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GSBN: Digest for 5/10/03

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-> "Mold was the last straw for this 'innovative' house"
     by Mark Piepkorn duckchow@...


Date: 10 May 2003 18:03:36 -0500
From: Mark Piepkorn duckchow@...
Subject: "Mold was the last straw for this 'innovative' house"

This black eye for SB has been long in coming--and to be frank, I'm glad it 
finally got here. Who was it that first said, "Bales aren't magic"? Linda 
Chapman? Yakwoman? Kim Thompson? I seem to remember it coming from a 
woman's voice. But maybe it was Matts.

(When I still lived in Minnesota, I met with these Community EcoDesign 
Network people once, about two years before they did the doomed project 
discussed below. They already scared me then, and that was when I knew even 
less about strawbale than I do now. Rob Tom, who has always been 
charitable--if occasionally crotchety--once suggested to me that they 
"might be doing good work in spite of themselves." I think he meant 
philosophical work rather than physical work; but unfortunately, neither 
seems to have been very good in the end.)

(Joyce, Chris--ten hut! This is TLS fodder!)

(I would post this to the CREST list if I could. Their software evidently 
hates me, or maybe all people like me. Anyway, if anybody else wants to, 

- - - - - -

"Mold was the last straw for this 'innovative' house"

Steve Brandt, Star Tribune

Published May 10, 2003

What makes it heartbreaking, people say, is how eagerly Sherri Simmons 
looked forward to moving into the new farmhouse-style house just off Lake 
Street in Minneapolis.

"I've been excited from beginning to end," she said in 1998 as the house 
neared completion.

This was no ordinary house. It was a house stuffed with straw -- in the 
walls, in the foundation, and, under the original plans, in the attic.

The nonprofit developers boasted that the house was only the third straw- 
insulated house erected under the Minnesota building code. They touted it 
as a groundbreaker for sustainable and affordable construction.

Then the straw began to rot.

Simmons no longer lives in the house because it no longer exists. It was 
condemned by the city and demolished last year.

All that's left is her mortgage and a junk-strewn vacant lot. She still 
owes at least $60,000.

Some see the disappearance of 3128 5th Av. S. as a cautionary tale about 
trying too many innovative technologies at once. Straw insulation was only 
one in a grab bag of techniques billed as innovations in the 
1,300-square-foot house.

"It just became so Rube Goldbergish that I questioned it even before 
construction started," said Dean Zimmermann, a contractor who had 
unsuccessfully bid to build the house. He is now a City Council member.

House plans

Two Minneapolis nonprofit agencies, Southside Neighborhood Housing Services 
and the Community Eco-Design Network, teamed up in the mid- 1990s and 
worked together on the straw-bale house.

Eco-Design co-founders Eric Hart and Rick Peterson said they could deliver 
a house with prefabricated modular construction for less cost than standard 
city-subsidized housing.

Their system included insulating straw bales stacked inside a post-and-beam 
frame. Instead of a basement, a slab of concrete was poured over additional 

All that straw kept the house warm with only a water heater circulating 
water through the flooring. On the outside, the house was encased in 
prefabricated stucco siding panels and topped off with a metal roof.

Southside had a 20-year record of providing loans and grants to people with 
moderate or lower incomes to buy and renovate housing. It acted as the 
house's developer, while Eco-Design's role was winning plan approval, 
handling bidding and managing construction.

One preconstruction budget for the project totaled $91,000, but the house 
ended up costing more than $200,000, Hart said. The state contributed 
$20,000, and other nonprofits committed more. Southside absorbed the brunt 
of the costs, selling the house to Simmons for $83,000.

The project was unusual enough that Don Olson, who reviews building plans 
for the city, required an architect and a structural engineer to sign off 
on the plans. Peterson, the architect, and W.T. McCally, the structural 
engineer, did so.

Disagreement still exists over just what went wrong.

Some blame the design; others mention the low quality of work done by 
volunteers who worked on the job.

Construction began in 1998 and dragged on for months. Visitors recall 
seeing power tools being charged with solar cells, and rain soaking into 
straw bales. Jim Buesing said he had a gut feeling that although the crew 
was strong on enthusiasm, there were complications from weaving together 
alternate building techniques.

"I've been around the alternative movement enough to know that what they 
were trying to do was beyond their capacity," said Buesing, who leads a 
nonprofit housing agency that contributed a small amount of money.

There were signs that the project was running out of funds. Volunteer 
workers helped to cut costs.

"When you have volunteers involved, you're not necessarily going to have 
quality construction," said Shawn Young, who worked on the house early on.

According to Southside's director, Earl Rogers, there were personality 
clashes, too, especially when architect Peterson took over after the 
contractor reduced his role in the project.

"He just alienated everybody," Rogers said. Peterson championed the prefab 
siding panels. but others found them unwieldy, brittle and in need of more 

Disagreement, debt

Simmons fit the Southside criterion of earning less than half of the 
region's median income when she and her two children moved in. She was a 
graduate of Southside's homebuyer education program. She started a day-care 
business, soon buying several houses, including one next door, for her 

Everyone involved agrees that the beginning of the end started when the 
straw began to mold.

But they disagree over how it got damp. Some point to uncovered bales 
during construction. Some say the roof overhang didn't offer enough 
protection. Rogers blamed a lack of roof flashing and poorly sealed vents 
and siding panels. Peterson said the cause was that the attic wasn't filled 
with bales and was improperly ventilated.

A lack of straw in the attic meant that warm interior air condensed against 
the metal roof, he said, ran down the underside and dripped onto the straw.

Southside hired a contractor to fix the problems. The bales were pulled out 
and were to be replaced with other insulation.

But then the city stepped in. Connie Fournier, a city inspections manager, 
said that without the straw and exterior paneling, the house swayed in the 
wind. It shifted enough that a sliding door no longer opened.

Peterson insisted that the straw served merely as insulation and played no 
structural role. But an inspector condemned the building, citing structural 
hazards and ordering changes to the foundation, walls and joists.

Still, condemnation didn't seal the house's fate. Southside could have made 
the repairs. But Rogers said Southside didn't have enough money.

In 2000, a state audit had severely criticized Southside's handling of more 
than $1.1 million in public money. And the builders' warranty insurer 
refused to pay out, saying it didn't cover experimental houses.

"It's very distressing to the organization that it took two years to build 
and it didn't last," said Walt Gutzmer, a Southside board member who lives 
down the alley.

So the house came down last spring. Simmons lived for a time in the house 
next-door, which she had bought for her day care center. She has since 
moved on and didn't return repeated calls for this story.

But she remains on the hook for six mortgages on the property. The biggest 
was for a $66,400 loan made by U.S. Bank. Rogers said some parties to the 
financing are trying to work out debt relief for Simmons, but multiple 
target dates for wrapping up a deal have come and gone.

Rogers said Simmons continued payments on the house even after demolition, 
until settlement talks began.

A lack of closure for the failed venture has had other consequences for 
Southside. A sister agency in north Minneapolis has been discussing 
assuming administrative control over troubled Southside but doesn't want to 
assume its obligations. The straw house is one issue holding up the takeover.

Meanwhile, architect Peterson of Eco-Design indicated that he was unaware 
of the house's demise until contacted by a reporter.

"I spent a whole year on this house and I didn't make anything on it," he 
said. "It really hurts me to know it's demolished."

Steve Brandt is at 612-673-4438 or sbrandt@...


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