Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

Straw Bale Home is Cover of Fine Homebuilding

Fine HomebuildingFor those of you who have been wondering what it will take to help straw bale homes become more mainstream, this may be a part of the answer. David Arkin and Annie Tilt (Arkin-Tilt Architects) are well known for their beautiful and functional designs. They have received many awards over the years and their straw bale homes have at least twice graced the covers of Fine Homebuilding Magazine, this time in the fall 2014 edition of Small Homes Cabins and Cottages.

I have said for many years that we as a group of individuals, a community of straw bale fans, really need to focus on bringing straw bale construction into the light of everyday people. One way to do that is to start with inspiring design. As an example, when I would walk prospective clients through a home of mine, I would leave out the words “straw bale” and focus on the beauty, energy efficiency and overall design of the home. Once the prospective clients were drawn into those details, the words straw bale had much less scare factor to them.

Let’s keep building on this exposure that Arkin-Tilt Architects, and others with a similar passion for straw bale construction are sharing with the world. Getting the word out to the masses will take time and effort. Every time a beautiful straw bale home is shared with the world, that steep mountain we seem to be climbing gets a little smaller. Keep it positive. Keep it beautiful.

And of course, way to go David and Annie! Feel free to congratulate them yourselves…

Beautiful Straw Bale House For Sale in California

InteriorCheck out this beautiful, artisan-owner designed straw bale home located in rural Lake County, California. The home is located on 13 acres of pastoral valley land that provides serenity and beauty around the home. This one bedroom/one bath home has over 1900 sq. ft. of living space with a gourmet kitchen and lots of privacy. The interior has an open feel to it and the barrel ceiling/roof line is as original as it is beautiful. The interior woodwork, in the form of exposed beams and loft framing, adds contrast to the soft curves of the bales and plaster details throughout the home. (more…)

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.

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!


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Conversations on a Plane

United AirlinesGabriella and I have noticed a recent surge in new subscribers to StrawBale.com and many who have signed up have contacted us to let us know they are brand new to the world of straw bale construction. We want to welcome all of you here and we figured it would be helpful to give you an introduction to what it’s like to build a straw bale home. It occurred to me that one place I tend to enter into conversation about straw bale houses with folks who have never heard of them before is when I fly somewhere to teach a workshop. Once the person in the seat next to me gets me going it’s hard to shut me up! “So what do you do?” is generally all it takes to trigger a familiar dialogue.

“Wait, you teach people how to build houses out of what? Straw bales? You need to say more about that.” And so it goes…

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Beautiful Straw Bale Home Slideshow

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to look at a stunning slideshow, even if you have no interest in buying this particular straw bale house (it is currently offered for sale). The photos are beautiful and you can really get a sense of how warm and inviting a straw bale home can be. Here’s the link to check out the slideshow.

Tiny Homes Made of Straw

Straw Bale Tiny HouseOver the years I have seen the interest in tiny homes grow and grow. During that time, one thing has been consistent, the design and detailing of the structures. I would imagine that many of you have seen an image of a tiny house on a trailer by now. Wood siding, gable roof lines, tiny front porch, you know the look. The buildings have charm, to be sure, yet they tend to carry a similar look for the most part.

I have been party to several straw bale structures that could certainly fit the description of tiny. For example, the Mountain View Cabin is only 200 SF of interior living space. Even smaller, the Sunset Cottage has its 200 SF measured on the exterior. There’s also the Applegate Cottage which boasts a whopping 570 SF, not including the sleeping loft. All of these structures have their place in the world of tiny construction, but I found a new one during the Montana straw bale workshop.

Tiny Straw Bale HomeThe owner Dale explained to our group that the structure we worked on will be used to build cabinets and wood kayaks, yet none of us could let go of the potential for the building as a home. At 470 SF, the organic shape lends itself to a feeling of open space and comfort. There is ample room for a bathroom, kitchen, living and sleeping areas, and several long bench seat options as well. The high ceilings help open the space up and make it feel bigger than it really is. I think that if Dale was allowed to (he is restricted by local building codes from building another home), he would gladly leave his existing home and move into this amazing space that we created together.

Southern Exposure on Tiny Straw HouseIf anyone ever wondered if living tiny is possible while living in a straw bale structure, wonder no more. There are several options available to you and your imagination is the only limit of what might be possible. I would not suggest that one build a tiny straw bale house on a trailer as that would simply be difficult to make work due to the thick and heavy walls; however, if you plan to build on the ground, straw bale is a great option.

