BROOKINGS, S.D. (AP) - How far would you go to get a house that only costs $1.25 a day to heat in the winter? Better question: Would you live in a house built with straw bales? That idea, which began in this country more than century ago, could be coming back in style.
Just ask Dean Isham, professor of interior design in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at South Dakota State University. Last fall, SDSU students, under Isham's supervision, built a 900-square-foot straw bale structure in McCrory Gardens.
Since then, the building, which features a large classroom and a separate area for a bathroom, has been received with open arms by the Brookings community, including the SDSU staff and students, Isham said. "Everybody seems to like that there's a space at McCrory Gardens to use like this," he said.
It's also the greenest of "green construction," and a green building in a green garden seems to make sense. Not only are the walls composed of straw bales, the building is roofed entirely in living, growing prairie plants in much the same way the Dakota homesteaders grew grass on their sod huts.
Although grasses and straw have been used in building since prehistory, using modular bales seems to date back to the American Midwest of the early 20th century. Proponents point to straw bale construction's low materials cost and the tremendous insulating qualities of the straw. Both interior and exterior walls are typically finished with stucco or a stucco-like material.
And, unless a visitor knows the story behind it, the McCrory straw house is indistinguishable from any other modern building (except for its roof). According to Isham, the structure will be used for the most part as a children's outdoor learning center. He added that it will also serve as a general purpose room, open for use to students at the university, for local organizations to meet and for community members to use. He said that the Fishback Center for Early Childhood Education Preschool at SDSU will be using the facility for classes this fall.
According to an article by Brenda Kleinjan in Sioux Valley Energy's Cooperative "Connections" magazine, it took 250 bales of straw - about $800 worth - to construct the McCrory Gardens building. The bales, which provide all the facility's insulation and structure, had to be dry and packed down tight in order to be used for construction.
According to Kleinjan's article, the facility is "incredibly energy efficient," as well as efficient to build. The building was erected and finished for about $14,000.
Isham said that electrical use was monitored in the building all winter. The heat, which is controlled by an automatic thermostat to keep the water pipes from freezing, came on Dec. 1 and shut off for good March 1.
Isham said that the heat and humidity inside the building were monitored every 15 minutes, and it was determined that the facility cost about $1.25 per day to keep warm. He added that the humidity stayed stable at 15-20 percent during the entire time the facility was monitored.
"Only $1.25 per day, that's not bad," Isham said.
The facility didn't leak this spring either, according to Isham.
Isham said constructing a straw bale facility is an idea he suggested nearly three years ago.
"I was looking for a project that students could learn about alternative building methods," he said, "and since straw bale construction started in our region, I thought it was an appropriate method to consider."
In fact, according to Kleinjan's article, using bales to build is a concept that started almost a century ago in the Sand Hills of western Nebraska. Most recent straw bale structures, other than the McCrory facility, include a Renner winery and buildings near Gregory, Aberdeen, Carthage, Hot Springs and Dante. According to Isham, another bonus of using straw bales to make a building is that most anyone can do it. Students, "most with zero construction experience," built the McCrory structure, he said. It took only three weeks to build.
Isham said the facility is close to being complete . All that's left is a bit of painting on the inside.
Isham said that anybody will be able to use the building once it's finished.