I met Paul and Sara in 2015, long before they moved into their very own Applegate Cottage, at my seven-day, hands-on workshop in La Grande, Oregon and was immediately struck by what an awesome couple they are. They had a work ethic like I’d not seen in years, and were always full of smiles and enthusiasm. That energy didn’t waver, even when the work at hand was less than “fun.” I think I will always remember the two of them shoveling plaster for hours in the near 100 degree heat of eastern Oregon with smiles from ear to ear.
The structure we were working on was relatively small, just over 1000 square feet, and fit the concept that they were hoping for regarding their own build: small enough to tackle on their own and with a functional and beautiful design. These key pieces led them to choose the Applegate Cottage plans for their property on Whidbey Island, Washington.
They were determined to build the house themselves, even though they didn’t have much experience in residential construction. Their success is a testament to people around the world who build their own straw bale homes. As you’ll read, it’s not always an easy journey, but you CAN do it!
Sara and Paul have shared their story and some great advice with us. They have also shared some great photos! You can click on the images to make them bigger too, so you can really see what they’ve built. Here’s their story.
An Interview with Paul and Sara
-Please introduce yourselves…a bit about you, what sparks your joy, how you got to where you are today.
Hi I’m Sara! I’m a metal artist, jeweler and new mom. I love building structures using both natural and conventional methods, and creating all sorts of unique functional objects for indoor and outdoor use. I also love playing around in my patio garden and spending too much money on plants.
Hi I’m Paul! I enjoy vegetable gardening, natural building, and just being outside in general, whether it’s hiking or camping or just tinkering around the ol’ homestead. I work as a project manager on residential solar electric installations with Whidbey Sun and Wind.
In 2011 we bought 5 acres on Whidbey Island, WA, built a little off grid cabin in the woods and lived in it for 6 years while we saved money to build our straw bale dream house: the Applegate Cottage. After 4 years our home is pretty much finished and we love it so much. Then last November, we welcomed our 1st baby daughter home! We can’t wait to share our love of building with her!
-Sara, as you know, I love your artwork and am always impressed by your skills whether it be creating fine jewelry or wielding an arc welder to build a fire box or sculpture. Will you share your websites with our readers so they can see some of the incredible creations you have made?
Sure. I have a couple to share. Thanks for asking! Here’s the deal with my websites:
-How did you find out about straw bale construction and why did you decide to use the technology for your dream home?
We became enamored with natural building early on as we began dreaming about building a house. We researched many different styles of natural building and needed to find a balance between hard-core natural building and a building style that we could get through the building department. The straw bale building method we found at StrawBale.com seemed to check all the boxes.
We were very inspired by the aesthetics and functionality of straw bale construction. We love the voluptuous, organic curves that can be formed and plastered into the walls. And the exceptional insulative properties of straw bale appealed to our interests in living a lower impact lifestyle.
-Why did you choose the Applegate Cottage plans specifically? What inspired you about the house and how has your vision of how it would turn out compared to it in reality?
We chose the Applegate Cottage for a few reasons. We wanted to build and live in a smaller house. We reject the idea of a large house being a symbol of status or success. To us a smaller home meant freedom. It would take less time and less money to build, as well as less time and energy to maintain and keep clean.
The Applegate Cottage also looked like a house that a couple of novice builders could tackle. While there were challenges and many learning opportunities, we did successfully complete the build almost entirely on our own. We hired out the roofing and propane plumbing, and of course hosted a workshop to get the bailing done, but everything else we did ourselves.
-What was the build process like? High and low points? Reality vs what you were thinking it would be like to build?
The first 2 years of construction involved a lot of time spent just figuring out how to do stuff. We spent a lot of time researching, problem solving and playing around until we figured it out. Each process brought new challenges–by the end of one process when we finally felt proficient, it was on to learning the next one. And there were so many things to learn, not just straw baling, but forming concrete, plumbing, carpentry, drywall, electrical, cabinetry and on and on.
It was frustrating at times. We had some setbacks with the building department which resulted in some stressful scrambling and delays. Another low point was when we botched our earthen floor recipe. We had to rip out the entire floor and spend some weeks refining our recipe before we finally installed the floor successfully. (Now the floor is awesome and usually the first thing people notice.)
But for the most part it was a blast. It was thrilling to see each new part of the house get completed and to feel proud that we did it ourselves. There is nothing as satisfying as watching a building grow and having an intimate understanding of how it is put together and functions as a whole system.
I mentioned the first 2 years of construction, what about the 3rd and 4th year? Well, after two years the house was complete enough to get an occupancy permit and move in. After that we slowed way down and got distracted with gardening and landscaping while we slowly chipped away at the interior finishing touches. We actually still have a couple things to do.
-What’s next for you with the build/the project?
The Applegate house has so many built-in storage opportunities and we need to finish them before we have a toddler getting into everything! We still have to complete those wonderfully deep window seats as well as a built-in breakfast nook with plenty of storage in the seats.
-If you’re comfortable, feel free to share any information about costs, budget, etc
Contrary to the advice of just about everyone when it comes to planning a house build we didn’t really work out a budget. We had spent the previous few years dumping money into the mortgage on the land and had it paid off, and we were living in an extremely rustic off-grid cabin to save on our living expenses. A small sacrifice to our short-term living situation enabled us to put our paychecks into the house build instead of rent/mortgage. We worked full time as we built the house and just bought materials when we could.
