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Straw Bale Q & A

I recently received a list of questions from someone doing a report on straw bale construction for his college. His questions were good so I thought I would share my answers with you all here. You can read both the questions and answers below.

Q. From your experience, is straw bales as a building material user friendly? Can anyone learn to build with it?

A. Absolutely. I teach people how to build with bales every year at my seven day workshops. Those people range from professional builders, architects and engineers to home owners who are CPAs, teachers, computer programmers and more. Anyone can learn this technology.

Q. What current obstacles in building codes are blocking the use of straw bales in home construction? How can these be overcome? [Example: Here in Greene county MO, I was told I couldn’t build a load bearing straw bale structure because their adopted codes have no guidance for it. They did say I could build a post and beam style.]

A. It’s really about lack of education and understanding of the technology. The construction technology itself is fantastic; however, there are still too many people who either have not heard about straw bale construction, or are under educated about it and believe the rumors they hear. I’ve heard of people talking about what a fire risk straw bale structures are when, in fact, they have exceed conventional construction burn ratings in independent ASTM testing. The problem is that not enough positive MAIN STREAM media coverage has been given to this building technology. It is always viewed as “alternative” and as long as it holds that title, it will remain on the outside of “normal” construction radar.

Q. Can bales be used for the attic insulation? Is it cost effective or too heavy? Is there a better attic solution for green building?


Bales of Knowledge; an essay by Arthur Olson

Arthur Olson, 18, attended last year’s Culyer, New York workshop.  When I met him, I immediately liked him and was struck by his ability to fold into the large workshop group.  Turns out this young man is taking his life by the reigns and creating an incredible future for himself.  He is in the finals for 12 merit scholarships at colleges all around the country, is a finalist for the prestigious 1693 Murray Scholarship which only accepts 6 students from a pool of 13,000 applicants, and has received full ride scholarships to several colleges.  At the center of this success has been an essay that he wrote about his experience at the Culyer workshop.  We want to celebrate Arthur and his accomplishments by bragging a little bit about him here (he’s worked hard and deserves it!) and also to give you the opportunity to read his essay.  It’s well written and put a smile on our faces.  Please check it out below.

“Hey bud, can you grab me that board‐stretcher, you know, the one with the yellow handle?” I heard myself answer, “yes,” almost as if by compulsion before I had time to stop and consider what I had agreed to do. Too late, I realized that I had absolutely no idea what a board‐stretcher looked like. Yellow handle, yellow handle, don’t see anything; I’m sure it’s been over a minute by now. He’s going to start getting antsy. I’ll just bring over a yellow level and play it off as a mistake. I returned with the level in hand and was met with a roar of laughter from the rest of the crew; I would soon find out that there was no such thing as a board‐stretcher.  Flushed with embarrassment, I promised myself I would never work on a construction site again. So, it was with some considerable reservations that I signed up this summer for a straw bale home building seminar in upstate New York.

As I touched down at the Syracuse airport, I was still unsure of whether these straw bale houses were real or if I had accidentally picked up a brochure for a Lord of the Rings hobbit home expo. After a short ride from the airport to the site, Andrew, the instructor of the seminar, met me with a broad smile and a hearty handshake. “You ready to make this a real house?” he asked motioning over his shoulder to the bare‐bones wood frame. Flashes of the board‐stretcher fiasco came streaking into my mind and all I could manage was a rather feeble, “You ‘betcha.”

Wading through the haze of construction terminology was like reading from a long lost arcane text. “Put the four and a quarter in the toe‐up at a sixty‐five degree angle so it catches the frame but be sure to make it plumb with the plane of the wall.” What? Fortunately, with each challenge came an opportunity to learn. Instead of accepting that I couldn’t internalize the contractor lingo, I forced myself to embrace it and by the end of the week I was spouting off jargon with the best of them. No longer was I intimidated by building a house, in fact, I was actually starting to enjoy it. Inspired by this success and fueled by the fire of ambition, I decided to capitalize on my newfound ability and undertake something truly daring: designing my own sustainable off‐the‐grid cabin.

Was it possible that I, Arthur Olson, the boy who once loathed the sound of a buzz saw and shrank at the mention of a board‐stretcher, could design a house? It only took me a few days to realize I was in over my head, but I didn’t give up and began churning through books and websites at a devilish pace, scouring over every detail for ideas and direction.

Finally after months of research, sketches, and planning I had my design. In my hand was the floor plan for a five hundred square foot, straw bale cabin that brought together everything I had learned during my gap year about off‐the‐grid living and sustainability. My heart swelled with intense pride as I looked down at the smeared charcoal markings and eraser shavings still on the page. It was then that it hit me. If I could go from zero knowledge to designing my own cabin in only four months, imagine what I could do with four years in college, surrounded by intellectually stimulating peers and spurred on by brilliant professors. This straw bale experience helped me to develop a “mental template”, if you will, for overcoming daunting challenges which I can apply to obstacles in the future and will continue to model for others. Just like building that first straw bale house, I now know that approaching the unknown requires a floor plan of open‐mindedness, anchored by a foundation of diligent study, secured with solid walls of research, and finally roofed with shingle upon shingle of determination.

