Archive for the ‘Construction Details’ Category

Metal In Straw Bale Wall Assemblies

Welded Wire MeshI know that the topic of metal in straw bale wall assemblies is a contentious one, and that is precisely why I want to bring it up and talk about it with you all. I have been saying for years that the use of welded wire mesh and plaster lath is essential to a quality bale house, and that sentiment has not changed. I want to quickly share my thoughts about using metal mesh and lath, and then hear from those of you who either agree or disagree with the practice. My preference is that you only write in if you actually have experience with using (or not using) metal mesh and lath and that the conversation be held to those with something to share from the experience, not from assumptions or beliefs. Of course, that’s my want and I have learned over the years that I don’t always get what I want. :)


The Impact of Design Details

off grid

Wind Prairie Architecture. Photo credit Lois Shelden.

There is always a balance that needs to be struck between the desire to have an architecturally pleasing house and the impact of design details on the cost and difficulty of actually building that house. For most home owners, the desire to have something other than a rectangle as their forever home comes into play early in the design process followed swiftly by the reality check of finances. There is no question that the more elaborate your design, the more expensive it will be to build; however, there are ways to find that sought after balance that will please both your senses and your finances.


Repairing Water Damaged Straw Bale Walls

Drying WallsRepairing water damage in straw bale walls is a skill that is not required very often, especially in well built homes; however, even with the best construction practices, water damage can happen. If it does, it’s important to know how to recognize it and how to fix it. Below is a series of steps to consider wen dealing with water damaged walls.


Plastering Overhead

Dining Room HutchThere is no question that plastered window wells look beautiful; however, the skill it takes to get them to that point may seem out of reach to a novice plasterer. The good news is, it’s not. With a little practice and a good serving of patience, anyone can learn to plaster their window wells to look magnificent.

Perhaps the hardest part of the entire process is getting the plaster to stay put. Gravity has a large say in this process and whenever a novice plasterer tries to apply mud to the top of a window well, often called “the lid” in the industry, gravity usually wins. Below are some tips to beat gravity and create your own beautiful window well.


Minimizing Construction Costs

Architectural PlansI recently wrote to a host of one of the 2015 straw bale workshops about how to minimize her construction costs. She is concerned that she will end up with a beautiful design that she cannot afford to actually build. Having heard this concern many times over the years, I thought I would share my response with you all as I believe it is helpful information to have on hand before you start designing. Below are seven things to keep in mind when getting started.

  • Keep roof lines simple. The more intricate the roof design, the more expensive it is to build. Intersections, pitch variations, and other details make construction harder and labor more expensive.
  • Taller is less expensive than wider. If you are looking for square footage, it’s often less expensive to build up than it is to build out. This increases square footage without adding additional materials for the foundation and roof.
  • Consider finish materials. Everything from roofing (metal versus composition shingles, for example) to flooring, plumbing and electrical fixtures, and cabinetry can have a big impact on budget. Find affordable options that still meet your aesthetic requirements.
  • Get a good plan. Saving money by working with a less than qualified designer will cost you money in the end as the construction details won’t be as well laid out. That means more time head scratching for the builder and more mistakes during construction.
  • Simplify the overall design. As with the roof, the wall layout also impacts cost. The more turns, corners, and angles you have in your design, the more expensive it will be to build. Keep in mind that all of those details mean more foundation work, wall framing, baling and plastering details, and roof structure detailing.
  • Know your budget ahead of time. If you share your budget with your designer and builder, then you can discuss how to design/build TO that number rather than design and build with hopes of hitting an unknown. The more up front and honest you are with yourself and your team, the more successful you will be.
  • Have a contingency plan. Regardless of what number and design you settle into, make sure you have a contingency fund in your loan or extra cash set aside (if you are building out of pocket) for the unknowns. There are ALWAYS unknowns and being blindsided by them can ruin your project.

Talking Through Straw

Bale TalkIf you’ve ever tried to talk through a straw bale wall during construction, you’ll immediately see the value in this quick tip. For those of you who have not yet experienced attempting to share information across an 18″ thick wall of straw bales, I suspect you will understand the value in this tip as well.

