Straw Bale Design and Windows

When describing the current residential home of his day, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright regarded it as “a bedeviled box with a fussy lid and all kinds of holes”. (Wright, Frank Lloyd, The Natural House, ©1954) These “holes”, of course being the windows and doors. In most architecture today, that is exactly what they continue to be. Typically, these days not much thought is put into window selection and placement. Windows are primarily placed in relation to the elevations or how they look outside the house. The placement of them as they relate to the inside of the house is frequently disregarded. This can potentially cause many problems including unnecessary heat gain or loss, glares, undesirable views, and a loss of privacy. This is a very important piece to consider when designing with straw bales, yet straw bale also offers many other unique opportunities that with good design can create truly beautiful spaces inside and out.

The thick walls of straw bale buildings are primary feature that make straw bale so appealing and beautiful. Though, if not thought out carefully, these walls can exhibit a dark cave feel that is appealing to no one. So, choosing windows and their placement can be very important.

To begin with, if your house is sited with decent solar access, let’s look at the sun side of the house (south, s-west, and s-east). Typically, this is where you want to have the majority of your windows. These windows should be place in ways to capture any views or sunlight. They should be protected with overhangs to keep hot summer sun out of the house, yet placed, so that same summer sun is able to bounce its light from the outside, to the inside throughout the house. Flaring the bale wall out 45 degrees from the inside face of the widow to the inside of the interior wall can direct the light in many directions. (see figure 1) Additionally, choosing light colors inside will help reflect this light throughout. During cooler months, when the sun is low, the windows should allow the sun light into the house to warm the interior. This is where getting quality windows, with Low-E glazing at a minimum, become very important. It could be 30 degrees outside, but with quality windows placed to allow the winter sun in, it could be a comfortable 70 degrees inside, and that is with no auxiliary heating!


Figure 1

Moving to the afternoon sun side of the house (west), we come to a very important and often overlooked issue. There is nothing like a great sunset, especially if you can enjoy it in your cool, comfortable living room. The afternoon sun, especially in the heart of summer, is intensely hot. If the home you are designing has open views to the west, you must protect it in some way. This is where you will get overheating within the house. If a window is crucial, a good idea is to defuse the light in some way. If it’s possible, have a trellis or arbor built, maybe above a nice patio. This way a sunset could be viewed on a warm, summer dusk on the patio, or if inside the sunset could be framed by flowing vines and trellis.

The North side of the house is where you want the least amount of windows; fore this tends to be the cold side of the house. Obviously this is not possible for many homes sites, so it is important to really think out the window situation. The north side almost never sees the sun; so much of the light that makes it into the house is indirect. Indirect light is mostly reflected light so it is good for reading, arts and crafts, ect. It is a really good idea to specify wider windows and whenever possible to have windows on two sides of the room. This will eliminate the glare that causes the dark cave-like feel in the room. If it is not possible to have windows on two sides than perhaps a skylight will work. And remember, being the cold side of the house, quality of windows is very important. There are many options out there for windows that provide a higher R-value.

Another aim in designing with windows is the idea of bringing the outside in and visa-versa. This is a key point that Mr. Wright was attempting to convey by the above quote, and additionally throughout most of his architecture. This can be particularly appealing in a straw bale home, and can be accomplished by having larger glazing space where it is appropriate.

In colder climates this must be explored very carefully. Doors and windows are where most of the heat loss occurs. Sites that rarely see sunshine in the colder months should shy away from this feature unless designed by an expert in energy efficiency in such climates. For sites that receive a fair amount of sunshine, it is possible to have entire walls of glass doors and windows. Of course it is necessary that it receive a good deal of solar access, and the glazing should be incredibly efficient with a high R-value in order to hold on to the gathered heat. This creates a feeling of being a part of the outside environment. Elements such as trees, water, or rocks could actually be an integral piece within the feel of the interior. In contrast, having just a small window or a viewing hole, as Mr. Wright so eloquently stated, just enforces the feeling of separateness from the outside world and the feeling of being in a box.

In warmer climates, this is greatly encouraged. Having walls of glazing that fully open up with venting windows on the other sides of the house is even better. Appropriate overhangs over all glazing that receives solar exposure must be carefully added. All of this will promote cross ventilation to help cool the interior and can give it the feel of standing under the shade of a large tree in scorching weather. If it is appropriate or possible, site the house so there is a large tree in direct view to strengthen this cooling feeling. Also in these climates, the bale walls could be reserved for the north, east, and west walls, there-by utilizing conventional framing, straw-clay infill, or the like and a good helping of glazing for the south side.

So in designing with straw bales, use good sense when it comes to the windows and keep in mind that straw bale homes impart many unique opportunities to interact with the glazing to create a distinctively beautiful home. And just remember, you are not designing a lidded box that’s purpose is to “solely” shelter it’s inhabitants -rather- this is a home, it embodies beauty and it’s purpose is to “souly” protect, and connect to its environment and its inhabitants.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Keefe, from an early age, discovered his creative spirit in art. In 1996, he received a B.A. in Liberal Arts focusing on drawing, Music and Philosophy from San Francisco State University. In tandem, he was actively involved in a grassroots environmental project for five years at the University of California in Berkeley. He became interested in the field of straw bale as he began his graduate studies in 1999 at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture. Focusing to integrate his work in the environmental and sustainability field with his creative imagination, he received a Master of Architecture and Ecological Design in 2001. Soon thereafter, he founded a company called Organicforms Design which offers ecologically and artistically based design utilizing natural and sustainable materials. Since then, he has worked and completed several exciting design/build projects in Southern Oregon. In 2002, he began to focus primarily on straw bale research and design as the lead designer on the innovative project, The Straw Bale Village in Jacksonville, OR. Please visit his website at www.OrganicFormsDesign.com

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