Reflections on the Green Home Tour and Living Future unConference

Living Shelter Architects participated in both, the Living Future unConference and the  Northwest Green Home Tour, this year and have previously done so in the past. Sitting down with our Founder and Principal Architect Terry Phelan, we took time to reflect on her experiences this year with both events. 

What was the difference (if any) between the experience of last years’ Green Home Tour and this years’? 

Our experience this year was quite different. Last year we had three different projects on the tour and they each saw over 100 visitors. This year we just had one project that only had about 20 visitors. 

What was exciting about the Rainier View Homes being on the Green Home Tour? 

It was great to show the first permitted cottage project in King County to the public and create interest in community based design. We are so proud of this project and we look forward to doing more of this type. I just wish more people had known about it and our involvement!

Why were you looking forward to the Living Future unConference? 

This is always an inspirational gathering and an opportunity to see some colleagues that I don’t often cross paths with. A bonus was meeting two other CVG partners there this year and finding so much in common with them. It was great to connect about business matters as well as the latest in deep green practices that we were all interested in. 

What was a memorable experience of the opening night reception/party? 

The memorial for Patti Southard, who was such a change maker for green building in our area. And finding two new products that I’m excited about - Teknoflor organic sheet flooring and salvaged wood paneling from Sustainable Northwest Wood.

Do you have any takeaways from your experience with the unConference?

It’s hard to go only to the opening and not the entire conference. This is the first time I’ve limited my participation to just the first night, and it left me wanting more. 

Living Shelter Architects supports both the mission of the Living Future unConference and of the  Northwest Green Home Tour. Both are special gatherings for the green building community. We are all on a mission to preserve the natural world to support our children’s children and other living beings, using building and climate science as our guide. Events such as these, allow a space for all of us to meet face-to-face and find inspiration and communion with one another. 

Interested in how your building project can contribute positively to our world? We design multiple project types and scales with sustainable missions. Find out if working with our team is a good fit:

Seattle’s First Net Carbon DADU

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What do you do when you need more space in your home but are reluctant to leave your neighborhood? This was the central question for the clients of our Net Carbon DADU project. They had outgrown their existing home, a modest 100 year old craftsman bungalow and worried that they would need to leave their well-loved neighborhood to find a home big enough for their increasing needs for space.

Living Shelter Architects explored the possibilities for our client to comfortably stay in their home. After going through several conventional design iterations for how to expand their space including an attic renovation and addition, we decided to explore a DADU concept as a possible way for them to add space and more fully embrace what their property had to offer.

What is a DADU?

DADU stands for detached accessory dwelling unit and is often referred to as a backyard cottage. Whereas an ADU (accessory dwelling unit) is located inside or attached to a single-family home, a DADU is a secondary unit on a single-family lot that is detached from the main residence.

Seattle’s First Net Carbon DADU

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To maximize their small lot, we designed a DADU that connected the main level of their existing home, across a deck, to the main level of the new cottage, where we programed flex space that includes a small kitchen. Down a flight of stairs from there, we set a guest bedroom/workshop and full bath below grade.

All of this design was layered with deep sustainability through a close collaboration between Living Shelter and the contractor, Mighty House Construction. From the foundation, insulation, and waterproofing, to the floors, paints, and roof, nearly everything in this DADU was chosen because of its low environmental impact and high performance.

Another consultant on the project, Lucas Johnson of 475 High Performance Building Supply, estimates that this is, “Seattle’s first carbon-negative DADU.” We are hopeful, and we will discover for sure after one year of occupancy, whether or not we achieved the goal to be carbon-neutral.

This experience exemplifies what a good architectural project can have: great communication and collaborative design, flexible and creative clients, and highly skilled builders. We hope the DADU adds another 100 years to the life of this home.

Our net carbon DADU has received some fantastic attention lately. In October 2018, this project was selected for the Green Building Slam presentations. And in April 2018, the DADU was one of our projects on the The Northwest Green Home Tour.

Reflections On What We Love

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This February, we’re taking inspiration from Valentine’s Day and ideas of love, to reflect on what brings us joy in this time of year. Perhaps you are enjoying the same things we are, we would love to know.


