Straw Bale and Tiny Homes

Guest Post by Andrew Morrison

As you may know, my wife, 12 year old daughter, and I recently sold more than half of our worldly belongings to fund our adventure, let go of our large rental house, and spent the next 6 months in a quest to reconnect with each other and with what really matters in life. Most of that time was spent in a 150 sq ft pop up tent trailer in Baja, Mexico where we were able to live off grid and to essentially unplug ourselves from our “normal” day-to-day lives. What we learned was that in living with the least, we gained the most and that in finding the stillness that comes in not busying ourselves, we reclaimed our joy and inner calm (to read more about this journey, please visit www.SmallHouseRevolution.com).

One of our favorite topics of conversation since embarking on this adventure has become housing. What defines a home, what are the things that are essential in making a home a wonderful space, what do we want in our own dream house, etc… Being that the professional focus for most of our adult lives has been straw bale construction and green housing, we naturally have been exploring the merits of this mode of building as a solution for those of us that are wanting to build affordably, to tread lightly on the planet, and to be involved with our own home’s creation. We now see, more than ever, that straw bale construction is an amazing building technology fully able to fill those needs.

straw bale window seat

 

The idea of stacking straw bales to create a super insulated and natural shelter first appeared on the Nebraska plains over 100 years ago and some of these original homes are still in use. The technology has advanced significantly since those early builds and today, two major styles of straw bale construction have been developed: Load Bearing and Post and Beam. Load bearing construction uses no structural frame (such as framed 2×6 walls) to support the roof. Instead, the bales carry the load. Post and beam construction, on the other hand, uses a structural frame to support the roof while the bales act as insulation within that frame. Whichever system is implemented, the benefits of building with bales include: 3 times the insulation value of a conventional wall; 3 times more fire proof than a conventional home (yes, you read that right!); lessens pollution by using a waste material that normally contributes significantly to the pollution cycle; ideal building system for the owner builder; incredibly sound proof; able to withstand natural disasters (earthquakes, high wind/tornado) significantly better than a conventional home; aesthetically beautiful.

 

straw bale home

You may not have considered building a straw bale house when planning your downsize because of the thickness of the walls, but this thickness can actually be hugely beneficial when building small. All types of niches, built in furniture and closets can be molded out of the walls, allowing for a simple, space efficient, and elegant interior design. Here are other ways that straw bale homes can fulfill the needs and desires of people looking to live a simpler and more efficient lifestyle.

  • Less dependence on a paycheck. Because straw bale construction lends itself well to owner builders, there can be significant cost savings during the construction process. Furthermore, the homes are very low maintenance, so lifecycle costs also remain low. Additionally, the cost to condition the space is very low due to the super efficiency of the walls. In fact, the high insulation value has been shown to reduce heating and cooling costs by up to 75% when compared with conventional homes. With a lower dependence on paychecks, there is less stress, higher quality of living, and more space and time to spend on the activities that enrich and enliven us.
  • Highly conducive to living totally off-grid. It’s easy to make a correlation between higher efficiency construction and lower energy consumption. Obviously, if you are 3 times more efficient, you will use less energy. This means that the systems used to heat and cool can be smaller and will place less demand on an off-grid energy system. We learned that living off-grid in our pop-up tent trailer was an incredibly liberating experience that allowed us to really understand the impact of our daily actions and choices.
  • Low maintenance system. Straw bale structures are low maintenance, especially when a simple design is used. Once they are built, little is needed to be done over the years to keep it looking great. Further, the natural materials used both in the bales and on the walls (plaster) create a “living wall system” that actually helps moderate the interior climate. By spending less time adjusting the interior climate and maintaining heating/cooling equipment you will have more time to spend doing the things you love. In fact, in areas where evening temperatures cool off significantly, no cooling system is needed at all, completely eliminating a machine that will eventually need servicing or replacement.
  • Incredibly “green” building technology. Each year, millions of tons of straw are burned in the field as a waste product. For every 1 million tons burned, roughly 56,000 tons of carbon monoxide is produced. This has a huge impact on our air quality and overall planetary health. By using the straw instead of burning it, we lessen the environmental impacts by removing the CO from the atmosphere. We also have a positive impact by minimizing our homeowner energy usage. Furthermore, the use of these natural materials in the home eliminates the toxic building materials used in conventional homes. The air health inside a straw bale home is so good that many people who suffer from allergies, chemical sensitivities and autoimmune diseases build straw bale homes.
  • Optimal technology for the Do-It-Yourselfer. I’ve taught hundreds of people with no building experience how to build straw bale homes in my workshops. People understand the building system because it’s simple and intuitive (think of stacking Legos). There is something that is deeply enriching and enlivening when people build with bales and I believe in large part it’s because we are genetically programmed to build shelter with our own hands. When we come together, use a natural material that we can feel good about, and we learn how to build shelter, our lives change and we feel fulfilled. Seeing this transformation in people as they become empowered to build their own shelter is one of the deepest rewarding experiences.
straw bale window

