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RC&D Grant Program Promotes Affordable, Efficient Straw-Bale Houses

(From left) Richard Lorenz, Lisa Ruller, Tom ArthThe "Big Bad Wolf"jokes don't bother the 10 people in the southern Missouri counties served by the Top of the Ozarks Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) office who received grants to construct straw-bale houses.

For them, the $15,000 grants they received through the RC&D council are welcome assistance for constructing solid, inexpensive, quiet, safe, energy efficient homes that utilize a product that is readily available from Missouri farmers.

Lisa Ruller, coordinator of the Top of the Ozarks RC&D office that serves 10 counties in south-central Missouri, says the RC&D council was excited to have the opportunity to promote the alternative houses. The grants are available to people living in Douglas, Ozark, Texas, Dent, Shannon, Wright, Howell and Oregon counties. Ruller says funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development supports 10 grants, as well as the salary, travel and equipment expenses of a straw-bale house coordinator. The project ends in June, but Ruller says she is hoping to receive a second grant to fund six more houses.

"Straw-bale houses are an affordable housing option for people in this area," Ruller says. "The grants provide incentive for people to build them. Then we hope that other people will see the houses and view them as options, especially when they realize that their heating bills would be a lot less."

Richard Lorenz, the RC&D's straw bale technical specialist, is a former builder of log homes in Colorado who moved to Missouri in 2004. He was selling real estate when he was selected by the Top of the Ozarks RC&D to manage the straw-bale program. In that role he promotes the program, reviews applications and helps grant recipients with technical aspects of building straw-bale houses.

"I always kind of looked down on straw-bale houses, but I did some research and it changed my mind," Lorenz says. "Now I'm planning on building a straw-bale house on my property at Mansfield when this program is over.

"If straw-bale houses are put up right, I don't know what you can compare them to in terms of efficiency, longevity and in terms of being sound proof."Nancy deBodgen�s straw-bale house under construction

Lorenz says that ignorance is the biggest obstacle to overcome in promoting straw-bale houses, which have outside walls of straw bales enclosed in plaster. He says people think they are fire hazards or that the straw will rot. However, Lorenz says straw-bale houses last longer and are less susceptible to fire than conventional houses. He cites New Mexico and Arizona, where straw-bale houses are more common, as examples of places where insurance is cheaper for straw-bale houses than it is for conventional houses because of their track record of being less of a fire hazard.

Even so, Lorenz says that some of the grant recipients he has worked with have had a hard time getting loans and insurance from local companies because of their lack of knowledge about the houses.

"The bankers and insurance company people think these things are just straw bales and you stick a roof on top. But these are framed houses; the straw just insulates them," Lorenz says.

"Burning one of these things would be like setting fire to a phone book," says Tom Arth, a grant recipient who is building a straw-bale house at Caulfield.

By doing most of the work himself, Arth figures to be able to construct his 800-square-foot  house without needing much more than the $15,000 provided by the grant. And since the straw bales provide about R-50-factor insulation, he says it won"t cost much to heat it.

Travis Bentley, of El Martha, plans to build a simple house with his grant money. He says that once people get used to the idea of straw-bale houses, they could make housing available to people who otherwise might not be able to afford a house.

"I would like to see people be able to get affordable housing," he says. He adds that the grant program is key to getting the straw-bale-house idea planted. "Without the grant, I don't think you would see them," Bentley says. "They are not native to our area, and people are often afraid to try new things."

Gretchen Boisse says she and her husband also plan to construct their 750-square-foot straw-bale home for little more than the $15,000 on their property near Ava. They are keeping costs down by using used materials and by doing the work themselves.

"You can build one of these homes yourself for that amount if you put a year of your life into it," she says.

Boisse says the couple had purchased their property several years ago and had been considering building a straw-bale house there.

"We had been thinking about it for seven years, and the grant reconfirmed that it was the right thing to do," she says.

On the other end of the spectrum, Nancy deBodgen is building a 2,600-square-foot, straw-bale home near Ava. Unlike the others, deBodgen is even using straw bales for insulation in interior walls. That's because she is dividing the house into separate apartments one to be used by a son who likes to play music late into the night, and the other by a son who is an early riser and likes things quiet.

"When the boys were deciding to move down here, I saw the information that (Lorenz) put out about the grants, and I said 'that's it.'" She says.

deBodgen's house is multi-level and features one side that is almost all windows. There are no straw bales used on that side, but 680 bales are incorporated elsewhere. In addition to the sound protection offered by the straw bales, deBodgen, an artist, likes other attributes, too.

"I just love how they look," she says. "I love the feeling and the idea of the warmth."

Though not part of the grant program, D.L. Vickerman, a chiropractic physician, and his wife Carol have lived in a straw-bale home near Cabool for almost 10 years. Dr. Vickerman says it requires only about 450 gallons of propane to heat their 1,200-square-foot home for a year, using a 30,000-BTU, ventless heater.

Carol says the couple wanted a home that was non-toxic, and decided on straw bales after also researching tire, cob, earth contact and cord-wood homes.

"We decided that this was something we could do," she says. "This feels like it has good energy to me. And it is so quiet. People drive up all the time and until they come to the door, we don't know they're here."

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