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My name is Andrew Morrison and welcome to my straw bale building site dedicated to anyone interested in building their own straw bale house. If you are brand new to straw bale or are a straw bale construction specialist there's something for you at StrawBale.com.
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So you want to host a workshop and experience a community building project on your home. That’s awesome! It will be one of the best weeks of your life and you will sleep like a baby when the week is done. But what’s it going to cost you? What’s the building department going to say? How about your neighbors? There are many questions to consider when hosting a straw bale workshop, or any workshop for that matter. Let’s explore a few of the bigger questions.
Costs Associated with Hosting a Workshop
Perhaps the first question on many potential workshop hosts mind is “what’s the bottom line?” That’s certainly a fair question and one you should ask yourself, or the person offering any service, during your entire construction process. If you don’t know what the cost of any aspect of your job is in advance, you are setting yourself up for trouble. I can’t speak for everyone out there who offers workshops, so I will speak for myself. The costs associated with hosting a workshop are absolutely minute when compared to the amount of quality work that gets accomplished during the class. In other words, if you were to a) hire out the same amount of work that gets done or b) do it by yourself or with a few friends, your costs would be huge. Professionals charge a lot for their work (rightfully so as they have lots of experience and overhead to manage) and if you do it yourself, the time it till take you is worth a lot of money, not to mention the massage therapist you’ll need when you’re done!
Imagine, if you can (and I know you can because you are interested in hosting enough to read this blog post!), what a labor force of 20 to 30 people lead by an experienced straw bale builder and teacher can accomplish in one week. Now that you have that image, expand it, because my guess is that you’ve missed a lot of the details that get handled during a class.
There’s no comparison, it’s the most cost effective move you can make on your project…assuming that the workshop leader knows what they are doing and has good people skills to keep everyone motivated and on task. For my workshops, the hosts pay for my travel to and from the site. This is normally not that much and almost always less than $1000. Other than that, the costs are pretty minimal. A few dollars on food not covered by the budget I give the host (some people create some amazing menus and as such go over budget…we don’t complain while easting it!), a few dollars in tool rentals, bathroom facilities, and other details. In all, hardly anything out of pocket for a complete week of labor.
What Will the Building Department Think?
That question is best answered by them, but here’s my input. In most cases, it’s best to simply leave them out of the equation in terms of the community build. Why? Because they may misunderstand what you have going on. They may believe that your workshop leader is acting as a contractor when in fact, they are not. They are simply a teacher or mentor for the group. Now, what about the group itself? No problem. You are not being paid by them nor are you paying them for their help. They are 100% volunteers there to help you with your project. That is completely within your rights as a home owner so no harm no foul. Again, is it worth having a long discussion about this with your building department or bank inspector? Probably not, but if it does come up, no worries. You are allowed to have friends and family help you out as long as you don’t pay them for their help.
Some things are up to the home owner to do in most jurisdictions when working under an owner/builder permit. For example, electrical work can be done either by a licensed electrician, or the owner. Whether the building department would allow a group of friends and family members to do the electrical work on your house depends on the inspector and the overall jurisdiction’s rules. I have been to some areas where it was an issue; however, in most of the location which I have taught workshops, it has not been a problem. My suggestion is to simply tell the inspector/building department that you will install the electrical and then you, as the home owner, can make a decision about whether you get help from your friends. I’ve even done workshops where the licensed electrician gets direction from me on how to best do electrical installations in bale walls, and then uses the participants as a labor force under his supervision. As you can see, there are many options.
What About My Neighbors?
This is a tricky one as every neighbor is different. many, in fact most, are totally cool with the community build aspect of hosting a workshop. Sure there will be some extra cars parked on the site and sure there will be some camp fires and singing in the evenings (if they’re lucky!) but then again, they won’t have to look at that skeleton of a building for much longer! What I find is best is to engage your neighbors early on. Let them know your plans. Help them feel like they are part of the excitement of this amazing project. If they are simply grumpy and don’t want any part of your project or you, for that matter, you can leave them alone and focus on your task at hand: building. If they are like most people, they will appreciate that you invited them into the journey and will be interested in learning more about the process as time goes by. It’s not uncommon for neighbors to come by and visit the site while I’m teaching. They are curious. They want to know how a straw bale building is put together, most likely having never seen one before. Have fun with them and they will have fun with you!
