Archive for the ‘Codes and Building Officials’ Category

We Have a National Straw Bale Building Code!

Fireworks

This is perhaps the most exciting day in straw bale construction history. A proposed appendix on straw bale construction was approved at the International Code Council’s (ICC) Final Action Hearings in Atlantic City on October 4, 2013!  The appendix will be included in the 2015 International Residential Code (IRC) for one- and two-family dwellings. In case it is not clear exactly what this means and why I’m so excited, let me explain.

Code ApprovalThe IRC is the basis for the Residential Building Code in virtually every jurisdiction in the US.   So once these jurisdictions adopt the 2015 IRC, there will be a straw bale code for almost every jurisdiction in the United States. No more convincing building inspectors that your idea isn’t crazy. No more wondering if the plan checker will allow you to build the house of your dreams. You will be able to cite the national code and move forward with your construction process, with a permit.

It should be noted that appendices in the IRC are not integral with the body of the IRC, and must be explicitly adopted by jurisdictions using the IRC.  But it is expected that the vast majority will adopt the straw bale appendix because it fills a great need.  Even if your jurisdiction does not adopt the appendix, you could cite it in the NATIONAL model code, which would carry enormous weight, and likely be used as the de facto code.

There are some restrictions within the straw bale appendix, most of which are appropriate for the proper use of straw bale construction; however, others are a bit conservative as a means of gaining acceptance in ICC’s approval process.   The appendix is a living document, and will evolve over time through ICC’s review process every three years. It was an important step to get “in the door” and now we can allow the appendix to evolve over time.

This is a huge and historic step for straw bale construction with far reaching implications. For example, obtaining financing through conventional channels should become easier with the acceptance of straw bale construction into the IRC. Banks’ concerns about structural longevity, fire resistance, moisture issues, etc. are clearly addressed in the code. The same can be said about the insurance industry. These establishments shy away from risk so having the IRC approval will help put lenders and insurer’s minds at ease. That can certainly make the process much simpler for homeowners moving forward.

ICC Approval HearingThe lead author of the appendix is California architect Martin Hammer. Martin has been working on draft straw bale codes since 2001 for the State of California, the International Green Construction Code, and the International Building Code. But these efforts and the approved IRC appendix were made possible by invaluable efforts and contributions from many other straw bale practitioners and experts. In particular, Kevin Donahue SE, Mark Aschheim PE, Dan Smith, Architect, John Swearingen, David Eisenberg, and Jane Andersen PE. Members of the Global Straw Building Network also contributed, including Laura Bartels, Andy Mueller, Bill Steen, Derek Roff, Graeme North, and Jacob Racusin. Ongoing support from Maurice and Joy Bennett, former directors of the California Straw Building Association (CASBA), was also vital to the effort.

Of course the fruit of any labor can be traced to its roots and branches. Martin Hammer wishes to acknowledge the pioneers of straw bale building, especially Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox, and Bill and Athena Steen. He also acknowledges Matts Myhrrman and David Eisenberg as authors of the first-ever straw bale code, in Arizona in 1995,  the many people involved in testing and research of straw bale building over the last 20 years, and the entire inspiring straw bale building community worldwide.

Moving forward in a continuing effort to increase acceptance of straw bale building techniques in an even wider market, a straw bale construction appendix is expected to be proposed for the 2018 International Building Code (IBC) in January 2015. The IBC governs all structures in its jurisdictions except one- and two-family dwellings which are covered by the IRC. This would create a path to permits for all residential structures not covered by the IRC (multi family dwellings, for example) as well as commercial and all other governed structures (churches, schools, offices, etc.). In addition, a peer review is under way regarding a FEMA P-695 analysis of the seismic performance of plastered straw bale wall systems. This analysis and review is required for new structural systems in the IBC.

IRC Approved Appendix Click on the PDF to check out the straw bale construction appendix in its approved form.   (Note that an effort will also be made to add illustrations and explanations for the 2015 IRC with Commentary)

Homesteading (Part 1)

Tyler CreekI spent last week on the piece of land that my wife and I purchased this past February.  This is the first raw piece of land that we have ever owned together with the intention of creating our forever homestead. My intention was to meet with county officials, engineers, the power company, and two of my friends: Roarke (my excavator) and Chris (my designer) to get the ball rolling. What I discovered in that process was much more profound than any permit approval, road grade conversation, or home site location search.

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Please Support the Proposed Straw Bale Code

IRCI recently received a call for support from my friends at CASBA, the California Straw Building Association, for the proposed straw bale building code which is being submitted for consideration to the International Residential Code (IRC). I am a big supporter of straw bale codes, and of building codes in general. Many people think that unusual as they consider codes to be simply the government’s way of extorting money from home builders and home owners. I disagree, for the most part. I’m sure there are codes that step well beyond the bounds of necessity; however, most are in place to protect the people living in the homes they build. I have seen MANY owner/builders create incredibly unsafe homes because they simply did not understand the risks involved in building and the huge weights and forces that are involved in the construction of a home. I believe that codes do a good job of protecting people whom would otherwise not even know what to look out for.

