Off-grid UM straw bale house anchors sustainability efforts

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — A straw-built “off-the-grid” building at the University of Michigan debuted Sunday at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens during UM’s annual fall harvest event.

Visitors take a look at the interior of the off-the-grid Straw Bale Building at the Campus Farm in Ann Arbor Sunday.

UM professor Joe Trumpey first constructed a straw-built home for himself in Grass Lake more than a decade ago. More recently, he led students through the process of creating a straw-built building at the UM Biological Station in Pellston in northern Michigan. His Green Building class built both buildings.

So when time came to create the Straw Bale Building as an anchor for the UM Campus Farm, some of the students were already familiar with the process.

Olivia Arau-McSweeney, a senior art major of Burlington, Vermont, had taken part in the Biostation building project. This project, though, called for more than construction.

“This year, not only were we involved in the building process, we wrote grants that got us the funding that made the project possible,” Arau-McSweeney said.

In a sense, the building served the same purpose of the campus farm it now anchors, officials said: allowing UM students to learn and to show anyone watching what’s possible.

“Last year was amazing,” Arau-McSweeney said. “But it was limited to people who had access to (the Biostation). This year it was great to have it be right here and have it be part of the campus farm and the botanical gardens, so it already had a reason to be here and a community that made sense.”

Wendy Zhuo, a junior architecture major from Boston, said the project gave her the practical, hands-on experience building that even construction classes haven’t. Like Arau-McSweeney, she helped build both buildings.

In addition to being the only off-the-grid building on campus — “completely solar,” Zhuo said, with golf cart batteries storing the sun’s energy — the straw bale building is the only structure on the Ann Arbor campus built by students.

Zhuo, who said she “wants to target my career toward sustainable architecture, said that “having (the building) on campus is a huge way to bridge the gap between sustainability and what it is to students. It’s a new way to think about it other than recycling.”

“I learned everything I wouldn’t have learned sitting in a lecture hall, instead building a building from the ground up,” Zhuo said. “Normally, in our studios, we sit in studio, but we never go out and build anything, we just talk about it. But I’m a hands-on person, so building it makes more sense to me.”

Construction, which took place largely in May, required not only long days, but for the students to live together in a makeshift tent community.

“We were living together, camping a mile away, eating all of our meals together,” during construction, Arau-McSweeney said. “It was a really intensive experience. In order for it to work, we had to learn to be a team, and I can carry that into other experiences.”

“If we didn’t all live together, the dynamic would be very different,” Zhuo said.

“Now we have the amazing building we made, but also all the relationships,” Arau-McSweeney said.

“One little straw bale building on campus isn’t going to fix climate change or UM’s carbon footprint, but it can make those issues more visible,” Trumpey said in earlier remarks to UM News Service.

Jeremy Moghtader, manager of the UM Campus Farm, called the new structure an “anchor point and hub” for the farm, which has been in existence since 2012. Last year the farm sold some $40,000 worth of produce to MDining, the university’s dining system. This year, said student manager Connor Kippe, sales are expected to be closer to $60,000.

“The farm draws people in because food systems sit at the intersection of a lot of sustainability issues,” Moghtader said. “Having a student-built building, with a low carbon footprint that is sustainable, fits well with the mission of the farm as a living-learning lab.”

More than 100 people attended the debut of the building, during which Trumpey and James Holloway, a UM vice provost instrumental in seeing the project had resources, gave brief remarks. The speech took place during the larger UM fall harvest event, which is in its seventh year.

Joet Reoma, a compost educator with the Project Grow Community Gardens, which uses a parcel of land on the farm as a community garden, arrived after finishing his beekeeping class and partaking in a plant sale at the gardens.

“This is so similar to the one at Leslie Science & Nature Center,” Reoma said, referring to land gifted to the city by Dr. Eugene Leslie, who had been a professor at UM, and his wife, Emily Leslie. Their property, according to the, "was the headquarters for much of his pioneering work that developed new technologies, such as no-knock gasoline."

But while that building has a composting toilet, the campus farm building has none, forcing those called by nature to visit a separate building just north of the farm.

“If they can replicate it here, that would be wonderful,” Reoma said.