Built with straw bales, a Mount Desert Island home is practical, energy efficient, and beautiful.
By Joel Crabtree
Photographed by Jared Kuzia
From our February 2017 issue
Meredith Randolph broke the news to her new husband, Douglas Foster, after they purchased a plot of land nestled in the woods of Somesville: she wanted to build their house out of straw.
Specifically, Randolph had her heart set on straw-bale construction, which uses an agricultural byproduct to achieve superior insulation and save money on materials and labor. Foster “didn’t really get it,” Randolph recalls, but he supported her vision, so she got to work. The result: a rustic, yet elegant 1½-story timber-frame house with stucco siding and plaster walls. Packed inside the thick walls are straw bales bound tightly in chicken wire and stacked like Legos (the wire helps hold the plaster and stucco). Don’t believe it? Wooden doors on the living room’s “truth window” open to reveal hay pressed up against the glass.
Straw-bale construction is relatively easy, which makes it appealing to DIYers like Randolph. The owner of Four Winds, a sustainable-building design firm, she designed the house, then had Arundel construction firm Structures of Straw build the timber frame and bale walls. “I did most of the work after that,” she says, including the plastering and the plumbing and electric installations.
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Getting the house to move-in condition took roughly a year, which had an upside: Randolph was able to mull options in a way that isn’t always possible when she’s working on a client’s home. For example, she came across a good deal on a stone sink, a bargain she likely would have missed if she’d been on a tighter schedule. “We lived on plywood floors for four years,” she adds,“because I wanted a wood that was fairly local and had a certain look.”
Committed to an open floor plan, she and Foster forwent overhead cupboards, so the kitchen flows into the living space. All the appliances, like the European washer and heat-pump dryer set, are energy efficient, and floors have radiant heat.
The straw bales keep the house warm in winter, cool in summer, and quiet year-round. The all-natural construction materials emit fewer toxins than a traditional home, if any. Straw bales also contribute to the house’s aesthetic: Because the walls are thick, for example, every window has a wide shelf. And the plaster, which is necessary to protect the bales from moisture, lends a texture and warmth that’s nearly impossible to achieve with drywall.
Hanging above the fridge is a sign that reads “simplify,” a reflection of Meredith’s philosophy in design — and in life. The house isn’t quite a net-zero building, but it’s close, and Randolph and Foster keep their wooded 3 acres as close to a natural state as possible. “It’s an ongoing balance to be happy with the landscape design,” she says, “and not be any more destructive than we’ve already been.”