I don’t believe that downsizing means that we have to give up our connection to beautiful, efficient, and even spacious living. If what you are looking for is a more effective way of living that uses less resources, both financial and environmental, a well designed straw bale home can meet all of your goals. For lots of free information about straw bale construction, please visit www.StrawBale.com. If you want to learn more about getting some hands-on experience with straw bale construction, please visit www.StrawBaleWorkshops.com to find out more about our 2-day, 7-day, and 14-day workshops.

Just in: Spring Has Sprung Sale. It starts March 30 and goes until next Monday April 9. 2012 at midnight. Workshops are $100 off, videos are 25% and up off of regular price. There is the Everything Combo for $140 which includes all of our videos (10 in total) plus a free strawpenter organic tshirt and free shipping globally. Click Here for sale discount. 

straw bale sauna

44 Comments Straw Bale and Tiny Homes

  1. Pingback: Straw Bale and Tiny Homes | Self Sufficiency | Home Efficiency

  2. Andrew Morrison of StrawBale.com

    Hi Kate. If you need help signing up for a workshop, please feel free to contact me at info@strawbaleworkshops.com. I would be happy to help you get the discount. The link Kent gave you will work just fine to get you to the right place. Just click on “workshops” once you get into the page.

    Ethan,
    I don’t know the name and make of the stove, but I will try to find out for you. It’s in a sauna we built during a workshop several years ago.

    Reply
  3. molly

    I love straw bale homes. They seem so much more ALIVE than stick built homes. This is my goal, to one day have a straw bale home of my own, and to help build it.

    Reply
    1. Andrew

      That’s great to hear Molly! There’s no question that being in a straw bale home is really different than in a conventionally framed house.

      Reply
  4. gf

    Is there anyplace in the Lower 48 that will issue a building permit for a straw bale home over 144 square feet?

    Reply
    1. Andrew

      Absolutely! In fact, several states even have straw bale specific codes in place. If you don’t live in an area with a straw bale code in place though, don’t panic. All it takes is giving the building dep’t some information about the technology and once they understand it, they are typically actually pretty enthusiastic about it. People are building straw bale homes in pretty much every state at this point.

      Reply
      1. Rick

        If you’re trying to build in an area where building officials aren’t familiar with straw bale construction, or are skeptical, it’s usually best to play down the straw bale issue. For example, describe your home as a post and beam house with cellulose insulation — that’s actually what infill straw bale construction is, and they’ll probably understand what that’s about and not not be so uptight.

        On the other hand, your building officials might be cool. Nobody in our city had pulled a straw permit when I approached the building official somewhat hesitantly to sound him out. “Where have you been?” he exclaimed. “We’ve been waiting for this.” He knew all about straw from other building officials, and was thrilled to finally have a project he could learn from.

        Reply
        1. Heather

          Same goes for many counties in Arkansas and Kansas. You would have to build outside the city limits though. I’ve also heard that you can avoid a lot of red tape by simply saying that you are using cellulose insulation when presenting your plans to officals. But yeah…that could be risky. ;)

          Reply
    2. Emily

      @ GF: California does, and I believe New Mexico & Arizona. (I’m writing this in my CA straw bale.) For California there’s a straw bale advocacy group, CASBA, which has done a lot of work educating building depts and working to augment codes to allow for it.

      It can help, too, if you’re not the first to build a bale house in your area. We were lucky to benefit from others who’ve gone through the process already; the building dept and inspectors had seen it before and really didn’t have many questions for us.

