Walk into the house. Close the door behind you. Listen to the silence.
Silence is what you get when your walls are thick as a bale of straw. You also get insulation with a value of R50. But there's more. People who build with straw insist there is more."Calming," says Kim Pederson of the feeling inside her straw bale home near Torrey. Other Utahns call their homes "serene."
They chose straw, the most renewable of resources, for walls. They cover the walls with adobe, made from the soil nearby. They use words like "green" and "sustainable" to describe their homes. They use the word "harmonious."
Jan Simone and Cliff Crutch-field talk about light, energy and land as they describe their straw bale home near Moab. Walking in the door, visitors first see a lap pool. It stretches to the far windows, leading the eye toward an expanse of mountains. The room is sunny. The air is fresh and still.
Guests just seem to relax in her home, says Simone."They sort of sink into the space. They seem to let go."
Meanwhile in Mt. Pleasant, on the other side of the state, Ann King gets a similar feeling in the new San Pitch Humanities Center on the campus of Wasatch Academy. This one-room straw-bale cottage came about through King's efforts. She's an adjunct professor at the private high school.
From the front door of the cottage, a visitor sees the whole house. It's a simple space: four walls, five big windows. Niches carved in the walls hold candles, hold willow pole curtain rods.
Someday, King wants to build a bale home. The humanities center gave her - and dozens of people in central Utah - a chance to learn the technique.
In 1997, King wrote a proposal and got a small grant from the Utah Humanities Council. She lobbied zoning officials. She garnered support - and more funds - from school administrators. Then, she enlisted students, teachers and neighbors to help build the state's first straw bale public building.
They used waste, chaff left after a neighbor cut his barley. They paid $1 per bale. And from these leftovers, King explains, they built a sound, nontoxic, energy-efficient building.
The center is used for meditation, poetry readings, music ensembles, workshops. It's a pretty and quiet place to sit and weave. But its most important purpose was to teach. King says, "I wanted to show teenagers you can take construction into your own hands - and live in a work of art."
It is a lesson people all over the world are learning. Studying straw bale, King found over 40,000 Internet entries on the topic. It's most popular in the southwestern United States. But straw bale is everywhere:
In Michigan, three women built a bale flower shop. In Wales, a man reports that 18-inch-thick walls keep his home warm and dry. In New Mexico, volunteers built a 500-square-foot bale home for an 86-year-old Navajo woman.
Straw bale is trendy yet traditional. On the Great Plains, in the early 1900s, neighbors would gather to build a house in a day. They stacked bales, stuck poles through the center to keep the bales from shifting, cut out windows and doors, pitched a roof, then plastered. Those houses still stand.
Of course, today's homes must be made of sterner straw. Today, we have building codes, points out preservation architect Allen Roberts. Roberts, along with contractor Bill Hunt, worked on the Wasatch Academy center.
Roberts says building inspectors are suspicious of straw. It's new. So far, all the straw bale structures in Utah - and there are fewer than a dozen - have been engineered with post and beam construction.
They are wood frame homes with straw infill. (Both the humanities center and the Simone/Crutchfeild home were framed with Douglas fir recycled from the trestle that once spanned the Great Salt Lake.)
Given Utah's earthquake codes, Roberts can't see anyone issuing a building permit for load-bearing bale walls. Although if it didn't need a wood frame, a straw house would certainly cost less.
But in other parts of the country straw bale walls are load-bearing. And Roger Evans, director of building and zoning in Salt Lake City, doesn't see why load-bearing wouldn't work here. "There's some pretty fair engineering data on straw bale construction," he says. "There are load-bearing (bale) walls in California; some in seismic zone 4. We're only 3."
Kenton Peters, architect for Simone and Crutchfield, says Evans is unusually open-minded. He says most inspectors, like most contractors and architects, are still learning about straw. Their reaction is often like what King initially heard: "Little lady, what you're trying to do here is illegal."
So proponents must become teachers. They must arm themselves with studies.
They must explain: "No, we don't want vapor barriers because one of the benefits of bale is that it breathes. And no, we don't need to worry about insects - once the adobe is applied. And no, we don't need to worry about fire because bales are dense - ever tried to burn a phone book?"
Or at least that used to be the thinking about fire. Until Simone and Crutchfield's home caught fire while it was being built.
The walls were up when a spark from a grinder ignited a pile of loose straw. There were no hoses on the site. The whole thing burned in 30 minutes.
The $100,000 loss was covered by insurance. Architect Peters and the contractor, Tom Reese, determinedly started over, with hoses and a clean site. They remain convinced by the studies: Once plastered, straw is as safe as wood.
Still, bale believers around the country were shaken by the blaze. Simone credits a newsletter, "The Last Straw," for tackling the subject, cautioning homebuilders to be careful of loose straw, alleviating some fear.
Now that her house is done and she's lived in it for a year, and realized the energy-savings and realized how peaceful her place is, Simone says she would never hesitate to build with straw again. This house feels safe, she says.
It's a place where not only she and her husband, but visitors, too, feel sheltered. She uses the word "cocoon." She uses the word "nurtured."