On another note, more specific to straw bale construction, codes are a huge ally for those of us wanting to build with bales. Inclusion in the IRC  would make getting building approval so much easier anywhere that those codes are enforced. After all, if it is in the code book and your project design meets those code requirements, there is nothing to stop you from getting an approval. It won’t matter if your local building inspector has never heard of straw bale construction or if they think it’s stupid. It won’t be up to them anymore!

I’ve included a PDF version of the draft code for you to review and a call to action to help support the effort to get this code included in the IRC. I’ve also included some details from CASBA entitled “Why is it important to have a straw bale code in the IRC?” I hope you will take the time to get involved and help move straw bale construction forward.

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Help With Understanding the Code for Sustainable Homes

The code for sustainable homes is an environmental assessment method for rating and certifying the performance of new homes. It is a national standard for use in the design and construction of new homes with a view to encouraging continuous improvement in sustainable construction. It was launched in 2006 and became operational in April 2007. Where building regulations apply, compliance is necessary at all times.

Straw bale construction can greatly enhance your credit scoring within the Code Assessment as it attracts an excellent rating in the Green Guide – by the BRE.

The concept of Codewizard was based on two fundamentals. To Facilitate and Educate on the Code for Sustainable Homes process.

The system was designed by Architects and Code Assessors and was developed in conjunction with Liverpool John Moores University and the North West Development Agency over a 2 year period. It uses the very latest database technology on a dedicated and encrypted server.

It is our intention to make the process of achieving Code compliance as straightforward as possible. The system gives the Client a simple snapshot of where they are in the CSH process for every project and also gives the Assessor a way of tracking the evidence in one secure place.

By cutting down the amount of time spent educating and chasing the client, we hope we have created a system that makes it easier for all concerned.

If you would like to see further features incorporated or have general feedback, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Inspire Others by Registering Your Straw Bale Home

Just a quick reminder to those of you who have a straw bale home to register your home on the International Straw Bale Registry Project through www.GreenBuilder.com. This is a great resource for other people who are looking to build their own straw bale home. I often contact people who have listed their homes on the registry to see if they are open to helping a “newcomer”  find resources, builders, architects, and more for their own project. Sometimes, all it takes is for that newcomer to know that someone else has already blazed a trail which they can follow in the creation of their own home. Registering your house is a great way to inspire others. Please take a few minutes to visit the site and register your home today!

Straw Bale Construction in Earthquakes

I am not going to use pictures in this post as we all know what the recent devastation in Japan looks like. I want to start by sending Gabriella’s and my love, prayers, thoughts, and hope to all those effected by the recent earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand.  Clearly the tsunami in Japan was behind the majority of the death and damage, but the impact that earthquakes are having around the world on human populations cannot be missed. As is often the case with deaths associated with earthquakes, the housing in which people live can either be the shelter they so desperately need or a deathtrap.

Over the years, many people have looked long and hard at how straw bale structures perform in earthquakes. From the early pioneers such as Bruce King (who identified the seismic resistance qualities of straw bale construction) to the recent work done by Darcey Donovan (who spearheaded the shake table study at the University of  Nevada, Reno) these engineers and many others like them have long touted straw bale construction as a smart choice in earthquake prone areas. Let’s take a look at why.

  • Shear Design. When building post and beam structures, the most commonly utilized straw bale design, the frame itself is braced to resist lateral shear. Lateral shear is the force that is applied to a building in the same plane as the wall it is being applied to. In other words, if you stand at the corner of a building and push, you are applying lateral shear force to the wall you are pushing. The frame itself will be engineered to resits this shear force as the primary defense.
  • Redundant Design. The bales, attached to and notched around the framing, act as secondary shear resistance. This “backup system” adds significant strength to the overall wall assembly.
  • Natural Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs). The bales and the plaster are joined as one during the construction process. The combination of the two materials makes a natural SIPs panel which is amazingly strong. It is the combination of the rigid plaster skins with the soft bale interior that makes this structural assembly extremely strong.
  • Wide Footprint. The bales are wide, much wider than a conventionally framed wall, and as such, they have a wider footprint onto which they can spread any load applied during an earthquake.
  • Soft and Supple. The bales respond to seismic forces differently than conventional construction materials. In most of the conventional construction systems used here in the United States, the materials are designed to resist external forces (wind, earthquakes, etc…). Bales, on the other hand, are very good at simply absorbing those forces. Their ability to move, even in the most subtle ways, allows them to deflect much of the energy that would otherwise cause failure in rigid building materials.
  • Stronger Sills. I always use 4×4 sill plates/toe ups. These thicker, stronger boards are able to resist more force than a single or even doubled up 2x board. This is often the difference between a structure holding firm and breaking away from its foundation. (Another potential cause of such a failure is too small of a washer on the anchor blot itself, but that’s another story).

