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Local veteran builds his own straw bale house
Homesteading 1
Retired veteran Richard Breitenbach is building his own straw bale house as part of a homestead on his Dawson County property, and he wants to teach others how to do it, too. - photo by Julia Fechter

Ever since Richard Breitenbach was a child, he’s dreamed of constructing his own home.

Now, after 34 years of moving around Georgia while serving as a seabee and airman, he is finally realizing his long held goal on his property in Dawson County.

And that’s just the beginning. Breitenbach, who currently lives with his family in Cumming and works with teachers in Forsyth County, envisions a food forest and hosting self-sustenance skills classes under the moniker “Modern Homesteading Skills” on his Dawson County lot.

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Breitenbach has installed a terraced garden and built a pentagon-shaped straw bale house and quonset hut-style garage. - photo by Julia Fechter

Breitenbach is originally from Savannah, where he grew up fostering a love of nature through activities such as hiking, kayaking and simply being outside. 

After a stint of college, he ended up joining the Navy Reserves, where he served for 12 years. 

Then, he switched to the Air Force Reserves, where he worked in combat communications. 

Several years ago, he started looking for property in the North Georgia area and eventually found just one rural, undeveloped available property in Dawson County. 

The land slopes all the way down to a stream area, and there is a ravine farther back on the land, and the several-acre lot was heavily wooded with no established utilities. He knew then with his minimal construction knowledge at the time that his dream would take a lot of work. 

Breitenbach began researching building techniques related to permaculture or permanent agriculture, which has a philosophy of working with nature and not against it. 

He later came across video recommendations for cob houses, which often use straw bales. Breitenbach admired the longevity of such structures and the decreased chance of allergies as opposed to other insulation. 

After initially spending time cutting down trees, he began building the straw bale house. He subsequently got the clearance to build a metal garage. Then in 2016, he was called to deploy to Afghanistan, where he served for 10 months into 2017. At that point, primarily the house’s framing was set up. 

While deployed, he often spent his spare time as a communications airman researching to help his wife, who was struggling with digestive issues due to an autoimmune disorder. 

Breitenbach studied the links between the average American diet and various health ailments and eventually started eating vegan foods. 

Though it was challenging to go vegan when his primary options were MREs, his efforts paid off when he got in shape just by foregoing dairy and meat. The results prompted him to integrate food subsistence measures into his homesteading vision. 


Exterior

When he returned from deployment, Breitenbach was relieved to find out that his framing hadn’t deteriorated, so he put the roof on and further continued his efforts. 

The secret with straw bale insulation is keeping it dry, he said. If the straw portion is elevated above the ground and protected from rain, the overall structure will last for decades or hundreds of years. 

Each of his bales weigh 50 pounds and measure about 36-by-18-by-14 inches. It’s made of a core concentration of straw surrounded by about an inch-and-a-half of clay render and a sheathing of metal fencing that’s secured with ties. The blocks are infilled between the house’s studs, so a straw scent isn’t detectable.

The outside walls are finished off with sun-reflecting limewash, stone powder mixed with water and sprayed in three layers. It looks like stucco, although Breitenbach said that effect was accidental and that applying it in smaller sections is more manageable. 

The house is sound resistant, and he even gets a fire discount on the home because of the bales’ durability. If exposed to flames, the clay will just become like a brick, and any fire reaching the bales’ inner straw would just smolder out. 

Breitenbach oriented the house east-to-west, allowing the movement of sunlight to heat and cool the house more efficiently. No windows or doors are on the house’s north side, since that wall is the coldest. 

The roof is topped with a vent, the fan blades for which blow in a venturi effect. Furthermore, the roof has a vent system, characterized by vertical and horizontal double purlins that create a gap for air to travel up between the metal top and vapor barrier. The top of five triangles at each corner of the pentagon also point up for natural air flow. 

The venturi-style vent can direct and take out the heat on a hot summer day. If the metal roof were to ever leak, the vapor barrier can direct water to drip out another vent system.

“I haven’t heard of anybody doing that,” he said, crediting a roofer in Texas for the idea. 

Breitenbach wanted to keep the trees he cut down on the property without burning or burying them, so he used the debris to form above-ground features called hugelkultur, a German word meaning “raised bed.”


Homesteading 3

“When it rains, the water goes downhill, so it helps with erosion,” he said of the mounds. “The wood will absorb the moisture so in times of drought, you don't have to irrigate. The roots will grow into the wood.” 

Breitenbach thinks the hugelkultur mounds have helped hold moisture on the property and maintain the life-giving stream, which would otherwise dry out. 

The stream is also the healthiest he’s ever seen, as evidenced by the presence of several types of salamanders, an indicator species. 

“If anything goes wrong with the water system like pollution, they’ll die,” he said. 

His favorite thing to do around the property is landscaping, which he does using rabbit manure-based fertilizer and chemical-free water collected with rain barrels. The walkway around his house is filled with slate chips. Under the paths are tubes that act as drain lines to take water away from the house. 

He’s planted a flurry of food crops together with the vision of nurturing a future food forest, complete with native bamboo, which has multiple uses. 