Over the years through conversations and books I have heard that it is fine to plaster directly onto straw bales without the use of any type of mesh reinforcement as long as the mix is lime or earth based. I recently did somewhat of a test on this by plastering a house that had both: bales covered with welded wire mesh and bales left without mesh. I know I will catch some flack for this, but to those of us involved in the “test” the answer was clear. Plastering bale walls that are covered with welded wire mesh is way better than an unmeshed wall.
Can it be done without mesh? Yes. Is it better than walls covered with mesh? No. In fact, the walls that were left without mesh had some major problems that needed to be dealt with, and sometimes the only fix was…you guessed it, to add mesh! I understand that some people don’t like the idea of using metal mesh on their house. I know that some want to keep with a more environmentally friendly material like jute (see recent blog post about why this is a bad idea!). Others don’t like being encased in a metal mesh “cage.” I can’t change your mind on those things (perhaps), but I can at least point out that a house built to last is more environmentally friendly, safer, and more economical than one built on the cheap.
I’ve listed the biggest problems with plastering directly on the bales here.
- Here’s mud in your eye! When plastering on walls that have no mesh, the straw is likely to flick the plaster back at you as you apply it to the wall. Not a big deal if it is “mud” in your eye, but it is more of a big deal if you are using lime plaster (which in my mind is almost always the best choice) as lime can and will burn your eyes. In fact, of all the warnings on bags of lime, the most prominent are those warning of direct eye contact. Yes, glass are a cheap fix to this problem, but it is something that is easily fixed by using mesh.
- Stuffing. It’s pretty common to need to stuff areas of a wall with loose straw between bales or against a post. Not everyone is perfect with a chainsaw or with measuring and retying a bale. As a result, loose stuffing is often used to pack those gaps. To begin with, it is very important that these gaps be filled with long straw and packed very tightly in place. In fact, a clay slip applied to the packing can be a good idea too. Even further, some folks choose to use cob in the gaps (if they are big enough to warrant doing so) but this brings up other issues with bonding between materials like cob and lime plaster. That’s for another blog post another day. Anyway, back to the stuffing. With no mesh to hold the looser material in place, it can fall out of the wall under the weight of the plaster. Obviously, not good.
- Loose straw doesn’t hold plaster. Just like the stuffing issue, the uncut edges of bales can be hard to plaster. In other words, if there is a part of the bale that has long straw hanging out of it, the plaster will stick to the straw and then potentially fall off the wall. It also tends to hold the straw away from the solid surface of the bale meaning that the connection between the plaster and the straw is connected to the loose ends only, not the main bale.
- Smooth bales are hard to plaster. On each bale, there are two edges: a cut edge and a folded edge. The folded edge can be very slick, depending on the type of straw used, and as such, it is hard to key the plaster into it. This means that even plaster that appears to be sticking well can ultimately fail if it is not well anchored to the bales.
- No reinforcement. Plaster without reinforcement, is not as good as plaster with reinforcement, it’s just a physical reality. Yes, the plaster can get that reinforcement from the bales if properly keyed in; however, as mentioned above, that keying is not as easy to accomplish without mesh. By adding mesh, you are adding tensile strength to the plaster. Like concrete, plaster is very strong under compressive loads (pushing it together) but weak under tensile stress (pulling it apart). The mesh give you extra strenght in the tensile stress situations meaning less cracks and overall better plaster.
So I don’t suggest that everyone who says you can plaster directly on the bale is wrong. In fact, I agree that it can be done; however, I believe that it is not as good of an installation as can be accomplished with mesh. I prefer to shoot for the best installation possible. To me, that means mesh is best.
You likely hear people talk about protecting your walls from rain during construction. Surely this sounds like a good idea and it is indeed something I agree with…to some extent. To me, the most important aspect of protecting your walls is to make sure that no water makes its way onto the top of the bales. Of course, if it is going to rain for a long period, then protecting the walls from rain on all sides is a good idea, but if it’s an occasional rain shower then the tops are truly all that matter.
Consider what you do before plastering the walls. Yes, you spray them with a hose to get them wet. They can handle some water on the sides, it’s the nature of the material. If you look at a straw bale, you’ll notice that it has different sides: a cut edge and a folded edge. The cut edge does a great job of draining water away and the folded edge does as well. The problem comes when water is dropped down into the top of the bale because it can then settle into the middle of the bale from which it has a hard time draining (unless laid on edge to drain which you can’t do once the house is under construction).
