Holland Affordable Strawbale Senior Housing Project

      Vermont’s first straw bale affordable senior housing project has been built in Holland, in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Becky Masure, project manager for the affordable housing non-profit, Rural Edge, says, “The Page Holland Senior Housing project helps seniors retain their independence while they remain in Holland close to their extended local community of family and friends.”
      Evelyn Page, now deceased, donated land from her family’s nearby farm and funding in memory of her late husband to Rural Edge. Recently, more standardized energy efficient construction methods have become increasingly expensive for them, often making it difficult to achieve their affordability and long term performance goals. Here, Rural Edge on this project, tests a new approach and new-old ideas.
      Straw bale appealed to the them for a number of reasons such as helping with fire-resistance, insulation capability of the straw, savings on labor costs, availability of local talent to build this way, carbon footprint reduction, low-embodied energy, chemical and allergy free composition. Enduring comfort, durability, and the beauty also inspired Rural Edge to try this approach. So they asked the architects to consider straw bale as a possibility after reviewing other choices.
Interior Living Unit Panorama
      Ward Joyce Design with Arocordis Design as a collaborator designed the project, with Ina Hladky providing structural engineering. They designed two single bedroom apartments with a shared common area, an entry porch, and separate unit porches facing south. The building sits on the top of a hillside site. Taking architectural form cues from nearby farm buildings, the bent uplifting roof reaches south towards dramatic rolling farmland vistas. Built on a cost-reducing frost-protected concrete slab, the builder installed empty sleeves designed into the slab for future installation of on-site solar electric PVs with the potential for greater self-reliance and renewable readiness.
      The architects sited the building facing the long way south to north orientation for passive solar heating. Operable awning and casement windows naturally ventilate each unit and common area. Ceiling fans circulate air in the living spaces.
      A small parking area serves building residents and visitors with a winding drive leading to nearby Page Road. Eventually as the site is finished, the owner will install and maintain pathways around the building along with a small vegetable garden and edible landscaping to provide fresh food for residents.
      Uncontrolled moisture is the natural enemy of straw bale construction, so the architects paid close attention to strategies reducing exposure to wind driven rain and snow. Extensive roof overhangs shed water away from the plaster and stucco walls. A two-foot-high double-stud pony wall forms a base on which the non-structural straw bales rest. The pony wall is cellulose-insulated. Strawbales extend up to the underside of an I-joist framed cellulose insulated sloping roof clad in gray EPDM. This is an abbreviated name for Ethylene-Propylene-Diene-Monomer, a long lasting rubberized roofing system used in low-slope situations like this.

View of Main Entry
      Lee Cooper of Back 2 Basics Builders, the general contractor, built a post and beam frame, with 18 inches of straw bale surrounding it, to support the roof. The builders installed air fins made of ½” homosote, finished with air-sealing tape fit into specially detailed slots in the wood frame helping to reduce heat loss at joints between materials. Multiple rough and finished coats of plaster encapsulate exterior and interior faces of the straw bale wall enclosure. Natural colored lime coatings and wood finishes were used along with other easy to care materials for interior finishes such as polished concrete floor. 
      New Frameworks Natural Building is the straw bale consultant, with Ben Graham and Deva Racusin working on the project. Ben helped the architects with the unique detailing of the straw bale enclosure system. Deva provided construction administration assistance during the straw bale installation and assisted Lee Cooper with straw bale enclosure construction and air-sealing work. 
      Rural Edge is seeking certification from Efficiency Vermont for the project, as a Vermont Energy Star Home Project. Efficiency Vermont provided invaluable technical assistance during construction. This includes inspections as blower door testing, some of which are currently under way. These help prevent energy losses that might result from unnoticed air leaks that might develop during construction. Energy Balance, of Montpelier, Vermont is the energy consultant.
      This innovative renewable ready project offers a natural building alternative for putting “affordability” back into affordable housing. When entering the building a “Truth” window graces the entry hall revealing the straw bale wall system to help educate. Time will tell what sort of impact the Page Project will have on Rural Edge’s overall affordability approach and other’s around the State. 

Updated 9/9/2013 - Originally appeared in August issue of Green Energy Times.  Earlier in process articles were published in the spring here

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