Minnesota’s first code-approved straw-bale house is super energy-efficient – and wolf-proof.
When their friends heard they were building a straw-bale house, Ken and Laura Geisen were peppered with “Three Little Pigs” jokes. “They asked if we were afraid a wolf will blow it down,” said Laura.
But the straw-bale home they’ve been living in for 16 years is quite solid and safe. That’s because the walls aren’t actually built of straw. The home is a post-and-beam structure with stacked straw bales as insulation, which are encased in stucco.
The house is highly energy-efficient. With walls nearly 2 feet thick and straw’s super insulating qualities, the home’s energy costs are minimal. “It stays cool in the summer and warm in the winter,” said Ken.
The Geisens built the home in 1996, after they moved from northeast Minneapolis to nine wooded acres they bought near North Branch, Minn. They researched straw-bale construction, which originated in the United States in the 1850s, for their new rural retreat.
“When we traveled to New Mexico, we fell in love with the big thick walls of adobe homes,” said Ken. “This has a similar type of look and feel.” They also liked the fact that straw is an environmentally friendly byproduct of farming.
The couple collaborated with Jono Query, owner of III AD, a Minneapolis design-build firm, on the project. Then they enlisted relatives and friends to help stack the 40-pound straw bales, hand-stitch the netting and apply stucco, under Quert’s direction.
“All our friends pitched in, and there was a lot of love in building this house,” said Laura.
After nine months, the completed structure became Minnesota’s first code-approved straw-bale home.
Although a popular building style in the Southwest and West Coast, straw-bale homes have gotten a bad rap in Minnesota, due to inferior construction and moisture problems that resulted in a Minneapolis home being condemned and demolished. The Geisen home is designed to keep moisture out with a traditional asphalt and rubber roof, deep eaves and properly ventilated walls.
Straw-bale construction is a departure from traditional building methods and will take time to catch on, said Ken. “But this home shows that straw-bale construction is viable and works and is good for our environment.”
The stucco and cedar-sided home has elements of Prairie-style architecture with its multiple roof lines, horizontal lines and large picture windows. “The thick walls and deep windows make it feel cozy,” said Laura.
The lodge-like warm wood interiors are highlighted by exposed beams salvaged from Duluth Timber Co. (a supplier of reclaimed wood) and pine siding. An open living room, dining room and kitchen are mostly heated by a Danish Jotul wood stove. The Geisens put in a stained and polished radiant-heat concrete floor — an edgy look for the 1990s. “The open floor plan is great for dinner parties,” said Laura. “We can flow out to the patio when there’s nice weather.”
Ken is a custom cabinetmaker who operates his North Branch business, Woodright Workshop, from the straw-bale barn on the property. He designed and constructed all the cherry and Douglas fir cabinets and space-saving built-in bookshelves and benches. The three-story central stair tower holds a loft with a light-filtering steel grate deck and high clerestory windows.
The stair tower was designed for ventilation but is also a “cool little reading nook,” said Ken. And in case anyone is curious about the unconventional insulation, a “Truth Window” on one wall exposes a straw bale surrounded by poultry netting.
With their daughter heading to college, Ken and Laura are moving back to the city. But they will miss the solitude and privacy of rural life.
“We went from city mice to country mice, and it was great for 16 years,” said Ken.
“Now with our daughter gone, we’re interested in the arts and activities in the Twin Cities — but not the drive,” added Laura.