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Sustainable straw bale house in Santa Cruz

This incredible straw bale house is located two blocks from the ocean in Santa Cruz, California, designed by Arkin Tilt Architects. Their clients are avid surfers and professors of Biology and Environmental Studies, who wished to push the ecological envelope while providing a fun, comfortable house for their family of six, along with a second unit for rental or aging parents. The exuberant south facade and generous terraces play off the lively public space while taking advantage of the western shading of the creek-side sycamore trees. The street-side presence is more subdued with smaller glimpses of the lively spaces within through a thick, insulating straw-bale wall.

Combining cutting-edge mechanical technology with natural building techniques, passive solar strategies, and locally sourced elements, this house is designed for net-zero energy and minimal carbon footprint. Straw-bale walls wrap the north and west, while the wood framed south wall opens up to the sun, bringing daylight deep into the living space via extensive glazing. The spacious, naturally ventilated 2-story space is accentuated with the natural branching of a madrone tree, and counter-balanced by an intimate living space with a bay rotated towards the park.

Each space serves several functions, shifting and changing with the seasons as light and shadow play through it. To add a touch of wit, the exposed framing in the stairwell becomes a bookcase display, and a built-in bench off the upper hall marks the entry below. The building’s impact is reduced through the use of recycled and salvaged doors, interior windows, flooring and driftwood pickets, as well as a driftwood column at the entry. Open and intimate, flexible and efficient, budget-conscious, and playful in overall form and detail, this house speaks to the specificity of its place, reflecting the consciousness and vibe of its urban Santa Cruz site.

The spacious, naturally ventilated 2-story dining space is accentuated with the natural branching of a madrone tree.

Ground floor bay window provides seating and storage.

Straw-bale walls wrap the north and west, while the wood framed south wall opens up to the sun, bringing daylight deep into the living space via extensive glazing.


The exposed framing at the top of the stairs provides ample storage & display space.

A built-in bench off the upper hall marks the entry below. Exposed framing maximizes the storage and display possibilities.

Playful upstairs bathroom with recycled glass Vetrazzo countertop.

Internal bridge leads to master bedroom & overlooks dining area

The entry features a driftwood column.

Photos: Ed Caldwell Photography