Straw house among North County stops on Green Homes Tour

Straw house among North County stops on Green Homes Tour
Eloise and Miles Wakeman show off their Solana Beach house made of straw. For the wood beams, bark was removed by hand from trees taken as part of a necessary thinning from a forest where their late mom spent childhood summers. Courtesy photo

COAST CITIES — Building a house of straw proved futile and almost fatal for one little pig, but a Solana Beach resident found it is the perfect product for a sustainable home.

“It provides phenomenal insulation and the carbon footprint is low so it makes for a very ecological material,” Chris Wakeman said. “It’s sound-insulating because it’s thick.”

Another bonus, he added, is that “it has no nutritional value so termites aren’t interested in it.”

Wakeman’s straw-bale residence is one of three North County houses on the San Diego Green Building Council’s eighth annual Green Homes Tour, which runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 22.

When completed, hopefully by December after nearly three years of construction, the 1,500-square-foot house will include a variety of sustainable features.

They include passive solar orientation and distributed thermal mass for comfortable year-round living, a photovoltaic solar array, rainwater catchment, greywater reuse and natural and nontoxic building materials.

“My approach was to keep it simple,” the electronics engineer said. “I don’t believe in throwing technology after technology after technology. Just look at what people were doing thousands of years ago when they didn’t have fossil fuels to abuse.”

For example, he said, tall buildings with floor-to-ceiling glass walls look modern but have no regard to the effects of the sun because air conditioning prevents them from becoming “roasting huts.”

He oriented his home to take full advantage of the sun. South-facing windows are glazed with a high solar heat gain coefficient that allows the winter sun to provide warmth. An exterior overhang blocks the summer sun, and east- and west-facing windows have minimal glazing because the sun is close to the horizon at sunrise and sunset regardless of the time of year.

As for the straw, it is nontoxic and sound-absorbing, has a better fire rating than stucco and requires less lumber for construction, Wakeman said.

It also replaces the use of carbon dioxide intensive materials such as concrete, gypsum and paint.

Additionally, he said, most straw is unwanted so it is burned. Using it as a building material sequesters the carbon dioxide that is released during that process.

Because clay can absorb and retain water, it is mixed with sand and chopped straw to make the plaster. Wakeman said that is the most complicated step because it must be applied by hand and requires three coats, using differing ratios of clay, sand and straw.

Wakeman and his late wife, Emily, bought the Solana Beach property in 2012 with plans to build an environmentally friendly home next to an existing 1948 beach cottage, where he lives with his children.

He said the added expense of sustainable features is not an issue.

“I’m passionate about the environment,” he said. “Yes, it costs a lot more to build but at the same time you’re educating a lot of people about something new.”

Students from Skyline Elementary School toured the home on a field trip, as did 15 Solana Beach firefighters.

Wakeman’s attention to detail has slowed the process somewhat. He learned a forest in Washington state, where his wife spent childhood summers, needed thinning, so he had 76 trees removed and sent to San Diego to be used for ceiling beams.

“We hand peeled the bark off,” he said.

But life more than anything else is probably why construction has taken so long.

“(B)eing a single parent with two very young children does not allow me to be on a tight schedule,” he wrote on a website he created for the project. “It happens when it happens and my goal, as was Emily’s, is to enjoy the process rather than rush it to meet some artificial schedule.”

Also on the tour in Solana Beach is the Sumer residence, a gut remodel of a single-family home that earned the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, Platinum certification for its commitment to lowering environmental impact.

Green features include drought-tolerant and native plants, greywater and rainwater catchment systems, recycled and locally sourced materials and significant reuse of the original framing lumber.

In Encinitas, Antje Heinz’s remodeled home, known as “Neuhaus,” was designed to be healthy and sustainable with lifecycle-assessed materials and energy- and water-conscious features throughout.

Before starting the project in June 2015, Heinz said, she had the existing structure deconstructed rather than demolished.

“We carefully took it apart and distributed the pieces to building projects in Mexico and Los Angeles,” she said. “We didn’t fill up a landfill.”

The exterior cladding is a durable, environmentally friendly alternative to wood that does not fade over time, absorb moisture or allow pest infestations. It is a fiber-reinforced, hybrid material made of approximately 60 percent rice husks, 22 percent common salt and 18 percent mineral oil.

A metal roof over the deck is made from recycled glass. Like the straw-bale home, Neuhaus is all electric.

Additional features include drought-tolerant landscaping, a water-efficient irrigation system and tables and benches made from an Aleppo pine on the property that needed to be removed.

“I’m very passionate about sustainability,” Heinz said. “I don’t think it added time to the building but if it did I wouldn’t have cared. That wasn’t on the top of my priority list.”

The Green Homes Tour, which celebrates best practices in green building and design, includes seven other residences throughout the county.

On the self-guided tour, attendees can visit as many of the homes as they like, meet with industry professionals and homeowners and learn more about the latest green home design, construction and upgrade options.

Tickets are available at http://usgbc-sd.org/event-2547926. The cost is $5 for students, $10 for San Diego Green Building Council members and $15 for all others. Children younger than 18 are free.

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