You get a building with superior insulation value, soundproofing, and fire resistance AND you get something that looks and feels unique and natural. I am a firm believer in loving the space in which I live. I think you will find that loving a straw b ale structure is easy to do, and it will love you right back! How will it do that, you might ask? By keeping you warm, cool, quiet, and calm within its walls. I hope you will take a few minutes to look at some photos of straw bale homes and consider what might be possible in your own tiny bale abode.

Montana 2013 Group PhotoWhat’s more, building a straw bale home, whether it be a tiny home or a “regular-sized” home, is a lot of fun if you get together with others to do it. Each year I work with several hosts around the world on their projects and bring in a workshop full of fun and interesting people. The experience we all share is one of connection, learning, sharing, and growing friendships. I hope you will consider joining us at a workshop soon so you too can get connected!

Thriving In 114SqFt

For those that have been with us for a couple of years or more, you will know that my wife, Gabriella, 12 year old daughter and I spent nearly 5 months living out of a 110sqft pop up tent trailer in Baja, Mexico two winters ago (you can read that blog here). You will also know that we not only had an amazing time during those months living tiny, but that our lives were transformed in such a positive and significant way that we completely changed our entire relationship to housing and space.

Our focus since that time had been to find a piece of land to create our own homestead in a way that reflected our new view on space, housing, and family relationships. A few months ago we found our little patch of heaven. We definitely consider it to be our forever home.

BedroomWe are now living here full time and it’s hard to describe how right it feels to be here. Our land came with a 114 sqft cabin equipped with a queen sized bed, plenty of shelf storage for books, office supplies, and toiletries, a kitchen with a small double sink, double propane burner, storage for food, utensils and plates/glasses, and even a desk to work on. The cabin even came with a very small solar system that supplies enough power for a light, to charge our laptop and to run our modem for a couple of hours per day for internet.

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Homesteading (Part 1)

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

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Happy Earth Day

Rocky Mountain National ParkI hope that you find a way to experience this wonderful planet we call home today, if not everyday. We chose to experience the mountains of Colorado by taking a trip out to Rocky Mountain National Park. It was beautiful and inspiring. Herds of elk, mountain peaks, rivers flowing beneath a thin cap of ice, and snow blowing down hard made the day incredible.

Remember the potential for beauty around you, no matter where you live. Give back to this planet that gives so much for you. Strive to leave every environment you visit in better health than you found it.

Happy Earth Day everyone.

Andrew and Gabriella

Excellent Advice On Building Your House From a Workshop Grad

Ryan Image 10Like many of us, Ryan (a 7 day straw bale workshop graduate) held a deep desire to build his home using his own two hands. After all, growing up in a family in which his father had built three (the last of which Ryan was heavily involved in), the concept was familiar and natural. While attending a green building conference circa 2002, Ryan was introduced to the concept of straw bale construction. Being an environmental consultant, the merits of this technology made sense so he proceeded to create a multi year plan to build his own house using straw bales.

A plan of action, timeline, and goal are incredibly useful tools when bringing big dreams to fruition. They serve as guideposts when we feel overwhelmed and give us perspective on what the next step is.  With these tools, it doesn’t matter how far into the future your goal might be or how many actions will need to be taken to reach it. As long as you continue to follow each step, in time, reaching your goal is inevitable.Ryan Image 3

For Ryan and his wife, their steps included selling their condo in the city, renting a cottage in the area they wanted to settle in, and then waiting patiently for the right piece of property to show up. For three years they waited. And when their dream property showed up on the market, they didn’t hesitate.

Ryan was already experienced with Auto-Cad (professional architectural design software) so he undertook the 2,000 sqft home design process himself. He also did all of his engineering calculations. Before turning his plans into the building department, he had them professionally reviewed and stamped by an architect and structural engineer to make certain that the residence was well designed. Though he navigated his way through the whole design process successfully, he wishes that he had enlisted professional help earlier on to simplify the whole process.

Ryan Image 1The actual building process was an adventure. For Ryan, there were “a million ups and downs”. Some days felt easy and perfectly on schedule. Other days he felt defeated and would ask himself, “What have I done??” Peace of mind was re-established each time doubt came in by reminding himself to just take things one step at a time. During the build, he made it a point to break down each task into manageable bites so that in general, none of the jobs took more than a day to complete. He also quickly realized that it was much more productive to spend time in action rather than spending too much time thinking out every single step ahead of time.

