Straw Bale 101

by Kent Griswold on April 21st, 2011. 10 Comments
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Guest Post by Andrew Morrison

Straw Bale construction is an old technology that has grown to become a respected and viable building option in most locations and climates. Not only is it beautiful and energy efficient, but it is also three times as fire resistant as a conventionally framed home and does extremely well in natural disasters such as earthquakes and extreme wind conditions. Straw bale and tiny house enthusiasts have a lot in common in that both are invested in being responsible earth stewards, want to reduce their living expenses, aren’t afraid to try something new and do things on their own, and are committed to creating a new model of sustainability by living within their means financially and from a resource stand point. Here are 9 reasons why we think you should consider building with bales:

Reason #1 Energy Efficiency.

A well built straw bale home can save you up to 75% on heating and cooling costs. In fact, in most climates, an air conditioning unit is not needed in the home as the natural cooling cycles of the planet are enough to keep the house cool all summer long. In addition, a simple heating system, very often radiant floor heating, can inexpensively supplement a passive solar design to keep a house warm all winter long.

Reason #2 Sound Proofing.

Straw bale walls provide excellent sound insulation and are superior wall systems for home owners looking to block out the sounds of traffic, airplanes, or other urban sounds. The assembly itself, a rigid skin of plaster sandwiched around a softer core of bales provides excellent sound absorption.

Reason # 3 Fire resistance.

Straw bale homes have roughly three times the fire resistance of conventional homes. Dense bales mean limited oxygen which in turn means no flames. Now wrap the dense bales in over an inch of plaster and you have a superior fire wall assembly.

Reason # 4 Environmental responsibility.

Building with straw helps the planet in many ways. For example, straw is considered a waste product that is either burned or composted in standing water. By using the straw instead of eliminating it, we reduce either air pollution or water consumption, both of which impact the environment in major ways.

Reason #5 Natural Materials

The use of straw as insulation means that the conventional insulation materials are removed from the home. Standard fiberglass insulation has formaldehyde in it, a known carcinogen. Bales also eliminate the use of plywood in the walls. Plywood contains unhealthy glues that can off-gas into the house over time. By building with natural materials, a healthy home is created from the start.

Reason #6 Aesthetics

There is nothing as calming and beautiful as a straw bale home. Time and time again I walk people through homes and they are immediately struck by the beauty and the “feeling” of the walls. I really can’t explain this one, you’ll just have to walk through your own to see what I mean. There really is nothing like it.

Reason #7 Minimize wood consumption.

If built as a load bearing assembly, the wood in the walls can be completely eliminated, except for around the windows as necessary to attach them to the structure. The harvesting of forests is a global concern and any reduction in the use of wood is a good thing for the long term health of the planet. Even framed walls with infill bales (bales as insulation) can reduce the use of wood by using engineered lumber for the posts and beams. The engineered material uses smaller, faster growing trees in place of larger, slower growing species. In addition, even a standard post and beam frame can use smaller timbers on larger spacing, thus reducing the amount of wood in the home and also working with the faster growing, more renewable wood resources.

Reason # 8 Built in window-seats/niches/storage

For space conscious builders, the options for creating wall niches and storage into the bale walls are pretty much endless. Because the bale walls are so thick, there is plenty of depth for people to essentially carve out niches for storage. Further, one can create window seats with some simple modifications during the construction process which creates space saving seating. The end results are beautiful and timeless.

Reason # 9 Perfect for the Do-It-Yourself builder

Building with bales is frankly, quite simple. If you’ve spent time building with legos, you already understand the basic principles of baling! The baling process goes very quickly and is extremely fun and rewarding to be a part of. Working with a natural material is also a wonderful way to connect with responsible building practices. It doesn’t take long to learn. In fact, we can teach people how to bale their own homes including the electrical and plumbing and plastering systems within our 7 day workshops (www.strawbaleworkshops.com).

This is just a short list of reasons to build with straw bales. This construction technology is widely accepted in nearly all building municipalities in the US and other countries around the world and many locales even have their own straw bale code for straw bale. You can run electrical wiring through the bales without any problems and have plumbing in the house as well. It is possible to get insurance and bank funding. This technology has really come a long way from when it began in the mid-west in the late 1800s!

If you are interested in learning more about straw bale construction, please visit www.StrawBale.com for tons of free information. We also offer instructional DVDs showing the whole process step by step at www.LearnStrawBale.com.