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.


What Are You Passionate About?

I was recently talking with Gabriella about our business and we both realized just how lucky we are. There are a number of reasons that we consider ourselves lucky, actually a better way to say it is that we are grateful, but one big one came to the forefront during our conversation. It is that we love what we do. The more we spoke, the clearer it became that the reason we love what we do is that we are passionate about it. We truly believe in what we are doing and that makes our “work” not really work.

In this realization, I had the thought about other people in the world. How many of them are living their passion and how many are simply living to survive? So many people have gotten stuck in the machine of our culture, so stuck that they don’t even notice it anymore. They go to work each day at a job they don’t like so they can make enough money to pay for all their stuff (flat screen TVs in each room, multiple cars, a closet full of shoes, and so on). Beyond their stuff, a huge portion of their paycheck goes to pay a mortgage or rent on a house that’s bigger than they actually need. Wal-Mart and other corporations would have them believe that they are living the American Dream, but if they stop long enough to take a look from “outside their life” they may tell you otherwise. A friend of mine once asked me “are you thriving or surviving?” and that’s exactly the question I have for you.

How many of us can actually say that we love our work? How many are excited to show up at their job and know that their presence there is supporting a bigger picture view of what they want to accomplish in life? As Gandhi encouraged us to “be the change we wish to see in the world,” I wonder how many are actually heeding that call. Ask yourself if you are one of the few. If you are not, what’s stopping you?

I have heard from many people over the years (myself included) that the fear of not having enough (money, food, shelter, etc) can be crippling. The thinking sounds something like this: “I don’t like my job, but at least I can afford to buy food and have a nice house. Some day, I’ll do the things I truly want to do, but for now, I can’t risk losing my job.” It’s seemingly sound thinking, after all, who would want to risk losing their job; especially in the current sagging economy? But there is pervasive sadness in the words “some day.” It’s sad to me because so many people never reach that “some day.” The fear of loss is ALWAYS too big for them and so they stay trapped in their jobs, surviving, and wishing their life looked different somehow.

Taking a risk and stepping out into the world of thriving is scary, no doubt; however, when you find your passion and you fully connect to what you want to accomplish in life, everything will line up and you will find support from places you may not have known even existed. You may call it God, the Universe, Spirit, or any other name. It is the undeniable certainty that when you are aligned with your inner truth, obstacles will fall away and you will thrive. I have seen this happen over and over again in my own life and in the lives of my friends and family. To me, it’s simply true. Unfortunately, the machine of our society has got such a strong grip on so many people that many don’t have a clue what their passion even is. They may hope to find it (if they are awake enough to notice they are missing it), but with so much “noise” in the world, that can be hard to do.

A great way to start is to get grounded and quiet. The most obvious distraction that many people live with and actually seem to like having around is the TV. I know I tend to harp on TV a bit, but that’s because I truly see it as a poisonous part of our society meant to do one thing: encourage us to spend more money on stuff we don’t need. If you watch TV, like most Americans do, you probably have it on at least 5 hours a day, most likely in the evenings.  Just think of all the peaceful and productive time one could have, every day, if they didn’t drown out their passion and inner quiet with TV.

Here’s a simple (it may not seem it at first) way to start getting quiet: unplug your TV and don’t turn it back on for at least one month. Completely disconnect yourself from it. If you go to a bar or restaurant that has a TV on, sit so that you are not facing it. Do whatever you can to completely separate yourself from the culture of television for the month. In the time that you used to spend watching TV, do something “real.” That could be playing board games or cards with your family, learning to speak a new language, reading books, sitting quietly and simply being. The point is to get your feet back on the ground and to connect with “real life: yours.

With your feet on the ground and your inner landscape afforded a bit more space and quiet, see what comes up for you. Ask yourself, each day, what your passion is and what change you would like to see in the world. Draw a picture of what the perfect world would look like in your mind. Write down what it is that makes it so wonderful. Ask yourself what you can do to make this picture and story become a reality. Over time, or perhaps suddenly, you will find yourself awakening to your passion.

I believe there is more to truly landing in your passion than simply turning off your TV, but this is a starting point, a place to get your toes into the water. If you want to continue to journey, which I hope you do, I suggest taking a two-week vision quest (whatever that means to you) once you have found your initial calm. Perhaps sitting in the woods alone for two weeks with nothing but food, shelter and a place to write down your thoughts would be a good idea.  Perhaps taking an official vision quest with a respected leader while holding a specific intention is your path. There are many ways to continue this journey and to find your passion. Which one is right for you will become clear, once you get quiet.

What I want most for you right now is to simply inspire you to ask yourself if you are thriving or surviving. I hope that many of you will answer “thriving,” but I also know that even the most amazing people in my life have been stuck in the survival mode before. There’s no shame in it. It simply is what it is. If you are not where you want to be, ask yourself what’s in the way of you getting there. Once you start asking these questions, take time to really listen for the answers. When you find the answers, act on them. It may not be any easy journey and it will likely have its discomforts for you along the way, but the journey itself and the landing place you discover are both very much worth the effort.