It’s important to remember in construction that a building acts as a unit. In other words, you cannot think only about the shear strength of the walls or the ability of the roof to resist winds. When wind pushes up on the roof, the roof wants to lift off of the walls and the walls want to either go with the roof or collapse into the home. The connections at every point through the house have to be considered and built to withstand the forces that can and will act upon them.

I’ve heard from many people who live in straw bale homes that their properties have done well in earthquakes. There are a lot of engineering numbers out there to support this idea too. Like I said earlier, a lot has been done to understand just how safe a straw bale building can be. I, for one, would like to hear more as we see the level and intensity of earthquakes increase.   If you know of any other studies of value, please let me know. I plan to undertake a comparison study in the near future testing the strengths and differences of post and beam bale walls, load bearing bale walls, and conventionally framed walls.  If you are interested in helping out with this, please let me know. I already have an engineer on board, Nabil Taha of Precision Structural Engineering, Inc. He is very excited and passionate about this project and straw bale construction in general. We are looking for help finding funding, most likely by means of writing  a grant request. In addition, we would love to have some people who are excited about this idea on board to help with all the many details that will arise from the project. Exactly what that means, I don’t yet know! Please leave a comment here if you are interested in helping in any way or if you know of other folks currently working on a similar project/study. Thanks.

Update on Green Building Codes and Standards

I received a great update this morning on the existence and development of green building codes and standards in the United States from a product developer (I’ll call him Bob) with the International Code Council (ICC) that I’d like to share with you.
Here’s what he shared with me (I’ll give some comments a long the way):The National Green Building Standard (NGBS) the very first ANSI consensus standard on sustainable green building for residential construction, was published recently.  It was co-developed by the ICC and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).  It is intended to be used as an optional standard that can be adopted by a municipality to incorporate green building standards into their community.  It specifically makes reference to alternate materials to be considered for residential construction, such as straw, logs, rammed earth, adobe, etc.
I like that this standard is really focusing in on alternative materials. I’m hopeful that someday soon, these will not be included as optional standards, but as much a part of the code requirements as structural engineering. Of course, I don’t want the code officials mandating that some one build with a specific material, I like the flexibility of choosing a material that works for each individual project; however, I would like to see the inclusion of green aspects made mandatory so that we as a nation can improve our “Green Standing” in each of our new projects moving froward.The ICC is currently developing a commercial version of the NGBS, titled the International Green Construction Code (IGCC), which is currently set for completion in 2011, and is also intended to be a basis for green materials used in construction. Both of these documents are meant to encourage the use of alternate materials (some of which have been around for a thousand years), and create a basis for code officials to approve the use of these materials by creating some guidelines and/or methods of installation.

Recently, Bob wrote a new document related to residential green buildings (and to the ICC Residential Green Certification), that is based on the National Green Building Standard mentioned above. Below is the Press Release announcing this study document.

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New Study Guide Assists in Green Home Construction

The International Code Council (ICC) has just released 2009 Green Residential Building Study Companion, part of its popular series of Study Companions. It is the first study guide to reference the groundbreaking ICC 700-2008 National Green Building Standard, developed by the National Association of Home Builders and ICC, and the 2009 International Energy Conservation and Residential Codes.

The comprehensive Study Companion contains 16 study sessions to provide practical learning assignments, expert commentary, helpful illustrations and quizzes with 256 questions to measure information retention. In addition to serving as a reliable resource for those preparing to take the ICC Green Building-Residential Examiner certification exam, the Study Companion is a technical reference that assists with understanding of sustainable building practices. The 2009 Green Residential Building Study Companion is available for purchase by calling 1-800-786-4452.

“The Study Companion approach is a fantastic vehicle for delivering highly illustrative technical information to the building construction community,” Mark Johnson, ICC Senior Vice President of Business and Product Development and President of ICC Evaluation Service said. “Using text directly from ICC 700, this Study Companion includes an illustration or graphic on each page with clear text and commentary to strengthen a deep understanding of green issues.”

The International Code Council, a membership association dedicated to building safety, fire prevention and energy efficiency, develops the codes used to construct residential and commercial buildings, including homes and schools. Most U.S. cities, counties and states choose the International Codes, building safety codes developed by the International Code Council.

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In 2011, Bob will be teaching some green classes in in the United States to continue to spread the word. He informed me that he is continually trying to learn more about alternative construction methods and is always interested to visit existing job sites where homes are currently under construction. In fact, he is currently trying to find somebody that is building strawbale homes either in Minnesota or Wisconsin that he can visit during construction to learn more about the practice, and for an opportunity to photograph the same (so he can incorporate more detail on strawbale into his training programs).  If you are in the middle of a project, are about to start one, or know someone in that position who would be willing to open their project to his visitation, please let us know. Whatever we, as straw bale enthusiasts, can do to help promote this great technology is worth while. So please consider contacting me about your project and helping a code developer learn first hand from your work!

