What if you could live mortgage-free, heat your entire home with less than two cords of wood each winter, and barely notice the difference when the power goes out? That’s real life for Marlow resident, Dakota Benedetto, who is executive director of the nearby Leaf Charter School.
“I had always wanted to design and build my own house,” she said. Before going into education, she studied architecture and spent many years getting firsthand experience. “I went on a big road trip around the country just looking at different, alternative styles of housing.”
From cob houses to Earthships, she was curious about ways in which people were building creatively. “I also went through several years where I just helped people that were building something unusual,” she said. All of those experiences culminated in the home she designed for herself here in New Hampshire. “What ended up being built was sort of an amalgamation of what I found to be the best,” she said.
The result was a timber-frame house made with local timbers. It has a stone foundation, straw-bale wraparound, and natural plasters on both the exterior and interior. Almost all the other elements are salvaged, including a slate roof, which came off a barn in Westmoreland. During the build, Benedetto lived in a small camper on the property. She acted as the general contractor, hiring locals for assistance with the big pieces, including the foundation, but working alongside throughout.
“The straw bales and the plaster we did totally on our own and with family,” she said.
Luckily, a beautiful straw-bale home had been recently constructed down the road just before she started hers. So, when she applied for permits, she said “the building inspector was definitely skeptical, but there was already precedence.” She noted that being in such a rural town likely made the process simpler than it would have been in a more suburban or urban area.
Though pitching the design to others may have taken a little explaining, the results were well worth it.
“The advantage for me is my cost of living has been very low,” Benedetto said. Because she did so much of the construction herself and repurposed materials, the build was significantly more affordable than a traditional home. And the biggest advantage she described: “I don’t have a mortgage, which is awesome.” In addition, the house is easy to heat because the straw is an incredible insulator. “We go through less than two cords of wood a year,” she said.
Another benefit is limited disruption during storms. The straw bales make the home super quiet, even during loud thunderstorms. And according to Benedetto, “When lots of people lose power, it kind of doesn’t affect us.” That’s because the woodstove continues to provide heat, and she is already used to living without running water. Currently there is no plumbing in the home, though it’s ready to be added at any time.
“I’ve been living without running water for more than a decade, which has been not as bad as you might think,” she said.
There is a spring down the road where she accesses water for cooking and drinking, and her rainwater collection system provides water for washing and the gardens. However, she said, “I have a two-year old now, so it’s getting trickier and trickier.”
At some point, she may add plumbing, as well as solar to augment the existing electrical system, but both would require a significant investment. With few trade-offs and a whole lot of freedom, her alternative home has proven to be quite an amazing space. For anyone considering a similarly unique approach, Benedetto suggests visiting other existing structures and checking out your options.
“It saved me some headaches in the long run,” she said, “but also helped make my process richer because I got to learn so much.”