If These Walls Could Talk
“Physically, it’s a very pleasant building to live in,” says Susan Fallgren. “It’s toxin free. You certainly have greater soundproofing. It stays pretty much at 72 degrees no matter how cold or hot it is outside. The sustainable materials aren’t much more expensive than conventional ones. And it’s gratifying to live in an aesthetically pleasing home.”
The 1,600 square foot house is the fruition of a longtime dream for the Fallgrens, who say they couldn’t have realized their vision without Simple Construct, a San Diego-based design-and-build construction company owned by Rebecca Tasker and Mike Long.
“I don’t think we could have asked for better partners,” Susan Fallgren says.
“They were so invested in what we wanted to do they would take an idea we had and make it better. Every day was exciting.”
Big, Fuzzy Legos
Homebuilding may have seemed an unlikely career for Tasker, who studied art and managed a gallery on the East Coast before moving to San Diego with Long in 2003. “I wasn’t making anything anymore, so we pulled up stakes and it gave me the chance to throw around the question of what I wanted to do,” she says. “And some part of me always wanted to build a house.” Despite being a 30 year old woman with no construction experience, she got a job in construction as a laborer and the experience was eye opening.
“I was shocked by how wasteful it was,” she says. “I was not eco-conscious before, but I was the one who took stuff to the dump. I was sitting in a line of 100 other trucks all filled with 2-by-4s going into a hole in the ground and it was the biggest lightbulb for me, so I started looking around at other options.”
She found one on the internet, where she discovered a photo of one of San Diego’s first straw bale homes. In 1992, the state of California banned rice farmers from burning the straw waste from their crops. To create an alternative method of disposal, the state passed the first straw-bale construction guidelines in 1995, which were followed by the formation of the California Straw Building Association. As the industry took shape, San Diego got its first straw bale buildings, led by pioneers such as architect Drew Hubbell and advocate Bob Bolles. Seeing the “big, fuzzy Legos” appealed to the artist and environmentalist in Tasker, so she found a contractor starting a straw bale project to work for. Her excitement overflowed in the stories she’d tell Long each night, and he left his job in art supply retail management to work with them. After the contractor’s health deteriorated, Tasker and Long found they were comfortable managing projects and decided to form their own company.
Comfort and Health
Simple Construct specializes in the use of straw bale and natural clay and lime plasters to design and build energy efficient, sustainable homes, room additions, granny flats, and other types of structures.
“When we started 10 years ago, if you mentioned straw bale to people, they’d say, ‘What is that?’ or maybe make some silly joke about the Three Little Pigs,” Tasker says. “But recently more and more people say they’ve heard of it. With these homes, the bottom line comes down to comfort and health. These homes are thermally comfortable because the straw bales act as insulation and the clay plaster absorbs moisture and moderates humidity in the house. And because these are (natural) materials, they are inherently nontoxic.”
Simple Construct sources its straw from a wheat farm in Imperial Valley. The plasters are locally made from natural elements such as sand, clay, and water and have zero volatile organic compounds. While the construction costs vary depending on project size and specs, Tasker says they’re comparable to the cost of building a traditional home. The big financial benefit comes from the savings on energy bills—owners rarely have to power up their heating or air conditioning systems because the walls are naturally insulated with built-in temperature control.
Straw bales are practical in other ways too. Bales densely packed together and covered in the plaster are highly fire resistance. The plaster—and carefully planned design—prevents the straw from getting wet and rotting. Straw bale construction is also less attractive to pests, such as termites and rodents.
Design and Build
Tasker’s and Long’s art backgrounds come in handy with the design process. “Our training has given us the ability to see what the finished product will look like when it’s still on paper; we can picture ourselves in the house,” Long says. Tasker adds that sculpting the plasters and carving curves and other shapes into the bales with a chainsaw makes the structures “the canvas of our art now.” The couple also encourages moderate square footage and the use of other eco-friendly materials in a home’s design and work with a team of collaborators focused on sustainability.
Once the design is done and the permits obtained, a post-and-beam structure is erected and the roof is installed. The bales are then laid out horizontally in a running bond pattern to create sturdy walls and a chainsaw is used to create holes in the bales for electrical installation. Once the walls are fully supported, they are covered in plaster.
The construction phase of a straw bale home attracts interest from crowds of people. At a recent project in Solana Beach, Long said so many people driving by stopped to ask questions that he and Tasker put up signs explaining the basics of straw bale construction.
Homeowner Susan Fallgren adds, “We had neighbors walk by and ask questions about our home. The county inspector had never done a straw bale home before and was fascinated. People really enjoyed watching the process.”
When possible, Tasker and Long capitalize on the interest by holding open houses and hands-on workshops during builds. Through those educational efforts and their construction projects, Simple Construct plays an important role in sustainable housing, says Josh Robinson, director of the San Diego Sustainable Living Institute. According to Robinson, “Simple Construct offers the community of San Diego a housing option that is not only nontoxic, uses renewable and natural building materials, and is highly insulated, but also has timeless and beautiful qualities. Their work showcases one of the legal avenues that people can use to build homes from materials found all around us: clay, sand, and straw.”
For more information on Simple Construct or find out about future workshops, visit simpleconstruct.net