Our Drafter, Lia Sommer, is loving spending time watercoloring with friends.

This winter I am loving spending time watercoloring with friends. One of our friends, who is a water coloring artist and teacher, shares her knowledge with everybody during our creative gatherings. We sit around a big table with our brushes, paints, and water cups, while café style music plays in the background. It’s a relaxing and fun way to reconnect with my Chinese community and gives us a chance to discuss our lives in the U.S. using both English and our native tongue. Fun things always happen here!

Our Project Architect, Troy Howe, is loving experiencing all the mountains have to offer.

I love being in the mountains this time of year. Standing on top of a snowy mountain ridge on a sunny day and looking across the Cascades is almost magical. Skiing at local Crystal Mountain resort recently on a crystal-clear day we could see the beauty of the distant snow-capped Olympic mountains and Puget Sound, a rare pleasure. Mt. Rainier stood just one valley away from us. The sight was simply breathtaking. The natural beauty of the Cascades brings a profound sense of peace and joy.


Our Project Designer, Roy Stark McGarrah, loves to plan adventures to warm places during the winter.

The quiet and dark of winter often leads me to start imagining the places I’d like to visit and people I’d like to see. This year, I’ve loved planning a trip with my partner to visit family in Turkey. Thinking about the warm Mediterranean weather and delicious food gives me respite from the cold and rain of the Seattle winter. I love coming up with different itineraries and thinking about how each might feel and who I could share the time with. Should we fly back to the U.S. from Istanbul directly or should we stop in Sarajevo to experience the Bosnian cultural melting pot? These thoughts warm me in this dark season.


Our Principal Architect, Terry Phelan, loves the creative process of planning and preparing shared meals.

I love the creative process of preparing special meals to share with friends and family. One recent winter weekend a visiting friend and I spent the afternoon at Pike Place Market. While there we gathered ingredients for making 3 different meals, sampling and selecting fresh seafood and produce as we built our menu. Once home we set to brining, chopping, and stirring, sipping red wine and tasting sauces as they developed. Late afternoon dark settled outside, and we were warm and happy sharing stories and appetizers in the kitchen and welcoming other friends to join us.

Not so surprisingly, each one of our “things we love” relates back to the work we do at Living Shelter Architects and how we each contribute to achieving our mission. We each bring a connection to community, a connection to the natural world, adventurous and innovative perspectives on healthy and resilient design, and a love of the creative process.

Do you want to work with people passionate about sustainable living? Are you wondering how to incorporate sustainable practices into your home or community? We’d love for you to get in touch, contact us.

5 Things We Learned At The Northwest Green Building Slam + Summit

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In October, Living Shelter Architects participated in the annual Northwest Green Building Slam + Summit. It was an inspiring event and we wanted to take a moment to distill down the highlights and what we felt was most important to share with you. These are the 5 things we learned from our experience at the Slam + Summit:

1.     Why did we participate in the Green Building Slam and Summit?

We love being involved with EcoBuilding Guild events – the participants are so engaged and passionate about the difference they can make in the world of residential design and construction. Over the years, we have been honored to present at 8 of the 12 Seattle Slam events. I always attend, whether presenting or not, as so many members of ‘my tribe’ are there sharing their most interesting stories and projects of the past year. It invigorates and inspires!

2.     What about our Net Zero Carbon DADU project did we most want to resonate with the audience?

For our Net Zero Carbon DADU project, we wanted to share the possibilities of achieving a high level of sustainability by using integrated design on a small project. This was also our talented project designer Roy McGarrah’s first project in the Slam, and both his style and his cool folding ship’s ladder for accessing the loft and roof deck were a hit with the audience.

3.     What did we enjoy most about being part of the Net Zero Carbon panel at the summit?

What we enjoyed most was how the panel format made integrated design more visible by having the all different players interacting - people could see how we synergize design alternatives, and maybe get excited about working in a partnership like this themselves. This format also allows us more interactive time with the attendees, sharing parts of the project that are the most interesting to them.

