and fire are no more of a concern than they would be with a traditional house, and actually maybe even less so in some respects.

“Everything is going to be so solid and tightly packed together that it will be difficult for mice to chew through it all and make a space for themselves. There also isn’t a great deal of air inside that space to feed a fire,” the couple explained.

There are generally two types of straw bale house construction. One is load-bearing, in which the walls support the structure of the roof. Another is non-load-bearing, in which the straw is mainly being used for insulation and wood framing is used to support the roof. The Lenth straw-bale house uses wood beams from an old barn for supporting the roof of the house. The beams were provided by Dennis and Ellen Edgar of rural West Union. 

Straw-bale construction is sometimes referred to as natural building or “brown construction” and was used extensively in the Sandhills area of Nebraska in the late 1800s. Today, there has been a substantial increase in its use in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia.
Sarah added, “I have heard that it is also being used more in Japan, because the flexibility of the construction allows it to survive earthquakes better than traditional construction.”

The house itself will include an open design upstairs, which will have a kitchen, dining room, and sitting area. There is also a deck attached to the second floor, which provides a scenic view of the creek and wooded area surrounding the house. Downstairs there will be bedrooms and a bathroom, with a poured concrete floor that has radiant heat underneath. 

The family has tried to include energy-saving ideas in the house as much as possible, including the use of a woodstove for heat; energy efficient south facing windows; a compost toilet; and a 2,500-gallon cistern to collect rainwater. These features, when completed, will combine to make the house very eco-friendly.

Dave and Sarah have had some volunteer help along the way. In addition to their own children pitching in to help, they have had other friends and community members lend a hand in the construction process. Dave is currently the pastor at Ossian Lutheran Church and before that was the pastor at Zion Lutheran in Castalia. Several parishioners from both churches, family, and friends have come out to help. The Lenth family also belongs to a home-school group called Shine, which has contributed to their efforts as well.

There are a few individuals that have been instrumental in the process. Lowell Lyngaas, Gerald Hager, Floyd Schmitt, Gary Schutte, and Dan Schutte have all given generously of their time, materials, and expertise throughout the project.

“There are so many people that have helped with things like volunteering time to work, advising us on construction, and providing meals. We are grateful for everyone’s assistance and support,” expressed Dave.

The progress on the house has been slow but steady, as they have completed things in stages as they can afford them and have time for them. It may take some additional time before everything is complete, but Dave, Sarah, and their family will definitely have a unique home when they have finished.

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