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Re: GSBN:"Mold was the last straw for this 'innovative' house"

I visited this house while under construction, in the summer of 1998, and was dismayed by what I found there. Construction was proceeding everywhere at once, though only a couple of people were on site. Bits of scaffolding were leaning at odd angles at various locations around the building. Some tools were upside down. I recall resisting the rising feeling that the people in charge were insane.

I was specifically concerned that the bales were completely unsealed. On the interior, they were set against a poly vapor barrier. On the exterior, they were covered by these odd precast stucco panels, which were minimally attached to the structure. The joints between the panels were "sealed" with some kind of rope. There was alot of talk (lecturing, really, with a distinct missionary edge) of low-cost details. I was trying to keep my head above the waves of disorientation, grasping at flotsam, of which there was plenty. At one point we floated over to a window, to examine the low-cost solution to the usually labor-intensive job of plastering the return. What I found there was a piece of foam with a skim coat of plaster applied directly. The plaster was so thin that over much of the surface, I could see the pink color of the foam peeking through. I asked about the finish coat material, and was informed that there was to be no finish coat; this was it. This piece of foam was my psychological liferaft- I finally understood that low-cost, in this case, meant cheaply and poorly made. I left as quickly as I could, because there was clearly nothing I could say that would change the course of this project.

Now, if someone had asked me how long this house was going to last, I would have said something along the lines of "less than 30 years, for sure." I would never have guessed that 5 years later, it would be gone. Straw is not only not magic; among building materials, it's unusually susceptible to damage by water.

So far this season, I have been called in for diagnosis of water damage in 4 bale houses built way back in the last millennium; less than ten years ago. There was one roof leak, one burst pipe, one serious design flaw which allowed massive exfiltration and subsequent wetting at the top of the wall, and one which I haven't figured out yet. This might be educational work, but it's not very enjoyable. We also have one project from this era which I think has a persistent smell of damp straw, though the owners claim otherwise. I had kind of stopped worrying about it, but it may be time to start again....



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, g'head.)

- - - - -

"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 bales.

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 testing.

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 enterprise.

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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