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Bale Out Teen Center Taking Shape
Straw bales are not normally used in construction but they will make up most of the walls in the Riverbank Teen Center now rising at Santa Fe and Sixth streets.

While solid wooden posts, the thickness of telephone poles, will carry the load of the metal roof, the semicircular walls that form alcoves around the open interior will be built of straw bales laid on boards of plywood and faced inside and out with stucco or cement plaster.

Chiropractor Dr. Dennis Zinner employed the same method of construction when he built his home here beside the Stanislaus River some years ago. But it is not much used for public buildings.

"It's innovative but expensive," said Riverbank Public Works Director David Melilli. "It provides excellent insulation against both cold and heat. When done properly and kept free of moisture, it lasts a long time. But it's costly just like the laminated wooden beams that will carry the roof."

Straw and hay have been used as building materials for centuries. Pioneer farmers finding no trees on the plains took to mixing mud and water with straw to make bricks and built homes of adobe. But that is rather different from walls composed of hay and sheathed in a protective coating.

The Community Center adjacent to the Teen Center is built of brick but also has wooden roof beams that are starting to fray at the ends protruding outside the building, he noted.

Governments like to make their buildings of materials, which will last a long time and require minimum maintenance. Take, for example, the Community Gym across the street, which is basic concrete and steel.

Representatives from Indigo Architects of Davis, however, which designed the teen center, have used straw bale construction before. They spent more than a year meeting with Recreation Director Sue Fitzpatrick and members of the local Teen Committee to determine what the young people wanted to see in their own clubhouse.

The general contractor Menghetti Construction of Oakdale has also hired a company experienced in this type of work.

Capable of accommodating 100 people, the interior will have a core of offices, restrooms, and exercise room set to the right as visitors enter the main door facing Santa Fe Street. But the interior will be left open with a kitchenette adjacent to an Internet cafe on the west side and a lounge and a classroom in the eastern corners.

Roll up metal doors on the north and south side of the center will open up the interior and allow a stage in the interior to play to an audience either inside or outside the building.

Menghetti's low bid for construction was $760,000. The building is expected to be complete by December.