Straw Bale House: Part 2 (Site)

(This is the second of a multi-part series that will document the development of Lincoln and Julia’s property, the first having been entitled “Lincoln’s Pentagonal, Straw Bale Insulated House in Vermont.”)

Say you want to live in the country. You have been dreaming about and looking at properties for years. You finally find a piece of land that has privacy from almost every side and a river a stone’s throw away, yet is only a mile from town. You see the view, the potential. You see the price tag, and it’s doable. On this solid piece of earth, you imagine this here, that there, where the sun will rise, how far a walk it will be to that lazy river one fine day when you are all settled in. Images take shape in your mind. With a canvas, an artist can paint.

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There was snow on the ground when Lincoln and Julia first set foot on the land they would come to call home, land that would come to include their yurt, greenhouse, beehives, garden, barn and of course their pièce de résistance: a pentagonal, straw bale insulated house. In their heads and then on paper they drew up a rough schematic plan showing where everything would best be situated before they even closed on the deal. We’ll come back to this.

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Sometime later they calculated many years’ worth of firewood standing/leaning/lying on site (that would not have to be paid for by the cord) – maybe a lifetime’s worth if they were good stewards of the land. Bonus!

Was there any question that this piece of land was the right one, that buying it was a good decision? Any reason not to jump in with both feet? Absolutely. Skepticism was strong. Lincoln worried that his excitement might rose-color-blind them. He knew he’d be a fool not to ask: What’s wrong with it? What are we not seeing?

Snow is not unusual in Vermont in the wintertime, and it does present assessment challenges. For example, why is there a cattail here in what seems to be a clearing? How wet is it underneath?

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The cattail was worrisome. They talked to the neighbors across the street, who described the land as “kinda swampy.” It was, however, a swamp on a slope. Let’s think about that now (and think long and hard they did): A swamp on a slope can be only so bad and should be manageable. They decided to deal with it. So they worried as they dreamed and they dreamed as they worried.

Before making a decision, they walked the land again after a spot of warmer weather. If they had been excited before, they were even more so when they saw plainly in front of them all they wanted: river, rock, field and forest. They loved it in every way above all other pieces of land they had seen. The big piece of exposed rock overlooking the river put one word in Lincoln’s head: Swoon.

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They knew it was just land, land that dropped off at a steep angle from the road, land with no house (no dwelling of any kind), no driveway (barely a spot to pull off on the side of the road to park, so even an RV wasn’t a temporary option), no electricity, no well, no septic. They knew it would require countless hours of labor, more money than they at that moment could lay claim to and years of patience before the word finished became an accurate descriptor. Yet in they plunged!

Then winter weather kicked in again. Their first campfire says Determination loud and clear, but the first two weeks of snow and cold were the worst. In Lincoln’s words, “The first two weeks on the land sucked. Sucked bad. Probably why we take some other stuff in stride: nothing compares to how that was.”

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Nonetheless Julia’s TA-DA says Ours! as she shows off their first campsite.

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That first night inside the tent, with Rise at age four and Eppie at two, they began an adventure that will last for years.

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The yurt would go up first, becoming a temporary place to sleep, cook and plan the next stage of the ongoing, unconventional, ambitious project they set their minds to. My granddaughters will grow up watching their amazing, energetic, creative parents continually researching, learning new things, doing the next thing, discussing options, working, resting, researching more, learning more new things, meeting challenges, staying flexible, correcting mistakes – ever unfazed by inconveniences that many (most?) of us would not so gladly endure and with a measure of patience that comes with a prize. Three prizes really: peace, self-reliance (though they are forever grateful to all the people they have relied on) and debt-free ownership of their dream home.

On the one hand Lincoln would like it to be clear that they do not live on a massive bucolic estate, rather on “a haphazard swamp where everything is half built or falling apart or both!” On the other he holds fast to Gradatim Ferociter*: slowly, step by step, with ferocity.

