neither huff nor puff can blow down this ultra-green straw bale house

The famous English fairy tale The Three Little Pigs made it fairly clear that living in a straw house is not the greatest idea. However, Janet and Dr. Gus Kious are not worried about the Big Bad Wolf -- or any other ill wind for that matter -- blowing down their elegant and energy-efficient straw-bale home anytime soon. 

The Cleveland Heights couple completed the three-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot "Asian Craftsman-style" house in summer 2008. Yes, the walls of the Kious's delightful domicile are packed with 305 straw bales harvested from a farm in Sandusky. The foot-thick, fire-retardant bales are protected by an insulating, hand-packed mixture of clay, wheat paste, ground-up straw, lime, sand and sawdust. They are built to stand up to rain, wind, snow and most other meteorological mishaps.

Bedford architectural firm Doty & Miller designed the home, which was built by local green contractor Chris Fox. While the Kious's straw-bale house is not the first of its kind in Northeast Ohio (a structure of similar design was erected in Akron), there is no other home like it in the Greater Cleveland area. 

The model for the Kious abode was inspired in part by Janet's childhood home in South Africa, she says. There, people live in "cob" houses made of clay, sand and straw. Such an adobe-like structure would not fare well in Northeast Ohio's moist climate, making straw-bale the way to go.

"My wife wanted to build a house with her own hands at age 60," says Gus Kious, president of Summa Physicians Inc. "The project morphed into something more."

"It's been a pleasure building this up," says Janet, 66, a retired registered nurse. "I never thought I would be doing something like this."

The Kious residence has been used for tours and fundraisers since it was built. It certainly stands out on a busy Cedar Road thoroughfare lined with the more traditionally styled homes that Cleveland Heights is known for.

The structure is fronted not by a chemical-sucking lawn, but rather a Japanese-style "rain garden" with a multi-level water feature. Rainwater is diverted from the home's downspouts into the garden, which grows fruits and vegetables that find their way to the Kious dinner table.

The house features large overhangs and a deep porch, which provide additional protection from the elements for the thick clay/mud mixture walls. The front door, one of the home's many reclaimed items, leads into an expansive living room and kitchen space. The interior conveys a feeling of care and craftsmanship, with earth-toned walls and floors constructed of dark, rich wood.

"What sold me on straw bale was the beauty of it," says Gus, who met his wife during a youth mission to South Africa. Pointing to the uneven texture of the adobe-like walls, he adds, "They look great when the sunlight hits them."

The malleable nature of straw-bale walls allowed the Kiouses to unleash their creativity. A dark blue wall in Gus's study is a concoction of clay, lime, sand and straw, all mixed in a garbage can.

"You become like a kid in a candy shop," he says of the design process. "You just have to decide how far you want to go with it."

From a more practical standpoint, the walls are so well-insulated that closing the front door essentially shuts off any sound of the heavy commuter traffic outside. Equally important to this pair of long-time "greenies," the moisture-wicking properties of the straw bales allows the couple to keep the thermostat at a steady 62 degrees all year long. The Kious's energy bill, not including electricity, runs about $150 a month.

The house is almost entirely made of such natural materials as clay, wood and stone. The roof, meanwhile, is regular asphalt. "I wanted a thatched roof," confesses Janet with a chuckle. That plan was quickly nixed after a conversation with the Cleveland Heights Fire Department.

The furniture is a mix of repurposed items found during Janet's antique-hunting expeditions to area stores and Amish country. The kitchen island is a century-old carpenter's bench, while a Victorian-era sliding door connecting the living room and den was bought off eBay from a house in Grand Rapids, Mich. Some of the Kious's furniture was created by their son Chris's company, A Piece of Cleveland, which designs and constructs furnishings from materials salvaged from old buildings in the Cleveland area.

A recycled bathroom sink decorates a master bathroom near the library. The remainder of the house is fitted with energy-efficient appliances and plumbing. Step out of the garage and onto a driveway lined with pervious gravel that sends water directly into the ground rather than the city sewer system.

The backyard is the site of the Kious's latest projects. Behind the in-ground pool is a dry stream bed etched into the earth, around which strut a clutch of egg-laying hens. When the project is complete, recirculated water will flow into a "pondless pond" filled with rocks and other features. The couple wanted a fun, safe water feature for their four grandchildren to play in.

A house built ground up with green features does not come cheap. The Kiouses spent about $600,000 on the project. The results have been more then worth the price tag, they say.

"It's a place to give people new ideas and break out of their old mindsets," says Gus. "It's a nice place to be."

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.