      Just be aware that unless you’re able to take on the construction itself, going with a post-and-beam building isn’t necessarily going to cost you less than a traditional structure. And fitting the bales together is a LOT of work. Then digging/mixing clay, plastering, etc…it just all takes a long long time. I don’t regret it, but hoo boy. It was a lot of work. :-)

      Reply
  5. Amy

    Our family is living off grid in our rv right now in Taos, NM. Straw bale is really popular here. The price of hay bales is sky high though! So my dilemma is cost. As a family of meager means we could build a wood frame cabin for a lot less than straw bale. Sure, I know that straw bale saves more money in the long run but what if you don’t have the cash up front for one? Where do you suggest buying hay bales for a reasonable price? Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Rebecca

      Amy,
      The problem with building with straw bale in NM is that the bales have to be imported because grains don’t grow well in the desert. It’s very cheap to buy bales in Kansas or Tennessee because there is a lot of local straw. I can buy bales for $2 or less. (I could probably halve that if I was buying them in bulk for a house.)

      If you want to save some money, look into regional building techniques. Cob and adobe, for instance, are very popular in NM because they do quite well in the local climate.
      -Rebecca

      Reply
      1. Amy

        Thanks so much for clarifying that. I always wondered why it was so expensive here.

        Adobe is definitely popular here but more labor intensive if you consider how many adobe bricks it takes to replace one hay bale. I don’t think it is necessarily cheaper either unless you make your own and unfortunately between work and homeschooling we just don’t have that kind of luxury of time.

        Reply
        1. Rebecca

          Amy,
          I know two families who built their own houses while working and homeschooling. One had smaller kids and the other had kids who were in 2nd grade through middle school. Both concentrated their building during school holidays and occasional weekends. The family with older kids had them do a lot of homeschool projects on the house; the kids learned about all the different systems, they got experience working on practical projects, they learned about the lifecycle of materials, and so forth.

          In both cases, the families moved in as soon as the house was in any way livable and then finished it out as they went. The work went much faster once they were actually onsite, because they could do something every day.
          -Rebecca

          Reply
    2. Christina

      Strawbale is beautiful, however I think that one should consider where one lives. In the case of NM cob would work beautifully. I’m in south florida and have often heard the high humidity can be a problem for straw bale. Cob gives you the same organic feel of straw bale…hard to tell the finished products apart. Look at some beautiful pictures at cob cottage.com I particularly love sun ra designs.
      Happy mud making!

      Reply
      1. Andrew Morrison of StrawBale.com

        Cob certainly can be beautiful and the folks at Cob Cottage are masters of their craft, no doubt. That said, straw bale and cob are very different materials and they behave differently as well. Cob is thermal mass whereas straw bale is thermal insulation.

        Humidity can be an issue with straw bale, for sure, but it can also be managed with proper design and construction techniques. There are houses in the Southeast that are doing really well, as well as homes in Seattle and other wet, humid areas.

        You are right. Knowing your climate is a very good point Christina, no matter what home style you choose.

        Reply
  6. cj

    The ‘fluidity’ of this type of build is so beautiful. The lack of rigid corners, anything squared, make it warmer and more inviting. I like the build-in nooks that can be added as well.

    Kudos on the liberating experience!

    Reply
  7. alice h

    When I get around to a non-mobile house I’m very interested in straw bale. My neighbour has a cob house and the design possibilities are very similar but the cob seems a lot more labour intensive and less well insulated. I like the thick walls and sculptural possibilities. I like the notion of post and beam too so this seems like a great mix of two very interesting processes.

    Reply
  8. Engineer Guy

    I’m in W. CO.. I would look into getting Bales by the Semi Truckload from around Hotchkiss or Montrose CO, or in from large Ranches East of Colorado Springs. Semi Truckers are working cheap these days, other than the variable of Fuel Cost.

    Bale cost is also related to availability and cost of Irrigation Water. The areas I suggest tend to have plenty of ‘old’ Water that goes with old Ranches. This keeps cost down somewhat.

    Also, Truckers schedule Loads in advance by P.C.. So, they can haul South your way for less IF they can pick up a return Load, say, in Albuquerque to head back North to Denver or Cheyenne.

    Reply
  9. Charlie

    What is the square footage of the pictured house? Is a floor plan available? It doesn’t look small much less tiny but I am interested in something between 750 and 1,000 square feet myself.

    Reply
    1. Andrew Morrison

      Hi Charlie. Right you are about it being a “not so tiny house.” There are in fact several structures included in the images of this post. The sauna and the interior shot of the corner window is from a 300SF (exterior SF) bath house. I don’t remember the exact square footage of the main house in the story, but I think it’s more like 1500SF or more. It’s not a tiny home by any means, but is a beautiful example of bale construction.We do not have rights to the floor plan for that home. You can check out a bunch of straw bale floor plans/design at http://www.StrawBalePlans.com and some of them are within the size you are considering.