One of the things I thought was really cool about the standards is that straw is mentioned and equally weighted with other natural materials like wood, bamboo, and cork on a “point scale” for green value. This is a good thing in my eyes because those materials (wood, bamboo and cork) are often accepted as main stream materials. Placing straw in the same category may move to take some of the mystery away from it and place it in the “normal” column instead of the fairy tale column.

New Green Construction Code Released by the International Codes Council (ICC)

The International Code Council (ICC) has recently released the International Green Construction Code (IGCC). This code is intended for commercial buildings and will be integrated into the existing International Codes. This is not the same thing as LEED design, and is a new code in place to govern the green details of commercial construction. The key word here is “code” as it is not a guideline, but an actual building code.

The IGCC was created by a group of experts from advocacy organizations, government agencies, and industry representatives. The full IGCC will help smaller communities enforce green standards on their local commercial projects. The code is designed to work in tandem with such programs as LEED certification and other green building programs.

The IGCC also will create the most comprehensive code for implementing green water systems like rainwater catchment, reclaimed water, and grey water systems. This is huge because water, being such a precious resource, is very poorly managed in the United States and such green systems are often refused before any consideration.

The IGCC encourages the use of alternative power such as wind, geothermal, solar and more as well as the implementation of recovery and use reduction systems. It creates a platform to enforce strict green building codes while still remaining flexible for local situations on the ground.

Tax Valuation Appraisals

I just received an email from a man whose home was recently appraised by the county tax office for the first time after final completion. The property tax assessment turned out to be really high and he asked if there was any history of successful contesting of such assessments in my history. I didn’t have anything to offer him other than support and advice. Here’s the deal:

Property taxes are assessed from the outside of a home. As such, the overall square footage on which you are taxed as a straw bale home owner is considerably higher than it is for a conventional home owner. In the example of the man who contacted me this morning, he is being taxed on a square footage of 3100 SF even though his actual floor space is only 2400 SF. That’s a lot of extra money they are assessing within the actual wall of the house.

My suggestion to him was to contest the assessment by suggesting that the county tax office support green construction and become a pioneer in the area for such appraisals. They can take the exterior measurement just like they usually do and then subtract all of the “excess” wall thickness so that they are left with a conventional wall thickness of 6 inches. They can then base the assessment on that square footage. Otherwise, they are actually penalizing people for building green which is a terrible message to send to the public.

I’ve asked him to reconnect with me once he gets an answer from the tax assessor’s office. I hope it’s good news and I trust the assessor will see the reasoning in this approach and will choose to support efficient construction.

Art credit: Harry Chen Thinks Aloud

Straw Bale Home Appraisals

Getting a straw bale home appraised is one of the harder aspects of construction. Why? Because there are not very many, if any, comparable sales of straw bale homes out there. So how do you jump this hurdle? There are a couple ways to do it.

The first and most promising way is to make sure the appraiser knows why there are no comparable sales near you. The reason is that people who buy straw bale homes don’t often sell them. This is not because they are hard to sell but rather because they are such amazing homes that people don’t want to leave. Most of the homes I have built over the years are end user homes. This means that the people plan to live in their straw bale home until they die. At that time, the will likely hand the house down in their will to their children. I’m serious, bale home owners love their bale homes! The problem for you and me is that because they don’t put their homes for sale on the after market (meaning a sale that does not include the original construction of the home) we struggle to find comparable sales. I have found, however, that when my appraiser knew that the reason for this lack of homes was that they are super desirable, not that they were unmarketable, my appraised value went UP.

Another approach with finding a comparable sale is to recognize that many, if not all, of the bale homes will not be listed in the MLS (multiple Listing Service) as straw bale homes. Think about it, how many times have you looked to buy a home off the MLS as a fiberglass insulation house? Probably never. Bale homes are homes first and bales second. Finding a listing that specifies straw bale may not be possible. One avenue that might be productive is looking at “alternative homes.” Sometimes homes may be listed as such. This may include SIPs homes, rammed earth, log homes, and others, but they can often be used as comparable sales because they are “different” just like straw bale homes. Use whatever you can find to get the values the appraiser needs. The fact is, a bale home will ultimately have a better value than a conventional home in the long run. They are more efficient, sound proof and fire proof. All of these details will become more and more desirable as time passes.

Finally, you can look at other straw bale homes built in your area and ask those owners how they got financing. There is a good list, albeit incomplete as not everyone wants to list their home on a public record, at www.GreenBuilder.com. You can look for mortgage companies, home owners, and insurance companies on this site.

As a closing piece, keep in mind that banks don’t finance “fiberglass insulated homes,” so why should they finance a “straw bale home?” Unless you plan to build a load bearing structure, you don’t have to tell anyone in the banking system that you are building with bales. You are building a post and beam home with cellulose insulation. I prefer to tell people that I am building with bales and push the envelope a little in hopes of helping the next person; however, if I am up against a wall and have only 2 or 3 potential banks left on my call list, I will revert to the post and beam style description to ensure I get an approval.

