Archive for the ‘Design/Engineering’ 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. :)

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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.

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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.

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.

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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:

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.

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Spring is Coming…Time to Start Thinking Design

Spring in AustinAs I look out of my window at the nearly 18″ of snow that fell a couple days ago, the idea that Spring is nearby seems a bit hard to swallow; however, the fact remains that Spring is slowly finding its way into corners of the US and other parts of our amazing planet. My sister, who lives in Texas, sent me this beautiful picture yesterday declaring “I think I missed winter this year!” Of course, that can be balanced with the conversation I had with the host of the Montana straw bale workshop (August 2013) yesterday in which he declared “as much as I love the snow, I am ready for it to be gone at this point.” I suppose it all depends on where you live.

PlanningHere’s one thing I know about the coming of Spring: if you have been thinking about building a straw bale house, now is the time to start focusing in on your design. Once the ground melts and the grass starts to turn green, you will have missed your opportunity to get a head start on the summer construction season. It’s important to realize that designing a home or even deciding on an existing design, takes some time. In fact, a custom design can take anywhere from 1-3 months to complete, so if you start in April or May you may not be done with your designs until July. Throw in 2-4 weeks of plan review and it will be August before you can even break ground.

Snowed Inn by Steven PadgittIf you plan to use natural plaster on your house, which I sincerely hope you do, then you must know about the limiting timeline that you are faced with. Plaster should not be exposed to freezing temperatures for at least 72 hours after application. If you don’t start framing your house until the second week of August and the frosts start knocking on your door in October, you are going to be hard pressed to get any plaster on your hose before winter hits. Although there are ways around it, there is no question that having a full three coats of plaster on your house before the winter comes is the best way to go.

Arkin Tilt Architects - Photo Eric MilletteI’m excited to share with you that we have recently added a bunch of straw bale home designs (full sets of plans) to our website bringing the total to nineteen sets. The homes shown here are just two of the many designs you can check out. Several architects have shared their work with us as an effort to help inspire you. As such, the feel of the designs, as well as their scope and scale, varies quite a bit. We have everything from simple and rustic homes to elaborate and elegant designs. We hope you will take a look to see what fits your style.

Here’s a quick and obvious note on costs: it’s expensive to build a house and designing a custom home adds significantly to that cost. That said, you can purchase preexisting plans for much less than it would cost to custom design your own place, and your timeline will be greatly reduced as well because you won’t have to wait for the plans to be completed. What’s more, if you like the look of a design but wish something could be changed to make it fit your specific needs, that’s not a problem. We can put you in touch with the architect and they can, in most cases, make the changes you want for an extra fee (it will still be way less expensive than a custom design, even with the alterations).

Chris Keefe of www.OrganicFormsDesign.com

Take advantage of the current downtime that has set in due to the weather. I can guarantee you this: it will make your building season so much more relaxing if you get an early start on your project. Just imagine choosing a plan, perhaps making a few specific alterations to “make it yours,” and then sending it out for bids all before the snow has even melted! In this scenario,  you will have your contractor scheduled and your plans approved before the first flowers have broken through their shells and will be building as soon as the ground has thawed. This will give you lots of time to complete the work necessary to be dried in by the time freezing temperatures come along. Having built many houses in all season, believe me when I say that building in the Spring and Summer is the way to go. It will be more enjoyable, less expensive, and easier to get your home built while the weather is good. Take this time, while the weather is…wintery, to confirm your design and prepare for the upcoming construction season.

I look forward to hearing from you as you decide on plans and start your projects! I love seeing people’s dreams come to fruition and I love being a part of that process in any way I can help! Check out the designs from Arkin Tilt Arhcitect, Organicforms Design, Integral Design Studio, and Steven Padgitt today. We will be adding new plans from new architects and designers in the future; however, there are so many amazing designs available right now, we don’t feel the need to rush it, even with Spring fast approaching!

Old Friends and New Friends

Last weekend in Denver, Colorado I held my first ever 2-day Straw Bale Design Seminar. The evening before the workshop began, I joined my friend Jim at the hotel bar for a beer. I met Jim last year at the Brownsville, Oregon straw bale workshop. While he and I caught up with each other another workshop graduate named Julie from the class in Crestone, Colorado, walked up and gave me a hug. She was too tired to hang out, but seeing her smiling face was enough to bring a smile to my own. Shortly after that, Susan (from the Missouri and North Dakota workshops) walked up and joined me and Jim at the bar. I realized in that moment just how much I truly love what I do. My job is one that allows me to meet amazing people from all over the world and to continually grow my circle of friends.

