Thursday, June 19, 2008

Last kid graduates: When do we get to stop working?

Straw bale house (photo courtesy of

Our second and last kid graduated from college in May. Ken and I are thinking "When do we get to stop working?" We live in a very small house (1415 sq ft), we drive cars that are 13 and 14 years old. I wear clothes from Community Thrift or Goodwill. Ken wears his until they're threadbare. We've socked away more than 20% of our earnings into retirement accounts since we were thirty. And yet, because we've both worked as educators and I as a writer, we have not made enough to have a hefty retirement account yet. Yeah, we could keep working until our mid-sixties. But our friends who have worked in banking or other more lucrative careers are retiring now. It's hard to watch. They get severance packages plus lifetime health coverage, neither of which we will get.

What's to be done?

We've thought about retiring to Costa Rica, where the average wage is $3,000 per year. In such an economy, we'd be relatively wealthy. But we're not ready to do that, at least not now. We're developing a different kind of plan that involves building a very inexpensive new house, and renting out the house we're in now. While we're renting it, the property will hopefully appreciate. It's in a neighborhood that is pretty close to downtown in a growing city, so that's a fair guess.

What kind of inexpensive housing do we want to build? Ken suggested a trailer, but I don't think so. While interviewing green entrepreneurs for our last book (written with daughter Sadie), I met a number of families who have built environmentally friendly and low-cost homes. I keep thinking in particular of Barry Ford of Lancaster SC, featured in our book Going Green. He, his wife, and his young step-son built a 2300 sq ft house for only $13,000 in 1998, which works out to $5.65 per sq ft! They didn't even need a mortgage. I toured it; it's a beautiful home. Ford says it's been appraised above the value of his neighbors' conventional ranch homes. The walls are all made of stacked rows upon rows of bales of straw, covered with stucco.

The Fords started by gathering 1000 strawbales, purchased directly from farmers and piled up on the building site. They kept the bales covered with a tarp until they were ready to begin construction.

Some strawbale homes are post-and-beam, meaning that the bales of straw are laid between load-bearing vertical posts that are more or less like studs in a stick-built home, although the posts are much farther apart than studs. In post-and-beam construction, the bales serve as both insulation and as a substrate for the stucco or plaster surfacing.

But in the Ford home, the strawbales are load-bearing. There are no posts and beams. The Fords didn't even use rebar, which many strawbale builders run vertically from the concrete foundation upward through the bales to stabilize them. The engineers at Cornell and Clemson who served as consultants to the Fords advised against rebar, because the penetration by the rebar (threaded steel rods) allows moisture to get inside the bales. The Fords built their home, one bale at a time, over a period of 10 months, while they were both working at full time jobs. They worked on the house evenings and weekends. The only labor they hired was for one or two days while framing the roof.

Or we might build a paper-bale home. Our publisher turned us on to a couple in Colorado who built one. They used bales of post-consumer paperboard and PVC trash. These materials - glossy coated cardboard (like laundry soap boxes) and waste plastic (old toys, laundry baskets, shampoo bottles) – are hard to recycle and usually end up in landfills. For this Colorado couple, the paper-bale walls give their home an insulation value of R-30, far beyond the energy-efficiency of most conventional homes.

Ken and I like the fact that both strawbale and paper bale construction use waste materials. (Straw is hay that has had the edible seeds removed.) Making use of waste would feel good both environmentally and financially.

We might build an earthship home, like our friends Carol and Neil are doing. It is sort of the ultimate in sustainable builidng and sustainable living. The walls are made of old tires, which Neil and Carol are collecting now. The home has passive solar design to save on heating and cooling costs, and it has a water recycling system that reduces the home's need for well-water or city water to almost nothing.

Then there's Trip Overholt of Chapel Hill. He moves older houses that are slated for demolition because of land-development plans. He hauls them to a new foundation on a vacant lot, and then sells them for a lot less than a custom home would cost. That's the ultimate in recycling, because it keeps the older house out of the waste stream, plus it avoids all the new materials and energy required for new-home construction.

A lot of exciting options! At one time I wanted a bigger house so I could have a home office and a guest room and a den and a dining room, none of which we have now. (We do have 3 bedrooms.) Now, I just want a cheap house. A really cheap and energy-efficient house. I'm optimistic that we can be economical and green at the same time. I'm eager to get started. But where should we build? That's the first question.

All the people and homes mention in this post are described in detail in Going Green, available on amazon.

by Sally Kneidel

Keywords:: strawbale house paper bale house earthship recycled house


tilbygnin said...

what a very best blog, I hope you will post more. Thanks for sharing..

Murv said...

I build out of paper bale and padobe have had great results in NM,MT and now TX would love to share what has worked well. The paper based plasters have shown to be incredible in humid environs, check out our blog
you are on the right track keep up the alternativemindedness Murv