Naming Names: Who Will Loan on Straw Bale Construction & How the Current Market Conditions Affect Your Chances of Getting a Loan

Obviously the real estate market has taken a huge loss around the world and things continue to look bleak. How this affects people wanting to build a straw bale home depends a lot on their local conditions.

The first and most obvious place of impact is in the mortgage industry. The industry has tightened the reigns on all of its loans and interest rates, although dropping due to governmental actions, may not be what you want once the points and other impacts are added to the loan. The biggest issue here for people wanting to build a straw bale house is the willingness of a bank to actually loan on an alternative structure. In the past, it has been difficult to find willing banks, smart enough to step into this growing niche market. Now, things are even harder. Most banks want to loan only on the things they KNOW are safe. Taking risks is not in most banks’ vocabulary right now.

So what to do? It is likely time to revert to the old ways of getting a loan for a straw bale house: Using the term “cellulose insulation.” Instead of telling banks you are building a straw bale house, tell them you are building a post and beam home with cellulose insulation. This takes away the red flag of “Straw? Are you serious?.” Unfortunately, finding a bank willing to loan on bale homes is simply going to be harder in this environment. Harder that is until banks start to see the wisdom in the construction.

One thing we are seeing around the world is rising energy costs. It is true that the cost of a barrel of oil is at a long term low right now, but overall energy costs are still climbing and will continue to do so as we move forward. A bale home is a strong answer to this situation due to the high insulation value and the use of natural, renewable materials. Banks will, hopefully, eventually start to see the wisdom in supporting such construction methods. Some banks will lead the way and others will follow. Finding those leaders may be the task of OUR time.

If you have a bank that you know of that has loaned on bale homes, please post the contact information here. I want to support these banks and drive business their way. Let’s help grow this industry together.

1. Bank of Oregon – Contact: Jeff Case – (541) 842-5602 – Email: Jeff.Case@BankofOregon.net
2. ****Your Bank Here!****

Another road block to financing a straw bale house can be finding comparable sales. There are ways to manage this hurdle as well that are simple and clear. For a full list of hurdles and how to overcome them, please review my blog post entitled “Financing and Straw Bale Construction” by searching at the top of www.strawbale.com.

Part V: Working with the Building Department

Today I want to talk about what it is like to work with your local building department while acting as your own general contractor. You might think that in the progression of events the next piece of the puzzle would be working with your bank, not the building department. After all, you won’t be working with your building department until you are actually ready to build and you won’t be ready until you have the bank funding. Actually, although a common theory, this is totally wrong in my opinion.

building_dept-_over_the_counter_staff.jpgI suggest that people talk with their local building department and use them as a resource. Most people think the building departments are out to ruin the experience of building a home, that they are all angry people who want nothing more than to make a builder’s life miserable. Of course, their are a few inspectors and plan reviewers out there like that, but they are NOT the norm. Most building department employees are trying to help people build a safe home to the best quality possible. Use their knowledge to your advantage. If you have questions about floor joist sizes, beam spans, window sizes and location, anything building related, don’t hesitate to ask the people who will be inspecting your work later on.

Creating a good relationship with the building department is a fabulous idea. If you have a friendly relationship and a relationship of trust with the folks at the building department, you will find it very easy to move forward through your project. If you bump heads with the department from the start, you may be in for a rough ride. Keep in mind that they may not be well versed in straw bale construction. As a result, you may need to educate them on the advantages of the technique. If they say you cannot build with bales in their jurisdiction, they are probably just afraid of an unknown building practice and not comfortable signing off on it. Instead of getting mad or depressed, become a teacher. Let them know that you totally understand their hesitation. In fact, if I were a building inspector or plan checker and someone came to me wanting to build with straw, I would probably say no way myself if I had never heard of it before, wouldn’t you?

architect.jpg

There is so much information available these days about building with bales. Send them to this website or to the technical work on www.ecobuildnetwork.org. Let them see images of completed homes. Let them read case studies and independent testing results. Let them read other state approved codes so that they can see the validity of what you want to do. If you become the teacher, you can open them up to new ideas and help them see the value of this practice, especially in this time of “green building” where everyone wants on the wagon. Let them become cutting edge under your instruction. I have found this approach to be very useful in the past and continue to use it today.

Getting back to an earlier point: when you ask the building department for help, it is important that you balance your requests with a show of your own knowledge. In other words, be sure to instill in them a sense of your level of comfort with contracting and or building the home. If they feel you are clueless about how to build, that will not serve you well. If they feel you are well educated in the trades and process, and simply have some questions you want to ask to further your education and dedication to doing things right the first time, they will admire that.