As many of us may have heard over the years, in all walks of life: “keep it simple.” This idea, born at the Middletown, Rhode Island straw bale workshop by my new friend Tara, represents that mantra perfectly. On the site we had 31 participants all working in different areas of the home. As if it’s not hard enough to hear through 18″ of densely packed straw, we had chainsaws running, weed whackers flying, nail guns shooting and other additions to the soundscape hindering our ability to hear each other as we tried to straighten our walls. By placing a 1.5″ piece of PVC pipe through the wall (next to windows and doors, or in between bales where applicable), we were able to communicate with the outside tamping crew with ease.

You can learn more about Tara and her inspiring life journeys on the website she and her husband Tyler share with the world. Way to go Tara!

On another note, the Newport Daily News ran a nice, front page article about our build in Rhode Island. You can click here to read it and even leave a comment!

Building in a Slow Economy

Roof FramingAlthough many of you are still living with frigid temperatures and snow, spring is officially here and the weather will catch up with the date before you know it. If you plan to build this year, I hope that you have already solidified your plan and started to line up contractors. If not, there is still time and the overall timing may indeed be perfect.

One “good” thing about a slow economy is that there are lots of people, contractors included, looking for steady work. As such, you may have more opportunities to get a good price on your project. It’s quite possible that high quality contractors will be willing to lower their prices in order to stay busy. Don’t expect a half-off sale, because that’s not likely; however, discounted prices can still translate into major savings. Consider that the average home sale price in the US according to is roughly $152,000. Saving  5-10% would be a $7,600-$15,200 discount, and that is well worth it.


Baling With Jumbo Bales

Baling with jumbo bales, by which I mean the REALLY large bales that require pretty substantial machinery to place, is possible. However, there are multiple considerations that need to be addressed to determine if the extra cost in foundation materials, plaster and roofing materials make it worthwhile. In this Straw Bale Minute, I address each of them.

Some Mind-Numbing Facts about Ferncliff’s Eco Center

Last year’s straw bale construction workshop season started with a huge project: the Eco Learning Center at Ferncliff outside of Little Rock, Arkansas. I recently hear from the host of that workshop that the 5300 Sf structure is just about finished. I am amazed at how quickly the project has moved towards completion, especially having read the mind-numbing facts that the host shared with me. It’s a great example of some of the “behind the scenes” numbers that go into building a house. I hope you enjoy the numbers.

Eco Center Front

-The slab has 3,300 fee (.62 miles) of ½ inch PEX tubing that was tied with 5000 zip ties in a serpentine fashion for the 3,900 square feet of hydronic radiant floor heat. The 5300 sq ft building is heated with a wood furnace/boiler with pumps using less than 7% of the power the 12 solar panels can produce.

 -The total weight of the steel framing is 28,000 pounds and it was all hand-carried from the staging area to the slab, then assembled.

 -The Straw bale “toe up” consists of 89; 4×4’s each 10’ in length running twice end to end around the 445 foot perimeter. To fasten these timbers to the concrete, 380, half-inch holes were drilled in the concrete, 380 wedge anchors driven and 380 more holes drilled in the timbers. For “grabbers,”  2,136 large nails (20 penny) were partially driven every 5 inches into the 4×4 timbers.

 -4.26 miles of baler twine was used for “sewing” the walls and re-tying custom-sized bales.

 -556 ceiling panels 30”x30” were milled out of OSB and pre-painted, two coats on each side adding up to 13,900 square feet of surface area painted. This is for the ceilings over the bedrooms.  95% of this painting was done by volunteers. and 95% of that was done by two women (Carol and Jo).

 -25 pallets of rice hulls at 800 pounds per pallet equal 20,000 lbs. or 10 tons of material. This material was toted, poured, slung, scattered for interior wall and attic insulation.  Another perspective:  A five gallon bucket of rice hulls weighs 7 pounds and carried two at a time would constitute 1,429 trips to its final destination.

 -Approximately 43 tons of sand and 14.5 tons of hydraulic lime, plus water were handled into a mixer, wheel barrowed to work area, transferred to scaffold to hawk and trowel to wall. This was done to plaster an 8,888 feet of straw bale wall area three times (26,664 square feet).  It took 120 for the plastering and walls were wetted down at least twice per day during this process.

