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Big, bad winter doesn’t blow away straw house

February 15, 2014
By Vicki Johnson - Staff Writer ( , The Advertiser-Tribune

During this winter's cold, snowy weather, Sister Jane Omlor said she stayed snug and warm inside Little Portion Green, the passive-solar straw bale house on the Sisters of St. Francis campus.

"Even when it was minus 46 degrees with the wind chill, it was warm in here," she said from her dining room table in early February. "Probably the most significant thing is it was very, very windy.

"I could not believe how comfortable this house was," she said. "I went around touching the windows and doors and around the windows where air usually comes in (traditional houses). And there was no air."

The thick straw-bale insulation prevents air from coming through the walls and highly efficient windows keep heat transfer to a minimum.

"The walls are warm," she said.

The sun was shining brightly, at least, one of the coldest days in January, and the sun's warmth coming in the windows raised the temperature of the house three or four degrees, into the 70s when the thermometer was set at 68 degrees.

"I became 100-percent convinced about how important it is to have a passive solar house," Omlor said. "It's my second winter here. Last winter was not too bad, but this winter was pretty cold and snowy."

She and Sister Janet Hay moved into the house in December 2012.

Also known as Project STRAW, Saving Today's Resources in Awesome Ways, the project has been under way since 2008 and ground was broken in summer 2010.

Designed 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 for warmth in winter and to shade the house from the sun in summer.

Through the seasons, Omlor said, she has taken pictures of the sun's angle and location in relation to the house's south-facing windows. At the summer solstice, the sun' rays stop just short of going through the windows. At the winter solstice, they bathe the house with warmth.

"As summer moved into autumn, the sun started coming into the house," she said. "It's been really fun to watch the sun come in and watch the sun go out seasonally.

"The natural light is very lovely," she said. "It cheers you up on gloomy days, the light coming in.

"And the plants go crazy here," she said. "All year round, we have blossoms on the plants, which is so neat."

Omlor said some people think the house has no heating or cooling source, but there's a 3-foot-long Energy Recovery Ventilation System that hangs on the wall. It circulates and regulates the air temperature.

"It's small, but it's very efficient," she said. "On cloudy days, it stayed steady on what we set it on."

For electricity, the house depends on power generated from a wind turbine in the yard.

"I can't complain about the wind anymore because it makes electricity for us," Omlor said. "We have no electric bills. The wind and the sun do not send statements."

Regarding the size of the house, she said its 1,300 square feet are plenty for three or four people to live comfortably.

"It's not unlike an apartment," she said. "I have no complaints about the size. We can comfortably give a tour for 15 people."

However, she would include more closets if she was going to build it again.

"Storage is a little problematic," she said. "It makes you conscious of keeping it simple. Clutter is something we will not tolerate here. We want to keep it beautiful. Simplicity is beautiful."

As spring approaches, work is to continue on permaculture landscaping, which is low-maintenance landscaping with a purpose other than simple beauty. Landscaping projects are being designed by local certified permaculture designer Vince Kirchner.

Last fall, volunteers dug a swayle along the northwest side of the house to hold water after rains and provide moisture for the trees that were planted.

Volunteers from church and community organizations plan work days.

"One of the biggest finds we've had is the help of the guys from CROSSWAEH," she said. "They love coming here and we love having them."

She said the guys in the work-release program have done a lot of labor-intensive work, and a few of them who have carpentry skills built the back porch.

This spring, some edible landscaping such as berry bushes and an herb spiral are planned for the front yard. An herb spiral is a mound of soil with a variety of herbs planted from the top down to save space and make harvesting easy.

"We're trying to keep the landscaping very low-maintenance," she said.

A pergola is planned for the front yard also, and rain barrels are to be placed for catching water from the roofs at the house and at the Franciscan Earth Literacy building.

In the future, Omlor said, she hopes to install a cistern to hold rain water, which can be used to flush toilets, do dishes and clean, leaving treated city water only for drinking and cooking.

"I can't say there is anything I don't like about this house," Omlor said.

Fundraising brunches and home tours have been popular, but have slowed this winter. She reminds people they must make reservations.

"We just ask for donations, and most people have been very generous," she said.

As warm weather approaches, she plans to cook farm-fresh eggs and use more local foods as they become available during the growing season.

"We socialize and have a nice tour," she said. "It's a very pleasant couple hours."

Tours without brunch included take place 2-4 p.m. March 9 and April 13 before they switch back to 7-9 p.m. the second Monday of each month for May through October.

To schedule a Sunday morning brunch and tour, call Omlor at (567) 207-5393.



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