This House Built Out of Straw Bale Is One of the Loveliest Sustainable Homes We’ve Ever Seen
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Name: Julia Furlong, husband John Furlong and our dog
Location: Central New York State
Size: 1,400 livable square feet, but the outside is closer to 1,800 square feet. You lose a lot to the thickness of the bale walls!
Type of Home: Straw-bale house
Years lived in: 5 years (but it took us 3 years to build before we could move in, so 8 years for the whole process), owned
Before we even got married, we decided that we wanted to build a house using natural building techniques. We weren’t sure exactly what we wanted to do but it was important to us that we build in a way that was respectful of the land and the environment and that would be sustainable for us to live in long-term. When we attended a week-long straw bale construction workshop, we fell in love with the process and decided we wanted to build straw bale one day. We wound up building next door to my parents on their property and got married in the same field where we started building the following spring. It took us almost three years before we were able to move in because we did most of the work ourselves. The process was definitely hard and there were many moments when I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into, but even now it’s crazy to think that we actually did it.
Living in the country, especially in this house, is very peaceful. We have a lot of land around us, so we’re not too close to the neighbors (including my parents!). We have a ton of space to garden, our dog has a lot of space to run around, and we can take hikes back into the woods. I love sitting on the porch in the summer with a glass of wine while a warm breeze is blowing. In the winter we spend a lot of time in the living room next to our toasty warm wood stove reading or watching TV. It’s the perfect place to be on a cold, snowy day.
Apartment Therapy Survey:
My Style: Our style is kind of an amalgamation of a few things — a little bit rustic and a little bit industrial with a little bit of a traditional countryside cottage feel because of the plaster walls and timber frame.
Inspiration: I’m inspired by vintage and minimal design, natural materials, and traditional building methods — things where you can see the craft and skill that went into creating it.
Favorite Element: My favorite thing about our home is the living space, which is our living room, dining area, and kitchen. It’s not a terribly big floor plan so the space feels cozy, especially in the winter when the wood stove is going. It’s great to be in the kitchen and still be able to have a conversation with someone hanging out in the living room. It gets the most beautiful light in the afternoon and I love that the main view from this spot is out to the field and woods, rather than to the street. It’s very quiet, too, because it’s far away from the busy road and because the walls are so thick.
Biggest Challenge: The process of building was challenging. We had very little construction experience so we did a lot of learning as we went along, which meant that we sometimes had to do things over, but that’s how you learn to do it correctly. It took us nearly three years from when we started building before we were able to move in. We did nearly all of the work ourselves while working full time jobs, so when we weren’t at work, we were working on the house. We basically didn’t take any time off from building for those three years. Any vacations we had were spent working on the house. It was a hard few years, but so worth it in the end. Just the process of learning how to do things was rewarding. We’d finish one task and be so excited that we finished it, which would kind of propel us into the next thing on the list.
Proudest DIY: Does it count if the whole house was a DIY? We did almost all of the construction work on the house ourselves so it truly was a labor of love. I’d have to say, though, that the few big things we finished were the most exciting, like the day we raised the timber frame. We’d spent months cutting all the parts and pieces by hand through a gruelingly hot summer and finally putting it all together with the help of our friends and family was amazing. Setting the first straw bale and then starting the plastering process were two other big moments where it felt like we finally were reaching our goals.
As far as DIYs since then, I’m pretty proud of the two closets in our entryway that I built. It took me a few years to solidify an idea for what would work best with how we live in the space, but now that they are done, I’m realizing how much we really needed practical storage space. As with most things in the house, they still need doors and trim, but just having a place to store our things neatly has been great. It seems so obvious, but once you organize things, you realize how much you desperately needed it.
Biggest Indulgence: Our kitchen cabinets and island that were made by a local woodworker were worth every penny. The dimensions of the space are a little tricky, so it allowed us to build exactly what we wanted that would fit in the space without being at the mercy of standard off-the-shelf cabinets. We also were able to custom design the island to exactly what we wanted. It’s just the two of us and we eat at the island every day. It’s the perfect combination of dining space and additional storage.
The woodworker also made the banister on the second floor as well as our first floor vanity and custom saloon-door style shower doors. Working with him on these things allowed us to create something custom that feels true to our style and the feel of the house.
