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Couple defy odds with straw home


He can huff, he can puff, but he won’t blow this house down.

Sitting along Highway 611 North in Miscampbell is the home of Ken and Amy Boles--a home they’ve painstakingly built with bales of straw.

With a low budget but a knack for construction, Ken Boles began building their home a couple of years ago despite all the skeptics shaking their heads.

“I didn’t ever hear [from] my wife’s family but I’m suspicious they said they’d take her in if she wanted to leave,” he smiled as he led a tour through the home.

On a foundation of natural bedrock, the Boles began stacking bales of straw one on top of the other like giant bricks, with plaster in between. Within a week, the walls were standing and, with a tarp over top, it became the couple’s home.

Over the ensuing months, the Boles covered the walls with plaster, added a roof, and began to dry-wall the interior. What first looked like a pile of straw in the forest has turned into a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient, and environmentally-friendly home.

Costing about $1,200 for the straw, $400 for sand, and $300-$400 for cement, the basic materials were very cost-efficient. Still, the project was time-consuming for the couple.

“If you hire help, it’s going to cost as much as any other home, it’s labour-intensive,” Ken Boles noted. “It’s just plain hard work, that’s what it boils down to.”

But together they have built a model-home which may be an example of an upcoming trend. A Barwick resident already has toured the building and now plans to build a second straw house in Rainy River District.

Besides being low-cost, the house required little disruption of the surrounding area. Trees sit close to the walls, and a few feet away a creek flows past the front door.

Out their kitchen window, birds regularly battle over a feeder and many other animals--including otters, geese, and deer--often stroll by.

Besides visiting a trade show and reading some books about building with straw, Boles had very little experience with the idea but persevered despite the qualms of family and friends.

“I thought he was nuts. It was really crazy and he’d lost it,” his wife, Amy, admitted. “Then we went down to the States to a trade fair and they showed how it could be done so I said ‘yes.’”

“I grew up on a farm and as a kid, you build straw houses, play houses,” he remarked. “I’ve been scheming about this for years.”

Straw houses certainly are not a new idea, and are accepted under building codes across the continent, including Fort Frances.

“They’ve been around for over 100 years all over North America,” Boles noted.

The Boles’ home features all the amenities and accessories of the average, modern home although it is all run by alternative methods. Most of the power is provided by solar panels, halogen light bulbs light the building, and a fireplace provides heat.

Once erected, the straw walls take care of themselves as well as provide strong support for the building.

“You don’t need heat exchanges because it ventilates itself,” he explained, adding there are few things he’d do differently the next time around.

For instance, while slightly curved walls add character to the rooms, Boles said he would spend more time ensuring perfectly straight ones.

“I didn’t take a lot of time, I used a string and a level. It was a little bit of a worst-case scenario,” he acknowledged.

And both agreed lightheartedly that living in a home while it is under construction is tough on a marriage.

“Ours is a low-budget project but if we had money, we wouldn’t have gone that way,” said Boles, who recommends straw homes but urges anyone taking it on to have the funding to build it immediately and avoid living on the construction site.

“Make sure your financing is in place the same as you would for any other home,” he stressed.

During the day, the couple works at Mechanical Contraptions, where he does electrical repairs and sells solar paraphernalia. But evenings and weekends finds them continuing to fine-tune their home.

They’re adding the final, decorative touches, including a back deck, trim, and decorative stone. But now that they’ve built one straw home, Boles said he would be more than willing to help out on others, learning more as he goes.

“That’s the best part. Once I quit learning, I’ll get bored,” he reasoned.

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