Is Hay the Future of Sustainable Homes?

A year after giving his brand Patagonia back to the earth, eccentric billionaire Yvon Chouinard is exploring how straw bale construction can pave the way for greener living.

Last year, Yvon Chouinard made headlines when he gave Patagonia—the popular outdoor apparel brand he founded in 1973—back to the Earth. (Conscious of the company’s footprint and fashion’s greenwashing problem, the octogenarian’s family transferred their ownership to a trust created to ensure its profits combat climate change and protect undeveloped land.) While the self-described “existential dirtbag” now spends his free time fishing and surfing, Chouinard is still vamping on sustainable ideas that have been percolating in his mind for decades, long before he launched the brand that would make him a billionaire and land him on Time’s list of “100 most influential people of 2023.”

One of those ideas happens to be straw bale construction. A readily available agricultural byproduct left over from wheat, barley, and rice crops, straw can be utilized as either the main structural material or as insulation in buildings. So when Chouinard acquired a piece of land near Ventura, California, he decided to reimagine the quintessential suburban home with carbon-absorbing straw. He enlisted the help of architect and longtime friend Dylan Johnson, who turned out to be an ideal collaborator—his aunt and uncle built a straw bale home in central Washington when he was a teenager. After lengthy permitting, the project was greenlit and they began construction, which was chronicled in a Patagonia-produced short film extolling the virtues of building green. 

And there are many. The construction sector accounts for one-third of all carbon emissions, making the use of bio-based building materials all the more urgent. Straw bale construction interrupts the carbon cycle—crops absorb carbon during the growing season and release it into the atmosphere when they rot or burn, but storing hay in buildings sequesters carbon away and actually goes negative. Straw is also of little use to farmers, and its disposal is both costly and time-intensive; selling it to builders creates another revenue stream. “With less than five percent of all the rice straw that we produce each year in this country,” Chouinard tells Dwell, “we can build a million 2,000-square-foot homes.” 

It might take the government some time to update their building codes, but California has already caught on. Local jurisdictions are mandated to adopt the Straw Bale Building Code, which aims to standardize straw bale construction and streamline the permitting process. “People are living in bombs. They’re living in gas or propane-fueled houses with cars parked outside,” Chouinard tells Fast Company. “I believe in market forces. That’s why I’m in business. A lot can be done outside of government, just by being creative. Waste is not waste. It’s an opportunity.”

(All photography by Tim Davis.)

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