 -Each of the four large bedrooms employed a different locally available material.  A rock floor was made with rock salvaged from the old camp pool.  A cement stepping stone clock was put in the middle of the floor to make it a “Rock Around the Clock” room.  Another floor was made by putting about 3000 beer bottles bottom up in sand and then mortaring them.  The third floor was made to look like field stone but is actually made from paper mache.  The fourth floor was made with used conveyor belt that was cut into tiles laid over compressed gravel.

Baling Angular Walls

Finished ExteriorNot everyone wants square walls in their house. Some people like round walls, others prefer angular walls. In this post, I give you a simple way to create angular walls in your straw bale home. As always, there are several ways to achieve any one goal, and I’m sharing my favorite way to create the angular walls, not the only way.


Best Plumbing Practices In Straw Bale Houses

Water is enemy number 1 in straw bale construction. The good news is that with proper design and construction details, your straw bale house will stay dry and moisture issue free. The key to installing plumbing in a bale house is to create ‘water isolation walls’. I describe how to do this in the latest Straw Bale Minute. You can access it by clicking on the video link below:

Debunking The Myth That Running Electrical Through Bale Walls Is More Dangerous

A myth lurks still that somehow running electrical wiring through straw bale walls is more dangerous than running it through a conventional wall system. That is complete nonsense and I’ll tell you why and how to install wiring in a bale wall in this latest issue of “The Straw Bale Minute”. Click on the image below to view the video.


Step By Step Guide To Creating Niches

Finished Niche

One of the most artistic expressions of a straw bale wall are the niches that are carved into it. There are about as many options of what a niche can be as there are ideas, so describing how to create each one would take just shy of forever. For that reason, I have decided to lay out a step-by-step process for the most common niche I see in straw bale homes: the arch top.

  • Golden RatioDecide on the location for your niche. As much as it’s a good idea to lay out potential locations on your construction drawings, I always recommend that people walk the house once the bales are all in place as new locations that you had not considered before may reveal themselves.
  • Pay attention to scale. Once you know where the niche will go, be sure to properly size it for the space. I suggest you use “the Golden Ratio” to determine your height to width. No matter which way you orient the niche, the ratio would be 1 to 1.618. This ratio appears all over in nature; the most commonly known example is the chambers of the nautilus shell.
  • Back CameraCalculate the space in and around the niche. Keep in mind that the plaster will reduce the width of the niche so be sure to add in enough “extra width” for that. Look at perpendicular walls or window and door openings and estimate where the finish walls will land so that you can properly center (or not) your niche.
  • Use a cardboard template to test your niche out on the wall. Hang it with landscape pins or nails in the desired location and then take a step back to see if it is what you had hoped for.
  • Once you are happy with the size and location, mark the outside of the template with spray paint to transfer the shape onto the wall.
  • Niche ChainsawUse a chainsaw to cut out the niche to the desired depth. I prefer to stay around 6″ – 8″ deep in a two-string bale wall and 12″ – 14″ for a three string bale wall. I mark the bar of my chainsaw with spray paint so that I know when I have plunged the blade in far enough. Be aware that you WILL cut the strings of the bales at this depth. As soon as you feel one pop, stop the chainsaw and remove the string from the area. If you don’t, it will wrap itself around the chainsaw sprocket and you will spend a lot of time unravelling it.
  • Install the wire mesh on the wall (both sides) as if the niche were not there. Just go right over the top of it for now. If you try to cut the niche out before the mesh is attached top and bottom, it will weaken the mesh and you won’t be able to get it as tight as you need.
  • Use wire cutters to cut the mesh out of the niche. It’s best to cut the mesh a little bigger than the opening so that your plaster lath installation is not hindered by the mesh.
  • Niche 6Place the section of mesh that you cut away in the back of the niche and sew it to the mesh on the opposite side of the wall with baling twine. This tightens the mesh on the opposite side of the wall and it provides extra plaster reinforcement in the niche.
  • Cut a strip of plaster lath so that it fits tightly in the bottom of the niche from side to side. Cut it at least 6″ wider than the niche is deep so that you can fold the excess lath down over the face of the wall. This provides extra strength for the plaster as it turns from inside the niche to the face of the bale wall.
  • Fold the lath over and secure to the mesh with tie wire, cable ties, or landscape pins (into the bales).
  • Niche 7Cut another strip of plaster lath (also at least 6″ wider than the niche is deep) long enough to measure from the bottom of the niche on one side to the bottom of the niche on the other side in one continuous piece. This piece will shape the arch and, once folded over on to the face of the wall, reinforce the plaster for the rest of the niche to wall transition.
  • Cut the lath in small sections as necessary to conform to the shape you have created. Use stuffing behind the lath to fine tune the shape.
  • Fold the lath over and secure to the mesh with tie wire, cable ties, or landscape pins (into the bales).
  • Niche 8You may need to use some landscape pins on the interior surface of the niche to hold the lath in place. If you cut the lath big enough, you will be able to jamb it tightly into the wall and avoid the pins. Do whatever it takes to make the lath tight and sturdy. You don’t want it bouncing around when you plaster.
  • Eat a lot of yogurt. Okay, that’s not entirely necessary, but the yogurt lids make the perfect plastering tool for the soft edges and tight corners of the niche. Cut the rigid part of the top off and use the pliable plastic as a curved trowel. You will proceed with the plastering the same way you would on the rest of the wall and at the same time. Just be careful when working in the niche as it is a small and delicate space that can be difficult to plaster well.
  • Niche 9Decorate as you will…Now you get to turn the show piece (the niche) into a vessel for other items you wish to showcase.

