Not many people can say they own a straw-bale house and even fewer can say they built it from scratch by themselves. But for one Marion County man, that’s exactly the case.
Don Harmon, who lives east of Hillsboro, started about one year ago building his dream home, which when finished will be one of the most energy-efficient places in the area.
“This house should outlast any of us,” he said, “and if anyone is looking for a super high efficiency home, this is the way to go.”
Born in a small town about 65 northeast of Denver, Colo., Harmon said he learned to build things living on a farm.
“It’s one of the things you do when you live on a farm…it’s part of growing up there, you learn stuff,” he said.
After owning a couple of older homes with poor insulation, Harmon’s main reason for building this house was lower utility bills.
“It won’t be drafty,” he said, “and the few people I have talked to have said these houses are really comfortable—you don’t have that drafty feeling like in some houses.
Another strong motivation for building himself was the money.
“Doing the work myself,” Harmon said, “will probably save me over half of what it will be worth when it’s finished.”
Why straw bales?
Harmon said a lot of the information he has read claims that the insulation rating on a straw bale house is between 40 and 45, which is about three times as efficient as conventional framing, he said.
Some people have also said this type of house can block out noise, is fire resistant and is environmentally responsible.
Harmon said he also read about some people having problems with building inspectors and zoning regulations.
“I think the problem is that some inspectors just don’t quite understand it all and are somewhat close-minded about it,” he said.
“Whenever something is an alternative to a conventional way,” he explained, “some (officials), but not all, don’t want to mess with it because they don’t understand (the concept).”
One argument Harmon said he has heard against straw-bale houses is that they are a fire hazard.
These houses are less prone to fire then more traditional homes, he said.
Harmon said the drainage is in, which was done before pouring the cement floor foundation.
“I poured the footings just before July 4 last year,” he said.
He then worked on the strawbale walls and put the metal roof on.
“Sometimes it’s slow-moving while I am figuring out things as I go,” he said.
With a full-time job, Harmon said he works on his home after he gets home and on the weekends.
“It’s all done in my spare time,” he said, adding that sometimes after a full day at work, he doesn’t get a lot done.
With the foundation poured, the roof up, except for the trim, and straw-bale walls in place, Harmon said his next step will be applying stucco to the bales on the inside and outside.
“Some people like conventional siding on their straw-bale walls, but they still have to stucco it first to cover the bales and seal them from moisture and the varmints,” he said.
As for Harmon, he said he plans to put one layer of stucco on and then put the windows in. After the windows are in place, he said, he will add two more layers of stucco to seal around the windows, along with sealing in the bales.
“Before I stucco the inside,” he said, “I need to put the electrical in the inside walls and then once that’s done, I will stucco the inside.”
Once it’s framed in, he said, he will begin finishing off his home.
With the drains already in, Harmon said, the plumbing will go in when he starts working on the inside walls.
The outside of his house will be stucco.
“I hope to get it to a stage that I can move in by this winter and can work through the winter, but it might be another full year before it is completely finished,” he said.
The outside dimensions of Harmon’s house is 48 feet x 40 feet.
When finished, it will have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen, living area and a mud room.
“The house will have a back/side entrance and the mud room is where you come in with your muddy boots,” he said.
The mud room will also serve as a place for the washer and dryer.
Learning from others
A couple of years ago when Harmon said he was seriously looking into this type of house, he said he met a man in Douglas, Wyom., who built his straw bale house in 1949.
“He was 93 years old and he and his wife were still living there,” he said.
While visiting with the couple, Harmon said the man showed him pictures of when he was building his home.
“In the mid-1980s,” he said, “he decided to tear the front door out and put in a new, wider door.”
The pictures chronicled where the man tore the frame out and also had to tear some of the straw out.
“That straw looked like the day he put it in,” Harmon said.
Harmon said he talked with a few people about their straw-bale houses before he began his own building project.
Even though Harmon said he lives in the country and the county building codes aren’t as strict as in the cities, he said he will be doing everything up to code specifications.
Regarding the energy efficiency of his project, Harmon said: “Someone can’t build (a house) out of conventional materials and get the same R rating on the walls for the amount of money straw bales would cost them.”
Although Harmon said he hasn’t talked to anyone, he did find some people in the Lawrence while on the Internet who told him they built straw bale houses about 10 years ago.
“They are around in different parts of the country—Arizona, New Mexico—some with whole communities of straw bale houses,” he said.
Harmon said he was able to get financing for his house and his insurance company had no problem covering it.
Although part of the reason, he said he is involved in this project is because of the cost, he also said it is unique too.
“I decided I wanted to do something different and I wanted to build my own house,” he said.
Both dreams are now coming true.