Now, his crops include blueberries, thornless blackberries, apple and peach trees next to the driveway and strawberries between tire tracks. The diversity, another permaculture technique, helps avoid a blight, insect or disease taking out all his crops. He also wants to place watermelons, pumpkins and tomatoes throughout his terraced front yard.

Small wooden or metal sculptures, like tree faces or a mischievous fairy, are also hidden throughout his yard on trees or among the foliage. He wants to add a cage wire-and-rebar brachiosaurus down by the mounds and put ivy that can grow up along it. 

“I like to catch people off guard and make them smile,” Breitenbach said of the sculptures. “That’s one of my small goals in life, is to always have people with a smile on their face.”

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Interior

Both the house’s front and back doors have compartmentalized entries to keep the outside temperatures outside as people are coming inside. 

The bathroom features plumbing that comes up from underneath the house to avoid going through the straw bales. For his shower’s monolithic wall tiles, Breitenbach used a tatalack wall finish, a Moroccan technique that implements lime plaster layers topped with a coating of black olive soap, which when dried, creates a waterproof barrier that’s also mold and algae-proof. 

Now, the shower color has a light blue, marble-like appearance that reminds him of the clouds he flew through while in the Air Force Reserves. It only needs to be cleaned with regular soap and water, as regular cleaners would strip the waterproof protection.

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His house’s floors and walls were made using a centuries-old technique called cob. 

Materials like clay, sand and straw compose the mixture, which is then coated with linseed oil that dries to form a waterproof surface. Shoes must be removed before walking on that part of the floor to protect it. The payoff is that the floor acts like a heat sink, using heat from the sun’s rays to passively warm the house in winter time

Supplementally, Breitenbach will have to use a heater and dehumidifier in winter and in summer. 

Under the house, he has earth tubes that bring cold air into the house. He also has interior fans installed to bring air in or out of the house quickly. Those fans don’t require so much power as central heating and air, often people’s top utilities cost.

He has a point-of-service water heater under his kitchen sink that he can turn on as needed. And he plans to use a converted chest freezer with a thermostat as a fridge to minimize leaking of cold air from the container. 

The house’s lighting is mostly LED fixtures with some compact fluorescent ones. He’ll mostly air-dry clothes on a line and only use a dryer to knock out wrinkles. 

Air and electrical considerations like these will hopefully help Breitenbach pay a third to half less on his electric bills than people in standard houses. 

He even hopes to install solar and wind power to boost savings and self-sufficiency. For now, he’s utilizing buried electric power, as electric poles could be interfered with by falling trees or debris during storms. 

It’s also his goal to install a backup system that can be turned on if the standard power is taken down. 

Breitenbach estimates 19 different energy or resource-saving features around his property. 

“Houses may have a couple [features] but not all of these,” he said. 

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Progress

Over weekends, evenings and vacation days, Breitenbach said he’s spent two years working on the property over six to seven years. He had some help with things like pouring the foundation concrete or placing the big “lolli pole” inside the home. 

Between nontoxic materials and other supplies like screws, roofing, concrete, gravel and wood, he loosely estimated the building costs as about $12,000. 

“The labor would’ve been easily $80,000. But just this part,” he said of the initial house, “will probably be [worth] at least $100,000 when it’s finished.”

The pentagon house will serve as the in-law suite. 

Because code requirements dictate that he can’t have a separate second house on the property, he plans to build a second attached dwelling he calls “the cabin” on the other side of his utility room. 

A rubble trench foundation has been laid for the cabin, and similar earth tubes have been placed as was done under the pentagon house. Now, the next step is getting a permit to build the above-ground elements. 

The cabin portion will be shaped like an elongated octagon to allow wind to better go around the structure. Eventually, Breitenbach wants to add a breezeway that would lead to a planned two-story A-frame straw bale house planned for office use. Near the garage, he envisions a partially-underground greenhouse with 45-degree walls, side shelves and a bigger feature at its middle. 


Skills classes

Breitenbach switched his original vision of a bed-and-breakfast with an organic garden to a residential property where he also teaches homesteading classes on weekends. 

He wants to show others basic skills ranging from basic carpentry and plumbing to growing their own food through methods like raised beds and hugelkulture.

“Where do you go to learn that stuff?,” he said. “What better way to learn than by doing? I’m going to show you, and then you’re going to get right in there and get your hands dirty. 

By the end of the day, you’ll have done it so many times that you’ll get this.”

He explained that he won’t teach anything he hasn’t done himself, saying he prefers showing people to just sharing theory.

He even thinks it’d be cool to have a treehouse and hobbit house for demonstrations or for civic or exercise groups to rent. 

Breitenbach hopes he can garner multiple income streams from selling bamboo and teaching online, in print and in person, and he wants to teach others how to replicate multiple ventures like that on their properties. 

“With a homestead, there are so many small business opportunities, it’s amazing,” he said. 

People who don’t have a lot of property can start being self-sufficient with measures as small as growing herbs by a windowsill or growing light, he added.

Though it’s been “a heck of a learning process” for him, he’s grateful for how things have ultimately transpired. 

“Knowledge is power,” he said, “because if you learn something, you’ll remember it forever.”