Hay Is for Horses, Straw Is for Houses

Hay Is for Horses, Straw Is for Houses

By Amara Holstein
In the Napa Valley, one sustainable residence elegantly demonstrates straw bale technology.

There’s something about the California wine country that brings out the faux Italianate in architecture. Ornate villas sprawl across the landscape, greeting passersby with cornices, columns, and terra cotta. Embossed motifs of grapes and twisted vines are everywhere, from deli napkins to bedspreads at Best Westerns. "Even the planning codes push you toward earth tones," architect Henry Siegel, of Bay Area firm Siegel & Strain Architects, explains. "The whole Tuscan color scheme of yellow and russet has gone all the way down to the low-rent shopping centers."

The blurring of boundaries between outside and inside encourages the Siegel/Subbotin family to enjoy the temperate climate year-round. "My favorite thing to do at the house is to sit in the dogtrot and read," Kyra Subbotin says.

Not looking to replicate this bottled-and-corked theme in his family’s Dry Creek Valley weekend home, Siegel instead turned to his Tennessee roots for inspiration. "The whole reason I got interested in architecture was because I always liked farm buildings and very simple linear structures," he says. His inclination toward clean lines, combined with a passion for sustainable design, resulted in the long and lean 1,200-square-foot house that sits on a two-and-half-acre plot just a short drive from Healdsburg, one of Sonoma County’s wine meccas.

Though visible elements of green design are found throughout the residence—from the recycled-glass and concrete countertops to the energy-efficient appliances—the straw bale that’s cleverly packed to make two-foot-thick walls is perhaps Siegel’s favored sustainable solution.

A waste product that’s typically burned in the fields after the harvest, straw both acts as an excellent insulator and reduces the amount of wood used in construction. For Siegel and Subbotin, the act of packing the straw into the walls was the perfect excuse for a party. "After the house was framed, it came time to put the straw bales between the framing," Subbotin says. "So we invited a bunch of friends, brought food and coffee, and everyone got to work and did it."

Over 90 percent of the baling (described by Siegel as "the modern-day experience of a barn raising") was done in that one day. Easily inserted into the post-and-beam frame, the bales were cut to size, tied, and literally stacked within the walls of the house.

Firmly believing that buildings should provide little disruption to their surroundings, Siegel sited the house into the contours of the hillside and, in the course of construction, only uprooted one tree from the many oaks, firs, and bays that dot the property. Setting the house as he did also preserved the east-facing meadow that rolls out beneath the house and provides panoramic views of the valley below.

Ever aware of context, architect Henry Siegel says of his house, "A lot of architects’ buildings look better on a pedestal than in context. Our design would look out of place on a pedestal—we placed it so it really fits its specific site."

With temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in the summer, energy-efficient climate control was central to the design. Passive solar construction was impractical, since the hills blocked the sun from the west and the south, so an imaginative combination of elements keeps the house comfortable most of the year. "Once you eliminate passive solar on this site," Siegel states, "then the most important thing—because air-conditioning is more expensive and more damaging to the environment than heating—is heat avoidance."

With temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in the summer, energy-efficient climate control was central to the design.

All the double-glazed windows in the house are therefore well shaded, and straw bale insulation also helps keep the house cool, as do the concrete floors (mixed with fly ash) and stucco walls. The dogtrot under the gabled roof that separates the living and sleeping areas provides excellent ventilation— as well as a nice place to read.

In the winter, radiant heating keeps the house cozy while reducing the costs and the pollutants associated with traditional forced air.

But with two young children (ages six and ten), sometimes gentle breezes and valley views aren’t enough to mitigate the heat. On those days, the private outdoor shower in the back of the house becomes a modern-day Slip ’n Slide. "On hot days, the kids get naked and turn on the shower and just dance around the back patio," Siegel’s wife, attorney Kyra Subbotin, says with a laugh. "We don’t have a pool, and when it gets really hot, water is much appreciated." 

In the winter, radiant heating keeps the house cozy while reducing the costs and the pollutants associated with traditional forced air. The family dog, Louie, can attest to its efficacy, as Subbotin explains: "You can always tell where the warmest pieces of the pipe are because our dog will be lying on it." In order to conserve additional water and energy, the same water heater used for household bathing and chores doubles as the heater for the radiant floors.

A little over an hour from their primary residence in Berkeley, this quiet gray house has become the perfect weekend getaway for the Siegel/Subbotin family—and a place to escape the endless meetings and obligations that accompany life in an urban area. "We don’t have a TV. We play a lot of board games, and we read and take hikes—all the simple pleasures," says Subbotin. "We use the house as often as we can." 


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