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Straw Bale Home is Voted “Best New Home” for 2012

Check out the video below of Fine Homebuilding Magazine’s “2012 Houses Award-Best New Home.” This is a straw bale house designed by Anni Tilt of Arkin Tilt Architects. Congratulations on a beautiful straw bale design and to the builders for creating this amazing straw bale home. After all, great design is not always translated into great construction. In this case, it sure looks like it was.

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 StrawBalePlans.com 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 StrawBalePlans.com, 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 StrawBale.com 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.

Campus Straw Bale Cafe Wins Plaudits


1.  Please introduce yourself:
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I’m Paul Younger, an architect and associate with Hewitt Studios LLP in the UK. Our practice focuses on high-quality, non-traditional sustainable design – just because its green, doesn’t mean it has to be twee or old-fashioned!

2. How did you get involved with the Straw Bale Cafe?  Had you built with straw bales before?

Our practice approached by Herefordshire College of Technology to extend and refurbish the refectory facilities on their Holme Lacy agricultural campus to create a 100 seat student cafe.  In visiting the site and talking to the users, two things struck us: The first was the abundance of natural resources that the campus possessed (it is effectively a training farm, set in acres of fields and woodland), the second was the enthusiasm of the College staff and students to get involved.  It was agreed that, rather than just build an ‘extension’, the new project should be a social ‘hub’ at the heart of the campus. The College would be involved in the design, construction and ongoing maintenance of the building, using as many of their on-site ‘riches’ as possible.

Straw was a readily available organic resource on the farm – a by-product of the agricultural industry – and an obvious choice for insulation. We had not built with it before, but did a little research and found a local subcontractor (Modcell) who were experienced in constructing pre-fabricated straw bale panels. The pre-fabrication was an attractive feature to us – it would avoid the need for certain lengthy and disruptive on-site processes – an important consideration on an occupied student campus. The load-bearing panels were assembled in a ‘flying-factory’ in one of the farm’s outbuildings by members of the College, architecture students from Nottingham University and staff from Hewitt Studios LLP.


3.  What did you think about the process of working with straw bales?  What worked well, what was challenging?

We found the process of working with Straw Bales reassuringly ‘low-tech’ and forgiving – we were effectively just stuffing straw in a box! Most of the labour was ‘unskilled’, but we still managed to produce a very credible result under the watchful eye of Modcell. The most challenging part of the process was probably the alignment of the timber frame – this is where the professionals stepped in!


4.  Would you work on another straw bale again?

Most certainly, yes! In fact, we are working on four other straw bale buildings as I speak – another for the same client and three more private houses. We have found it to be a very cost-effective and low-impact form of construction, easily within the realms of most contractor’s capabilities.

5.  Do you have a funny/quirky story to share about what someone said in hearing that you were going to be building with straw bales?

We had all the usual comments of ‘won’t it burn down?’, ‘what if it gets damp?’, ‘won’t it smell?’ and ‘will mice/rats/birds live in it?’, but probably the funniest reaction was from one of the College students (who had not been involved in the build) after completion. He was absolutely convinced that our straw bale ‘truth window’ was just a sham and that the building was really made by conventional means. ‘I’ve been round the back’ he said, ‘I’ve seen how thin the walls are’. He’d actually seen some of the cladding we’d added to the existing building to make it blend in, but couldn’t be persuaded of this fact!

6.  What has the reception been like to the new building?
The reception has been overwhelmingly positive. The building has had great coverage and won quite a few plaudits, but most importantly the College staff and students love it – it is their space, they helped to design it and to build it and it is now far, far more popular than it used to be! Our client, Ian Peake, the Principal of Herefordshire College of Technology sums it up as follows; ’We are thrilled with the Straw Bale Cafe – it recognises that we are at the cutting edge of building techniques – setting an example to our students and employers of what is possible in the best sustainable construction.”
7.  Do you feel straw bale construction is a viable solution to large scale construction?  Can it make a significant difference on our planet?

We do think that this technology represents a viable solution to future building needs and we would love to try it on a larger scale. It is fair to say that there is some reluctance in the British building industry to embrace this method of construction – most contractor’s are quite conservative and see this as a ‘unproven’ or ‘risky’ method of construction. Hopefully, with the example of trail-blazing projects like the Straw Bale Cafe, we can demonstrate that this low-cost, low-carbon technology has the power to make a positive impact on our planet and our lives.

