Ben Simpson uses every last straw bale to build energy-efficient homes in the Valley and beyond.
Straw man: Builder Ben Simpson poses in front of one of his current projects
Photograph by Jennifer May
Straw Bale Construction
Building a house made out of straw didn’t work out so well for the first of the Three Little Pigs. He should have hired Ben Simpson of Rosendale. Not only would his home have withstood the wolf’s destructive huffing and puffing, it would have saved the parsimonious porker at least 30 percent on his heating bills and reduced his carbon hoofprint.
Simpson, 41, is the sole proprietor of Growing Places, a company that specializes in designing and building environmentally friendly structures. His particular métier is straw. Simpson has adopted techniques first used in the early 1900s by farmers in Nebraska. The Great Plains, of course, are not known for their trees. With wood and other building materials scarce, hardy pioneers used what they had. They stacked bales of straw, and then slapped a roof on them. “The bales were strong enough to carry the roof load and keep out the rain and snow,” Simpson says. Some of these structures are still standing to this day.
An exterior wall of a straw bale house, pictured before covering material is added
An interior window sill area shows the wall with plaster applied directly to the hayPhotographs by Jennifer May
“Here in the Northeast, we use the bales in non-load-bearing construction,” Simpson says. He starts with a typical wood frame (using wood from local mills). He then stacks the straw bales within the frame, smoothes the walls with a weed-whacker (seriously), and covers them inside and out with an earth-based plaster, wood siding, cement stucco, or other protective surface.
The straw is not only strong enough to hold up the walls and keep inhabitants dry, it’s also a powerful insulator. The New York State Building Code requires insulation values of R-21, but straw bales boast a value of R-35, he says. “You’re using an agricultural waste product to get an amazing building.”
Unlike other builders, Simpson tends to pick the materials first, and design the structure around them
The Accidental Builder
Simpson is a born tinkerer. Growing up in Connecticut, he was the kind of boy who preferred taking toys apart to actually playing with them. “As a kid, I built a bike for myself out of parts in a neighbor’s garage,” he says. “I’d take radios apart and reassemble them without looking at directions. I’m not sure where this came from — no one else in my family was like that.”
He attended SUNY New Paltz, graduating with a degree in geography in 1990. His interest in environmental issues came alive at this time. “I took ecology and geology classes, and spent the summer of 1988 working for the forest service in the Sierra Nevada Mountains,” he says. “I knew I needed to find a niche to make a difference in the world environmentally.”
After college he worked as a stonemason, then as a hired hand on an organic farm in Orange County. He already had helped design and build greenhouses and install passive solar power on the farm when he first learned about straw-bale design. “A good friend of mine, a professional engineer, had seen straw buildings in the Southwest,” Simpson says. “I thought it was really cool, and that we could come up with an idea for the farm.”
A decorated room in a straw bale home in Forestburg, Sullivan County
He attended a workshop on the technique, and then dove in. The result: “My first little straw-built greenhouse, to grow sunflower sprouts and pea shoots.” And that launched him into his current, unexpected career path. “I’m not the kind of person who says, ‘This is what I want to do with my life,’ ” says Simpson, who now shares that life with his wife, Ami, and one-year-old son, Reuben. “All this kind of connected and evolved to what I am doing now.”
The Responsible Builder
After his success with the greenhouse, Four Winds Farm in Gardiner hired him to build a “multi-use agricultural space” for their CSA, which includes an office, a greenhouse, and two root cellars. “That was my first large project,” he says. Along the way, he learned about all aspects of construction, from foundations to roofing and everything in between. He now can do most things himself, although he often chooses to concentrate on the areas he considers most important, such as foundations, roofing and, of course, stacking straw. The other jobs — electrical and plumbing work, for instance — he typically subcontracts.
The Four Winds project took two years to complete; all his buildings take longer than traditional construction, he says. “It’s not like a conventional crew that puts a building up like an assembly line. Natural buildings tend to ask for so many custom details, so the decisions need to be made while the project is being built. The more time you take, the better chance it will have a longer life and be what the client wants.” Simpson says the biggest challenge is working with clients to create an appealing home that is still simple. “A lot of people have complicated visions, like round buildings with many angles and multiple windows. The more of that [kind of detail], the harder it is to put it together. It would require lots of tiny [customized-cut] bales — it takes four hours to make one bale — and a lot of people get carried away.” He adds that another challenge is protecting the straw from the elements while the house is under construction.
Unlike other builders, Simpson tends to pick the materials first, and then design the structure around them. “Materials are a big issue for me,” he says. “If someone wants a timber frame, I ask if they want locally sawn wood or antique, recycled wood. Do they want the framing to show or not? All these are decided before I begin to design.” And straw bale is not the only game in town. “Sometimes we use a coating of bale as finish, cord wood construction, or old tires filled with earth.”
He also wants his clients involved in the whole project. “I talk to my clients for one to two hours every week, making sure the building fits their needs and lifestyle while remaining environmentally sound. We often talk a lot about size. I ask them if they really need 5,000 square feet. We have become disconnected with our living spaces. People need to take responsibility for what they put on the earth.” In addition to his clients, Simpson sometimes gets the whole neighborhood involved with his “barn-raising” style of building. “I’ve done workshops where 20-30 people come for the weekend, and I’ll do a slide show and Q&A. It’s all hands-on,” he says. Because his jobs take a long time, he has worked on only about nine projects in the past 12 years (and this includes acting as a consultant or contractor on other designers’ projects). But that’s enough for Simpson. “I’ve been busy, I make a decent living,” he says. And the slower pace helps build relationships with his clients. “Which I like,” he says. “We go on hikes together. We become friends.”
For more information, visit Simpson’s Web site, www.yourgrowingplaces.com.