Straw bale House a First for Davis

Hammond + Playle Architects

By 

Davis Enterprise | October 19, 2014

Bruce Playle, foreground, and his son Arlo get ready to pack rice-straw bales into the walls of the former Dairy Queen restaurant on Fifth Street during a work party last Saturday. Playle and his partner Jon Hammond are preserving the iconic DQ roofline at their new architecture office. Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise photoDriving by the old Dairy Queen at 909 Fifth St., you get the feeling you might be approaching a small urban farm. Bales and bales of straw are stacked around, although there’s not a farm animal in sight.

The straw, it turns out, is being used to build walls at the old DQ, which is quickly becoming office space for Indigo Hammond + Playle Architects.

Bruce Playle estimates this is the first straw-bale commercial building in Davis. His partner, Jon Hammond, designed, built (in the early 1980s) and lives in California’s first modern straw-bale building, in Winters.

The architects get the rice-straw bales from a special provider in Willows, who makes a dry, bug-free bale. Playle said very little of rice-straw waste gets used, and there’s an estimated 1 million tons of it. And Hammond pointed out that rice-straw bales are Yolo County’s only native building material.

An obvious question, though, is why build with straw?

Playle explained that the bales have a large amount of silica, which makes them quite resilient. “There’s no seed or nutrients in the bales, the way hay has. This is the stems, the waste,” he said.

Further, when the straw is encased in stucco, it becomes very fire-retardant. It has a two-hour-equivalent fire rating, as good as a well-made masonry wall. Plus, it’s the equivalent of R-40 insulation, and quite sound-deadening.

And, “If you keep it roofed, it’s resistant to weather,” Playle said.

Hammond praised the pliability of straw. “It creates a beautiful wall” because you can get nice angles and curves and achieve a “sculptureness” that you can’t get any other way.

In a nutshell, Playle said, what’s true about straw-bale buildings is counterintuitive; they are very fire-, water- and vermin-resistant.

Speaking of nutshells, the iconic ceiling/roofline of the old DQ is part of what attracted the architect partners to choose this site for their new office. To get the inside of the ceiling clear of its dark stain — plus, as Jon Hammond said, “50 years of hamburger grease” — they had it walnut shell-blasted. Sand blasting does more damage to the wood, Playle explained.

The ceiling is quite beautiful now and seems worth the labor-intensive effort. Playle said there are a number of these curvy DQ roofs — eight to 10 — in Northern California, products of the 1960s.

Touring the site, Playle talked about the addition to the original building that he and Hammond hope to lease to “an allied design professional,” such as engineers or interior designers.

Whoever does lease the space will get to take advantage of the super-sustainable design the partners have created. The space is naturally lit; no daytime lights will be needed because of the windows and skylights that are positioned properly for the sun. The sun will be kept out during sunnier seasons with the building’s exterior overhangs, but when it’s cooler and the position of the sun has shifted, it will shine in and warm the offices.

The building also will be naturally ventilated, using thermal heat sinks — columns that will use heated or cooled water to help control the temperature inside. And the addition will have photovoltaic solar panels on its roof.

Standing in the area where the old DQ parking lot used to be, Hammond explained that a garden soon will occupy that space. A line of parking along the alley will serve future clients.

And future clients might be able to visit the architects by the end of the year, as the partners estimate the building should be completed just before Christmas.

What they do know for certain? “I can tell you for sure it’s the only straw-bale Dairy Queen around,” Playle said.

— Reach Tanya Perez at tperez@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8082. Follow her on Twitter at @enterprisetanya