Wedge couple builds straw home

Energy-efficient house will sequester carbon

Straw house built
Katie Jones and Peter Schmitt are constructing a straw bale house on their Wedge property that will be ultra-efficient and sequester carbon. Jones learned techniques last year during a straw house build in Washington state. Submitted photo
Married couple Katie Jones and Peter Schmitt met in Minnesota’s first passive house, and today they are in the process of constructing their own highly energy-efficient home on their Lowry Hill East property.

Their Uptown Strawhouse — or Strohhaus am Radlweg (the passive house they met at was the Concordia Language Village German camp) — will be built on the site of their current garage using straw bales as a base, which will not only make the home energy efficient but will actually sequester carbon.

Passive houses meet a voluntary energy efficiency standard that drastically reduces the building’s carbon footprint and requires little energy to be heated and cooled. The structures have triple-paneled windows, continuous insulation and are airtight.

Jones and Schmitt are well-versed in energy efficiency. Schmitt works for U.S. Solar and Jones is an engineer who works for the Center for Energy and Environment (CEE). The roof of their new home will host 20 bifacial solar modules that allow light to pass through and reflect up off the metal roof to capture more energy.

“We get that not everyone is going to build a house like this,” Schmitt said. But they do want to show people it’s possible.

The couple bought a triplex at 22nd & Bryant in 2014, and in early March they were granted approval by the Minneapolis Planning Commission to tear down their garage and build a two-story, 1,344-square-foot passive home using straw bales.

The idea of a straw bale building dates back to the Great Plains. The homes are constructed with a wood frame that is raised like a barn structure and lined with tightly bound straw bales for insulation. The straw bales are then sealed with plaster. The result is a structure that is extremely energy efficient, fire-resistant and highly soundproof. Because straw is a natural material, the building will sequester carbon from the air.

straw house
Straw homes are constructed with a wood frame that is raised like a barn structure and lined with tightly bound straw bales for insulation. The straw bales are then sealed with plaster. The result is a structure that is extremely energy efficient, fire-resistant and highly soundproof. Submitted photo

The two had been planning to construct a passive home for years and were waiting for city zoning code to comply. They originally thought the structure would qualify as an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU), but they learned triplexes were not eligible for that designation. Working with their architects and city planners, they eventually applied for a cluster development permit.

Originally the goal was to just build a passive house, but even those structures can have components and materials that have a substantial carbon footprint.

“I wanted to think more sustainably,” Jones said.

That’s when they discovered the idea of the straw bale build. Jones went to Wash- ington state to attend a seminar and home build with Andrew Morrison, a leading national expert on the subject. Morrison has consulted with their architects on the project and will come to Minneapolis to help train the construction crew.

Finding architects and contractors for the project wasn’t easy. Eventually they found Precipitate Architecture’s Elizabeth Turner, a passive house certified consultant based in the North Loop. Turner had never done a straw bale design before and said they did a lot of collaborative meetings to get everyone up to speed on the design.

“It’s kind of fun to start a project at the beginning, not really being sure it’s possible,” Turner said.

To make the project possible, they needed the right contractor, and eventually found Minnesota-based Ryan Stegora, a certified passive house consultant. He had never done a straw house before but was intrigued by the challenge right away, Schmitt said.

With a design team and builder lined up, they needed to find materials. Turns out there’s an app for that, “Hay Map,” which matches shoppers with local hay and straw providers. They’ll need about 800 “small square” bales for their house. They’ll make the exterior plaster with a mixture of hydraulic lime, sand and water.

Stegora and his crew won’t be the only people working on the project. Jones, Schmitt and their friends will also be contributing their time and labor to the build. They want it to be a bit of a community process.

“I like the idea of family, friends and neighbors being part of our build,” Jones said.

Currently, they are planning to tear down the garage in April and start construction in late July or August.

They are hoping the house will turn into a bit of an exhibit of energy efficiency.

“We’re happy to show what we’ve learned with folks who are wanting to do this,” Jones said.