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A Face in the Crowd
No wolf could blow this house down

Jan. 12, 2007
By Jennifer Cochran

From a mud house in Mali to a tent on Tick Ridge, the structures that Laura Schaeffer has called home have often been far from ordinary. Now, after nearly 10 years of living in a 9' x 13' cottage with her husband, Grant Gilcher, she's excited to call a 3,000-square-foot straw bale house her home. 

Photo courtesy of Laura SchaefferThe director of outreach and coordinator of undergraduate studies at Ohio University's Center for International Studies, Schaeffer came to Athens in 1994 as a graduate student fresh from two years of service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa. 

As a graduate student at the Center for International Studies, Schaeffer interned for Rural Action where she was later employed as volunteer coordinator and met Gilcher. He had been living in Arizona where he helped build several straw bale houses.

"Grant came from Arizona with this idea," says Schaeffer. "I fell in love with him and then I fell in love with the idea of a straw bale house."

Schaeffer loved the idea of using straw, a renewable resource, to build a home that would be both environmentally friendly and comfortable. Straw bale houses are known for their energy efficiency since they have such thick walls. The bales serve not only as support, but also as excellent insulation.

"The heat just emanates from the walls -- it has a very comfortable feel to it," says Schaeffer. The house is heated with a wood stove and soon will have radiant floor heating which will be connected to an outdoor wood burner as well.

Before they got started building their house Grant and Laura spent hours salvaging wood to recycle. They tore down a church in Ames Township and ripped up the wood flooring from the Amesville Grange Hall, which had been flooded several times. Rather than ending up in a landfill, that wood is now in use as flooring, framing and a ceiling in the home the Schaeffer and Gilcher now share with their six-month old daughter Stella.

Although the salvaged wood was cheaper than purchasing wood, it did require a huge investment of sweat equity. But the couple doesn't track the hours of work that go into their home. "This is our life's work, says Schaeffer."Every day is an adventure." 

Now that the couple has embarked on the adventures of parenthood, their connections to their home and their land have deepened. "It seems even more like a home now that we have a little family," Schaeffer says. "Our sense of place is even stronger. You really think about preserving the land (for daughter Stella) and treating it with respect." 

Self-sufficiency is one value that Schaeffer and Gilcher will likely instill in their daughter. 

From the first structure they built on their 17 ridgetop acres -- the little straw bale cottage they lived in until recently -- to the workshop they built to house the tools and materials that would contribute to the construction process, to the home that is still in progress, most of the work bears their own unique touch. They also keep chickens and grow blueberries and vegetables in the same spirit of self-sufficiency. "I love to grow food and can it," says Schaeffer, "I love knowing where my food comes from."

When she's not planting, picking, or preserving, Schaeffer enjoys working with a diverse group of students, faculty and staff at the Center for International Studies. "I really enjoy the fact that I've come back to my international roots and that I have the opportunity to learn about different cultures through our students," she says. "I never know what is going to happen when I come to work. Before joining the staff at the Center for International Studies Laura coordinated Ohio University's Supplemental Instruction Program for eight years. 

Jennifer Cochran is the former assistant director for communication and graduate programming with the Center for International Studies.


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