Couple Building Fairy Tale Home Out of Straw

Everyone knows what happened to the little pig who built his house out of straw, but Jack and Nancie Hines aren’t afraid of the Big Bad Wolf – and they can’t wait to move into their real-life fairy tale home.

The longtime Warwood residents are in the process of building a “green,” energy-efficient house with straw bale walls in the Whitmar Hills neighborhood, located off GC&P Road near Wheeling. But they’re not taking on this project by themselves. They’ve enlisted the help of 25 of their newest friends, who have been sleeping in tents near the site for almost a week.

“They camp, we feed them three meals a day for seven days, and they do the labor,” Nancie Hines said.

It’s not a reality TV show – it just sounds like one.

Those involved include the Harvard- and MIT-educated Serbian architect who had never camped a night in her life, the Brazilian couple, the sculptor from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and the mother-daughter duo from San Diego who originally hail from Peru. Leading the way is Andrew Morrison of Ashland, Ore., who has made a career out of teaching people to build straw houses after leaving his job as a former general contractor about 15 years ago.

“I just wanted something that was a little more green. … The construction industry is pretty wasteful, so I wanted something a little more in line with my ideals,” Morrison said.

People interested in living in straw bale homes apply to host one of Morrison’s workshops, which he’s held all over the United States as well as in Canada, Portugal and Australia. Those interested in learning how to do it themselves sign up as laborers, paying Morrison for the privilege of living in primitive conditions for a week. The hosts supply the building materials, campsite, a little elbow grease and a generous dose of hospitality.

The Hines house is insulated with about 300 tightly compacted bales of straw, covered with wire mesh and topped with a thick layer of plaster both inside and out. When it’s finished, those who didn’t see the house in its early stages may never suspect how it was built.

Unless they visit and ask what’s behind the little door in the great room, known as a “truth window.”

“When you open it up there’s no plaster on it, so you can see the walls are really made of straw,” Nancie Hines said.

Morrison said straw homes cost about one-fourth as much to heat and cool as traditional homes, and they are significantly more fire-resistant.

“Here, you’ve got at least an inch and a quarter of lime plaster. If (a fire) penetrates that, you’ve got a layer of densely packed straw. It doesn’t have any oxygen in it, so it doesn’t burn,” Morrison said.

The Hineses said they were initially worried their neighbors would think the idea was a little off the wall. But Nancie said they’ve been extremely welcoming, some opening their showers and swimming pools to Morrison’s crew, and one even offering to feed the whole gang one evening.

“They’ve been super supportive. Every time Jack comes over here to do something, someone’s always right there offering to help,” she said.

Jack Hines added he hopes the idea of straw bale building will catch on locally.

“That’s what we’re trying to achieve – starting something new,” he said.