Home, straw home

A statue of St. Francis resides in a nook in the kitchen wall of Little Portion Green, the straw-bale house on the St. Francis campus. Other new residents, sisters Jane Omlor and Janet Hay, moved in just before Christmas.

“We promised we would get it done before winter, and we did,” Omlor said. “Winter started Dec. 21 and I moved in Dec. 19.”

Hay moved in Dec. 20.

The women quickly erected a Christmas tree in the living room and added holiday decorations in other parts of the house before hosting a private open house for their fellow sisters a few days later.

“It’s just exciting to see the completion and of this and all these months, and these weeks and all these years,” Hay said. “It’s really happening.”

Hay, who works with seniors at St. Francis Home and elsewhere, is enjoying the beauty and quiet of “living in the country.” The house stands at the back edge of the St. Francis campus. “Yesterday morning we saw deer going across the back field from one woods to another.”

The house was Omlor’s brainchild and she’s happy to see it almost completed.

“For me, it’s knowing that this house is not leaving much of an environmental footprint,” Omlor said.

The house uses no fossil fuels.

Omlor lived among the poor people of West Virginia who she said suffered from the practices companies used to mine fossil fuels. “I lived in mountain-top removal mining country in West Virginia,” she said. “It’s knowing my life is not adding to the suffering of those mountain people. That’s sort of my motivation for doing this.”

The house gets electricity from a wind turbine in the back yard. The most recent electric bill was $27 for the month, which includes heat, LED lights and plug-ins for anything else electric.

She said the bill will be zero when the solar array is put into operation.

“Care of creation is just a basic part of our mission as Sisters of St. Francis,” Hay said. “To make this happen is just a very visible sign of that. To see how we can honor that and not be wasteful and be adding more and more carbons to our atmosphere.”

Omlor said before she moved in she had faith it would all work as planned, but it wasn’t until the last few weeks she knew for sure.

“I don’t like to be cold,” she said. “The house is unbelievably warm.”

On Friday afternoon, the sun poured through the large windows that offer a beautiful view. But that isn’t their only purpose.

“We’re not using any energy right now. The sun is doing it all,” Omlor said.

It was designed to be a zero-energy house by Mark Hoberecht of Columbia Station, a certified natural builder. The passive solar concept uses placement of the house and other criteria to make maximum use of the sun’s rays in winter and to shade the house from the sun in summer. The house is modeled after passive solar houses being built in Europe.

Omlor thought it was important to introduce the concept to the Midwest. The house is the first of its kind in this part of the world.

It will expand the Franciscan Earth Literacy Center’s environmental education programs. Tours are to be available, but not quite yet. There are a few details to finish such as installing stained glass windows on the second floor, completing some baseboard and trim work.

“It’s a demonstration house and we’ll be creating educational programs around it,” Omlor said. Anybody interested in scheduling a tour can call Omlor at (567) 207-5393 and she’ll keep a list for when the time arrives.

“Hundreds of people have already been out here,” she said. “They’ve seen it in every stage.”

The house is one of the educational aspects of FELC, and programming continues despite a “change in direction” for the center.

Beginning this year, the center no longer has a paid staff and Omlor said the board of directors is redesigning its activities.

“It’s being restructured,” she said. “It has yet to be determined.”

In the meantime, the sisters continue to provide youth and adult programs.

The first class at the house was a winter solstice program, which included a celebration of the beginning of winter and the shortest day of the year.

Omlor showed a short video of Barbara Marx Hubbard and The Shift Network, suggesting Dec. 21, the end of the Mayan calendar, was the beginning of new era in human history.

“It’s the first time that people can consciously enter into the next evolutionary step,” Omlor said.

The second program is to be an eight-week course called “Just Faith” about the human impact on climate change.

“It leads to action,” she said. “You actually do something.”

When spring arrives, Omlor said a dedication and open house is planned.

“I have a few odds and ends to complete,” she said. “By then we might have a start on the outside.”

As part of the outside work, Omlor said a class tentatively is planned that would offer an educational certificate program on permaculture landscape design.

Students would get hands-on training and classwork in permaculture – landscaping with edible or other useful plants rather than grass and non-edible vegetation.

The energy-efficient straw-bale house project has been under way since 2008 and ground was broken in summer 2010.

There were at least 50 significant volunteers who donated their time for the project.

“The good energy and the good feeling comes from all the dedicated people that contributed to the house as well as worked on the house,” Omlor said. “It took a lot of faith up until this point. Jump and the net will appear.”