Andrew Morrison
Consultant, Teacher, Inspiring Change

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Learn the Secrets to Successful Home Construction:
www.BeYourOwnContractorTraining.com

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Get Your Straw Bale Construction Questions Answered at:
www.StrawBale.com
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Sign Up For a Seven Day Straw Bale Construction Workshop Near You at:
www.StrawBaleWorkshops.com

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Work Directly With Me at:
www.StrawBaleConsulting.com

Follow Me on Twitter: @StrawBaleTeach

*Note if you purchase the DVD’s or workshops through the links above  a portion goes to support the Tiny House Blog.

April 21st, 2011and filed in Straw Bale
Tags: bales, building, Straw Bale, sustainability
10 Comments

10 Responses to “Straw Bale 101”

  1. Ben says:

    Wow, great post! I have a few of Andrew’s videos on strawbale building and they are a wonderful learning tool and I highly recommend them as a good intro to house building in general. Very useful even if you’re not going to do strawbale since they introduce many core principles and ideas to get you thinking “outside the box”.

  2. Rain says:

    Could someone please help me find some more information about the fire resistance information? The reason I’ve been considering cob over straw bale is because I am petrified of any sort of fire and I could imagine the dry hay would go up in flames far faster than dried mud would. So could anyone point me to a book or a website that talks more about the fire issue with straw bale?

    • Ben says:

      There is no fire issue. The bales are so tightly packed that oxygen can’t get in. Ever tried to light a closed book on fire? Won’t work.

  3. Hazel says:

    I do like that straw bale construction is thinking outside the box, but the houses I’ve seen use almost double the amount of lumber! How can this be justified or remedied?

  4. Code restrictions limit the building of “load bearing” straw bale homes in many areas. So in those cases the “infill” methods need to be used.

    If anyone is interested…I have a number of Books on Straw bale homes and construction methods available for sale…All of them at 50% off the cover price I paid.

    You can see what I have at my blog.

    http://kmswoodworks.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/straw-bale-house-books-for-sale-50-off/

    Mention that you are coming from the tiny house blog and I will donate some of the proceeds to Kent…for the additional exposure.

  5. Julie says:

    I really want a strawbale house! I think they are gorgeous and so cozy looking. I hope to build one someday. (It won’t be tiny, but it will be small.)

  6. Brand says:

    I would love to build a Sunset Cottage as a weekend mountain getaway. I’ve been enamored with the design since I first saw the pics and article last year. The interior beams are especially beautiful.

  7. Andy says:

    Anyone have an idea how much it would cost to have someone build this exact cottage? I love it and agree with Brand, the beams are wonderful.

    Let me know on the cost of building if you can.

    Thanks so much

  8. naomi says:

    I’ve always been interested in straw bale, and I’ve read about compressing until almost no space so no fire, but I live in New Orleans. Aside from the humidity and rain (when does one compress and assemble?) how likely are the Formosan termites to get in there? Is oxygen limited enough to prevent them? It’s been a cool Spring, so the swarms haven’t appeared yet, coating street lights at night until invisible. Otherwise, city living could be much quieter. I’ll just go outside when the brass band passes by.

  9. Emily says:

    From my own experience, your cost & materials will depend on:

    Size of building
    Local building codes
    How much YOU can do and how much time you have

    For a small building–like ~100-150 sf, possibly with a short loft—you can possibly get away with planning and building a load-bearing straw structure, which means the bales themselves are the structure & carry the roof. This absolutely minimizes the amount of wood involved (basically to framing windows/doors/roof).

    Much bigger (floor space wise or height wise) & you start needing additional framing to support your structure. You can use post-and-beam (which gives you plenty of room to insert the bales) but unless you’re experienced & have time, you’re getting into more formal building arrangements with a contractor etc. Requirements will also vary depending on your area (in CA, we have additional earthquake requirements that other parts of the county won’t).

    The coolest straw bale houses I’ve seen really are dinky. Coolest, because the owners can lavish attention & love on a small structure the way it becomes impossible on a large one. Check out any books by the Steens, who are sort of the modern mid-wives to straw bale in the US.

    PS We had no problem getting fire insurance for our straw bale home…fortunately others in our community had led the way there & the insurers didn’t even blink. Termites…eh…no idea but that might make me a little wary.

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