1st little pig would have loved to have this straw house

LIVINGSTON -- When summer sun bakes the valley in century-degree heat, Jean Okuye bakes cornbread without fuel and keeps her cool without air conditioning.

A simple, inexpensive solar pot produces baked treats on Okuye's back patio. Her new AC-less house cost a bit more than a conventional stick-frame home, but stays at a comfy 78 degrees thanks to straw.

Today, she's opening the doors of the unique home she helped design -- the only known straw bale house in Merced County -- to anyone wanting to witness the insulating wonder of a farm byproduct that typically gets burned as waste.

"I want people to know there are other ways to do things," said Okuye, 68. "I'm interested in working with nature, not against it."

Tibetan monks last year joined Okuye's bale-raising with family, friends and others celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the Japanese-American Yamato Colony where her late husband, Paul, grew up. They stacked 150 rice straw bales against a wood frame over a concrete slab.

Lathe workers then encased the bales with wire mesh and applied three coats of stucco. Two-foot-thick walls are the key to keeping Okuye's home cool in the summer and warm in the winter, when she heats 900 square feet with a small, modern stove fueled with waste wood from her 80-acre almond orchard.

Large windows in a 9½-foot southern wall let in winter sunshine, when the sun passes lower in the sky. Summer sun passes higher and is reflected by a light-hued metal roof. Okuye pulls in cool morning air with a whole-house fan before closing windows when temperatures climb.

"When it's 100 degrees out, it's fine in here," Okuye said, grinning.

As traditional stick-frame home construction languishes in a bruising economic downturn, demand for straw bale houses has never been stronger, said architect-builder John Swearingen. Most clients enthusiastically research green living, save money for custom homes and "are not people so affected by the mortgage crisis," he said.

Although feed prices for hay have skyrocketed, this is straw. Rice farmers generally are happy to have someone bale up and truck away the waste.

In this story, the first of three little piggies gets the last laugh.

Small, simple and recycled

Straw bale houses account for about 90 percent of business at Swearingen's Berkeley company, Skillful Means, which has designed or built more than 40 in the past few years. Most are mansions in Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties, though its portfolio includes one each in Riverbank and Escalon. Calaveras and Tuolumne counties reportedly have several. Okuye's is the first in the Northern San Joaquin Valley opened to the curious.

With 1,372 square feet, three bedrooms and two bathrooms, it's also among the smallest and simplest. Okuye makes do in 900 square feet; a breezeway divides her wheelchair-accessible wing from a garage and private studio apartment available for agrotourists, or travelers paying to experience life on a working farm.

Okuye welcomed such visitors from as far away as Japan and Israel when she lived in the 3,200-square-foot house next door, built by her husband's family in 1920 and now occupied by her daughter, Sheryl Okuye Sauter, son-in-law and three grandchildren, who are taking over the almond ranch. Jean Okuye's son, Alan, plays piano for "soul survivor" musician Bobby Womack.

Okuye's life has taken on a shade of green in recent times.

Three years ago, she founded Valley Land Alliance to advocate for farmland protection in Merced County and continues to serve as president. Last year, Okuye put her ranch in a perpetual conservation easement monitored by the Central Valley Farmland Trust, which pays landowners to keep farming as opposed to cashing in on development dollars.

Okuye installed a huge solar energy system to power her farm, saving some $6,000 a year, and another on the older house. The metal roof on her new straw bale home sports two solar panels measuring 6 feet by 8 feet, "so I'm running the meter backward," she said.

She stained the entire concrete flooring with a bag of common iron sulfate fertilizer from a local hardware store. Attractive French doors were salvaged from the older home. Another door came from the home of her brother when she learned he intended to send it to the landfill.

Huge manzanita posts anchoring an arbor for outside window screens came from a friend's place in Murphys. White fir from another's ranch in Mendocino County ended up in her window framing.

Today's visitors will see drought-resistant plants in Okuye's landscaping, most labeled for easy identification -- with stakes cut from the slats of a discarded venetian blind. And she saved waste drywall left over from interior wall construction, because it's about the same as the gypsum she applies in her orchard.

"I recycle things," Okuye said with a shrug. "I'm into this green thing. This is what I believe in."

Okuye has yet to add up receipts for materials and labor, but estimates the house cost about $160,000. That would come to $120 per square foot, about $25 higher than the Merced County average, according to the latest monthly home sales figures.

"It's not just the cost," she said. "It's what you feel right in doing."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.