Garden & Greenhouse


A Straw Bale Greenhouse

Posted August 20th, 2008 by Garden & Greenhouse in

Ecopreneures John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist are leading the crowd in redesigning the future. They are doing this at their bed and breakfast, Inn Serendipity, nestled in the gently rolling countryside on the Illinois-Wisconsin border near Browntown Wisconsin. I recently attended an Open House that Inn Serendipity holds twice a year for friends old and new. As a gardener and seed specialist I am interested in all things related to plants and our interaction with them and since I am also an environmental educator, which means that by definition sustainability and ecology are also important topics.

That is what brought us to one of the new and often visited “one of the ten best eco-destinations” in the United States. By their own definition they aspire to “right livelihood”. How does one create right livelihood? By living your values, working and living a local green lifestyle. They do things like taking “carbon neutral” trips to offset the greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by purchasing carbon credits run by organizations that plant trees and buy shares in wind turbines. They recycle, eat locally and grow much of their own food. They make their own biodiesel for their old diesel VW, while engaging in toxin-free green remodeling. This led them to re-purposing a derelict grain barn into a tropical temperature, straw bale greenhouse to grow papayas for B&B guests.

John and Lisa are internationally known authors on many environmental topics and even have written a vegetarian cookbook featuring organic and vegan recipes! They are experimenting with practical ways to help people transition from the oil economy to the new sustainable economy while accomplishing it comfortably and ethically. They happen to make money at it along the way, making the jump from “normal” executives in the advertising industry to rural innkeepers and writers by wanting to try something a little different.

The straw bale two-story greenhouse building process started, ironically, in the fall 2001. September 2001 was “Straw bale September” for John and Lisa. The grain barn became not only an experiment in green building; it became therapy for those building it. The building is an attractive 2 story stucco with window openings on the south-facing wall. Housed inside are tropical papaya and banana trees even though The Inn Serendipity farm is in climate zone 4 with winters dropping to –25 to –30 degrees below 0.

Well, here is how they did it. Their corncrib was in a state of slow entropy, losing bits of shingles after every windstorm. It had outlived is purpose and had become a liability rather than an asset. As luck would have it the building had the proper solar orientation for active or passive solar and uses both (more on that later.) The concept was to rebuild/retrofit the corncrib as a locally procured material (straw bales, cement/clay) stucco building. The building was to be energy efficient, of a sustainable design that could be used to propagate specialty crops that could be used year round. To be able to grow value-added local crops will be a distinct advantage in the future with the rise in fuel costs.

The idea was also to build community. The corncrib was reconstructed that 2001 September by calling in an expert in straw bale construction and giving 2 workshops through MERA (Midwest Renewable Energy Association). Friends and neighbors also donated salvaged windows, doors and other bits and pieces. It was very much an old fashioned barn raising.

The wooden barn boards were removed and the building was sheathed in 20x40x14 inch straw bales that were then covered in chicken wire, strapped with polytwine to compress loose straw and bind the chicken wire. The straw bales were then plastered in three layers of inside and out. First the scratch coat is applied, scratched with grooves, and then a second coat fills and bonds with the first. A third coat is then applied to smooth the second coat. At this time, a dye can be added to color the stucco. The Inn Serendipity greenhouse is a shade salmon, with white trim. A straw bale wall has been rated by the California Energy Commission as approximately R 30, and can be R30 to R50 depending how wide the bale is and wall thickness.

The power plant and heating systems of the greenhouse are impressive as well. The building is heated with passive solar heating tubes filled with antifreeze approximately 50 feet to the south of the building. A large tank acts as a heat exchanger that stores the thermal mass in a hot tub. In winter, a biodiesel-burning furnace adds back up and heats the already warmed water when necessary. This is in the northwest corner of the first floor. Yes, a hot tub. The greenhouse and house are all producing power using a 10K Bergy wind turbine, photovoltaic panels on the garage and a home manufactured Sevonius rotor generator. The whole system is a grid inter-tied so Inn Serendipity “generates” income, as the farm is a net electricity producer.

The greenhouse produces food and seedlings year round. On top of all that, the space is beautiful, multifunctional as a spare work area, and has hot tub spa. If the future looks like this what are we waiting for? For more information, check out Inn Serendipity’s web site

Caron Wenzel is an Environmental Educator with over 20 years of experience writing, teaching and public speaking. Ecopreneures all, her family has a native seed, soil amendment and media consulting business known as Blazing Star Inc.

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