If you’d like to read a full article about this fantastic story, click here.  

Announcing a 2-Day Straw Bale Design Workshop!

I am really excited to make this announcement. I have created an entirely new workshop focused specifically on the design aspect of straw bale construction. It’s really easy to miss key details during the design process that end up coming back to bite you during construction. I can show you how to avoid those issues and how to design your dream straw bale home with success.

Here are the general topics that I will cover during the 2 day workshop. Keep in mind that these are just the general outlines and that each topic has many sub-topics within it. For example, when I say “foundations,” that includes concrete slabs, raised floor foundations, basements, pier foundations, rubble trenches, earthen slabs, radiant floor heating, and more. To check out the full description of this workshop, please click here.

  • Advantages of Building with Bales
  • Mortgages and Insurance
  • Foundations
  • Framing Systems
  • Engineering
  • Electrical and Plumbing Considerations
  • General Layouts and Design Considerations
  • Working with subcontractors
  • Material Selection for Your Floors and Walls
  • Green Your Home Top to Bottom

I have heard from many people over the years that they need help designing their straw bale projects. I have worked with enough people and with enough sets of plans to see a common thread in mistakes and omissions. By focusing on the details necessary for quality design and by combining that with my years of experience in designing, building, and teaching straw bale construction, I have created a comprehensive workshop that will teach you everything you need to know about straw bale design. This is not to say that I can teach you how to be an architect or designer in two days, but I can teach you how to fully understand the impact of straw bales on your design and how to get the most out of your project.

This workshop will be held in Denver, Colorado October 20-21, 2012 at a Denver International Airport area hotel. This makes for easy access to the site from anywhere in the world! The hotel will provide shuttle service to and from the airport as well as a discounted room rate for those choosing to stay with us at the hotel. Breakfast is provided by the hotel to those guests staying with us. Lunch will be provided on both days and is included in the course fee. There is a restaurant in the hotel for participants to purchase dinner or they can choose from a number of area restaurants. The cost for this workshop is $399. Here’s the link to learn more about the workshop or to sign up today.

One more exciting detail about the workshop is that you will receive a copy of my upcoming book: A Modern Look at Straw Bale Design Details, co-authored with straw bale designer Chris Keefe of Organicforms Design. This book is not yet for sale, as it is brand new and still in production. Those attending the class will be among the very first people to receive a copy. The book is full of design elements and sections described clearly and drawn in detail. Discussions of critical aspects of the design process are also included. I hope you can join us in Denver and start designing the home of your dreams.

The Importance of Good Straw Bale Design

Notice that I use the words “straw bale design” in the title. That’s because good design alone is not enough. You have to incorporate all of the details that are specific to straw bale construction in your design to make it work. I see people design their homes either by themselves or with the help of a professional (non-straw bale architects and designers) and miss those straw bale specific details completely. This ends up costing them more during construction and often slows down the code approval process significantly.

There is no sense in trying to figure out straw bale design on your own or in asking an architect or designer to make assumptions about what will or will not work. Instead, take the time to learn how to do it right from the start. Conventional design alone will not get you there. You need to know how bales affect the design process and to account for those adjustments.  For example, in conventional construction wall heights are typically determined by the stud size with standard ceilings at either 8’ or 10’. That’s not the case in bale construction and getting the height of the top plate right is essential to a solid bale wall. Having it too tall or too short will leave you with a weak and wobbly wall.

An obvious place for straw bale specific detailing is around windows and doors. These wall openings are not only visually important, but are also vital to the longevity of the house. If the structural, weather flashing, and trim details are not correct, a window or door could leak and cause significant damage to the bales. Also, from an aesthetic point of view, if they are not detailed properly, plaster stops and trim details can end up funky and can have that “I built this myself” look.

Although straw bale structures can be built on any type of foundation from a   concrete slab to raised floor basements, the bale specific details are important for success. A conventional system would be close, but not close enough. Without the bale specific details, you will end up needing to make “in the field” adjustments to accommodate the bales and their impact on the foundation. Furthermore, you may not make it out of the building department with the conventional details as most inspectors will be quick to notice the potential issues at hand.

