OAKLAND - Bonnie and Don Winters aren't counterculture holdovers from the 1960s even though they live peacefully on 4 wooded acres in a tiny house made of straw.
The 20-by-25-foot unconventional white stucco house has walls made of wheat straw bales. The couple stacked and bound together the bales with twine and bamboo when they built the house themselves during the summers of 2000 and 2001.
"We just wanted to try it," Bonnie Winters said.
The couple wanted a home that would be energy efficient and environmentally friendly. They chose the straw-bale style in part to cut down on their heating and cooling bills - they said they now pay $49 every two months for gas and electric.
The idea for the home began in 1999 when the were considering some lifestyle changes. A Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, Don Winters, 57, began receiving disability income. Bonnie, 55, a technical writer, could work from home anywhere.
They figured they had two options. One was to spend a lot of money to improve their brick, two-story house in a middle-income Pittsburgh neighborhood. The other was to build an environmentally friendly house on property they had bought during a Garrett camping trip.
Choosing the latter, they sold the brick house and began their adventure as first-time homebuilders.
The Winterses had paid $19,900 for the lot in a private residential enclave called Tanglewood. They spent another $50,000 to build the straw bale cottage.
The house includes a floor radiant- heating system beneath a Vermont slate floor. It also has on-demand hot water and a kitchen and bathroom, which are equipped with compact and energy-saving appliances the couple bought through catalogs from Sweden and Denmark.
Jim Torrington, Garrett County building permits and inspections coordinator, said the home did not require any special building permits. In terms of fire safety, the county required that the straw be covered - the Winterses chose plaster. The house also has smoke detectors and egress windows.
The house faces south, with large glass windows for maximum solar gain in the winter. Because of the use of natural materials - including posts made from oaks on the property - the house has a gentle, organic flow to it. Corners are round; tiny crevices serve as shelves; and a window seat holds storage drawers. This fall, the Winterses plan to add a wood-frame atrium that will connect the house to a future addition that will include straw bales as well.
"We need more livable space," Bonnie Winters said, "especially an extra bedroom and bath for guests."
To build the house, the Winters enlisted the help of their son, Ian, who is a building contractor and director of the Northern California Land Trust. During the spring of 1999, the three headed to Canelo, Ariz., where Athena and Bill Steen, straw bale shelter gurus, were conducting hands-on workshops on straw bale construction.
There, the Winterses learned the basics of raising walls and mixing straw-clay filler and different plasters and paints.
"They've been so much happier living in this house," Ian Winters said. "There is so much freedom being in a small building, especially when it can be built out of pocket. You own a house that's comfortable and cozy and you don't owe anything on it."
There are two types of straw bale houses. In one, bales of straw carry the weight of the house in a load-bearing design. In the other kind - such as the Winterses' post-and-beam structure - the house is supported through a combination of posts, beams and straw-bale- filled walls.
In all cases, the bales support their own weight and often the weight of windows and shelving, according to Athena and Bill Steen's book, The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes. Straw provides the insulation and serves as the base for interior and exterior wall finishes.
Straw has long been used as a building resource, and the use of straw and hay bales appeared in the United States in the late 1800s with the invention of baling machines. The first serious use of bales as a homebuilding material appeared in Nebraska, where pioneers discovered they were durable and comfortable in extreme weather conditions.
Early Nebraska buildings used meadow hay, according to the Steens, but straw is preferred.
"Since straw is the stems left over after the grain is harvested, it is more likely to be dry and free of seeds and other matter that attract the pests commonly drawn to hay," the Steens wrote.
Above all, "the bales have to be kept dry," Bonnie Winters said. "We tossed any that seemed questionable."
For extra moisture protection, they made sure the roof had a generous overhang.
They purchased the straw bales from local farmer Gary Fratz, who picked them up on the Eastern Shore after delivering a load of his Garrett County hay.
"You have to get straw when it's available," Fratz said.
What does he think of a house built with straw?
"It's different," said the soft-spoken farmer, who had not previously sold straw bales as a building material.
The couple paid $400 for the bales - "the cheapest part of the house," Bonnie Winters said.
The couple plastered the exterior with an adobe-type mixture, containing sand, clay straw, water and a little lime for a rough, first coat. They applied it with a trowel and a technique called hurling, a Scottish term that means "you kind of throw it on," Don Winters said.
Covering the straw bales on the inside is the same rough mud plaster, followed by a finish mix of mica, fine sand, water and flour in a type of potter's clay.
"It goes on like cake icing," Don Winters said.
The Winterses are proud of their creation.
"A lot of people thought we were nuts," Bonnie acknowledged. "It's not for everybody."