Sister builds zero-energy straw-bale house

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Tuesday 23, November 2010 | Category:   Consecrated Life

Sister Jane Omlor, O.S.F., a Franciscan sister of Tiffin, Ohio, lived for 10 years in Mingo County, West Virginia where she saw mountaintop-removal mining leave her and her neighbors without well water. Seeing environmental destruction firsthand, she coordinated the construction of the Web of Life Ecology Center, built primarily with recycled materials. Earlier, while living in Spencer, West Virginia, she organized and assembled a “straw bale” chapel. Now, in Tiffin, she’s project manager for the building of a straw bale house she will live in.

The house, named Little Portion Green, is an effort of Project STRAW (Saving Today’s Resources In Awesome Ways), which itself is part of the Franciscan Earth Literacy Center, a sponsored ministry of the Sisters of St. Francis of Tiffin. The home will serve as a demonstration and educational facility to show how a house does not have to “use any more energy than we can produce ourselves,” Omlor says, and save resources by using passive solar design, solar panels, straw bale insulation with earth plaster, Energy Recovery Ventilation, and other systems. It will be the first certified passive-energy structure in Ohio and the first certified passive straw-bale house in the United States.

Designed in the style of a “little Ohio farmhouse," as Omlor describes it, the 1,500-square-foot home will have two bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, a kitchen, and a living room. What it won’t have are a furnace and an air conditioning system. The house will be heated and cooled with an energy-recovery ventilation system or electric air-exchange unit. It will have electricity but rely on solar power.

Underneath the house’s concrete slab are four feet of a material called millcell, a product from Germany made from recycled glass, which prevents cold from radiating up into the house and helps keep heat inside. The roof will be made largely of recycled steel. Interior doors, railings, and other elements were salvaged for reuse from the St. Francis convent when a portion of the building was razed. Extra-large, triple-pane, high-efficiency windows will be mostly south-facing with deep-set sills. The rounded walls—and that’s where the bales come in—will be insulated with bales of locally grown straw and covered with an earth-tone clay plaster—all sustainable materials.

The house is expected to cost about $100,000, about half of which has been raised so far. Straw-bale houses cost more to build, but the savings come on utility bills. Almost 300 donors have "bought" a bale of straw for $100 each and will have their names etched into a glass "truth window." "In every straw-bale house there's a 'truth window' because there's always a skeptic that walks in and says, “This is not built of straw” because you can't see the straw," Omlor told the Toledo Blade. "So you open up this door and there's the straw."

See the project’s website. To buy a bale for the house, contact Barb DeBarbrie at Here’s the Little Portion Green PowerPoint:

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