This straw home just might withstand the big bad wolf

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2003

PALMER (AP) Anyone who has ever read ''The Three Little Pigs'' knows you had better not build your house out of straw.

But don't tell that to Jim Sykes. A media producer, citizen rights advocate and former gubernatorial candidate, Sykes and his family have been living comfortably in their self-built straw bale home near Palmer for more than four years.

The two-story, 2,400-square foot home is anchored on concrete-filled tubes. The frame is hewn from Alaska-grown wood, and the walls are, well, made out of about 350 bales of straw.

You can't see the straw; it's all bound up in chicken wire and the walls are covered with a layer of stucco cement. And you don't hear too much when inside.

''It's a very quiet house,'' Sykes said. The walls are 18 inches thick with a rated insulation value of R-57, he said. The home is heated with a woodstove in winter, with propane heat ''for back-up,'' Sykes said. A greenhouse built into the south corner of the home provides additional solar heating. He said he traded some heating efficiency for views.

''We're up at a pretty high altitude and have a tremendous view, and light is very important to us. We've got 38 windows, that are triple-paned and filled with argon gas,'' he said.

Sykes installed a solar-cell system that provides all the home's electrical needs during much of the year, he said.

During summer months, the system employs a tracker to follow the path of the sun with an array of six 120-watt solar panels. During winter, the system gives way to other, more traditional technology.

''We use a small generator from about Thanksgiving to Valentine's Day,'' he said. But it only takes about three to three and a half hours a day to charge the battery bank.''

''We have a freezer but not a refrigerator, we don't use a dishwasher, and we have a washing machine but no dryer,'' he said.

There also is a wind turbine on a tower, but it has not lived up to its potential. ''We're in a wind shadow here. We don't get the winds like they do down in the valley,'' he said.

The local electric utility lines come within a half-mile of the property, Sykes said. ''But they wanted $47,000 to hook me up. I don't have an extra $47,000 laying around.''

Sykes said he was considering using other materials logs, perhaps to build a home on his 40-acre hay farm on Lazy Mountain. But after looking at the resources available, he cut a deal with a neighboring farmer to trade three years worth of harvest from his land for 500 bales of straw the farmer had on hand.

Sykes said he traveled to Colorado and Homer to work with other straw and hay bale builders and train with professional stucco workers. Sykes and his wife Cindy began construction on Lazy Mountain in 1997, finished most of the work in the summer and fall of 1998 and moved into the home the following year.

''A lot of people wouldn't go through the hassle,'' of building and maintaining a straw bale house, Sykes said. And he said it wasn't exactly cheap. ''It doesn't cost less than building a regular stick and frame house,'' he said.

Sykes estimated that he has spent about $100,000 on construction, and there is more to come. ''It will be at least another decade, finishing this thing off. It's like the old Chinese proverb 'house finished, life over,''' he said.

The home is earth-friendly, and Sykes recommends the method to potential homebuilders.

''There is a lot of straw up in Glennallen and here in the valley. I think that people can do a lot towards using local materials that are good for the economy and kind to the environment,'' he said.

He said the structure is more fire-resistant than a conventional home; the straw is so tightly packed and covered that he doesn't worry about fire. ''It won't burn. It might smolder for years, though,'' he joked.

The house has gone through a couple of earthquakes. ''There were a few small cracks. Stucco is prone to cracking, but it's easy to fix,'' he said.

And, if he gets bored with the interior design, Sykes said changes are easy to make. ''You can sculpt it. One of our friends said we are living in an art project.''

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