As an example, consider that the interior toe ups may or may not be part of your lateral shear design. In one scenario, no additional detailing under the toe ups other than allowing for anchor points would be required; however, when used as part of the shear design, specific aspects of the load calculations must be transferred through the toe ups and into the foundation system. These details will need to be clearly shown on the plans to receive a permit for construction.

My point in all of this is that it is well worth the time and effort to learn the proper details for straw bale specific design. You will save yourself thousands of dollars in mistakes and many hours of frustration by starting out on the right foot. Read a book with modern details, check out my DVDs as a detailed construction path, talk to an accomplished bale builder, or if you tend to learn better in-person, with a hands-on approach, consider attending one of my two-day, comprehensive straw bale design workshops. You will learn all of the details necessary for high quality straw bale design while getting my feedback and the feedback of other, like-minded people as you learn the process and develop your design. You can find out more about the workshop by clicking here.

 

Handling High Winds

If you live in a coastal area or mountain region, you probably have more experience with big wind gusts than someone living in a quiet little valley (except for those screamers that whip down the valley from time to time). The point is that wind is different wherever you go and building codes reflect those differences. Some areas in the United States, like Florida, Texas, and other Southern Coastal states, have to design their homes to withstand hurricane force winds while areas in Tornado Alley have to build their homes to handle twisters.

Picture: BNPS
This morning I was looking through the internet in search of facts about straw bale construction and high winds and I was shocked to see that the hard data is far and few in between. This seems to be an area in which some studies have been done, with promising results, yet little follow up and publications exist. I hope that I am wrong with this assessment and that, in fact, there are studies and papers out there that I am missing. To that end, if you have any leads I should follow up on or if you know of specific resources in regards to high wind/straw bale studies, please let me know. The following is what I was able to discover and, like I said, it is very promising.

Several years ago wind tests were performed on a straw bale wall in a wind tunnel similar to that described on the Nordic Wind Tunnel website. The test placed the equivalent of a 75 mile per hour gale force wind on the wall. In order to pass the test, the subject wall was not allowed to move more than 3/8″ from its original position. In the initial testing, the wall passed and, in fact, it did not move at all.  The test crew increased the wind load up to a gale force wind of 100 mph. Even with the increase in speed and force, the straw bale wall performed really well, moving only 1/16″, far below the limits provided for in the test.

In Serious Straw Bale, a book by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron published in 2000, reference is made to a study performed in conjunction with the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) in which hurricane force wind loads were applied to a test straw bale wall panel. The findings suggest that straw bale walls are vastly superior to conventional walls in resisting wind loads. The results showed that the panel withstood wind loads of 153 pounds per square foot (psf). This means that the straw bale panel could be rated at more than seven times a standard hurricane design load. That’s impressive!

As amazing as this all sounds, I think we need more. I would like to see more research done on the strength of straw bale walls and their ability to withstand high winds. We are seeing bigger hurricanes, more often here in the United States, and no one would likely deny that the same is true for tornadoes.  We may be sitting on a building technique that can protect thousands of people from the forces of nature and yet we are not in a position to take that technique to those who need to hear about it because we don’t have the scientific testing to back up our claims. It doesn’t matter how amazing these structures appear to be. We need to know without a doubt that they are as great as we believe and the only way to convince the “powers that be” in the construction world is through independent testing.

I offer you a call to action. Are you in a place to take part in that testing? Are you a professor or someone else with access to a wind tunnel? Do you have grant writing skills and/or the desire to headline this effort? There are so many things I want to do to increase the popularity of straw bale construction around the world, but I realize I just don’t have the time or ability to do them all. That’s why I’m asking for your help. If we can get the right people together and the right resources lined up, we can make this happen. It’s possible that the results of our efforts will help save lives in the future.

A Niche of a Different Shape

When most people think of niche in straw bale walls, they picture the flat bottom, arched top nook with a statue or flower pot in it. I love that look myself and have made many of them. Recently, I had a workshop host who wanted something sweeter in their bedroom. The heart niche was the result of that idea. Made in the same steps as a typical niche, there’s nothing terribly different about it other than the shape.

What I want you to gather from this blog entry is that the only limitation to the niche you install in your project is your imagination. If you can think about it, you can most likely create it. That’s a great advantage of working with straw and plaster. So have it! Have fun and create beautiful things!