Is there something unique about your home or the way you use it? Straw bale construction in and of itself is unique and people are always curious to learn more about it and understand how it works. We have a “truth window” that is just a picture frame that we plastered into the wall so people can see what the house is really made of. The thickness of the walls, which comes from the bales and plaster, feels very different and almost resembles some historic homes you see in the English countryside. The curve of the windows throws the light into the space in a really beautiful way and makes everything feel soft and welcoming. People always come in and want to touch the walls. I think the curves and the subtle movement along the face of the walls brings a kind of connection to nature in a way that a modern home doesn’t. Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just a different reaction!
The layout of the house is pretty typical; we didn’t do anything crazy as far as rooms go. We did make the house livable all on one floor so if we can’t climb the stairs when we’re old or if our parents come live with us, it’s accessible. There’s a bedroom on the first floor and the shower in the first floor bathroom is accessible, too, so you don’t have to step over a curb. It looks nice that way and it’s functional!
What are your favorite products you have bought for your home and why? I love our dining room table from the Shaker Workshops. It’s a kit that you build and finish yourself, but the actual functionality of the drop-leaf table is great. Our dining room isn’t very big and putting a table in the middle of it would mean you’d have an awkward path from the exterior door into the space. The table would basically block the entrance. The drop-leaf table is perfect because we can push it up against the wall when we don’t need it, but when we pull it out, we can fit six to eight people around it. That classic Shaker functionality has been perfect here.
Please describe any helpful, inspiring, brilliant, or just plain useful small space maximizing and/or organizing tips you have: One thing I’ve learned is to not jump into a solution. It’s easy to just go out and buy something that you think will help but then it ultimately doesn’t serve you well. It took us so long to build, but it gave us a chance to think about how we would use the space and what would work best for us. For example, there was supposed to be a big pantry wall between our kitchen and living room — it’s on the drawings and everything — but we decided not to build it because once we were in the space, we didn’t want to obstruct the view. Sure, it would have been nice to have more storage, but this way we’re not keeping too much stuff around and we have a better view.
Going back to the closets I built… it took years of thinking about what to do until I finally decided that building cubbies in the one closet would be best. And I thought about putting a bench in the other closet for a few years before just going for it. By doing so, I was able to maximize the floor space without having to sacrifice some of it to a piece of furniture. Maybe it’s a little crazy to think about something for so long, but if we hadn’t taken our time, we might not have come to those conclusions that ultimately wound up being best for us. Right now we’re thinking about making some changes to the second floor so we can have more space in our bedroom but it took us a few years to come up with a solution that will probably create a much better space for us. A part of me wishes we could have left the whole house open and lived in it for a while before we decided where the rooms should be!
On a smaller scale, I think using furniture that is flexible, like our dining table, is very practical to make the most of a small space. I’m also a big fan of putting up a shelf rather than buying a piece of furniture. It goes back to us not having a ton of floor space. I think a shelf can do the work of being a storage solution while also making the room feel more open.
Finally, what’s your absolute best home secret or decorating advice? Don’t worry about things being unfinished before you feel like you can really enjoy your space. There’s a lot of pressure these days to finish projects or decorate as quickly as possible, but creating a space that is truly your own takes time. There are still so many unfinished things in our house (I mean, we literally have no interior doors!) but we’ve made so many great memories here already and it’s never felt like those things were holding us back. I’ve loved our home at every stage, even when we had plywood countertops and outdoor furniture in the living room. I hope other people feel the same way about their homes, too.
PAINT & COLORS
- Cubbies — DIY
- Bench — DIY
- Tan bins — Target
FIRST FLOOR BATHROOM
- Vanity — Custom, Danmade Designs
- Vanity top — Quartz, Calacatta Clara
- Sconces — Schoolhouse (ours are slightly different than this version)
- Shower doors — Custom, Danmade Designs
- Faucet — Kohler Brushed Bronze Finish (no longer made)
- Mirror — Target
- Enamel Tray — Falcon Enamelware
- Enamel Cup — Falcon Enamelware
- Artwork — Christopher Baker
SECOND FLOOR BATHROOM
This house tour’s responses were edited for length and clarity.
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