Straw house built to stand

Considering Buffalo's harsh winters, a greenhouse made mostly of bales of straw and mud might sound like something out of a fairy tale.

But volunteers from the University at Buffalo's School of Architecture and Planning and a commercial builder specializing in straw structures say the greenhouse springing up on the West Side will have no trouble withstanding the cold and snow.

As the weekend's sunshine warmed neighborhood children building castles in sand destined to become part of the mud mixture, a magic spell had been cast upon this cottagelike greenhouse taking shape on Massachusetts Avenue.

Once it is completed in about six weeks, supporters hope it will inspire a trend toward using alternative building materials that do not exhaust the environment or contribute to pollution.

"It's the first straw structure in the city," said Kevin Connors, a UB architecture instructor whose students designed the 495-square-foot building.

The structure will use passive solar heat through transparent plastic panels on the roof and south wall.

About 130 bales of straw will form the other three walls, which will be coated in two to three inches of mud -- a mixture of sand, clay and loose straw -- both inside and outside.

A finishing exterior coat of lime plaster will seal the walls for extra protection. But the building, in a sense, will breathe -- absorbing and releasing moisture -- making it conducive for growing seedlings two months before the regular growing season starts.

What its designers really like about the $5,000 structure, financed with donations, is its minimal use of building materials that harm the environment when they are being produced and then transported, usually over long distances.

The 18-inch-thick concrete foundation is only a foot deep, resting on a blanket of rigid insulation foam that protects it from ground freezing. Foundation walls normally need to be 4 feet deep to hold up against the rigors of the cold.

"So we're using a lot less concrete, and the production of concrete is a major source of [carbon dioxide], the gas that we're so concerned about that causes global warming," said David Lanfear, owner of the Buffalo company Bale on Bale Construction.

With routine maintenance, the greenhouse, he says, will last indefinitely.

Is there a chance the straw could rot?

"Only a very serious leak in the roof could cause the straw to rot," Lanfear said.

In addition to keeping an eye on the roof, upkeep will include an occasional "lime wash" of the exterior walls to fend off erosion, according to Connors, who also operates Kevin Connors & Associates, which specializes in ecological designs.

Connors and Lanfear teamed up to promote these types of low-impact buildings that cause little harm to the environment after meeting in 2004 at the Natural Building Colloquium in the Finger Lakes area.

Most of the greenhouse material comes from local sources, starting with the straw, which was purchased for $4 a bale from a Hamburg farmer.

The greenhouse, on the 300 block of Massachusetts, is designed so that its transparent roof and south side will receive maximum exposure to sunlight. Inside, the straw walls will retain the heat, and a floor of stone or brick will absorb the solar rays.

But the unique building is only part of the story.

The greenhouse represents an expansion of a 4-year-old urban farm that takes up about a half acre of land made up of a patchwork quilt of connected, vacant city lots.

"We have a summer program where we employ 30 kids from the neighborhood, and we grow 40 varieties of vegetables," said Diane Picard, director of the growing green program, part of the Massachusetts Avenue Project.

The greenhouse, she said, will be used to grow "cash crops" such as basil, mint and flowers to be sold to restaurants and others to raise money to hire even more local youngsters to tend to the garden.

In addition to vegetables, the project includes a small orchard of young fruit trees -- apple, pear, peach and cherry -- and elevated garden beds for herbs, plus blueberry bushes.

Like gardeners of all stripes, Picard says, her youthful farmers are not fond of weeding. "Nobody likes weeding," she said and quickly added, "or turning the compost pile."

The greenhouse and garden also have the neighborhood's blessing.

"It keeps the children busy. They're learning how to plant vegetables," said Yanira Sosa, who lives next door to the greenhouse.

But over the weekend, as UB students and other volunteers stacked and fastened bales of straw and prepared mixtures of mud -- known as earthen plaster -- young children from the neighborhood found a piece of heaven in the heap of sand.

"Hey, who wants to bury me?" called out 9-year-old Stephon Smith. "Just don't bury my head or neck."

Other children were busy building sand castles, which did not escape the notice of Ed Zielinski, a building volunteer.

"That's another alternative building system," he said of the children's handiwork.

Those having fun were not limited to children.

Lindsay Clark, a UB graduate architect student streaked in mud and wearing a pink cowboy hat, said she felt she was part of a project that could give Buffalo the chance to re-create itself.

"It's a good way to begin healing the city," Clark said. "It could start a trend, and the city could become known for this."

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