Living in a Straw Bale House

It's a Different Experience

It's quiet. There are no forced-air fans or furnaces or compressors running in the background. The thick walls provide excellent sound insulation. Other than in a storm, with the wind whipping through the trees at 40 mph, it's amazingly quiet.

It's healthy. No carpets or fiberglass insulation or particle boards emitting fumes. Low volatile-organic-compound paint. We can get by with 0.3 air exchanges per hour – see the blower-door test page – because the indoor air quality is so good.

It's comfortable. There are a few days each summer, as noted elsewhere, when the upstairs gets a bit toasty, but overall the house is extremely comfortable.

It's beautiful. The curviness and irregularity of the bale walls, the deeply recessed windows, the natural light, and the large amount of natural materials that we've used – see the finishing touches page – give the house an organic, living feel that is quite different from a typical house where everything is flat, straight, and at right angles.

It Needs a Different Approach

We've all lived in houses where things happen at the flip of a switch. Too cold? Turn up the thermostat, the furnace kicks on, and in 10 or 15 minutes the house is warmer. The same with turning on the air conditioner if the house is too hot.

Nothing happens quickly in a passive-solar house where heating and cooling sources are not under your control and the house, by design, has a large thermal inertia. The house is so well insulated that the temperature drops only a few degrees overnight. Even so, and on a sunny winter day, it takes until early afternoon to reach shirt-sleeve temperatures. A little faster, but still a couple of hours, if the supplemental heat is used in the mornings. Put on a sweater.

Likewise, a somewhat toasty house on a summer evening will cool down nicely overnight. But it takes all night. Turn on a fan.

A key feature of a passive-solar house is the lack of instant gratification. Some people adapt to this quickly. Some grow into it with experience. And there are probably some that would be driven crazy by this; a passive-solar house is not for them.

But you'll learn that you can keep the ship on a steadier course with some forethought. If tomorrow's winter weather forecast is for clouds and rain, take extra steps to maximize the heating today even if it gets a couple of degrees warmer than ideal. If tomorrow's summer weather forecast is for high temperatures, take extra steps to minimize today's heating and to maximize overnight cooling even if the early morning temperature is a couple of degrees cooler than ideal.

Instead of expecting devices to see to our comfort regardless of the conditions, living in a passive-solar house requires you to be more in tune with your environment and to learn how to work with what nature presents. It's by no means a rustic or primitive life – as noted above, overall the house is extremely comfortable – but it does require a different and more attentive approach than merely setting the thermostat.

© 2021 Randy Knight