Here’s a final tip for the initial contact with your building department. Knowing that you want to build with bales is great. Knowing how the building department feels about bale construction before you present it to them is priceless. Call up anonymously and ask about getting a permit for a straw bale house. If they laugh at you or hang up on you because they think you are kidding, you know you have some work to do before you make your own presentation. The reason for this is that there are still some areas, around the World I am sure, where the building departments will be so closed minded, you will never get your building approved. In those areas, it is important to know that so you can take a different approach to getting your plans approved. It may mean that you build a post and beam house with cellulose insulation if you are actually building a straw bale, post and beam in fill home. Or you may build a “masonry wall system” home if working with load bearing straw bale walls. The point is, you can use different words to describe what you are doing 1. without lying and 2. without raising red flags. I always advocate bringing straw bale construction out in the open, but not when it faces certain denial from the building department. Build under an approved code section like “alternative forms of construction,” and keep your wording simple and nondescript.

In summary, the biggest thing to remember, whether you are building with bales or a conventional home, is that the building department can be looked upon as an asset, a help to you as you move forward. Building a quality relationship with them will serve you well. Be knowledgeable and friendly. Ask for help when you need it. Be honest and trustworthy. If you hold all these pieces in front of you, you will gain an ally in your quest for the perfect home.

Congressional Hearing on Straw Bale Construction

Below is the link to the recent briefings on Straw Bale Construction at the US Congress. This is a potentially exciting move for the world of straw bale construction. I know how slowly the US Congress can move, so my breath is bated although not held!

The presenters: David Eisenberg, Sandy Wiggins, Laura Bartels, and Bob Gough did a great job and I want to personally extend my thanks for their great presentations and commitment to this wonderful building technology. As you may know, David has been long committed to the growth and development of straw bale construction and is the director for the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT). Sandy, among holding several other credentials, is the immediate past chair of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Laura is the president of Green Weaver, Inc. a team member of Builders Without Borders as well as a builder and teacher. Bob is the Secretary of Intertribal Council On Utility Policy and spoke on behalf of those interested in affordable and healthy housing. More on each of these great people is listed on the following site.

Click here to read more about the presenters and to hear the presentations: http://www.eesi.org/briefings/2008/062008_strawbale/062008_strawbale_notice.html

Once again, thank you Bob, Laura, Sandy and David. I hope I can speak for all of us who love straw bale construction by saying you have helped us all move one step forward towards our goals.

New Research on Straw Bale Walls

I was recently told about some new research results that have posted on line. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has just published a report authored by Colin MacDougall called “Effect of Mesh and Bale Orientation on the Strength of Straw Bale Walls“. The report is co-authored by Chris Magwood and Steve Vardy.

The findings of the study, in general, support what many of us straw bale builders have believed for some time, although I was surprised by one of the findings: plastic mesh by Tenax may actually reduce the compressive strength of the bale walls. Although not discussed as part of the study, I think it is important to recognize that even though the inclusion of plastic mesh may decrease the compressive strength of the bale wall assembly, it can play a role in the lateral strength of the wall.

Tenax does not supply a lot of shear strength to wall assemblies; however, the use of welded wire mesh can supply significant shear strength as disclosed in Cale Ash, Mark Aschheim and David Mar’s study “In-Plane Cyclic Tests of Plastered Straw Bale Wall Assemblies.” If the mesh is used as part of the overal engineering of the structure, then it must be considered from more than one angle. Of course, the purpose of this study by MacDougall was to test one aspect of the wall strength and so isolation from other engineering affects was necessary to achieve clear results.

According to Don Fugler of CMHC Policy and Research: “The report looks at the effects of bale orientation, mesh vs no mesh, and clay vs cement based plasters on the strength of the walls under compression, and adds to the accumulating scientific literature on straw bale wall testing.”

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

You’re not the only one. I have a poster on my wall that I want to share with you all. It helps me remember that when my first efforts fall short, I don’t give up. It gives examples of influential men who started out as less than influential! I have always been someone who pushes through to the end and strives to accomplish what I believe is possible, no matter how hard it seems in the moment. Building a straw bale house in an area where no bale homes exist can be an uphill battle. Building inspectors, plan checkers, permitting departments, insurance companies, and more can stand in the way of your dream; but only if you let them.

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Abraham Lincoln started a business early in his career in which he was the owner of a dry goods store. That business turned out to be a flop. Later in his life, he was appointed to the position of postmaster in his township. His post office had the worst efficiency rating in the entire county! As you all know, he eventually turned things around for himself.
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Here’s another face you may recognize as a great and influential figure in American history. Harry Truman opened a shirt store at the age of 35. It took only two years for that store to go bankrupt. He then spent the next 15 years of his life working to pay off the debt that his venture had accumulated. Again, he eventually turned things around because he never gave up on himself.
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Believe in yourself and nothing can stop you. It doesn’t matter how many obstacles are in your way. If you believe you can do it, you can. Things may not end up looking like you thought they would (life has a way of changing the details of our plans along the way), but you can succeed with your dream. You may have to make some changes to your plans to accommodate impacts as you go, but don’t ever give up on your dream. One way or another, it will come to fruition if you stay with it. I believe this is true for building a bale house and every other aspect of your life where challenge seems to be the norm.