One thing that I have done in the past which can be fun is to combine a truth window with the niche. As an example, the heart niche here would have a glass back to it which would reveal the magic of the bale construction. It’s a cool way to bring some depth to any niche. Throw a couple built in shelves into the assembly and now you’ve got a useful and beautiful addition to the home.

Remember: Have Fun With It!

Want to Host a Workshop to Build This Cottage?

I’m looking for someone to build this specific cottage in a workshop. It’s an amazing design for one or two people to live in, or it can be used as a guest cottage, or even a B&B building. It is 475 square feet and has a sleeping loft and full home amenities including a full kitchen, bathroom , and washer dryer.

I hope to teach a workshop on the structure in September or October of this year, so I hope you have a warm and dry climate that time of year. If you’re interested, please review the hosting details on my workshops website and then contact me by leaving a comment here.

I currently have a few people interested in building this great cottage during a workshop, and I’m still open to hearing from more of you. If you think you have the perfect spot for this structure, please let me know right away so we can get things organized and officially released. If you’re one of the folks I have been talking with already, don’t worry, I still plan on discussing the details with you and being that we have already started our conversations, you have a head start and a “place in line.”

Below you can see the floor plans and the elevations for the cottage. Click on the images to make them bigger and easier to see. Use your “back” button to come back to this page once you have viewed the images.

Cross Section of a Straw Bale Landscape Wall/Rubble Trench Foundation

Many people have recently asked me about landscape walls. As a result of those inquiries, I’ve drawn up a cross section of a landscape wall and rubble trench foundation for you to check out below. This is a basic design that can be used in most locations. Some building departments allow for rubble trench foundations within the codes while others are less accustomed to them. Be sure to discuss the potential to use this design before you commit to the design. You may need to make changes to the system or simply educate the building officials around the effectiveness of the rubble trench design.


I’m open to feedback on the design. If you think there’s a better system, let me know. I always like to hear how other people do things. As a builder, I always spent time visiting other contractor’s job sites and talking to them about how they did things. I’ve learned a LOT by talking to others and I continue to learn this way today. One detail I often put into landscape walls in wet climates is a metal wall cap. The caps are custom made by the local metal shops (those who fabricate metal roofing are best) to fit over the top of the finished wall. You need to provide some anchoring points for the caps within the wall, but that’s not shown here. Simply let in a 2x at the top of the wall so that the bottom edges of the roof cap can hit it during installation. be sure to install the wood nailers before the mesh so that the mesh can lock them tightly in place. Get the wall cap in a color that matches or compliments your plaster and you’ll barely notice it’s there (or you’ll see it as an asset to the design).

One point around landscape walls and moisture. It’s really not that big of a deal if the bales get wet and ultimately rot out. That matters BIG TIME in a house, but a wall is just that, a landscape wall. The bales are not acting as insulation, they’re basically acting as forms for the plaster. Once the mesh is properly installed and you add 1 1/2″ of plaster to each side of the wall (all the way up and over actually), the bales can rot out without the wall collapsing. Of course, the overall strength of the wall is better with the bales in place, so protect them as best you can. Just don’t loose sleep over water getting in through a failed washer on a screw that attaches your wall cap. The wall will be fine!

Please Share Your Ideas for Bathroom Designs

picture from www.bathroomexchange.com.au

Everybody likes different things about their house. Some people love their bedroom layout, others like their kitchen design, some are even huge fans of their bathrooms. Okay, the last one may be a bit unusual, but perhaps there’s a reason for that. I’ve noticed over my years as a builder that certain things tend to get overlooked in design. One is lighting plans. Most designs tend to ignore the layout of lights in the house and simply throw some lights on ceilings and walls at the last minute to meet code requirements. This is a bummer as much opportunity is lost in this way. Another place where opportunity is lost is in bathroom design.

So here’s what I’m asking: what do you love about your bathroom(s)? What would you do differently if you had a chance to redesign your bathrooms (and perhaps the rooms around them)? This conversation could very well help the next person out, so please take a minute or two to share your thoughts.

I’ll get things started. I love a simple bathroom, and I want lots of natural light in there. I don’t like having to turn on the power every time I go into my bathroom so that I can find my way across the room. I would like a LOT more natural light in the way of floor to ceiling windows (privacy glass of course and with proper orientation so that my neighbors aren’t watching our silhouettes all night and day) and skylights. I want a passive solar heated floor so that my feet are happy when I get out of the shower, but more so when I wake up in the morning and step on to the tile floor. A little passive solar storage would be great for that one. Also, easy cleaning: I want less design lines on my toilet so that less dust can settle. Clean, straight design lines are a must. Finally, I want a sauna and a steam in my bathroom. I sauna more than I shower these days, so having that at home rather than at the gym would be fantastic. How about you? What wisdom or wants can you share?

