by Gabriella Morrison
The options available with styles, building techniques, and materials used to create tiny houses are various (vive la différence!). Some tiny homes rest on solid foundations while others are on trailers. Some are modern in style and others more rustic. The list goes on and there is something out there for everyone. If you are the type of person that is looking for a super energy efficient, natural, beautiful, non-toxic and cost effective house then a straw bale tiny home may just be the solution for you. You may be thinking, “Build a tiny house out of WHAT??”
Straw bale technology is a tried and true system backed by copious amounts of scientific research and data to prove its merits. Tests have shown that straw bale walls are 3x more fire resistant than conventional construction. Think of it this way, straw bales are very dense and when within a wall system (and behind a thick layer of plaster), oxygen has nowhere to go. A stud framed wall as found in conventional constuction on the other hand creates a welcoming environment for flame spread by essentially creating oxygen rich chimneys in between each stud. Straw bale walls are thick, like really thick (21″) and are thus 3x more energy efficient than a conventional wall system. Most straw bale house owners save about 75% on their heating and cooling costs. Straw bale systems are also preferential to conventional construction in earthquakes and tornadoes. And don’t worry, rodents won’t get into your walls. They would have to gnaw through a thick layer of plaster and even if they got through that, they would need to make their way through extremely dense straw. Believe me, they would much rather move next door to a regular house with warm, soft and fuzzy pink insulation. Obtaining building permits has become easy and straw bale specific building codes now exist in many states. Straw bale construction lends itself very well to the do it yourselfer and is simple to learn (think giant Legos). Plus, straw bale construction uses a waste material that is often discarded in the field by either burning or flooding and is thus a part of a solution rather than contributing to the problem of using virgin resources for construction.
When John and Marie, a recently retired beautiful couple, decided to create a homestead, it was clear to them that they wanted to build using straw bales. We ran a 2 week workshop on their site last year and built two 200 sqft interior dimension cabins side by side that would become their home sweet home. Though they plan on building a slightly larger straw bale house at some point in the future they have been toying with the idea of just continuing to live in the two cabins because they serve their purposes so well.
They opted to build their two cabins side by side and right at the 200sqft size to fall within the no permit required provision (often found in building jurisdictions). One of their cabins serves as the kitchen and dining room. It is super functional and adorable. In joining them for dinner the other night, the four of us were very comfortable in the space and enjoyed an exquisite meal (they are BIG into growing their own food and most of the fare was freshly harvested). About 10′ away is their other straw bale cabin which serves as their bedroom and bathroom. They created a separate room for their toilet and shower and placed their sink in the main cabin area. The colors and feel in the sleeping cabin are so beautiful, warm and relaxing that we just wanted to curl up in bed and take a deep rest. A covered breezeway could be created in between the two cabins. If you live in an area with building codes though the inspector will take objection if you attach the breezeway physically to each structure if you are building yours as non permitted structures.
You could build each of these cabins if you did the work yourself for around $6,000 each depending on your location. This estimate covers everything but the interior finishes such as kitchen appliances, cabinetry, toilet, and shower. All of those finish details can be found gently used or new if you wanted.
Just about the only things you can’t do with a straw bale house is to have thin walls and to put one on a trailer (movement would pulverize the plaster in time). Other than that, it’s a fantastic way to go. If you are remotely curious about learning more, we invite you to our totally Free 16 Day E-Course that walks you through the process of building a straw bale house. To sign up you can click here. If you want to see more images of what is possible in a straw bale house, you can access our photo gallery by visiting here. And if you want to see what educational resources are out there to help you build your own straw bale house, you can click here. Since 2004 we have personally taught over 800 participants at our hands on 7 day workshops, had the Free ECourse downloaded over 30,000 times, heard from hundreds that have built their own, and sold over 10,000 step by step instructional videos outlying the whole process from start to finish. All to say that this isn’t just a bizarre building fad but is instead a sound method of creating a beautiful, healthy and environmentally responsible home to last for generations.
Day seven started out earlier than usual as we were ending the day a little earlier and we were loosing a couple of people who had to head home because of distance and work. We were still very much behind schedule. With Andrew being ill much of the week we had not completed as much as we needed to and we wanted to at least get a start on the plastering.
We spent all morning doing finishing work around the windows. Curving them gently in, stretching the mesh and making sure they were tight enough to accept the plaster. There was still electrical work to complete. Niches to cut out, special mesh to put on all exposed wood, etc. We kept very busy.
After lunch it was time to mix the first coat of plaster. This is a process in itself as you have to get it just right and it needs to mix for 20 minutes per batch. Once we had a batch ready Andrew demonstrated the technique for holding and applying it to the wall. It is much heavier and more difficult than you might think. Many of us decided that if we were building our out straw bale homes that we would seriously consider hiring this part out to the professionals.
We only succeeded in covering most of one wall and it was time to clean up and say our goodbyes. After a week together sharing in this experience you make many good friends and though we are spread out from the east coast to all the way down under in Australia many of us will keep in contact and share the straw bale projects that are planned to be built by members of the workshop. If you have interest in straw bale construction, I would highly recommend this hands on experience with Andrew Morrison if you are able. Visit strawbale.com.
Thanks to Andrew Morrison and our hosts at Common Kettle Farm for a fine week of learning, good food, new friends and experiences.
Today is day 6 of the straw bale workshop here at Common Kettle Farm. One thing that I have discovered at this workshop is that straw bale construction takes time and there are lots of steps. If you want a completed home fast, straw bale is not the way to go. If you want a warm cozy or cool home with low utilities and are patient straw bale is perfect.
Today the rest of the meshing was put up, and more of the electrical put in. The boxes have to be cut out with a chain saw and the wires pulled. The wires are then pushed back into the bales where it sometimes needs to be cut out with a chain saw. Once this is all done the mesh has to be sewn together from the inside walls to the outside with long string and huge needles. Andrew showed us how it was done and we all jumped in to make it happen. Every 18 inches this has to be done going up and across. We used a jig to cut the string and hung them on a tree. The sand arrived for the plaster today and the kids enjoyed seeing it dumped from the truck.
Besides the usual work there were other were other activities going on around the barn. A wedding was planned for that evening as Sasha and EJ were getting married and the residents of the farm were decorating and rearranging the leftover bales for the event in the evening. Another busy day at the straw bale workshop and only one more after today.
I missed the the official wedding as I was invited to dinner at Michael Janzen’s of Tiny House Design. However I got back soon enough to enjoy some great music by Andrew, our hostess and the kids, and a chance to see the bride and groom do a wedding dance. A fun evening!
On day five at Common Kettle Farm we had an extremely busy day. Covering all exposed wood with roofing felt, getting the cutouts ready for the electrical. Cutting out the box areas for the electrical, installing the rest of the windows. Lots of chainsaw problems.
Deciding where the cutouts for the decorative niches would go. We also prepped for the mesh and started installing it at the end of the day.
A very busy day but I will let the photos tell the story. To learn more about straw bale construction visit strawbale.com.