Green, hip, and cozy—the three words seem an unlikely combination. But that’s exactly what Travis and Psalm Courtemanche have achieved with their straw-bale home in Franklin. Solar panels and natural insulation reduce the home’s carbon footprint, bright colors and well-placed antiques bring back the best of 1950s interior design, and yet the home is an inviting place for children to play. It’s the kind of place only a carpenter versed in green home construction and an artist with a gift for interior design could dream up, a description that fits Travis and Psalm perfectly.
Like the home of the first little piggy, the Courtemanche home is literally held up by straw. Vertically stacked straw bales provide most of the structural support and insulation for the home. Travis was first drawn to straw because it vastly outperforms traditional fiberglass insulation. “Hugely better, unimaginatively better,” he says.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection estimates straw-bale homes offer three times the insulating value of new wood-frame homes and 10 times that of older homes.
The difference is in the depth. While straw offers an insulating value of R-2 per inch in comparison to R-3.5 for fiberglass, straw-bale homes need huge walls to safely support the weight of the roof. The thick walls of the Courtemanche home give it a value of R-48 before factoring in heat loss from windows and doors.
Straw homebuilders can afford the extra inches; straw is cheap and straw design eliminates the need for some costly wood framing. Travis estimates it costs just as much to insulate the first-floor ceiling with traditional insulation as it costs to insulate the rest of the home with straw.
Straw bale’s growing popularity can be chalked up to everything old being new again. Straw-bale construction was invented by Nebraska farmers in the 1880s and was a popular building method in the West up until 1940. Green builders rediscovered the method in the back-to-the-land building movement in the 1970s, but straw only recently gained acceptance from some code enforcement officers and insurance companies.
The straw resurgence hasn’t spread as quickly in the humid Northeast because of mold fears, but straw-building advocate Joyce Coppinger, managing editor of the Last Straw Journal, says such fears ignore straw bale’s track record. Even Nebraska can be humid, she says.
“Some parts of the state are very humid and some are not,” Coppinger says. Travis liked the idea of straw bale, but he didn’t think it would pass code in Maine. He changed his mind after working on the flooring of a Freeport school with straw-bale walls.
“If a school in Freeport can pass code with straw bale, you can get it built anywhere,” he says.
Psalm says building with straw was relatively easy. The bales were stacked vertically and enclosed with chicken wire before being stuccoed over with a mixture of lime, sand, and granite. She says all their friends came over, donned rubber gloves, and slapped on the stucco with paint brushes and five-gallon buckets.
“It’s a party,” she says.
Travis says the most important step to avoid future mold problems is to keep straw dry during the building process. They built the roof before attempting to install the straw and then waited for a stretch of sun. “You’ve got to know your weather’s good and you hope they’re right,” he says.
Another key is to have the home properly ventilated. Last Straw’s Joyce Coppinger says ventilation is a lost art; many modern homes are too tightly constructed to allow air to flow, which can harm air quality and allow mold buildup.
“A house isn’t a dead entity; it needs to be able to breathe,” she says. But the Courtemanche home, while cozy enough to only need a small fire in the dead of winter, has ventilation to spare. Many of the windows are vintage and have only one windowpane, allowing plenty of air flow. Psalm says the choice is a conscious one; they’ve always liked the air flow of older homes. Besides, the windows fit well with the retro décor.
“It’s form over function,” Travis says.
Actually, the interior design could best be described as a case of chic playfulness over green earnestness. Warm colors on the walls and the furniture and every item in a room fit the cheerful blast-from-the-past theme, from the tasteful 1950s pinup memorabilia to a bookshelf full of turn-of-the-century children’s books. The interior design was not happenstance, but a result of Psalm’s careful vision.
“I don’t buy something unless I know where it goes in the home,” she says. Though from a family of artists, Psalm says she fell into interior design while cleaning the home of another interior designer. She couldn’t help but offer suggestions and soon found herself with a few informal clients. Psalm is an avid antique hunter and talks with wistfulness of a two-acre flea market in Massachusetts. She says she’s always been drawn to looks of the past. “I always dressed in dresses for the ’50s,” she says.
But the home’s look is a far cry from the unfriendly chrome of the worst of ultramodern ’50s design. Instead, it’s a place where their two children, 7-year-old Isabelle and 2-year-old Poppy, can romp and pound out homemade play-dough on a cold winter’s day. Even the normal icky trappings of solar-powered homes (batteries, wires, etc.) have been wisely confined to the nearby henhouse.
The home was built without a mortgage. By using a team of friends for his construction crew and trading labor with other carpenters, Travis says the house will end up costing $70,000 after he installs the flooring and buys a few more solar panels.
That’s right, the owner of a flooring company (he and Psalm own Island Wood Floors in Franklin) hasn’t finished putting in his own floors. It’s the common carpenter’s ailment of not wanting to bring one’s work home. “I come home from work and don’t want to do anything to the house,” he says.
But if this energy-efficient, kitch-ultimate home is unfinished, imagine how great it’ll look when it’s done.