4.     What are our takeaways from the slam/summit weekend?

This is such a special gathering and a bit hard to explain. Some might call the experience a hybrid of building science nerd-out and hippy love fest. We are all on a mission to save a viable world for our children’s children and other living beings, using building and climate science as our guide. There was an increased focus on the social elements of sustainability this time, which was so timely with so many marginalized populations growing. In all, I feel inspired by and cared for by my fellow green building enthusiasts and want to spend more time with them.

5.     Did we discover anything that we want to incorporate into our future projects?

Not really any nuts and bolts things to incorporate – what I discovered was more about how to work together more thoughtfully, along with a deeper desire to engage with both colleagues and non-profit organizations on with social equity projects.

Living Shelter Architects thrives on collaboration and inspiration. Attending the Green Building Slam + Summit energizes our team and provides us with a place to share, learn and network with like-minded people.

Do you want to work with people passionate about sustainable living? Are you wondering how to incorporate sustainable practices into your home or community? We’d love for you to get in touch, contact us.

Design Process Demystified

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Ever wonder how the design process works when working with an architect? From a high level view, most design professionals follow similar steps, but every architect has their own unique process to go from design concepts to a finished building. Before engaging an architect, it’s important that you understand how their design process works and if that process feels like a good fit for your personality and how hands-on you want to be with your building project.

What sets Living Shelter Architects apart from others is our focus on healthy choices, personal connections, and establishing a cohesive partnership to create the right design for your situation. Design is not a product but a collaborative process that takes thought, research, coordination, and time to create the right place for you, your budget, and your site.

Let’s explore what happens when you hire Living Shelter Architects for your building project. Our design process consists of six phases which give many opportunities for us to discuss, define, and refine the project direction and details over time. Each of the design process phases are outlined below:

Phase 1: The Initial Meeting

The first hour of consultation is free, and can be held at our place or yours. This is where we find out the basics of what is important to you – the project you are considering, what your goals and special needs are, what styles appeal to you, and what your budget is.

We discuss what is included in different levels of architectural service, help you understand the soft and hard costs involved in the project you have in mind, and determine whether the chemistry is right. After all, we will be working closely over some time, and how well we relate with each other will impact both your experience and the quality of the finished product.

To get started, please complete the questionnaire on the contact page. If we decide to work together, we then enter into a simple Consultation Services Agreement to establish a program and budget, explore some options, and determine how to serve you in the best way possible.

What happens next? We move into the research and discovery phase call Phase 2: Program and Feasibility.

Phase 2: Program and Feasibility

Programming is a research and discovery phase, where we explore many questions and answers. For Custom Homes and Remodel projects, we provide you a series of questionnaires to help you think about how you want to live, which guide us when we design your new space.

For Business and Community projects, a Master Planning process is a better programming tool. This can include a Design Charrette with your team of stakeholders, followed with a written outline that is used to help direct each phase of the project.

We conduct pre-design research during this phase, so need legal information pertaining to the site, such as surveys and easements, ready for us to use. If we are going to remodel or retrofit an existing building, As-Built building plans are provided. Photographs from books, magazines, and websites can be very helpful in conveying your individual tastes and goals to us, so we take time to go over them in detail and discuss what aspects you are drawn to.

We visit the building site to get familiar with its gifts and surroundings, and develop a few thumbnail sketches to explore some spatial relationship options. These activities and follow up discussions help determine what priorities you would like reflected in the design and how those are best approached with our services.

No matter the size or scope of the project, we have found a Team Approach early in the process makes for a better outcome. If you have a building contractor selected, we like to bring them in to the conversation at this early stage. This ensures a continuity in the design direction and delivery, and secures you a place on their schedule of work. If desired, we can suggest contractors and associates to join the team.

Many people believe that architects jump right into the design phase and immediately begin producing drawings and models for their clients, but we actually spend about 5-8% of our total effort beforehand. Now that we’ve done our research, we’re ready to get to start designing in Phase 3: Schematic Design!   

Phase 3: Schematic Design

The Schematic Design is the first phase of the drawing-producing services, where about 10-12% of our total effort is spent. This includes basic layouts of proposed floor plans, site plans showing how the buildings relate to the surroundings, outlines of the most prominent elevations, and a simple massing model to help visualize the structure in three dimensions. There are typically 1 to 3 client meetings in this phase.

