Fauquier's only straw bale house proves economical

Atop a hill in northernmost Fauquier County stands a unique house with spectacular views.

Full of natural light and plants, Susan Leopold's 3,000-square-foot straw bale house near Linden has an "old world" feel.

Ms. Leopold, 43, learned about straw bale houses while getting her master's degree from The Conway School of Landscape Design in Massachusetts.

Because of local timber's scarcity Midwestern homesteaders often built their dwellings with straw bales in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"Both my husband at the time and I had been to several straw bale homes and really liked them," Ms. Leopold said. "It's a very soothing building style."

A botanist, she works as the executive director of United Plant Savers, an organization focused on protecting native medicinal vegetation in the United States.

When they decided to settle down, the couple incorporated as many natural, renewable resources as they could in their home instead of "toxic" paint, insulation and carpet.

"A big reason was we wanted to build an environmental house," Ms. Leopold said. "I've always struggled with asthma and respiratory issues, and it was very important for me to build a house that would support my health."

They built the house on her parents' 220-acre farm, protected under a Virginia Outdoors Foundation conservation easement.

Ms. Leopold and her now ex-husband, Jonathan Trumpetto, started building their residence - the only permitted straw bale house in Fauquier County - in 2009 and finished in 2012.

They acted as the general contractors. Ralph Crafts, a designer from Hume, developed the final house drawings. Howard Switzer, a Tennessee architect who specializes in straw bale design and hands-on workshops, helped get the couple started.

Ms. Leopold estimates it cost $200,000 to construct the house.

Fauquier Building Official Jeff Morrow said a house of the same square footage would cost about $375,000 to build.

Although Fauquier has no specific building regulations for straw bale construction, Mr. Morrow used California's code as a guide. The house required no special permit.

With a post-and-beam frame and exterior walls more than a foot thick - the width of a hay bale, plus plaster on each side - the house has excellent insulation, equivalent to an R-35 rating.

"It was easy to review structurally," Mr. Morrow said. "It's above and beyond what our code requires as far as insulation.

"We like to try to think outside the box, and we will look at anything (citizens) want to try."

A friend, Jonathan Fickling applied interior and exterior plaster made of lime, clay and sand. The finish allows the walls to "breathe." Lime also has anti-bacterial properties and cleans the air, according to Ms. Leopold.

With Virginia's humid environment, the house needs lots of sun and little shade.

"It's a living wall, which is hard for people to wrap their heads around," Ms. Leopold said. "It gets wet and then it dries, so you have to have good airflow and the ability for it to dry out. I have a lot of sun and airflow."

Bamboo poles, along with chicken wire around window and door openings, stabilize the stacked straw bale walls.

"For me it's a very old world aesthetic," Ms. Leopold said. "The deep windowsill areas create seating areas and sunlight. I think it has an aesthetic appeal."

The main floor features an open living room and kitchen with a cathedral ceiling, a guest bedroom and bathroom.

The basement has a small library and sitting area, along with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

Ms. Leopold filled the house with hand-me-down furniture and items from local antique and thrift shops. "Natural" linoleum, ceramic tile and cork cover the floors.

Ms. Leopold and Mr. Trumpetto also used "passive solar" techniques, positioning the house so it collects more sun in the winter and less in the summer.

"When you build passive solar, you want the south facing side to have more windows and the north facing side to have fewer windows," Ms. Leopold said. "Just siting your house within the context of your environment makes a huge difference. When you just plot a house because you want to get the most houses per lot, you're missing a whole element of being environmentally conscientious about energy use.

"The downstairs is built into the earth so it stays naturally warm and cool, based on the Earth's insulating properties," she added.

Without air conditioning, "this house is designed to always have natural air flowing through it," Ms. Leopold said.

Large doors on the main floor create a breezeway for natural airflow. A large cupola with skylights and windows lets hot air escape.

The tan-colored metal roof reflects sunlight, making the house cooler in summer.

"I have to say my health has improved 110 percent since moving into this house," Ms. Leopold said.

A small woodstove heats the house in the winter and a sunroom, jutting off the corner of the house, helps absorb heat in winter.

The house's modern conveniences include electricity, plumbing, a gas stove, washing machine and refrigerator.

Six solar panels on the roof offset the electrical costs and heat water. Her electricity bill averages $60 each month.

Her three children, Isabella, 15, Flora-May, 13, and Joseph, 10, also live in the house.

Bull Run, Little Cobbler and Big Cobbler mountains come into view from the back porch, where sunflowers grow from a large tub.

"A lot of people want to live with AC, but other than that, I would venture to say that I don't think someone would come here and think they were compromising comfort in order to live in an environmental house," Ms. Leopold said. "We have all these regulations about safety, but if we had regulations that encouraged sustainable and environmental design, imagine how much energy could be saved."

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.