Finally, here is a quote I have had on my office wall for more years than I can remember. In fact, I think I have had it since I was about 16 years old. I will leave you with this and hope that it offers you the inspiration it has me.

“Change is Inevitable. Growth is Optional.”

House Wrap

House wrap often creates more damage than it prevents in straw bale houses. Why then are they required in straw bale building codes? The answer is not complicated; however, the impact of house wrap on homes of all types is.

For straw bale homes, the push has always been to provide the bale walls with a vapor permeable finish to allow any water vapor to escape the building. In most cases, this translates into an earth based plaster like clay or lime. These plasters have the ability to release vapor and thus allow the bales to dry out when the weather permits. Other plasters that are synthetic or cement based have limited ability to transfer the moisture away from the bales. In some cases, again depending on the weather or climate, the bales end up soaking up moisture from the environment which can cause decay in the walls.

So if it is true that the bales need to breathe and that the plaster that is applied over the surface can influence the vapor transfer away from the bales, why would anyone use a house wrap at all? So here is the simple answer: because that is what people do on conventional homes. Because much of the code language for straw bale buildings is based on codes for conventional construction, some things just never get tested before they become requirements. I have built many straw bale homes and many conventional homes. In both cases, I find items within the code that really do not make sense for the individual situation; however, the code is not designed to address individual situations but rather large, blanket situations. As a result, I have had to fight for what I believe and then provide some type of proof or performance guarantee from an engineer. Although expensive, an engineer’s stamp is cheaper than a failed wall system.

bales-and-vapor-barriers.JPGI do not use house wrap on my bale walls unless I really have to. In some cases, where the bales may be exposed to rain splash or snow drifts, I may utilize the material. In dry climates, I do not use the material at all because I believe the ability for the building to release moisture is more important than the attempt to keep it out. The picture above shows an example of a house wrap in the form of roofing felt applied to the bottom courses of bales. In this case, the home inspector required it on the exposed portion of a wall where wind driven rain rain was a concern. I was sure to NOT wrap the felt under the bales. This allows any moisture to drain free of the bales into the gravel at the base of the wall. Do not confuse the need for a house wrap material with the need for roofing felt over wood exposed to plaster. They are very different and the plaster protection is definitely needed to avoid cracks in the finish. The stripes on the wall of roofing felt are wood members covered before plastering.

I have learned over the years that moisture WILL get in to your house one way or another. Believing otherwise is like believing I can stop it from raining when I want a sunny day. In light of that, it makes more sense to build so that moisture can escape once it gets in. This is a simple answer to a complicated question. Indeed, there are many people and companies out there that spend countless hours and currency researching the impact of house wrap on construction projects and the results of those studies point to the inclusion of vapor barriers in conventional construction practices. Because there is limited information about the impact of those barriers on bale homes, we, as builders, are left to use our common sense and what information we can find. One thing we know for sure is that moisture can cause irreparable damage to a straw bale house. Knowing this, it is imperative that you do whatever you can to protect your walls from water AND moisture vapor build up. Exactly how you do that will depend largely on your climate, your construction materials, your mechanical systems, and your design.

Convincing Governments to Use Straw Bale

I would love to hear from people who may have experience working with government agencies to approve straw bale on government projects. In other words, building federal buildings out of bales. I know there are police stations, visitor centers, and more already built with bales. If you had any experience with these buildings, please help out Diane to achieve her goal. Thanks. More information about the goal is below along with my response to Diane.

Hello Andrew Morrison,
I did get the document, thank you. However, I have some questions not covered in your document and I have looked around the web and have not found the answers. I work for the US Forest Service and we are going to build a new office building in the next two years so I am hoping to get the District to consider Straw Bale construction.

1. Are there any floor plans around that address the larger buildings
such as an office for 20 people? I cannot visualize one but I imagine it
would have a main body with wings for support of the roof.

2. Are there any additional “sustainable green elements” that can be
built into the design such as wind power towers or attached solar
collectors?

I wish my husband Richard and I could have had your 10 suggestions when we built our Nebraska style straw bale cabin. We tied every bale together with rebar, we stacked the straw on the raised floor, (no floods and no problems but it is something to think about, like don,t let the appliances get too old before replacing!). The other thing we would not do again is make a 1 bale window. The window over the sink looks like an arrow slot because we did not think about how much room the bucks and window frame would take up. I love our little cabin. We use it for a guest house, art studio, aerobics studio, the women’s Bible study of our Church meets there it is just a terrific building. We had a wood stove in it but even though it was a very small stove it drove us out. We replaced it with the smallest of propane heaters and all I have to do to have it toasty for a meeting is to turn the thermostat up from 50 to 70 an hour before I plan to use it.

I am just shocked that straw bale construction has not exploded as a building method. Our cabin is 6 years old and we have shown it to many people yet no one has built one. Both of our sons helped build it and neither of them has a straw bale house. (we all live in the country and have no building codes to worry about). I am hoping the new Forest Service Office building will be straw bale but I have a lot of convincing to do.

