Archive for the ‘Costs’ Category

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.


Financing a Straw Bale Home

Money HousePerhaps the most commonly asked question about straw bale construction is: “How do I finance it?” Unfortunately, the answer hasn’t gotten much easier over the years as straw bale construction is still considered alternative to the mainstream and, as we all know, banks are not big fans of taking risks on alternative construction techniques. That said, there are some things that you can do to improve your efforts and increase your chance of receiving funding.


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.

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.


How Much Does It Cost?

Snow HouseThis is without a doubt the most common question I am asked about straw bale construction. The problem is that answering this question is not easy. In fact, it’s not even really possible without a lot of information about the specific job and its location. This is not something special to straw bale construction. Rather it is true about all types of construction. After all, if one doesn’t know exactly what is being built and where, there is no way to give an accurate price. Of course, this does not stop people from asking the question and wanting an answer, so I do what I can to inform people of what to expect in regards to pricing a straw bale project. In hopes of reaching more people who might have the same question, I’ve outlined five things to consider when trying to get a handle on what your straw bale project might cost below. I’ve also included two examples of straw bale projects (the Applegate Residence and the Mountain View Cabin) and the material costs associated with them.


How Much Will It Cost?

A lot of people are excited about the idea of straw bale construction; however, they stumble a bit when it comes to estimating the cost of their potential home. I very often receive emails from people checking out plans on asking how much a specific plan will cost to actually build. That’s such a hard question to answer and here’s why.

Exactly what a project costs to build will depend so much on where it is built. This is because both labor and material costs vary greatly by region. A yard of concrete may cost $100 here in Oregon and that same yard can run upwards of twice that in other parts of the world. So how is someone supposed to make an informed decision about what plan to buy and what that plan might cost to build?

The answer is actually very simple: start with a rough estimate of the cost. If you are simply considering a plan for construction and are not actually costing it out piece by piece for your construction loan, then you don’t have to be that accurate. Just a rough number will let you know if it is in your price range or not. Here’s what I suggest, looking at two different scenarios. First, let’s consider that you plan to hire out the job to a contractor. This is the absolutely easiest way to get a rough cost for the house. Contact the contractors you think you may hire and send them the link to the plans you hope to build. They can get a sense of what’s involved and give you a rough starting point. Be clear with them that you are not asking for a hard number, just something to let you know if things are in the right ballpark, or even the right game.

Here’s s tip, if you don’t have a specific builder in mind, but know that you do indeed want to hire the job out, get some help in finding the right company. Talk to friends and family who have recently had work done to see if they would recommend their contractor. From there, drive around your town or city and stop in at job sites to meet contractors. Check out the site. Is it tidy? Is it a mess? Do the workers on site take pride in their work or are they a rough group of individuals whom you wouldn’t want to leave alone on your property? You can learn a lot about a company by watching the folks in the field. Once you find some folks that interest you, dig a little deeper. Talk to the owners of the homes they are currently building (you can find owner records at county offices, very often online) and see if they like the company. If so, call the company up and ask for some further references.

You want to get this right, so don’t skimp on the amount of time you spend finding the right company. Finally, trust your gut. If something tells you it’s not the right match, then it’s not. Period. You don’t have to justify it to yourself or anyone else. Just move on to the next option.  You always want at least three contractors, so keep looking. Another way to start the search is to look at the company’s license number. If they have an old number, they will have been in business a long time. Construction is a difficult business. Anyone who has been in business a long time has obviously done something right. That’s a good indication that they know what they are doing. Don’t settle for just the number though. Do the extra research as well.

So what if you plan to build the house yourself? In this case, your looking for just the material costs and that’s hard to get from a floor plan online. You would need an actual set of plans to get an accurate bid on materials, so that doesn’t help you if you are currently plan shopping. After all, you probably don’t want to spend a couple thousand dollars on plans only to discover you can’t afford to build the house.  In this case, the answer is also quite simple. Once again, talk to some local builders in your area, and once again, call three of them. This time your question are simple and may be even quicker and easier for the contractors to answer. Keep in mind that although you may not intend to use a contractor, this conversation may inspire you to change your mind. Good contractors are a wealth of information and can be a huge asset to your job. Keep an open mind and, who knows, you may end up hiring one of the people you talk to. If you are clear that you will not be hiring them, you may want to consider paying them a small stipend for their efforts to help you with your numbers.

