A straw bale wall is approximately eighteen inches thick, which, when recessed, offers good opportunities for creating additional useable space. (Small homes need to take advantage of every square inch.) By creating seating areas below windows, the home becomes more functional and aesthetically pleasing. A window seat set into a thick wall creates a visual transition to the outdoors. It also acts as a light reflector, which helps to create a pleasant glow within the room. In the winter, the window seats not only absorb solar energy, they also help to reflect some of this radiant energy to the inner walls.
The window seats in the entry hall of my home are used constantly. Not only do they serve the same purpose as chairs, they are also very useful for placing items I will be taking with me when I go out the door—and my two dachshunds love to lie there so they can look out the window and enjoy the warmth of the sun. The window seats make the entry hall seem much larger, since they increase the width of what would have been a relatively narrow passage. With the seats in place, the entry hall takes on the feeling of a separate room. Flagstone was chosen for the window seats. It adds thermal mass and is very durable. It also looks nice. Other possible choices would be tile, other types of stone, or some sort of plaster, such as gypsum or lime. The flagstone was positioned with a two-inch overhang beyond the interior plane of the straw bale wall. The plaster on the wall will be an inch thick, so the actual overhang will be about one inch when the wall is finished.
The base of the south-facing windows is eighteen inches from the floor—the height of one straw bale. This height is just right for a seat. With higher windows, the flagstone serves as a shelf. I hollowed out a space below the flagstone on the west window in order to create a niche for magazines. The flagstone forms the top of the niche. Outdoor shelves can be constructed as well, utilizing the forgiving shapes and contours of natural materials.
When I used to visualize how I would enter my home—long before I started building it—it occurred to me that I have always wanted a place to set groceries down while I fumble for my keys to open the front door. By using either adobe, stone, or a single straw bale turned long-side-up, a small outcropping can be formed just to the side of front door. The one I constructed is capped with stone and it is at waist height—a perfect place to set down packages while opening the door. It is extremely useful and adds some visual interest to boot. Form and function merged. These are the sort of well- thought-out design details that seem to be missing from most houses. As I mentioned earlier, I believe these design shortcomings arise from conceiving a house only on paper, as a two-dimensional object. When I was designing my home, I created a mental picture of how I would use each room. It is vitally important to design your living space with daily living in mind—which requires walking through each room of the house in your mind's eye.
It is actually easier to do this at this point in the construction, since all of the spaces are more or less in place. At this point in the construction process, you can truly visualize each living area, and making modifications is easy and fun.
More next time.
[This has been a guest post by Ted Owens, a green designer and filmmaker. More details on green building design and construction can be found on his website and in the Building with Awareness DVD and Guidebook. -Ed.]