Have a great day. Diane

Diane,
How exciting! I sure hope you are successful with your desire to create the building out of straw. There have been a few commercial (wineries, stores, bakeries,etc…) built with bales and also a few government buildings (police station, highway sound walls, visitor centers, etc…) around the States. The idea of a super efficient building made of natural materials should be easy to grasp for the powers that be in your situation; however, some convincing may still be needed. Please direct the folks to the photo gallery on my site. That may help.

I do not know of any specific floor plans for a building that size, but straw bale structures can certainly be used for that scale. You could use any plans and simply modify the wall thickness to accommodate the bales. It is actually a bit more than that, but not might much. Solar, wind, and other green aspects (building materials and finish materials like flooring) can most definitely be used and should be in my opinion. For an office space, you might consider concrete floors with radiant heat for the heavy traffic areas and cork over the concrete for the areas where people stand a lot to soften the impact on their feet and back. Anyway, the options are endless.
Good luck and let me know if you want help presenting your idea.

Working with City Officials

I receive several emails a month from people who need help with the process of finding land, working with municipalities, and building their straw bale home. For many individuals, this is the first time they have ever ventured out into the world of Green Construction, and the implications of building green can affect the approach they take to finding land and working with the local authorities in order to create the dream home they desire. I have written blog entries in the past about evaluating your site, but may not have mentioned information about working with local planning departments.

This week, I received the following email that inspired me to write a bit more about this process. I have included some information from an audio interview and added some new information here as well.
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Dear Andrew,

My husband and I have previously attended a straw bale workshop and have yet to build a straw bale home. What keeps us from doing so is all of the groundwork that would need to be laid prior to the construction. We do not own land, and we would like to remain in Phoenix where we currently own a home. When we bought our current home, we relied on the realtor to take us through the steps of becoming homeowners. We have yet to find a realtor who can guide us in purchasing property in the city with the idea of straw bale construction in mind. All of our children have medical needs that require us to remain in the heart of the city. Could you be of assistance in the area of planning the year prior to the year we would be able to construct?

Thanks, Susan
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Susan,
Thanks for your email. The key to purchasing the right land is to make sure you know as much about it as possible. Which directions do the prevailing winds travel? What is the solar access? How will neighboring houses affect the land? These an many other questions should be discussed early in the process. Knowing what you want, in detail, makes the search much easier because you can weed out those plots which do not fit in your criterion. I would make a clear list of all the aspects you want in the land.

The home design would come after you have the land so the house can best fit the property. The planning process is relatively simple as long as you understand what the City wants from home designs. In my City, the planning department has eight items that they like to see addressed for new developments (they have a different list of requirements for single family homes which cover everything from impact on the Historical aspect of the City to solar access for neighbors). A new development, on the other hand, is required to meet at least 3 of the 8 listed items. When I did my Straw Bale Village development, I met all of the 8 items, not just 3. This made my project greener and more responsible and it meant that the City could easily approve my request as they saw my commitment to doing things in a responsible manner.

Create a relationship with the people in the Planning and Building Departments that shows you want the best for your family and the impact on the City. That will go a long way. Most inspectors and planning officials work hard to protect the interest of the City. It is hard work to keep a City congruent with its goals when each home owner can impact that congruence with a new design and construction. If you can show the “powers that be” that you want to work with them and within the requirements they set (assuming they are reasonable requirements of course) the officials will be very helpful along the way. If you argue with them and create a combative relationship (something that happens far too often, especially with building inspectors) you can expect trouble during the process from start to finish.

Remember that the officials want to make the process easy for you. Sometimes it won’t feel that way, but a healthy relationship with the officials in charge will help you simplify the process. If you feel like you need help, I am available for consulting work and can help with all aspects of the job from site evaluation and design, to planning and construction.

Getting Code Approval for Straw Bale Homes

I receive a ton of questions about building codes and whether or not a certain state covers straw bale construction in their building code. Here’s what I recommend you do to find out whether or not your State has a building code for alternative construction and what to do if they do not.

1. Buy the code book for your State. You will need the code book no matter what structure you build, so you may as well buy it now. Use the following site to research what code book is required in your area. http://www.reedfirstsource.com/codes/index.asp

2. Once you have the code book (make sure you get any local or state addendum to the code book when you order it), check for an alternative building section.

3. If there is nothing for alternative homes or straw bale in particular, then call your building department and let them know you plan to build an alternative home and that you intend to use approved building codes from another state or an engineer for the design.

4. You may need an engineer, but you may be able to simply use a state recognized code like the one in Oregon. Of course the code in Oregon is different than the details I show in my DVDs because it is outdated; however, you can use it as a base and then move forward from there.

I have added the Oregon code to the links section of my website http://www.strawbale.com/links.html. Just scroll down and you’ll see it. If you need an engineer I recommend that you check the Resource and Referral section of my site: http://www.strawbale.com/resources.html for the people I work with.