Question #1: What do you charge per square foot to build a house of mid to high end finish? You can clarify your “quality” by saying, you want something that fits in the upper end of the market similar to the homes on street “X” in town “X”. This gives the builder reference to what quality you are looking for. Let them know that you understand that it’s impossible to give an accurate bid on a house they haven’t seen, but you are simply looking for rough numbers to help you get your money lined up properly.

Question #2: Of that cost, what is the labor value of the money and what is attributed to materials? You want to know how much the materials would cost, so this is one way into that answer. If they say that X% represents the material costs, you have a number to work with. Compare all three numbers (from the three different contractors you called) and average them together. Now, because you are building straw bale, not conventional, you may need to add 5% to the cost you have come up with. This covers things like the extra cost of interior and exterior plaster as opposed to drywall and cement-board siding.  In addition, you may want to add another 5% to the cost to offset the fact that the contractor is probably getting his/her materials at “contractor pricing,” something you won’t get. Now you can use that number to test drive any plan you are considering by multiplying it by the square footage of the home. Is this accurate? No. Is it close enough to get you moving the right direction? Yes.

If you want accuracy, you will need accurate plans. The only way to get accurate plans is to purchase a set of quality construction plans, specific to straw bale homes, like those on, or to design your own. I have spoken before about the importance of quality design and how much of an impact a good set of plans (or a bad set of plans) can have on a job. If you are working with an architect or designer who has never designed straw bale before, be careful. They may pretend they know what they are doing, but if they have never designed in the medium before, they are likely making it up as they go along. Stay tuned to their progress and be willing to question things that don’t make sense to you. What’s better is to get informed yourself. The best way to get informed is to get training. Come to the Denver Design Workshop in October and learn how to design your plans specific to straw bale construction. You can read books as well, but the most up to date information is what I will be sharing in Denver, plus you’ll get a copy of my upcoming book: A Modern Look at Straw Bale Design Details.

Estimating is a whole new topic and one too big to cover here. I have written several pieces about it on and a quick search for “estimating” at the top of the page will help you find those. Here are some direct links: Estimating 101; Estimating Tips, and Estimating and Creating a Budget. These articles will get you headed in the right direction. If you plan to estimate and build for yourself, I strongly recommend that you check out my course on how to be your own contractor. It doesn’t matter if you know how to build well. If you have never estimated a job or contracted a project, you will need guidance. Making a mistake in your framing can be simple to fix; however, messing up your estimate and/or other aspects of contracting can be the end of your project. Be smart and get the guidance you need BEFORE you get started.

What Do You Know About Financing a Straw Bale Project?

I am trying to compile as much information as I can about two major subjects as they relate to straw bale construction. The first is mortgages and other straw bale funding options. The second, which I will discuss in another post, is insuring a straw bale project. It’s no secret that the mortgage industry is not what it used to be. I imagine that we could have a long conversation relating to the reasons for the sudden decline in available financing; however, that’s not what I’m most interested in. What I really want to know is: how do we move forward under current conditions? I would love to hear what you know about how to make financing a straw bale project happen. Consider that the lack of straw bale lending can stop projects in their tracks and your input could be the difference between success and the abandonment of a dream.

Perhaps you recently started, or even completed, your own straw bale project. Did you get financing? Did you get a standard mortgage or did you have to get creative? What was your down payment percentage? Were you able to use local financing or did you have to shop around to a larger, more national scale market? Any and everything you can share with me is appreciated.

My goal here is to create a document to help other people learn what it takes to finance their straw bale dream. I have lots of people ask me about finding specific lenders who will loan on straw bale. I can see the importance of having an updated list of lenders available (in other words, please supply me with names and contact information for those who provided your funding as well so I can list them in the document); however, I think it’s more important to know what details are involved in finding financing no matter where you live and who is immediately available to you.