Even if you don’t choose an arch top niche for your straw bale home, you can transfer the steps of this tutorial to just about any style you choose. You may have to tweak a step here or there, but the overall process is the same. Happy Baling, and create something beautiful!


Watch The Curves

H. CurveOne of the most stunning aspects of a straw bale home is the shape that window and door openings take. The gentle curves flood light across the room and lend a sense of calm and peace to the occupants. Almost every person who walks through a straw bale home for the first time makes some comment about just how beautiful the curves are.

These very same curves that bring so much joy and serenity can also drive home owners crazy. That sounds unlikely; however, when the curves are not properly built, they can cause all kinds of problems as the home is finished. Obviously, knowing how to avoid such problems is important, so I’ve given you a quick description of how to stay on the right side of the curves.


Replacing Straw in an Existing Straw Bale House

Water Damaged BalesA consulting client recently asked me what the best practice is for removing rotten straw from an existing straw bale house. I realize that this is a topic that concerns a lot of people when they first learn about straw bale construction and I want to make clear that this is extremely unusual and not something that most people will ever have to deal with. The most important thing when designing and building a straw bale house is to ensure that you do so with the understanding that water must be kept away from the walls. The client I am working with (in the rainy Pacific Northwest) has a home in which the architect did not include any roof overhangs on two walls. That is a recipe for trouble in any house, not just a straw bale home. So although I believe it is important to share with you the proper steps for replacing straw, the overwhelming data shows that you will never need to.

Below are the steps to replacing rotten straw in an existing house. Although each specific location may have subtle differences, the basic steps are still the same. The level of difficulty you will experience in replacing straw in an existing structure will increase with the amount of straw you need to replace and its location. For this reason, it’s best to only replace the straw that absolutely needs to be replaced, and no more.

Whether you need to replace a small amount of straw or an entire section of bales, the process is pretty much the same. The biggest difference is that when fixing a small patch, the surrounding bales don’t need to be supported at all once the material is removed. If, however, you need to replace entire bales, you will need to provide support for the rest of the wall so that things don’t sag into the gap you create when the bales are removed. It is also more difficult to remove entire sections of wall because the plaster in both sides of the wall needs to be removed or, at the very least, loosened from the bales.