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*coincidentally the motto of the rocket company Blue Origin

Lincoln’s Pentagonal, Straw Bale Insulated House in Vermont

My son Lincoln is building a house, but not a normal house. Twenty de-barked trees taken from his six-acre riverside property in northern Vermont constitute the vertical supports, and the first-floor walls are stacked straw bales that serve as insulation. Oh, and the pentagonal design means the corners aren’t square.

Presently it looks like this. The smoke coming out of that stovepipe might lead you to think it’s warm in there. Indeed, it’s warmer than outside!

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Last week Samuel and I traveled to Vermont to work alongside Lincoln and better understand his project. I found myself awestruck not only by the hard work, craftsmanship and ingenuity evident everywhere, but also by the fortitude, patience and ease with which every member of the family is walking through this process.

First of all, it’s not warm in Vermont in December. It wasn’t warm in November either. This year, Thanksgiving was the coldest on record (11 degrees Fahrenheit, -11C), and snowfall broke the previous record set in 1900 with 32” (81cm) of snow in November. As Lincoln has been building this unusual, amazing house, he and his wife Julia and their two delightful daughters (Rise and Eppie, 6 and 4) have been living in a 16’ (4.8 meter)-diameter yurt on the same property. It has a wood stove that keeps it toasty, but the privy is detached and the adjacent “greenhouse” that Lincoln and Julia slept in is unheated.

Some nights it got down to –4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20C). Think about that. How many blankets would you need? They would turn their electric blanket on about 40 minutes before going to bed. A couple weeks ago when he was about to get the wood stove in the house set up, Lincoln said, “It’s very exciting for those of us sleeping in unheated greenhouses waking up to -4 degrees on our faces.” When I said I could not even imagine how that feels, he said, “Eh. Our electric blanket is awesome. It’s basically just like getting out of bed into a walk in the freezer.”

You can see the yurt and the greenhouse down the hill from where Samuel is standing with Coco tucked into his jacket. (She was a constantly shivering camper during this week, but that is another story!)

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This is glorified camping. In the winter. In Vermont. As the fire dies down, you can sometimes see your breath inside, but no one seems to notice. None of them complain. They just carry on. Here we are cooking dinner together in the yurt one night early last week. I have an ear warmer on under that hat, and I am wearing four layers on top (including a wool sweater and an alpaca sweater), and two on the bottom (cold weather leggings under snow pants) and the girls are in regular clothes, oblivious.

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There is no running water right now. The pipe that brought water into the yurt froze during the very cold November. No matter. They bring in water in large containers such as the one behind me in the photo above, filling and refilling at their friends’ house (Zach and Nicole live a very short drive away). But there’s electricity and internet. They have a fridge, a stove, a microwave and a toaster oven. You heat up water to do the dishes. You put on another sweater if you feel cold.

Lincoln works on the house day after day, one task at a time. Julia works outside the home, coming and going with gentle, saintly tolerance. Rise goes to kindergarten and Eppie to preschool, and I suspect few of their classmates are as unspoiled or resilient, or as well equipped to handle the various forms of adversity that their own lives will bring. The snow, the cold, the construction zone, the tight quarters, the inconveniences – they all take it in stride. They may not have running water yet, but they will. In the meantime, as they love, support and serve one another with smiles and strength and kindness, they are happy, healthy and secure in a peaceful, incredibly beautiful place. They ask for nothing and have everything they truly need.

I stand in awe.

Lincoln could have built a normal house, and it would have been done by now, or nearly done. A normal house would have square corners, a shingled roof and indoor plumbing as it applies to both kitchen and bathroom. There would not be sawdust and bits of straw everywhere or 6ml plastic for windows.

But he didn’t. He created a unique home design that is enormously ambitious and unconventional. He is living his dream, and Julia, God bless her, is his perfect partner.

Lincoln’s dream is a lot of work (a lot of work!), but it lets girls be prairie dogs,

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includes dizzying heights,

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demands outstanding joinery,

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and creates surreal images.

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I hope these few photos have whet your appetite. I plan to do a more thorough step-by-step of his building journey in future posts. If you have any questions or want me to explore any particular aspect of the project more, let me know.