I tried to keep a spreadsheet of our expenses and did pretty well up until the point it was livable, but definitely not finished. At that point we were at about $75,000 including plans and permitting, not including septic, electric utility connection, or the solar water heating system.
-What advice do you have for others thinking about building their own straw bale house? Is there anything you wish you had known ahead of time? What got you through times of challenge?
Overall we had relatively few major setbacks considering this was our first real home build. But one of the most challenging areas for us was plastering with natural hydraulic lime plaster. Plastering is hard work, has a bit of a learning curve and hydraulic lime plaster is not cheap. DIY is possible (we did it!) but hiring a skilled professional is worth considering, particularly for the finish coat. We did the work ourselves and it often felt like we were sprinting a marathon while learning how to run. Here are some key things we learned:
- Learn as much as you can before diving in.
- Be sure to fully wet down the wall the day before adding subsequent coats!
- Keep your hands and tools clean and dry, and your skin wound free while plastering. We have some serious lime burn scars from not following this advice.
- Consider the time of year and your climate before doing your exterior coats of plaster. We saturated our walls before the brown coat (2nd coat) in the fall. Being that we live in the Pacific Northwest, this was followed by an entire winter of cool humid/rainy days. The walls stayed wet until summer and contributed to some mildew smells emerging from the outlets. Fortunately, the smell went away after a nice long hot summer and firing up the wood stove a lot.
Other bits of advice:
Building gets much harder and slower once you’ve moved in. Do your best to get it done before it becomes your home.
- Our building department is often backlogged and understaffed. Our advice is to start your permitting journey sooner than later and expect delays.
- Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is stop working. There were plenty of mistakes made that could have been avoided if we had slowed down, stopped for a while, and rested. While we seemed to be working constantly, working a job during the week and building on weekends, holidays, vacation days, and most evenings, I think working a normal 9-5 during the week gave us time to step away from the build, focus our energy on something else, and then come back with a clearer head to tackle any struggles with the build.
-Any remarks about how StrawBale.com helped you with the build are welcome.
Strawbale.com gave us the education and support we needed to confidently build our dream home ourselves. The Video Download Set was a huge part of our decision to use this system of straw bale building. The videos basically demonstrate step-by-how to build a straw bale house from foundation to framing to finish plaster. This level of detail is so valuable for a DIY homebuilder. When you combine this with the hands-on experience gained from attending a straw bale workshop, you are ready to dive in. Also hosting a workshop is a very cost-effective way to get a lot of work done on the house and it comes with consultations with Andrew throughout your entire home build. It is so nice to be able to turn to a helpful expert when you run into those inevitable kinks.
Speaking of workshops, they are truly amazing experiences beyond the educational part. We have attended, hosted and helped at workshops and they are really fun and always seem to be attended by really awesome people. It feels like summer camp for adults. The evening bonfires are such a great opportunity to throw around ideas and share dreams. We always leave feeling inspired and having made lifelong friends.
-What do you love about the house?
One of the best features of the Applegate House is the ample natural light. There are large windows on three sides of the living space and because the living space is a relatively small area, daylight penetrates all the way into the room. We rarely turn on the lights during the day.
Another great feature is that the eaves regulate solar gain so that in the summer, most of the direct sunlight is shaded and the house stays cool.
Of course, as is the case with most straw bale homes, it is well insulated: cozy in the winter and a pleasant refuge in the summer heat.
Also, we love how straw bale homes, in general, have such organic and sculptural interior walls, especially around windows and doors. The round window above the front door always gets compliments.
We made a few changes to the stock Applegate plans that I think make the house much better for us. We love to cook, so having decent kitchen space was important. We bumped the south wall of the house out 3 more feet, which gives us significantly more counter space. We also added a small mechanical room to the west of the bathroom, moving the water heater in there. This room also houses the storage tank for the solar water heating system.
One of our favorite parts about our house is the earthen floor. We were turned on to the idea by some fellow participants at the straw bale workshop we attended. It’s beautiful, soft, warm, and just a joy for the feet! I can’t say enough good things about it and highly recommend that anyone looking for a natural, low embodied energy, low cost (when DIY), and beautiful floor ought to consider it. It’s one of the best decisions we made.
Overall our house, like so many other straw bale houses, has a unique warmth and feel that conventional homes seem to lack. It’s a bright space with soft lines that makes us feel positive and creative. It has everything we need in a cozy and efficient space. We are so thrilled with our decision to build our very own Applegate House and we look forward to raising our family here!
Below are a few more shots of the house to give you a sense of what a stunning job Sara and Paul did on their home. They not only built an Applegate Cottage like no other, with their own flavor and details, but also created a beautiful space around the home with landscaping, sculptures and more. I’m so grateful for them sharing their experience with you all. I hope you have found the inspiration to build your own dream straw bale home. If you want to jump in and get your hands dirty, but aren’t quite sure if you’re ready to build your own home just yet, I strongly recommend you join us at a seven-day, hands-on workshop. You will learn tons, gain the experience and confidence you need, and you’ll make life long friends along the way. You can check out the current workshop schedule HERE and get yourself headed down the road towards success today.
Your comments are welcome, as always. I’m sure many of you are as impressed as I am with their creation. Let’s share some love…