The drawings are presented for your review where options and refinements are discussed. This is the easiest time to make changes, so you may want to take some additional time with the proposed design alternatives. If there are major revisions to a single alternative, or you would like to see more options, a second round of design is done before completion of this phase.

We really like to have a builder selected and on the team by this point. That way, after the review and refinements noted, your builder can be tasked with creating a ballpark estimate of the construction cost. If the cost range is within your comfort level, the process can continue – if not, this is the time for more adjustments before moving forward.

With an Integrated Design approach, this phase will include at least one in-depth team meeting and follow up discussions to identify which elements provide the biggest offset to others, such as a higher level of insulation and better windows for a much smaller heating/cooling system. If you are a business or organization, your operational structures and practices become elements of this integration.

Architectural fees can now be estimated, and if appropriate, a fixed-fee amount determined for the remainder of the project. Fees are based on the complexity of the building and site, the code enforcement jurisdiction, and the level of service and documentation we all agree is best. A Construction Documents and Services Contract is prepared for you to sign, and we are set to continue to Phase 4: Design Development!

Phase 4: Design Development

In Design Development, we start moving forward with one design, and develop it further (hence the name!). This includes refined floor plans, a site plan, all exterior elevations and building sections. This is also a great time to develop some interior elevations and integrate Landscape and Interior Design team members. The massing model can also be further developed in this phase to study detail elements and finishes. We typically expect to spend about 20% of our total effort here, including 2 to 4 client meetings.

The Structural Engineering consultant starts their design work in the Design Development phase, so we meet with them to go through options that best meet your program and goals. Structural elements can be expressed or hidden in a building, and different solutions are more appropriate for each of these directions.

Once the design drawings have been approved by all parties, we are ready to shift to Phase 5; Construction Documents!

Phase 5: Construction Documents

Blueprints, Permits, Action! We take care in preparing accurate plans to build from, so there are limited surprises in the field. There are several levels of Construction Documentation, and we are happy to customize our services for individual project needs. Due to the focus on production and the variety of options in this phase, 35% to 55% of our time can be spent here.

Our first focus in this phase is preparing permit-ready documents. This includes coordination with structural consultants and making sure the code requirements are clearly described so your permit review goes as smoothly as possible.

Then we add finish details and specifications as appropriate to the project. This section of service adds good value because permit documents do not address the finer details which pull a project together, create a Net Positive building, or specify healthy or sustainable products.

With an Integrated Design approach, this phase includes time documenting the design decisions and systems coordination completed in earlier phases. Some of this is done in our office, and some by other consultants on the team.

Builders will use the Construction Documents for bidding, and if you are getting a construction loan your bank will use these as well. A more thorough set of documents makes for a tighter bid from a seasoned contractor, with less left to assumptions and allowances. Some of our custom home clients also want to act as their own contractor, which can require a higher level of documentation than for drawings used by a seasoned builder.

With the construction documents completed and permits in hand, we’re ready to move forward into Phase 6: Construction Administration!

Phase 6: Construction Administration

As with our Construction Documents services, this phase has different levels available. Our time here can be as little as 5% of the total effort to as much as 25%. No matter what the service level, we always remain available to answer questions from code officials and contractors throughout the project - the main difference lies in the frequency, depth, and documentation level of phone, email and site consultations.

On each project, a pre-construction meeting with the entire team is required before anyone onsite sets a form or swings a hammer. Regular onsite meetings are scheduled as appropriate to ensure everything is going as planned. Having us as your advocates, coordinating adjustments with contractors and consultants, and just having another set of eyes and ears while things are in motion, can all make a huge difference in your experience and peace of mind.  

With an Integrated Design approach, the construction phase is highly efficient. The extra time spent at the beginning really pays off now. With early project planning dedicated to systems coordination and finish details, this phase can focus on quality control.

At the end, we offer a final walk-through service to ensure no detail is missed. Technically, this marks the completion of our design process. However, we love to learn how your project is working out a year out, and to help fine tune any elements that will add value. Getting photographs after landscaping has matured is also a real treat for us, and will allow us to better tell your story to others and inspire them to take their own steps toward healthy living!

