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Democrat Photo by Dan Hust

A CLOSEUP VIEW shows the unique design of this Forestburgh home: it’s made out of bales of hay.

Hay – That's
A House!

By Dan Hust
FORESTBURGH — September 26, 2003 – So far, there’s no record of a big, bad wolf blowing any of them down.
Or of any pigs living in them either.
But until this year, you had to travel to Ulster County or as far as the Southwest to find a house made of straw.
Right now, however, there’s one being built in Forestburgh – and you’re invited to take a look.
Homeowners and husband-and-wife Richard Mandelbaum and Gabrielle Kahn would like the public to see what energy efficiencies, construction innovations, and environmentally pleasing aesthetics are in store for their new straw bale home.
“It’s completely proven,” said Mandelbaum while giving a tour this week. “In general, it can cost less [than a comparable wood-frame house].”
He estimates the final cost – brought down by some family labor assistance – will be around $100,000.
Actually, Mandelbaum’s 1,000-square-foot home is a bit of a hybrid – the hay bales lining his exterior walls will not support the two-story structure when it is complete. Instead, they are scrunched up tight between wood beams that do the load-bearing.
So what’s the advantage?
Mandelbaum can easily give you the rundown.
First off, the bales are fairly cheap, thick and – when plastered correctly – can last more than a century. Put it all together, and you have a house that retains its heat and its value extraordinarily well.
“It also keeps sound out very well,” said Mandelbaum.
He’s using about 340 of the 400 bales he purchased from Aden Brook Landscape Materials in Liberty. (The bales actually came from a Rochester farm – only because Mandelbaum couldn’t find a local farmer willing to part with that much hay.)
When the house is “hopefully” complete in December, those bales will keep out the winter chill more than twice as well as conventional insulation such as Fiberglas.
(Of course, the propane-powered radiant heating system in the floor will help a lot, too.)
Then there’s the aesthetic qualities of the hay, which will simply be covered in plaster on the inside. That means much of the rough texture of the bales – commonly associated with the pastoral charm of the rural outdoors – will be quite evident.
While not necessary, Mandelbaum is installing wood siding on the exterior to give the bales extra protection and add another aesthetically pleasing touch.
Finally, there’s the construction qualities of hay bales, which can be cut and measured to various lengths as easily – if not more so – than wood.
Indeed, for the construction period, Mandelbaum and his coworkers are using hay bales as a stairway to the second floor.
“It’s also using a lot less toxic materials,” he said.
The environmental aspects of the house are what please Mandelbaum the most. (He’s even using the pine trees they cleared for the property as beams in the house.)
For one, he’s an herbalist and lecturer on health-related issues around the Northeast, including the New Age Health Spa in Grahamsville, so the environment is his stock and trade.
Additionally, hay bales are environmentally friendly and an easily renewable resource – although you’re likely never to have to find another bale of hay again. Once plastered, the bales will be virtually airtight, save for what builders call vapor permeability – meaning it can “breathe.” That also means the chances of mold, rodents, insects or other such problems are no more possible than in a properly designed wood-frame house.
“As long as you design it right . . . it’s actually better in a colder climate,” he explained.
That’s borne out by the 100-year-old straw bale houses in chilly parts of Europe, where the idea got its start.
For this project, however, Mandelbaum didn’t just rely on the books he read and classes he took on how to construct a straw bale home.
He turned to experts in Ulster County – specifically, Rosendale contractor Ben Simpson and his employees, Jason Perry and Jonathan Tuczynski.
Together, they’ve been laboring since May – through rain, wind and mud – to build the two bedrooms, loft, kitchen, bathroom, living room and deck that will define this unique home.
How has the Town of Forestburgh reacted?
Well, Mandelbaum’s aunt lives next door, so the neighbors like it. But it’s been just as easy with the various governmental agencies – from the town to the state level – who have all signed off on the integrity and appropriateness of the design.
And Mandelbaum and Kahn, who have been living in Bethel temporarily, can’t wait to make these two acres theirs.
But even though they’re not finished, they’re more than ready to show it off.
“We’re very much open to having people in the house,” said Mandelbaum. “Just come on by!”
The home is located on Plank Road (County Route 44) just north of its intersection with Tannery Road, about two miles west of the hamlet of Forestburgh.
Just make sure you call first: 796-1883.
* * *
To find out more about straw bale houses, check out these books: “Straw Bale Building” by Chris Magwood and Peter Mack (New Society Publishers) or “Serious Straw Bale” by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron (Chelsea Green Publishers). There’s also a quarterly journal about it, aptly named “The Last Straw” (, or just do a search for “straw bale homes” on the Internet.

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