My point is simply this: if I can help teach people how to get financing in any market, then the list of those willing to provide financing will continue to grow. If we stick with the same lenders over and over again, the list will ultimately shrink as policies and personnel change as we have seen over the last few years. It’s like the old saying: give a person a fish and they will have a meal. Teach a person to fish and they will never go hungry.

If you have details to offer, whether it is names and contact information for lenders, or details of what it took to get financing, please email me directly ( and share that information. I look forward to compiling everything I get and putting it in one place for people to use.  The more recent your data, the better, by the way as I’ve found that even people I used to rely on for funding have stopped providing it in the “new” financing market.  Thanks for your help!

Build A Gorgeous Straw Bale Home for Around $20,000

I work with people from all over the world who are looking to build their own dream straw bale home. One thing is always a concern: the cost. I know that times are tough for a lot of people these days when it comes to finances and building a home is a large undertaking to be sure. It doesn’t matter if you live in Australia, the United States, Canada, Europe, or anywhere else on the planet, housing is still a major part of the cost of being human. How to build a house for yourself that fits within a budget is always a challenge and one thing that ends up being lost very often in that process, is the architecture. After all, it’s cheap and easy to build a box.

Many of us don’t want to live in a box though. In fact, we want to live in something that has style, clean lines, and architectural interest. That’s not to take anything away from a simple design, as I also love simplicity and believe there most definitely is a place for it in home construction. For me, however, it’s simply not what I want. Because of this, Gabriella (my wife for those of you who don’t know her) and our friend Chris Keefe (Organicforms Design) have come up with a great design for a simple house that has a fantastic “curb appeal.” Take a look for yourself…

Many of you have already seen this structure as I recently put out a blog post in hopes of finding someone to build the home during a workshop. We really want to start putting this plan out there in the world because we believe it fills a real need for “reasonably sized” housing. There is so much in the way of large housing out there these days. You know the stuff, 2000sf, 3000sf and bigger. Some call them McMansions. Some even dare to call them Green construction because they use reclaimed kitchen cabinets or some other detail. The reality is that a home that size is simply full of wasted space in most cases, if not all. Do you really need a home that big? I doubt it. It’s true that I don’t know what’s best for you, but I can tell you that smaller spaces take less energy to live in, less time to clean, less cost to build, and less time/effort/money to maintain. Sounds pretty good to me.

The house above is roughly 770 sf. The main floor is 570 sf and the sleeping loft (one of two bedrooms) is 200 sf. You can check out the floor plans at and learn more about the design there if you want.  What’s amazing is that the house only costs about $20,000 to build (depending on the finish materials you choose). Wouldn’t you love to have an attractive house with a simple and functional floor plan on your land while maintaining little or no mortgage to speak of? I would.

It often seems like we, at least here in the US, work harder and harder each year to make more money to pay for the details of our lives. The problem is, that the details of our lives get more expensive each year too. Why? There are lots of reasons, but building a house bigger than you need is a great place to start looking. Look at your money situation. Where do you spend the most money each month? Your mortgage/rent? Your food costs? Your car? Chances are that the single biggest expense you have is related to your house. And it’s not just the mortgage/rent payment. It’s the utility costs associated with the home. Take a look at the numbers and then consider what you can do to make a change. Consider building a smaller house that’s super efficient. Chances are that will make a big difference on your wallet and, more importantly, the joy and free time you experience in your day to day life.

Build Smart. Build Small(er). Build Efficient. Enjoy Life…every day!

The Little Unknowns

I recently worked with a woman who was acting as her own contractor on her project. The building she was working on was a small studio on her own land, which she already owned outright. Nonetheless, she wanted help with her project. The bummer was, she brought me into the mix a little late. She was working from a stock set of plans and ended up spending a lot more money than she needed to.

The first problem showed up when she was doing her estimating for the project. She didn’t consider the need for accurate numbers since the building was “just a studio.” She figured that she could get it close and that would be good enough. Unfortunately, that “close” turned out to be off by about $3000! Yikes. She had not accounted for things like temporary bracing for the structure, tool rental or purchase, or the always present mistakes. Those things added up quickly and put her in a funding hole.