6 Reasons Why An Architect Will Save You Money

As architects, we know that building your dream home is a huge financial (and time!) commitment. We have all heard cautionary tales of cost overruns and construction delays. Many homeowners begin custom home projects with excitement and enthusiasm but end them with frustration about a lengthy and overwhelming process. As architects, we can help.

A common misstep that homeowners make is waiting too long to hire an architect. An architect is a start-to-finish resource—not just your designer or permit specialist, but your advocate, advisor, project coordinator, and guide as you turn your dream into reality. Starting your project with an architect will provide you with valuable insights and expertise that will save you money not only during construction but throughout the life of your building.


How can an architect save you money?

1. We are creative problem solvers

We analyze your constraints and highlight multiple ways to achieve your goals. Creative solutions come in all sizes and prices, and we ensure you have the information you need to choose which solution is right for you.

For example, perhaps you think an addition is the solution to your needs, but you might just need to reallocate and reorganize the space you have. Architects can see the opportunities that might not be apparent to you, especially if you live in the home and are accustomed to its current patterns.

This interior remodel reconfigured existing spaces to add function and daylight in key areas — without increasing square footage.

This interior remodel reconfigured existing spaces to add function and daylight in key areas — without increasing square footage.


2. We balance soft costs and hard costs

Soft costs include services and fees relating to design and permitting. Design services aren’t free, but they are a relatively small percentage of construction cost (5-12% of most custom homes, depending on the services provided). Creative problem solving at the beginning of a project can add up to significant savings during construction and occupancy.

Hard costs are direct construction costs—materials and labor. Material and resource efficiency is key to managing hard costs. Architects can:

  • Right-size your home so you are not overbuilding and overspending on space (and therefore labor and materials) you don’t need.

  • Design for energy efficiency so your home is more affordable to heat and cool.

  • Suggest unconventional strategies to achieve conventional goals.

For example, we helped one client achieve a 20% cost savings on structural additions by choosing to lift up their existing house and build below it, rather than building on top of the existing structure. Learn more about this unconventional solution here.

The existing home would have had to undergo significant structural alterations to support a new second story. Lifting the existing home and building the addition beneath allowed for most of the existing structure to remain, and eliminated the need for a new roof!

The existing home would have had to undergo significant structural alterations to support a new second story. Lifting the existing home and building the addition beneath allowed for most of the existing structure to remain, and eliminated the need for a new roof!


3. We balance first costs and life-cycle costs

Buildings –like cars—cost more than their initial purchase price, or “first cost.” They need to operate effectively and efficiently for their entire life cycle. They need to be heated, cooled, illuminated, and ventilated. They need to draw and supply power and water for the various activities that take place inside. All of these systems can be designed to take advantage of natural resources on your site to save on long-term operations cost.

A sneakier part of life-cycle cost is maintenance – interior and exterior material choices can have a lot to do with how much you spend to care for a home over the course of its life. You can save money in the long-term if you choose:

  • Materials that weather with age rather than degrade

  • Materials that are durable for their climate and use

  • Materials that support occupant health

Concerned with the cradle-to-grave life cycle of materials and processes? Then we can help you evaluate the environmental costs of your project life-cycle as well.


4. We design buildings to be resilient systems

Buildings are systems, not just an enclosure for stuff. All the parts of the system have an impact on operational cost, which is a significant factor in how affordable it will be to live in your house long-term. We consider the interdependency of many factors when designing for operational cost savings: the equipment and appliances you put into your home, the performance of the building envelope, and your preferences and behaviors as an occupant.

For example, our Yakima Net Positive Project incorporates passive solar, geothermal, PV panels, super-insulated walls, and smart home integration. Learn more about these integrated systems here.

Site-wide sustainable strategies provide the basis for long-term cost savings. This geothermal field was a key integrated system for this net-positive energy home.

Site-wide sustainable strategies provide the basis for long-term cost savings. This geothermal field was a key integrated system for this net-positive energy home.

5. We know when to standardize and when to customize

While every project presents a unique set of goals and constraints, there are many similarities we encounter from one project to the next. Our approach to every job includes evaluating where we can save time and money by drawing from proven solutions on past projects and where customization and innovation are the best way to address a new set of challenges.

