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Bayside woman builds straw-insulated home (Video)

By JR Ortega
Sept. 8, 2013 at 4:08 a.m.
Updated Sept. 9, 2013 at 4:09 a.m.

Virginia Costilla, 22, mixes plaster to apply to the straw above a window in the home of Sarah Robbins in Bayside. The home is insulated with straw, which is covered with layers of earthen plaster and lime plaster. Straw insulation has many advantages, such as being naturally fire retardant, excellent insulation and the use of natural resources.

BAYSIDE - You could huff and puff all you want and never blow Sarah Robbins' straw house down.

A year and 400 straw bales later, the retired Bayside resident's home overlooking Copano Bay is almost complete.

But don't let the old bedtime tale of the "Three Little Pigs" blowing the house down fool you, she said. The home is up to city, hurricane and even earthquake code.

"It's like Christmas," Robbins said as she watched her daughter and other workers apply a lime and clay/sand plaster onto a wall created by bales of stacked straw.

Robbins had always been interested in natural building and being environmentally conscious, but it was not until she learned about the work architect Kindra Welch was doing with straw bale that she truly became more interested.

Robbins' architect, Ben Obregon, of Austin, had designed a home in Leander that Welch built from straw.

Robbins' house looks nothing like you might imagine a straw home to look.

The bales of straw serve only as the insulation, Robbins said. The bales insulate better than typical home insulation.

Most homes are insulated with fiberglass and rank as an R-13 on the insulation scale. Her home is at an R-40, she said.

The walls will be almost impenetrable to summer heat, winter cold snaps and sound, she said.

"They have great insulation value," she said. "There is something about when you walk inside these homes - it's a different feeling."

The home is being built a short distance from Copano Bay on farmland her grandfather bought. Several homes, including Robbins' existing home, are on the land, which is near Bayside.

Robbins anticipates moving into the straw home by the end of the year. So far, the project has taken just more than a year.

The 1,100-square-foot home has a grand living room, kitchen and a loft for an office and guest room that overlooks the living room. Around the kitchen is a small hallway with the master bedroom and bathroom.

Windows on the east side of the home overlook the bay. On a clear day, the Rockport water tower and causeway are visible.

The building process has been not only a lot of work but also very rewarding and fun, she said.

"You really get your hands into it all," she said.

This is independent contractor Virginia Costilla's first full project.

Costilla, a 22-year-old McAllen native, said she enjoys traveling to different areas and learning the different methods to natural living.

Some homes are even built from cob and rubber tires, she said.

"It's pretty incredible," she said about Robbins' home. "It's really nice to see how far we've come."

When the home is complete, much of the straw won't be visible, though its stucco-like walls may be a hint that the house is a bit different.

Since the walls may not be clue enough for some, Robbins has decided to install a truth window, which is a window pane placed into a patch of the straw.

"Then you can look and think, 'Yes, this house is made of straw,' " she said.



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