  1. Remove the plaster in the identified area of damage with a hammer drill and a chisel bit. Over excavate the area of concern so that you expose the wire mesh about six to eight inches away from the damaged area in all directions. This will allow you to replace the rotten straw and properly tie-in the new mesh.
  2. Cut the mesh away from the damaged area. Be sure to leave at least six inches of undisturbed mesh around the damaged bales. This will meet the requirement for mesh overlap later, which is vital to eliminating potential plaster cracks in the patch.
  3. Scoop out the damaged straw. You may want to use a small gardening rake (hand-held with 4 sharp tongs) to more aggressively remove the material.
  4. Use a moisture meter to determine where the damaged straw ends and the clean straw begins. Make sure that you are at least one inch into the clean straw when you stop digging. You don’t want to go through all this trouble and leave rotten straw, in any amount, in the wall. Check for high moisture readings in every direction: up, down, left, right, and back into the wall. Anything above 18% should be removed. Ideally, the moisture readings should be no higher than 10-12%.
  5. Slide a piece of burlap underneath the mesh that you left exposed and in tact. Leave the top side of the burlap loose and long enough to be tucked under the mesh later. Use landscape pins to secure the other edges of the burlap.
  6. Stuff fresh and clean straw behind the burlap so that the patch is tight. It may bulge away from the wall a little, which is fine; however, make sure that when you pres against the patch, it flattens out properly so you don’t end up with a bump in your finish wall.
  7. While placing pressure against the patch, pull the top portion of burlap tight behind the mesh and secure it with landscape pins into the bales.
  8. Cut a piece of mesh large enough to cover the entire exposed area and place it against the wall. Tie it to the existing mesh with tie wire or cable ties. Be sure to pull it as tight as possible to help flatten out the patch.
  9. Apply plaster to fill the patch. You will need to do a scratch, brown and finish coat. The finish coat will cover the entire wall to clear stopping points. If you just do the patch, you will have a permanent “burn mark” that will not look good. If you are using 100% earthen plaster, you can simply replaster the patched area and feather the new plaster into the old by properly wetting the existing plaster. This only works with 100%, unsealed, earthen plaster.

The reality is that you will likely never need to use the information in this blog post; however, if you do find yourself with water damaged straw, the sooner you dry out the wall and replace the non-salvageable straw, the better. Remember that bales are like giant sponges and the longer they are exposed to water, the more they will absorb and the farther the water damage will extend.

One thing that goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) is that you MUST identify and repair the source of the water damage before you start replacing straw. There is no point in doing all of this work without knowing what caused the problem in the first place as it will simply return and damage the new straw you have installed.

Straw Bale and Steel Framing

Steel FramingIf you have ever wondered why you don’t see a lot of steel framed straw bale homes, the answer can be summed up in one word: condensation. That does not mean that a bale house cannot be built with steel framing; however, it does mean that special care must be taken to protect the bales from condensation. I have outlined the easiest way to accomplish this below.


A Review of Electrical Installations

Arkin Tilt Architects / Photo Ed CaldwellIf you are planning on building a straw bale home, chances are you will be including electrical services in the structure. Exactly how those services are installed is different in a straw bale home than it is in a conventional home. Knowing exactly how to install electrical service in your structure is important whether you plan to do the work yourself or hire it out to a subcontractor. You’ll either need the skills to install things properly yourself or in order to explain things to your contractor as they likely will not have worked on a straw bale house before.

It’s a lot easier to learn specific skills and building techniques in person with hands-on training, but I will do my best to describe the process to you here, step by step. Everyone loves bullet points, right?


Don’t Add Dry Lime When Storing Bales

Nigel Rolfe
Dust In Face (2008)
Colour photograph, 36 x 36in

It has been said that adding powdered, hydrated lime to a stack of bales will keep pests away. I’m here to tell you not to bother with adding the lime. I have two main reasons.

1. It doesn’t really work that well. There is no way that you can cover every little space with the lime and so there will always be areas for bugs and/or mice to make their homes. That’s okay. It’s part of the deal. Those critters will all be gone once the stack of bales is accessed for construction. As long as you protect the bales well by stacking and covering them properly, the minuscule impact that the mice/bugs could have is not worth bothering with.

2. It’s really dangerous. If you sprinkle dry lime all over your bales, you will be breathing dry lime throughout your entire build. This means anytime you move the bales you can expect to have dust clouds form. When notching: more dust clouds. When tamping: you guessed it…more dust clouds. This is a great way to burn your eyes and/or lungs and it makes the overall build very unpleasant.