For example, Roy Farms is a family-owned Yakima Valley farm that has been in operation for more than 100 years. As part of their commitment to a sustainable future, they asked us to remodel an existing farm building to create a healthy and satisfying work space for their field employees. For remodels like this, customization can be an important strategy, where unusual conditions or constraints exist and energy and material efficiency are important goals. Learn more about the ways we upgraded this farm to meet their sustainability goals here.

Custom wall and roof assemblies were key to reusing most of the existing structure while increasing energy efficiency.

Custom wall and roof assemblies were key to reusing most of the existing structure while increasing energy efficiency.

6. Knowledge is Purchasing Power

When you hire an architect, you get years of experience and insight focused on your needs. We are your advisor and advocate, and work to empower you to make decisions that support your goals. When we work with you from the beginning of your custom home project, we can make sure you get a home ideally suited to your needs. Our consistent involvement as your advocate from start-to-finish brings you a level of control throughout the process, so that you avoid the unhappy surprises of budget overruns and higher than expected maintenance costs.

If you are in the early planning stages of a new construction or remodeling project and you’d like to discuss it with us, please fill out our Brief Online Questionnaire.

If you are interested in a new custom home or home remodel and would like to have a more in-depth discussion of project priorities, site issues, and design goals, please contact us.

Straw Bale Construction

A Love of Straw Bale Construction


 Living Shelter Design is one of only a handful of design firms in the Pacific Northwest with a solid background in Straw Bale Construction.  It was the catalyst that turned our head to focus on ecological building design so many years ago, and has a special place in our hearts. As it’s affectionately said in Straw Bale circles, we were “Bit by the Bale Bug” and carry a lifelong affliction. Of course we approach it with reason, knowing this method isn’t for everyone or every location. However, there is something about it that sings to us and others – perhaps you hear the song too!

With over 20 projects constructed and more than a dozen hands-on workshops under our belt, we have experience and knowledge to pass on to others and can help a straw bale project run smoothly. We’d love to help out with your project, or teach you to build with bales yourself.  If you would like to be added to our mailing list for upcoming workshops and other pertinent information, please visit and sign up.


Frequently Asked Questions


What is so good about straw-bale building?

Plenty! Straw bales offer excellent insulation, over twice as much as a standard stick-framed house. This saves energy, which saves money and is kinder to the environment. They are also simple to build with, making them the perfect material for owner-builders and community groups. With a “barn-raising” type party, walls for a single-family home often will go up in one day. A straw bale home is beautiful and sculptural. The thick walls create wide window sills, and are easy to carve into niches and curves.

Straw is a non-toxic, natural material meaning healthier indoor air. A house built with straw bales typically uses less lumber, reducing the impact on our forests. Straw is annually renewable and abundant wherever grain crops are grown, and is in fact often burned as a waste product. Baling the straw for construction can reduce air pollution, and provide local farmers with additional income. Straw bales create such soundproof walls, one Nebraska pioneer family was found playing cards in their kitchen, oblivious to the tornado blowing through town!

How is a straw bale building constructed?

There are basically two types of wall systems. Originally, in turn of the 20th century homes on the northern plains, bales were used as the structural system. Many of these buildings are in good condition today, and the method is still used for buildings of small to moderate size. Dry, dense bales are stacked like big bricks, and pinned with rebar or bamboo. The roof then rests on a wood plate system at the top of the wall, which is secured to the foundation. This type of load-bearing construction is often termed “Nebraska Style“, due to its place of origin.

However, another method is often used. A simple frame of posts and beams carry the structural load of the building, while the bales act as walls and insulation. The bales are stacked in the same way as the load-bearing option, but placed either inside, outside, or in between the posts. These are termed in-fill wall systems. They are usually easier to permit, since building officials are familiar with how a frame reacts to different loading conditions, and they can allow more design flexibility.

Won’t the bales rot?

