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Scott Redding & Sarah Buckley: Straw-bale home builders

Sarah Buckley and Scott Redding (photo by Andrew Blake)

Sarah Buckley, a nurse at Millard Gates, and her husband, Scott Redding, who owns a tree service company called Above and Beyond, met while working in refugee camps in Thailand. When they decided to make their home in East Aurora, where Sarah grew up, they decided that their commitment to a sustainable lifestyle had to be manifest in the way they built their house.

AV: The two of you built a rather impressive two-bedroom home in East Aurora built largely from straw-bale and timber. Environmentally conscious architecture like this is slowly catching on, but why did you two make the plunge?

Scott: We live in a very unsustainable world and it’s not really heading in the right direction. In the big picture it just seems so odd to deal with, so the one thing that we can do to make a difference is to try to live our lives in as sustainable way as possible.

Sarah: Our house is straw-bale, so that helps. It’s a very good insulator so we are using fewer resources to keep our house warm. We have south-facing windows, which also help to keep it warm. Living in Buffalo, the kind of house that we chose to live in is very well insulated. Straw-bale is not as caustic of a material as fiberglass insulation.

We try to do everything locally, too. We by no means live as sustainably as possible, but there are small things, and I think that the things that people see the most is the decision to build a straw-bale house.

Scott: We’ve definitely got a long way to go. We tried to minimize concrete, because it is a really nasty material with the energy that goes into making it. We tried to get everything as local as possible, so it wasn’t trucked or shipped from the other side of the world. All the wood is very local and milled locally, and the stone is as local as we could find it.

Sarah: We’re meat eaters and try to eat only things like deer that Scott has killed or road-killed. We raised some geese last year that were originally supposed to mow our land, but they turned into dinner, too.

Scott: If we continue living the way we live as a society I feel that it’s not going to be as wonderful place as it is now to live in…it’d be nice to try to live in balance.

Sarah: We’ve both done a lot of traveling and have been to places where there is a different kind of poverty. Traveling to developing countries, I’ve been struck by how unfair the world is in terms of distribution of resources. It almost seems like the most simple thing to do, not necessarily the most right, would be to try to cut back your own consumption. As Americans, we consume so much more.

AV: What were the main selling points of using straw-bale?

Scott: We talked about building a house and I wanted to use a timber frame. Sarah worked on building a straw-bale structure while in college, and kind of left books around for me to read, and subtly made me want to build straw-bale. The biggest thing is how comfortable the house is. We haven’t had any form of heat in here for a few weeks now. We haven’t had a fire in the stove. We have under-floor heating, which I don’t think came on once all winter, and we have it set at 45 degrees just in case we are too lazy to build a fire. All this fertile mass just soaks up the sun, so we don’t need any heat. It takes a long time to cool so it just regulates the temperature. Even in the winter we don’t need to have a fire every day. If the sun comes up in the winter, it’ll be 75 degrees in here even if it is only 25 outside. And if the next day it’s cooler, you might not need a fire because the heat stays in the wall. We read that this was all true, and I think we were very surprised by how well it worked.

AV: So the straw-bale house really holds up to the Western New York winters?

Scott: All of our friends come to the house because their houses are a lot colder because they can’t afford the heat. Our problem is usually overheating in the winter. We have the windows open. If we use the floor it’s really nice, but we don’t like to use the propane. I think in the last year we’ve gone through less than 500 dollars in propane, and that’s our stove, hot water tank, and our dryer. And then we burned maybe four cords of wood.

AV: How many structures are there like it in Western New York?

Scott: There’s a straw-bale just built after our house in Depew, and then there are a bunch in Bath and a lot in Ithaca.

Sarah: There’s a straw-bale church in Grand Island and a greenhouse on Massachusetts Avenue. You can insulate anything with them.

AV: Why do you think so few people have opted to take the straw-bale route?

Scott: People are always wary. It’s all about bottom line. People want the most square feet for their money and the value of the house always goes on how many square feet. People are more interested in that than the quality. When you factor in the money we save over the life of it, it is definitely cheaper than conventional building. I think that professional straw-bale crews can’t complete with stud framing, but you’re getting such a better product at the end of the day. With stud frame houses, everything is the cheapest material, and you get what you pay for. In terms of materials, we probably spent less than if we were to build conventionally, but we put in a lot of labor and also spent a lot of money on the stone wall and the oak wall and lots of windows.

AV: How do most visitors react to the construction of your home?

Sarah: I think even after I explained it to a lot of my friends they still were like, “Oh, Sarah’s going to live in a hut made out sticks,” and I think they still totally expected to come over and see what the second little pig built, with twigs sticking out of it and mice running wild.

AV: And what do you recommend others can do to live as earth-friendly as the two of you?

Scott: We started with the big thing, the house, and now we are trying to make the others fit. Shopping locally and shopping for organic produce where you know where it came from and it hasn’t been shipped, and eating in season and cutting down meat consumption.

Sarah: It’s hard, but try to pay attention to what you’re doing.

Scott: And what you buy. We produce so much waste. You buy something that’s wrapped and wrapped again. I’ve seen bananas wrapped in cellophane and then put in a plastic bag. It comes in its own biodegradable plastic container that you can throw in the compost heap. I’d say don’t shop in supermarkets. Go to your local farmers markets.

To live these ways it takes more work. It’s so much easier to go to the supermarket and get everything in one place, and we are all so busy that we don’t have the time to do this stuff. But I think that we need to set up our lives in some way so we do have the time to do these things, rather than a headlong rush to make more money and get ahead.

andrew blake

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