If you stack your bales well (in a pyramid) and keep them up off the ground, you will do a better job of deterring pests. Another smart detail is to place the bottom course of bales on edge so that the strings are not accessible to mice. If they are exposed, mice can chew on the twine and ruin the entire bottom course.



Testing Moisture Levels in Your Straw Bale House

People often talk to me about testing the moisture content of the bales in their walls once their straw bale house is complete. For some it’s just a passing thought, but one they want to pursue. For others who are perhaps buying an existing straw bale home from a previous owner, it’s a must as they want to be sure the bale walls are dry. Whatever the reason, unless there are sensors built into the wall (which is rare) they need a way to access the bales without destroying the plaster. (more…)

Announcing our FREE Framing Report and Our New Framing DVD

Those of you who receive our newsletters already know about our upcoming framing DVD and the FREE Framing Report that we are offering to people to “wet their whistle” for the details of framing a straw bale structure. The report is an excerpt from my upcoming book: A Modern Look at Straw Bale Construction Details and is full of juicy details about what it takes to frame a bale house. It’s a big report too, not just a bunch of pictures and a few notes here and there. It is 34 pages long and has 12,442 words detailing the process. I tell you about the number of words so you can see that it’s the real deal. :)

Funnily enough, Gabriella (my wife) mentioned to me today that I had not written anything on the blog about the framing DVD or the FREE report. That’s crazy! After all, this is our own website, you’d think I would tell people about the products we are creating. Sorry about that. I guess I just got used to communicating through my newsletters and forgot to put the information up here too. Anyway, here it is, the information on the upcoming DVD sale and a link to get your own FREE copy of the framing report.

The Framing DVD is a 2 DVD set, with 2hrs and 53min worth of detailed instruction on how to frame your own straw bale structure.  In it, you will find a step-by-step teaching style that will walk you through the entire framing process from start to finish.  We have done everything in our power to provide this information in a manner that will be easy to understand to even those with no previous framing experience.  We even have a bonus section dedicated to breaking down each framing term so that you don’t get lost by the technical terms while watching the DVD.

I hope you’ll take a minute to check out a short preview of the DVD so that you can get a glimpse of what the footage looks like.  Below, I’ll lay out the details for the upcoming DVD launch sale and how you can get a great price on this awesome new production.

But first…let’s talk about the FREE Framing Report.

It all started with the creation of my upcoming book, but accelerated into this FREE report when I asked myself: what are the five most important details I would share with anyone interested in framing a straw bale structure? I have been teaching people all about these details for years at my workshops, but I realized I was missing the chance to teach even more people, those who cannot make it to a hands-on class. So, I came up with my top five and put pen to paper (or in this case cyber-pen to computer). I have had over 1900 people download the report already and the feedback has been amazing. I trust you too will enjoy the report and learn a ton in the process.

For those of you who are wondering, I want to be totally clear that this report is FREE. You can give it away to anyone you want to, if you so choose. You are under no obligation whatsoever to buy my book or my DVD. I simply want you to learn how to do these five important framing details. Period. So, if you want to get the FREE report, please click here. You will be taken to a new window, so don’t forget to finish reading this page as all of the details of the upcoming Framing DVD Launch Sale are coming up right now…

Okay, check out the below details for the upcoming DVD launch sale:

  • Our Launch Sale will go Live at 6am, Friday, July 6.
  • The sale will end promptly at 6am, Thursday, July 12.
  • In the sale you will be able to buy our DVDs at 30% Off retail for the first DVD and 55% Off for each subsequent video.
  • Look for the new Combo Package which will save you nearly 70% Off retail costs.
  • There will be a sale on our Plans as well, including our brand new Mountain View Cabin design which are the plans we used to frame the cabin on the Framing DVD.
  • We will send out an email at 6am this Friday morning to our newsletter subscribers with your sales link in it. If you want to be included in that email, please be sure to either sign up for our FREE 7-Day E-course or download the Free Framing Report so your name will be included in our announcement.