Liquid moisture can be a problem in any type of wall. Proper detailing at the floor, windows, and roof overhangs will stop liquid moisture from entering the bales. Once a good stucco finish is applied to the outside, some rain hitting the wall is not a problem. Locations with heavy wind-driven rain will benefit with wood or metal siding over a single coat of stucco. In all cases, it is important to select a stucco material with proper permeability, so your walls can allow moisture vapor to escape. As long as the bales are kept dry, you should not have any problems with rot or fungi.

Are straw bale buildings more susceptible to fire?

No, in fact they are more fire resistant than a typical framed house. Individual straws will burn, but a straw bale is so compressed, there is not enough oxygen for combustion. It is like trying to burn a phone book. Straw also is high in silica content, causing the surface of the bale to char, and block the flame from reaching farther into the bale. In laboratory tests in New Mexico, a plastered bale wall easily passed a two-hour fire rating, which is required for commercial construction.

Aren’t there problems with mice and insects?

There is no food value to straw, since the seed heads have been removed at grain harvest. No animal or insect will eat it. A mouse might tunnel into a bale wall that is not protected by plaster or stucco, but a mouse could get into a framed wall just as easily if there is a hole in the siding or drywall. The same is true with insects. If you seal your wall surfaces properly, you should have no problems with pests.

Do straw bale houses cost less to build?

Not necessarily. The cost of the wall system in a house is typically about 10 to 12% of the total cost of construction, so the walls are not really the determining factor in your overall budget. If you want a typical American house, with all the plumbing and appliances and a contractor to build it, the costs can actually be a little more than same as a home built with other wall materials. Your life-cycle costs, however, will be much less. As straw-bale pioneer Judy Knox said, “Straw is a superior material for a comparable cost.”

This is not to say you have to spend the same amount of money on your house as the average homeowner. By acting as your own contractor and investing your own sweat and ingenuity, you can save on costs substantially. Straw bale walls are easy to raise, and the rest is manageable if you keep the project fairly simple. Living Shelter can help you organize a wall raising, or could hold one or more workshops at your construction site, to train you and others in the specifics of building with straw bales.

What about getting a permit?

While some cities and many counties in Washington State have straw bale buildings they are proud of, others are more cautious about it. The 2015 Residential Building Code has a chapter on prescriptive straw bale construction, but this code release has not yet been adopted by any jurisdiction in our tri-state area. Current building codes do allow for alternative materials if a licensed architect and engineer are involved in preparing your plans, as their professional stamp of approval transfers liability of the home’s integrity to them. If you are going to build in a jurisdiction that has allowed straw bale construction in the past, it should be easy to get a permit with properly prepared plans. If this is a new material for your jurisdiction, it may take extra effort to convince the local building official that this alternative material will perform as well as the standard frame construction they have become used to. We have gotten the first straw bale homes through the permit process in many jurisdictions, and early education and collaboration are key.

Is there insurance and financing available?

Some insurance groups have insured bale homes at preferred rates, while others are more skeptical. You’ll want to shop around, and we can provide you with some agents that have historically been supportive. The same stands true for lenders. You may need a licensed contractor involved in your project to secure a construction loan. The costs of building a home out of alternative materials, such as straw bales, are being incorporated into some cost-estimating books, so well-informed insurers and appraisers are able to calculate their value. The missing link for appraisers has been finding local comparable sales, since there are still few of these homes in any geographical area. To overcome this some people have listed “wood framed with cellulose insulation” as the wall type on loan documents. As pre-owned bale homes come to the market, lenders are recognizing the value in them, with straw bale homes often selling for up to 10% above the local market.

What are the best resources to learn more?

There are many sources of information out there, and three books come to mind most readily. The Straw Bale House by Steen and Steen is a great place to begin, a good overview with lots of pictures. Build It With Bales by MacDonald and Myhrman is the definitive owner-builder manual, filled with loads of practical advice, wisdom and humor. Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron provides the most current information on building practices in many climates. The Last Straw Journal has long been publishing the latest research and findings from the straw building community at large, and there are now several Facebook pages and Linked-In groups, as well. And consider attending one of our workshops to round out your knowledge with a hands-on experience – there’s nothing like being immersed in the process. You might even get “bit by the Bale bug” and become another straw bale advocate!

