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Listener Builds Straw Bale Winery

Air Date: Week of

A Living on Earth listener in San Luis Obispo, California has erected buildings on her winery from straw bales. She claims this material can withstand the elements as well as traditional materials, despite the warnings in The Three Little Pigs.


CURWOOD: In California, if you live near a rice farm, chances are you can expect some smoky days. Once the fields are harvested, the leftover rice straw stalks are often burned to make way for the next year's crop. But this practice is hazardous to people's lungs, and the state is now insisting that farmers reduce the pollution. That means rice farmers must find another way to get rid of all that straw. Here's one solution: make a building out of it. That's right. Frederica Churchill and her husband Claiborne Thompson did just that. They constructed their winery in San Luis Obispo out of rice straw bales. It's the first of its kind commercial building in California. Ms. Churchill joins us now on the phone. Ms. Churchill, could you please describe your straw structure for us?

CHURCHILL: Oh, sure. Well, the building is built in a western barn tradition, so that it has the stucco walls and a very high roof with a very sloping roof. It's about 30 feet tall at either end. It has few right angles -- I mean, they are right angles, but they're not sharp corners. They tend to be more rounded as a result of the straw bales not being exactly perfect, and they sometimes have a slight undulating look in the walls.

CURWOOD: Now, can you tell that it's made out of rice straw?

CHURCHILL: Well, you can tell actually when you're inside the winery and you look into our truth window, which is one area where the stucco has not covered the rice straw bales. And you can see the straw right there.

CURWOOD: Truth window?

CHURCHILL: But -- pardon me?

CURWOOD: Truth window?

CHURCHILL: Yes. A truth window is a common thing that's built into these rice straw buildings, because actually when they are covered with stucco it's very difficult to tell, other than the very sort of soft look that the building has.

CURWOOD: Now, what made you think of building your winery out of straw?

CHURCHILL: Well, rice straw is an incredibly tough material, and therefore a good building block. It's easy to build with rice straw bales without having a lot of building expertise. And so, actually, when we had the barn raising a year ago, we had one day in early November when we had about 35 people, family and friends and other people interested in this type of building, who came and donated their labor. And we put up about half of the walls; that is, they went about halfway up to the ceiling just with people following the instructions of the straw bale contractors who had led this type of workshop before.

CURWOOD: Now, what makes straw good material for a winery?

CHURCHILL: Oh, well a winery needs to have a very stable temperature. The wine itself likes to be in the sort of 55 to 65 degree range, and that is something that everyone wants to achieve. Now, with the rice straw building, which has an insulation value of R55 and which keeps it, in fact, very constant, there's no mechanical air conditioning or anything that's required. And so that's an advantage; over the life of the building there's a savings in operating costs and that kind of thing.

CURWOOD: How much did it cost? I mean, in comparison to regular construction.

CHURCHILL: Well, the architect had sort of calculated for us that it's about $47 per square foot, and the building is about 2,200 square feet. She says that's about $10 less per square foot than a conventional wood-framed building.

CURWOOD: What about all that conditioning we get as children to that, you know, that folk tale about the 3 little pigs and the one that built his house out of straw, man, when the wolf came he was in a lot of trouble.

CHURCHILL: That's true. Well, we've heard a lot of little pig jokes, actually (Laughs) since we built the building. But in fact, straw bale walls, once they are covered with stucco, are more impervious to fire, and that kind of damage, than a traditional building would be.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much.

CHURCHILL: Well, thank you, I appreciate your calling.

CURWOOD: Frederica Churchill runs the Claiborne-Churchill Winery in San Luis Obispo, California.



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