Masonite Announces New Interior Doors Made From Wheat Straw

This is pretty cool: a solid core interior door made out of straw. With other straw products on the market for some time now, I’m happy to see that some of the larger, more mainstream companies are picking up the ball. I hope they run with it and run the right way. The new doors were officially announced on Masonite’s website in February.

Masonite has released two wheat straw door lines: Safe ‘N Sound and Safe ‘N Sound Emerald. The Emerald door is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and helps owners attain other certifications such as those considered under the USGBC Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards and the NAHB Green Home Building Guidelines. It is built without any added urea-formaldehyde. The standard Safe ‘N Sound door is less impressive with it’s Green attributes, but does at least have some merits in it’s use of a wheat straw base called DorCor, as well as the use of post-industrial recycled materials, and low formaldehyde emissions.

There is not any information, in terms of pictures and pricing, on the website yet about these doors. Because the announcement is still very young, I imagine the flow of these doors into retailers may be slow at first. I hope that the price is right on these doors, making them a good option for lots of people. Increased demand of such items will ultimately increase their production. How many of you remember when CD players first came out? They were expensive and pretty basic. Now look at what most CD players cost. In fact, the market is moving through and away from CD players as “something better” has come along. The point is, it was the demand for CD players that expanded the industry and ultimately created a new one. This is how I think the green movement needs to expand.

I’m hopeful that this product catches on and continues to advance the improvements of Green and healthy home construction for the masses, not just for those of us who are willing to look a little harder to find “the right stuff” to build with.

Straw Bale Row Housing in Edmonton, Alberta Wins Urban Architecture Merit Award

Congratulations to the Battle Lake Design Group for their 2009 Urban Design Award for Merit which was presented by the city of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada. Here’s a description of the project and what the judges had to say about it as presented on the City of Edmonton’s website.

Urban Architecture-Award of Merit
Project Designers: Battle Lake Design Group, Inc.
Structural Engineer: Acius Engineering
Project owner: The Warehouse Loft Company Ltd.

Project Description

The Mill Creek Flex Homes’ project purpose was to develop sustainable residential infill within the inner city. This three-unit, 2-story row housing fits into the City of Edmonton’s vision of higher urban density in the “core,” while complementing the existing neighborhood’s built form. The development’s location and proximity to local amenities increases the desirability and livability of the project.

The building design creates open, functional public and private interior spaces on a small footprint. It is designed and constructed to showcase a contemporary, modern straw bale building in an urban setting. Collaborative design solutions using straw bale technology were developed for the challenges of the Alberta climate.

Cement-lime stucco and vertical cedar siding create a contemporary exterior that embraces traditional building materials and techniques. Organic, textured straw bale walls, exposed structural wood and concrete, as well as extensive window use, form the basis of a design that includes simple yet functional finishes and emphasizes locally-produced materials.

The project incorporates many “green” technologies and ideas, including passive and active solar systems, roof-top patios, and green roofs. Zero and low volatile organic compound (VOC) finishes, and a breathable exterior envelope, contribute to a healthier interior environment.

Mill Creek Flex Homes provides pleasing, meaningful and sustainable alternatives to single-family homes while enhancing the existing character of Edmonton’s mature neighborhoods.

Jury’s Comments

- Very sensitive architecture and the most sustainable project submitted.
– A good example of sensitive infill in Edmonton’s mature neighborhoods.
– The project could have been even better had the applicant challenged the existing zoning and sited the building envelope closer to the public streets. Moving the buildings forward would create an active urban edge.
– We always encourage green roofs and are happy to see them included in this project.

According to Rob Tom of Kanata Ontario, Canada, “the project is short listed for a national urban design award and the first apartment owner reports her first two heating bills for this winter were $21 and $31.” That’s a pretty amazing start, especially considering how cold Edmonton is known to get in the winter. According to the City of Edmonton’s website, “The average winter temperature is -15º C. Low temperatures of -34º C occur on average three or four times per year.” Yikes! I think staying warm is definitely worth $21 and $31 per month!

Here’s a link to the company site if you’re interested in learning more about the project. www.millcreekflexhomes.ca