It turns out the first little pig was on to something, despite the moral of the children’s fable. Dave and Mary Cunningham built their Afton home out of straw bales and have lived in it for nearly two decades.
Wolves have not been a problem and neither have windstorms, snowstorms, hurricanes, crazy cold winters, blistering summers, and countless torrential rains. In fact, because the bales are so thick, the couple can barely hear the thunderstorms that roll over the mountain or feel the huge fluctuations of temperature that mark our climate. All this while reaping the benefits of utility bills between half and one-third of what homeowners would normally pay for a similarly sized (7,000-square-foot) home.
The couple designed the house, and it’s not along the lines of the prairie hut you might associate with straw bale construction. It’s spacious and open, with all the architectural refinements anyone could want, including some occasioned by the super-thick walls: wide sills enhanced with ornamental tiles and beautifully curved and sculpted door and window openings.
Stucco is the material traditionally used to cover the straw, and it’s an important element, since the bales must be able to release moisture through their coating. The Cunninghams chose a sunny color to tint their stucco, a lemon yellow, that works well with the dark wood and turquoise trim.
The Cunninghams are not alone in their appreciation of this renewable form of insulation. Old European and Midwestern straw bale homes are still standing. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends straw insulation for energy efficiency, and there are examples of 20th-century straw houses on the prairie that have withstood tornadoes.
In researching straw bale construction, the Cunninghams found that––once stripped of their seed-bearing heads––the dry stalks were of less interest to pests like mice and insects than wood framing, and that the tightly-baled straw was more resistant to fire than traditional building materials.
As they researched, they found experts in this type of construction who were willing to travel to Virginia to teach a workshop to anyone interested in learning. In turn, the workshop graduates would supervise anyone local who would show up and lend some muscle to the old-fashioned house raising. It didn’t go off without a hitch, the Cunninghams remember, as Hurricane Dennis struck on the very day they’d planned to gather.
Nevertheless, they carried on. The house finally got built and provided comfortable, low-cost living for the couple and their two children. Nothing about the outward appearance of the house gives visitors a hint about its secret ingredient. But near the great room there’s a glass window where guests can see the wall behind the stucco, with the hay bales (from a farm in Stuarts Draft), the bamboo poles providing extra stability and the twine (synthetic to prevent tearing or rotting) that binds the bales together.
The straw bale construction draws a great deal of attention, but it’s not the only feature that keeps energy costs down for the Cunninghams. Since underground temperatures remain around 55 degrees, they installed small water tubes that begin underground and run through the house moderating the above-ground temperature. Extra south-facing windows and the greenhouse basement floor also help when more heat is needed. A unique four-foot square cooling tower above the roof allows the hot air that collects in the house during the day to escape, and draws up the cool underground air. Soon rooftop solar panels will add to nature’s friendly assist to the home’s frugal and earth-friendly profile.
With their two children grown and gone, the Cunninghams have opened their home to guests via Airbnb. Visitors choose the “Sherpa Forest Home” because of its beautiful mountaintop setting and location near a number of wineries, but many also come specifically to see the unique building features. The couple is also glad to answer questions about their home from anyone interested in learning from their experience.
Dave’s a financial consultant, and he likes the idea of the long-term savings that result from a little initial investment as well as the moral wisdom of conservation. Working it out over time, the Cunninghams have realized an 18 percent yearly tax-free return delivered by thoughtful planning. In the end, he said, saving money on routine expenses is one of the best strategies for financial independence: “So far, no one’s figured out how to tax money that’s not spent.”