Family Builds Out Old Home By Lifting It Up, Up, Up – by David Hayes

Betsy Grant and her husband Steve have wanted to own a home in the Olde Town section of Issaquah since they lived in an apartment on Front Street in 2001.

Their dream came to fruition in 2014 when a property went up for sale on First Avenue Northeast — a 1,070-square-foot rambler built in the 1950s. 

“We love the neighborhood. We wanted to be where we could walk places and ride our bikes all the time,” Betsy Grant said. “We found the location. Now we’re creating the house to fit our family.”

With two sets of twins, the Grants needed more space for their family of six. They are increasing the home’s square footage to about 2,100 and are upsizing from three bedrooms and one bath to five bedrooms, three baths and a utility guest room. They are also making the first floor more accessible for their son with special needs. 

With an all-in budget of $450,000, they didn’t want to tear down the existing structure to make way for a new one. Betsy Grant credits her architect Terry Phelan of Living Shelter Design Architects with the idea of the lift — jacking up the old house and filling in with new structure underneath. 

“I like the idea of keeping the character of the neighborhood and upgrading so the house has another 100 years of use without disregarding everything that’s already here,” Phelan said.

“We wanted to do the most cost- and resource-efficient way of making our house two stories,” Betsy Grant said. “Terry’s company came up with idea of lifting it. Two companies did a cost analysis, if it made sense to raise it.

“By raising, we save the entire roof, save all of the outside structure and the bottom subfloor and bottom structure. We get to reuse the whole foundation,” Grant added.

Craig Dye of Old Town Builders admits he was skeptical of the idea at first.

“We were shaking our heads,” Dye said. “But we sat down, did the math and saw, with the engineering requirements, it made a lot of sense to lift the existing structure.”

Dye explained that homes built in mid 1950s often had a keyway at the top of the foundation and a 2-by-4 would sit in there that was good enough to keep lateral movement from happening in a seismic event. 

“Now they require you to bolt it into the foundation. So we would be required to come in and open all the walls and positively tie into the foundation. That’s one big chunk of change right there,” he said.

Phelan said another benefit of the lift was headroom. 

“They had a pretty low ceiling on the existing structure. So by lifting, they got to choose a higher ceiling height,” she said.

With Old Town Builders on board last year, Dye said they found the right people to do the lift job on the home Jan. 11.

“We found a wonderful company, Cook Structural Movers from Fall City, with three brothers who’ve been doing it for decades,” Dye said. “Their father is a contractor and said he could do it on a dare. So he found a way and did it. Now they have specialized tools. For example, they have these hydraulic pumps and jacks. They’ll start lifting it up and once the jacks have enough head space, they’ll slip in another course of these ties. Shimmy it up, set another tie beam in and move the jack up. Just a beautiful operation.”

Grant said it took just three hours to get the home up on the pylons stacked in each of the four corners, surprising the neighbors. 

“The neighbors next door are working with Terry on a project of their own and are in the design phase,” she said. “They told me, ‘We came home and all of a sudden the house next door was taller than ours.’ It happened so fast.”

Now two years into the project, Grant feels like they’re in the home stretch. 

Dye had a different definition of home stretch.

“We’re probably at a timeline of being completely done with all the little finishes. Probably looking at another four-and-a-half to five months,” he said.

Dye said he’s amazed by Cook Structural Movers’ ability to match their lift with his build underneath.

“They gave us about an extra foot and half where top of walls will land. We have to do two things — build as plumb as possible and try to make the top plate outline match the existing pretty close. We know our walls won’t exactly be plumb here and there, so we’ll have to cheat in a touch here and there to make it land right. When the house comes down, they can nudge it into place with the jacks. Dan was telling me he could get it to match within an eighth- to quarter-inch. It is amazing.”

During the construction, the Grants were fortunate to find a rental just down the street.

“We’re staying six doors down — a miracle of timing,” she said. “A family was moving out of a rental house at the exact time we needed to move out of our house. We came to an agreement with the owner. Which is great. We can come down here and bug Craig’s crew any time we want and the kids get to play with friends on street and still walk to school. It worked out really, really well.” 

Thanks to dear David Hayes from The Issaquah Press for the good article, here is the link to the website: