As the 90-degree temperatures, black roofs and concrete transform Baltimore into a toaster oven, Heather Bathon and Michael Furbish enjoy summer's remnants in a home made cool and quiet by 18-inch walls of tightly baled straw.
And each evening, they can contemplate their garden from a porch sheltered by a roof covered with a living quilt of green plants.
The simple farmhouse, 25 minutes south of the city, is a low-tech response to increasingly high-cost energy problems. Constructed mostly from local and sustainable materials, the Bathon-Furbish home stands as a monument to environmental talk translated into action.
Located near a creek in Anne Arundel County, the two-story house has the appearance of a farmhouse in Provence; although it's less than two years old, it projects a certain timelessness with lime plaster walls that are slowly weathering into stone. Inside the sun-filled great room, the soundproofing creates its own aura of calmness. The home seems both openhearted and welcoming.
"The house is comfortable, informal, relaxing -- like a cottage," says 44-year-old Michael Furbish, a systems engineer for LCM Inc., an architectural millwork company in Baltimore.
"We wanted to build the prototypical box farmhouse, the anti McMansion. But we also wanted to do something that would reduce our impact on the environment," says 40-year-old Bathon, who works as a psychiatric nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Bathon and Furbish are among a growing number of Americans who are incorporating environmental beliefs into the design of their homes. When they decided to construct their exterior walls with straw bales, however, they became local pioneers. They faced skepticism and a barrage of questions from building code inspectors.
In the United States, the straw-bale method was originally used by homesteaders who settled in treeless places, such as certain areas of Nebraska. Although modern straw-bale construction is well understood in western states, Anne Arundel officials needed proof that the county's first straw-bale house was not at greater risk for fire, mildew and insect infestation.
The couple's consulting environmental architect, Sigi Koko, presented documentation.
Properly prepared straw-bale walls are not more prone to fire because the bales' tightly packed nature leaves little room for oxygen. In addition, the walls' plaster and stucco finishes are fire-resistant.
On the matter of insects: Straw, unlike hay, contains no nutritional value and does not attract insects. Builders follow usual procedures for protecting the wood framing of their house against termites.
And moisture? Any trapped water should "wick" out of the interior through its "breathable" plaster walls.
After living 18 months in their straw-bale house, Bathon and Furbish are reaping the rewards of their highly insulated design: Lower heating and air-conditioning bills as well as a lovely stillness occasionally interrupted by their six-month-old daughter Georgia.
The living roof of succulent plants, installed by Emory Knoll Farms in Harford County, does its bit to absorb storm water, improve air quality and keep the house from heating up too much in the scorching summer sun. A rubber membrane covered by sod prevents water from passing through to the underlying roof.
The couple has also installed two composting toilets (in addition to a micro-flush unit that uses only two cups of water per flush.) The composting toilets, which do not use water, direct waste material through plastic pipes into a collecting bin in the basement. When it is time for the waste to be removed -- usually after a couple of months -- it is not only odorless but resembles earth. Bathon uses it in their flower garden.
And despite its fundamental earnestness, the 2,200-square-foot home could pass for something out of Architectural Digest, with its elegant south wall of doors and windows highlighted by an ochre-pigmented wash.
"To me, one of the biggest pluses of straw-bale construction is that the houses are so beautiful," Bathon says. "You get these deeply recessed windows and doors. And the walls are not plain drywall, they have a sensual texture to them. From an aesthetic point of view, these houses can be so satisfying."
Bathon credits her husband, who received his undergraduate degree in industrial engineering, with pushing the construction boundaries of their new home.
"I think that most of us -- myself included -- don't really understand how our houses work. We buy a home knowing that it's pretty or that it needs a new roof or whatever. Michael has a background in systems engineering and wanted to understand how the whole house worked. He wanted to know things like where the wood was coming from and where the concrete was coming from. He wanted to build a house that reduced the number of extraneous technological systems. That, coupled with environmental concerns, is what led us here," she says.
Many people are excited about straw bales' potential for energy efficiency, says Koko, whose business, Down to Earth, is based in Arlington, Va.
"The R value (a measure of insulation) of a normal new house in this area is 13. Super-insulated would be considered 19. But we're talking R 42 with straw-bale. And on top of that, you typically plaster each side of the walls with an inch and a quarter of material that itself becomes a thermal mass and stores the energy."
One of Koko's clients, Lee Campbell, says she has been living in a house in Cockeysville whose most environmentally sensitive feature is a bird feeder. Now Campbell is ready to break ground on an L-shaped straw- bale rancher in Monkton. Her new home will employ a geothermal heating system that uses the constant temperature of the ground (below frost depth) to pre-heat or cool the heating ventilation air conditioning system. Placing many windows along the home's south wall -- an orientation known as passive solar -- will take advantage of the winter sun. The wood framing will include recycled beams from a Pennsylvania barn.
"I'm not so altruistic as to believe my little house is going to make a huge impact, but I believe that the more we can do to protect our planet, to live more sustainably, the better off we're going to be," says Campbell, a sales assistant at Systems Source, a computer network integrating company. "The more people become aware of this sort of construction and building materials, the more you're going to see things like this."
Life inside the Bathon-Furbish home is far from rustic: A curbstone fireplace mantel and faux tiger skin couch speak of time spent haunting salvage centers and home stores. A huge and handsome painting of chickens by Baltimore artist Raisa Snyder picks up the warm earth tones of the walls. Most definitely a 21st-century home with cable television, computers and a baby swing, the house seems only to lack a dishwasher. But in the Bathon-Furbish world, that appliance would be redundant because they rinse the food off their plates anyway.
One of the features Heather Bathon appreciates most is the heating that radiates up from tubes built into the concrete floor.
"When it's warm, it provides a very even, pervasive, gentle heat," she says. "We used to live in a rowhouse in Federal Hill and when you turned on the heat, you'd get big blasts of hot air and pockets of cold. With this system, you don't feel as if the heat is on."
And because of the home's thick insulation, the house remains warm for a longer time.
Tallying the expenses
For construction, the couple used roughly 850 bales of local wheat straw (selected for dryness and tight baling) to in-fill a poplar-post-and-beam structure. The bales were arranged as you might lay a course of bricks and pinned with locally harvested bamboo poles.
Furbish says the most important aspect of the straw-bale process is creating the skin that holds it all together. And while bales are inexpensive, plastering around them is time-consuming.
"What we did here is very labor-intensive," he says. "Before you put the lime plaster on the outside of the house, for instance, you can start slaking the lime (soaking it in water) months in advance."
The most challenging part of the process for Bathon was playing host to some of their work force. New York craftsman Gabe Schaftlein and several helpers stayed with the couple for four months while they plastered the inner and outer walls. Over the years, the exterior walls will slowly turn back into limestone.
When all the bills were in, Furbish figures their three-bedroom, three-bathroom, finished basement house cost around $200,000 at $90 to $95 a square foot. (Construction on a new, "decently-outfitted" home in Anne Arundel county runs about $100 a square foot, according to Michael De Stefano, president of Sturbridge Homes.)
And what do the neighbors think?
The waterside community near Gibson Island presents a mixture of architectural styles in its traditional homes and cottages. The Bathon-Furbish house stands on a spacious wooded lot that partially obscures the properties to either side. Their porch overlooks vegetable and flower gardens, a field for their two dogs to explore and a shed that shelters chickens and a peacock.
"We have the buffer of some land about us, so we're not really in anybody's face," Bathon says. "The neighbors are really terrific. Whether this house is to their taste or not -- and for some it probably isn't -- they've been really supportive."
Now the couple is moving slowly on to other projects, such as building a terrace that incorporates recycled curbstones from Baltimore.
"When we set out, we only knew that we wanted to explore what it really meant to build a house -- and to do it in a responsible fashion," Furbish says. "I guess what has surprised me the most is the degree to which all of this has resonated with me. The systems we've used are fairly simple and not redundant. In this home, things happen in a gentle fashion."
Growing concept in housing
Although it is unlikely you will drive past a straw-bale building in the Baltimore area, green roof technology has arrived.
For the past decade, Germany and other European countries have promoted the planting of hardy grasses, sedums and even wildflowers on the flat roofs of new industrial and municipal buildings, because of the plants' ability to help control storm run-off.
The notion is beginning to gain interest in North America as well. A section of Chicago's City Hall is now covered in green, an investment which news accounts claim has saved taxpayers $5,000 in air-conditioning costs. Montgomery Park, the redesigned Montgomery Ward Co building in southwest Baltimore, sports two green roofs. Anne Arundel County's new police station will use a green roof as well.
Why are builders choosing green?
Detaining storm water runoff, improving air quality, insulating buildings against scorching summer temperatures and serving as a habitat for migrating birds and butterflies, advocates say. In addition, this technology creates aesthetically soothing green spaces.
Some of these benefits are now being independently researched on green roof structures at the Center for Green Roof Research at Penn State. The goal is to create reliable -- and reproducible -- statistics concerning this technology, says David Beattie, the center's director.
Although the center has existed officially for less than a year, its research into green roofs is almost five years old. Data should be available next spring.
Beattie has already made some observations. There were many days this summer when the temperature on the surface of a blacktop building approached 180 degrees, he says. If that surface were entirely vegetated, however, the rooftop temperature would be sliced almost in half.
"If it were a 95-degree day, the surface of a green roof would be at, or slightly lower than, 95 degrees."
And what about storm runoff on a green roof?
"If you get a small rain -- say a quarter of an inch -- there may be no runoff at all," he says. "If there is more water, it is detained and released very slowly. So if you had a thunderstorm at 2 o'clock, maybe the water wouldn't start exiting the roof until 3 o'clock and then it would dribble, dribble, dribble for the rest of the night, entering the storm water system gradually."
Green roofs are more expensive than traditional roofs. Because they are also heavier, they require supervision and installation; building one on an existing family home might call for extra structural support. The technology is most commonly used on flat roofs.
For more information on green roofs and other environmentally-conscious construction processes, try:
* Center for Green Roof Research at Penn State at http: / /
hortweb.cas.psu.edu / research /
* Emory Knoll Farms at www.greenroofplants.com
* Smart Communities Network, a project of the U.S. Department of Energy, at www.sustainable.doe.gov
* Sustainable Sources at www.greenbuilder.com
* Down to Earth at www.buildnaturally.com