Obtaining a loan and insurance for his straw bale home posed no obstacles for Ryan and his wife. He shares the secret to his success was in his approach. He arrived at all of his meetings with as much information as he could, answering questions before they even had a chance to ask them. He went to all of his meetings with a comprehensive business plan and presented himself professionally. Ryan’s efforts paid off without a hitch.

Ryan Image 6When I asked Ryan if he has advice to anyone building their own straw bale home, he shared (wisely) that as tempting as it may feel in the moment to cut corners not only in craftsmanship but also in materials, that it’s extremely important to stay committed to the values of safety and creating a house that will last for generations. One of the big pieces of the success and beauty of his build is that he stayed true to his commitment to build the best house that he could.

Ryan Image 5When Ryan first informed his father that he was going to build his house with straw bales, his dad thought it was the craziest thing he had ever heard of. He could not for the life of him understand why his son would build with straw. I am pleased to report though that his father now “gets it”. It’s so important that those of us who are passionate about building a straw bale house do so even at the risk of having others deem us insane (even if just temporarily). When others see the process and the end result, they can’t help but see the light. We are the ambassadors for this technology and the more of us there are, the more available safe, beautiful, energy efficient and green straw bale housing is to those around the world.

We want to congratulate Ryan on doing a beautiful job on his home. It is wonderful to see past workshop graduates go out there and build their own dream straw bale homes. We hope to see you at a workshop sometime in 2013!

 

2012: A Year in Review

As we draw towards the end of 2012, I have been reflecting on what an amazing year it has been. I’ve also been looking at my goals for 2013 and how I might set my self up properly to achieve them. Through all of this, I have  tried to live up to perhaps my most important life goal: staying present. My good friend Chris Keefe gave me a bumper sticker many years ago for my birthday. It reads “live in the present.” I never stuck it to anything because I figured that whatever I stuck it to would eventually, sooner or later, not be effectively in “my present life.” That seems to have been a good idea because it still sits here in front of me at my desk each day, reminding me to stay present to all that is around me and within me. A powerful gift, indeed. So as I sit here sharing the story of this birthday gift from years past and its influence on me today, I’d like to take a look back at 2012 and share with you a few stories from a fabulous year.

For those who like bullet points, I’ll layout the stories I plan to share with you here so you can decide if you want to read the entire year in review or simply jump ahead to a specific spot.

  • Living small in a big world: Our life changing trip to Mexico and the experience of living in a tiny home for 5 months.
  • 10 Amazing straw bale workshops: 2 trips to Australia, the first ever Design Seminar, and over 250 more people trained in the art of straw bale construction.
  • The release of our Framing DVD: The How to Guide to Framing a Straw Bale Structure.
  • The release of my book: A Modern Look at Straw Bale Construction.
  • Rediscovering my passion for inspiring others to greatness.

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December 21, 2012…A New Beginning

Here’s a different look at today, as many want to call it the end of the world. I believe it closer to a beginning than an end. I received the following text from my sister in a forwarded email. I hope that you find some resonance with it. I particularly like the areas that I have placed in bold. I also love the message from the Hopi Elder that is at the end of this blog entry. I have heard this spoken for years and it has always touched a deep part of my soul: that part that wants to let go of the shore but finds reasons within fear not to. I have been learning to let go these many years, and I continue to learn each day.

I wish you all a wonderful day and that you find peace within yourselves and with those people around you.

Here’s the text of the message I received:

At 11.11 am GMT on the Winter Solstice of 21st December 2012 is the alignment between the Earth, the Sun and the Centre of the galaxy. This is possibly the most anticipated date in history. It has been spoken of not only by the Mayan, but also by the Hopi (native american), Ancient Egyptians, Yogic Vedas, Aboriginal and others. On this day there will be the end of a cycle of time – and in the same moment the beginning of the next cycle.

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Pure Inspiration

This video is worth watching, especially if you think, anywhere inside of you, that you “can’t do it.”

What Is Stopping You From Achieving Your Dreams?

It doesn’t matter what the dream is: building a straw bale house, a tiny house, a small house, changing your job, changing a relationship, or anything else. The answer is always the same. You are.

It’s so simple and yet so often can seem difficult to change or overcome. The truth is that you are always able to create the vision you dream of. Always.

I would love to hear about your personal experience with this. Perhaps you have a story to share that exemplifies this point. Or maybe you don’t agree with what I’m saying, don’t understand what I mean by it, or otherwise want to share your feelings about it. Please join the conversation in the comment section below no matter how the statement has landed on you.


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