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With the help of friends, a Minden woman raises the walls of her eco-friendly home.
Photo: Jay Aldrich (above and below)
Constance Alexander wakes up every morning at 5. In winter, she switches on the electric baseboard heat—but not for long. After the sun comes up and begins to shine through her south-facing windows, she flicks the heat off. She may not need to turn it on again until the next morning.
Alexander’s straw-bale, all-electric home in Minden is warmed courtesy of Nevada’s consistent winter sun, and her house’s thick stucco-finished walls hold the heat for hours. Alexander only pays for power from January to May. During the rest of the year, 14 solar panels on the roof generate electricity to run her lights and appliances, and the power company banks the excess in a process known as net metering.
In summer, Alexander’s routine is reversed. At 5 a.m. she opens her windows, letting in the cool high-desert air, and closes them as the temperature rises. The walls and the tile-covered concrete floors keep the house no more than 76 degrees the rest of the day, even if it’s 100 outside. “This kind of house is ideal for Nevada because of the temperature extremes here,” she says.
Alexander’s straw-bale home was the result of years of study and a little help from her friends. She had been researching how to build a house for most of her life. “Literally,” the retired Carson Valley librarian says, “I was in the eighth grade when I drew my first floor plans.” It wasn’t until the gas crisis of the 1970s, however, that she focused her attention on what is known today as green building. Because of the rising cost of fuel, pioneering eco-builders developed ways to heat and cool houses as naturally as possible while also conserving natural resources.
Alexander spent about two decades investigating environmentally friendly construction techniques. After taking workshops and reading several Sunset publications on passive-solar technology, Alexander settled on straw as her building material. “About 1992 I started really looking into how much square footage I needed, what I didn’t need, and how much it would take to be comfortable but not use up the world’s resources,” Alexander says.
She designed a compact 924-square-foot rectangular house, and a friend and colleague, Christy Tews, drew the floor plans on a computer. An engineer checked the final drawings, and Douglas County gave her its first building permit for a straw-bale house.
On a spring day in 1996, about 50 of her friends helped stack the walls of straw, which were custom-baled to uniform size by John Ritter, a Yerington farmer. The wall-raising volunteers were divided into teams, with a captain for each wall. Matts Myhrman, an innovator in straw-bale construction whom Alexander met at a workshop, oversaw the work. “To me, one of the best aspects of the house is the fact that it was built by friends,” she says.
The foundation, framing, roof, and interior work were directed by Mike McCormick, a local contractor who had never worked on a straw-bale house but was game to try. The construction took about four months.
The house has an L-shaped living-dining area with a kitchen, one bedroom (which Alexander shares with an elderly dog and a cat), a bathroom with tiled shower, and a large walk-in closet. A solarium with a six-foot, south-facing sliding door connects the major living spaces. Heat builds up in the solarium and funnels into other parts of the house. Alexander’s art collection and murals painted by a friend decorate the stucco walls.
Because straw bales, and thus the walls, are two feet wide, the deep windowsills create space for plants and books. Alexander finds that in winter the porcelain-tiled window seat is a toasty spot to read. The covered patio on the north side of the house offers a shady place to sit in the summer.
Alexander’s commitment to ecologically oriented living extends to her use of mostly natural and recycled materials. The pine kitchen cabinets have countertops made of Trespa, a renewable product. She has a toilet that uses three-quarters of a gallon to flush (most modern low-flow toilets use 1.6 gallons), a low-energy refrigerator and low-water-use washer, on-demand water heater, and no dryer—she hangs her laundry outside. Solatubes direct sunlight from the roof through reflective tubes to
illuminate the windowless bathroom and closet.
McCormick, Alexander’s contractor, has spent the last several years in the standard construction industry, but he is looking into building his own straw-bale home now, for two reasons. “I love the idea of using the easily replenishable bales with their high insulation value, and I love the unique design opportunities afforded by the bales,” he says.
Straw-bale and other eco-friendly construction materials and techniques have improved over the dozen years since Alexander built her house. And she readily admits to making mistakes—she wishes, for instance, she had installed a woodstove and a deeper roof overhang to block the summer sun. “I know a lot more now,” she says. Alexander will take advantage of her new knowledge next year when she builds another straw-bale house near Grass Valley, California, home of McCormick and his wife, Toni, who have become Alexander’s close friends.
The 380-square-foot dwelling will make an even smaller imprint on the planet, Alexander is pleased to note.
HOW ALEXANDER LIVES GREEN
• Solar heat & electricity
—Solar panels (above)
• Straw-bale walls
• Renewable Trespa countertops
• Low-flow toilet (.75 gallons/flush)
• Low-energy refrigerator
& low-water-use washer
• No gas or dryer used
• Cloth shopping bags
• Buys mostly organic food