Another common mistake which she experienced was over paying for materials that are called out in the plans. For example, she had several windows in the studio of a size that weren’t immediately available in her area. She could have purchased windows that were 6″ narrower but opted to stay with what was on the plan. That ended up costing her an extra $500 because she had to special order all the windows. Had she researched the windows before she framed the openings, she would have been more likely to see the problem and adjust her framing to accommodate a slightly smaller window in each case. As it was, she figured, she’d just deal with the extra $500 charge. A little here, a little there…

The little unknowns of a project can add up really fast as she found out. A little extra time up front and she would have saved roughly $3000. Here’s the real impact of that $3000, the overall job only cost $13,000 in the end so she added 30% of the actual cost of the building to her budget. Imagine that on a $200,000 house. That would be an additional $60,000! That’s no chump change. Be sure to spend the time before the job to investigate everything thoroughly and get clear about how you’ll spend your money. With accurate planning and an accurate estimate, you can be successful. Without either of those things, you’re likely to end up like the woman in this story.

By the way, she’s still really happy with her new studio, she’s just bummed she paid 30% more than she needed to.

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

A Quick Tip for Accurate Estimating

There are lots of ways to estimate the cost of your house. The reality is that most homeowners turned contractors have very little experience with estimating and have even less experience compiling numbers for labor rates related to specific aspects of the job. As a result, many owner/builder or owner-contracted homes go way over budget. With the right training and practice, however, even someone new to contracting can be successful. Here’s a tip from the Be Your Own Contractor Training course that will help you with your estimating.

It’s important to realize that estimating is a blend of art and science and is something that takes a long time to completely master. That said, success can be had with the help of proper training and material use. One way to get insight into the estimating process is to use estimating books; however, their exclusive use can be a bad idea. In my experience, the best way to fully utilize these books is to set up a spreadsheet to help you with the process. With your construction drawings in place, you can create take-off sheets to help dial in the details of the job. A take-off sheet is simply a spreadsheet on which you write down all of the materials and their costs from a specific job.

Be sure to get as detailed as you can in the creation of the sheets. For example, when you are estimating the cost for the foundation of the house, the obvious things to price are labor, form boards, concrete and rebar. Items that can ruin your estimate if forgotten are things like concrete stakes, form nails, and other connectors. These things are often thrown into the “add a few bucks for nails” column, and the results are poor estimates. Breaking down the individual aspects of the job in finite detail will also help you build the home in your mind ahead of time, making the actual construction easier later on.

If your take-off sheets are really accurate, you can go directly to the suppliers and get material prices for each aspect of the job. This will give you accurate material pricing; however, estimating labor can be a bit more difficult without the help of professionals if you have never completed a similar job before. When it comes to labor, the estimating books are a great place to start, but keep in mind that the numbers in those books are based on professional contractors. You’ll need to adjust those numbers to reflect your labor skills. You can learn more about estimating and all the other management areas of contracting in the Be Your Own Contractor Training course. Stay tuned for more!

The Cost of Plaster

I just received an email from a man I recently started doing some straw bale consulting for about the cost of plaster. He has received three estimates for the plaster work and he was unhappily surprised at the cost. The average cost turned out to be roughly $5 per square foot of bale wall surface. This is about what I expect to pay for plaster work on bale walls. The cost of plaster may be different in your area depending on local labor costs and what type of plaster you use; however, the fact remains that in most cases, the plaster work will be one of the most expensive parts of the construction budget. Perhaps the only time this is not true is when a locally “mined” clay plaster is used and the labor is free via a workshop or owner’s labor.

It is important to know what and where the costs are for your home before you start building. If you don’t know all your costs before you start, you run the risk of growing your budget out of control quickly and running out of money. Every job will have items that go over budget. It is almost inevitable (of course, there are still the few home owners out there who manage to stay on budget when they build) that things will change in the scope of the work and therefore in the price of construction. Having a contingency fund is a good idea, but simply knowing the cost of all the work to be perfomed, by way of written estimates or bids, is the best practice you can employ. Keep in mind that plaster alone at $5/SF could be up to 20% of your total budget. Waiting until the end of the construction process to learn this could be devastating to your financial planning.