      Reply
  10. ken James

    Straw bale is the way to go. Unknown to most is that there is straw bale and then there’s Compressed straw bale. This is technique that Fodder suppliers use to save shipping storage and feed same amount . Conventional sized Bale is basically compressed to 3/4 of its original dimentions. A baler is a mechanical press for compacting cut fodder anyway this just takes it one step further. For small scale structrures 4″ of width is a great savings. It will take more bales and cost is marginally greater but It’s all about saving space. For mobile CSB (compressed straw bale I would consider framing with steel and using strawbales as infill. A min. pitch flat roof can be made from bales over metal girders as well or consider Paper Crete for roof with foam addititional insulation. The flat roof would also act as patio Deck. With ingenious collapseable stair options.

    Reply
    1. Andrew Morrison

      Super compressed straw bales are definitely cool, but be careful about expecting the same R-value from them as much of what is compressed is the air within the bales. That air is responsible for providing a lot of the insulation value.

      Also, steel structures have to be isolated from direct contact with the bales as condensation formed on the steel will otherwise be sucked into the straw causing rot issues.

      Reply
  11. dan

    Hi:
    What is the difference/similarity between. These homes and Adobe?
    Are there reasons to go strawbail instead of Adobe?
    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Andrew Morrison

      Dan, Adobe behaves in a manner opposite to straw bale. Adobe is thermal mass meaning it gathers, stores and releases thermal energy. Straw bale homes are high on thermal insulation meaning they hold condition temperatures within the confines of the structure well.

      If you live in a place that has hot days and cool nights, bales are great as they can “weather” the peaks and capture the cool of the evening in the home during the night and release it during the day. They also work well in cold climates where insulation and heat retention is of utmost need. Adobe structures work well in the first scenario, but are terrible in the second.

      Furthermore, adobe structures don’t have the structural integrity that bale homes have. They are more brittle and have weaker tensile strength (this is put to the test in earthquakes, especially).

      Reply
  12. sesameB

    Straw bale is the way to go, I agree. But I love my very own tiny home here in rural south central sunny Arkansas!!!!
    This post is sweet and timeless.
    Barefootin’, drinking spring water, & re-wilding myself, too

    Reply
  13. Heather

    Can anyone direct me to the source of the photo of the house exterior in this post? I want to learn more about that house.

    Reply
  14. Pasha

    THIS is my dream house…wow! I’ve been enamoured by rammed eath/straw bale housing for a few years, and my final goal (not getting any younger) is to build my own, but with help this time- I’m currently totally renovating a small house alone, and being a woman in this part of the country doesn’t engender any kind help…it har to lift a full sheet of drywall over your head AND install it alone. I used old fence posts in a final and successful build, Necessity is the mother of invention..(I guess that makes Frank Zappa the Father, by default)

    Reply
  15. Glen Leighton

    A few questions.Could a two car garage be built with straw? Also thought of a Photography studio.I live in the Pacific NW West of Seattle on the Hood Canal.Raining as I write of course.Building with straw I’m assuming should be done in dry/warm weather? Last ? > Could a small two bed room two story be built? 1/2 post and beam to carry the upper 1 bed&bath?

    Reply
    1. Brian Kroeker

      Hi Glen,

      Virtually any structure can be built using straw bales, though the bales, due to their blockish nature, do tend to lean towards somewhat blockish architecture. Nothing says you can’t build round; it’s just a little trickier. With straw bales being used primarily as infill to a self supported structure (stick frame/post & beam/timber frame) virtually any height of building allowed by local codes could use straw bale.

      A 2 car garage, studio or 2 story house is no problem. Seattle is no problem, weather wise. All construction is more pleasant in sunny, warm weather, but most steps for straw bale infill construction can happen in any weather, as long as there is adequate protection from rain & wind for the bales and plastered walls. Depending on your chosen type of plaster, you may need to apply it in certain temperature conditions.

      The absolute best thing for anyone who wants to know more about this technique is to take one of Andrew Morrison’s workshops and to read as much as you can, both online and from books, sometimes available at your local library. Andrew is a terrific fountain of knowledge (no, I’m not related or employed by him in any way ;-) ).

      Reply
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