As your course go up, be sure to cover their tops, especially at the end of the day if rain is in the forecast. I would not suggest that you bale with the wall covered the way it is in the picture. This was at the end of the day. If you are experiencing a lot of rain and your overhangs are not adequately protecting your walls during construction, then hang tarps from the eaves (or even better…build better overhangs!). In most cases, you should be able to build without added protection and should simply protect the walls as shown at the end of the day. There’s nothing quite like waking up at 3am to a massive rain storm and saying to yourself “I really wish I had covered the bales. I hope they’ll be okay.”
I like to stay open to new ideas and techniques. I think it is really important as no single person can possibly have all the right answers, all the time. I am not exception to this rule, so I like to hear what ideas other people have and I like to try the ideas that sound and/or look promising. That was the case with the idea to use jute netting on a recent woodshop we built in Ontario during a workshop. The host was very interested in using the netting as a means to lower his costs and use a natural material. I agreed with the idea after researching it a bit and learning that it had been used to supposed success on other projects.
Now you probably know by now that I am a huge fan of using welded wire mesh on my structures for many reasons, so opting for the jute netting in place of the mesh was a big step for me. It’s not like I went to therapy to get over making the decision, but it was, nonetheless, a stretch of my comfort zone!
The title of this entry mentions the word “why” so I will get to that now. I will not use use jute again in my structures, unless for some absolute necessity, because:
- There is absolutely no “real” strength in the material. When I pulled on sections of the jute to see if I could tighten it across the face of the bales, it ripped. I’m strong, but not that strong! If I pull on mesh all that happens is I hurt my hand.
- The material is woven. This, once again, means there is no strength in the material; this time for shear resistance. If you pull the material one way, the weave opens up. This is great for stuffing because you can literally open the jute up as wide as you want, right in the middle of the sheet; however, it makes for a weak material to hold the bales in place or provide shear strength.
- It’s bulky when not pulled super tight. If the material is not pulled really tightly apart, the ropes of the weave lie close to each other, creating a sheet of jute rather than a net of it. This sheet would keep any plaster attached to it separate from the bales. Not a good way to key the plaster into the straw for sure. As I mentioned in reason #1, you can’t pull the material that tight because it rips if you do.
- Sewing the jute to the walls only makes the loose areas stand out more. I had hoped that the stretchy material would tighten to the bales once sewn but this was not as I had hoped. It did tighten up directly under the sewing, but the sewn area did not lend any strength to immediate adjacent areas like welded mesh does.
I know some people will say that jute works and they will mention that they have used it themselves with success. Great! I am glad it worked for you. This is a material I am clear about for my own projects and those that I teach on. I will not use it again. Welded wire mesh is superior for several reasons and I am completely sure that the mesh is the best way to go.
I am not a huge fan of using battens to strengthen my bale walls. I much prefer to use welded wire mesh as I believe it not only provides a stronger hold, but also a superior “all around” structure for the walls. There are, however, specific cases where battens are needed and if you find yourself in one of those situations, this is the system I suggest you use.
One of the major problems with battens is that they sit proud of the surface of the bale wall so plastering around them is difficult. For starters, it’s all but impossible to get plaster behind the batten so to fully seal the wall in the scratch coat application. This leave the wall susceptible to air infiltration later on. Secondly, the battens, once covered with plaster, become a weak spot in the finish because the plaster is obviously thinner over the top of them and it also does not have as strong of a key as it does in the bales themselves. So how to fix this issue?
Use an angled batten. The battens that we used on a recent workshop build are shown here. Notice the profile is such that the triangular shape helps to pull the face of the batten flush with the face of the bale walls. This still leaves plenty of surface area to tie them to the walls (inside and out) and it also leaves a flat surface to be covered with roofing felt (all wood should be covered with felt if plaster is to go over it). It may take a little effort to work the battens into the bales so to get them flush with the wall, but it is well worth it and your plastering will be significantly easier as a result.
The last trick to an easy installation was given to me by John, a recent workshop participant. He created “the ultimate batten needle” which I have shown here as well. It is a simple wood jig designed to automatically space two needles to fit around the battens with ease. Plunge the batten needle through the bales (one needle on either side of the batten) and then have a friend on the outside attach the twine to both needles.
As you pull the needles back through the wall, the helper inserts their batten in between the twine and their side of the wall which is then pulled tight to the wall. Once you have the twines back on your side, tie them off in a tight miller’s knot. Simple and efficient. Thanks for the great jig John!!!
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!
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.
Analisa was the lucky winner of our April Free Workshop Drawing. Analisa has a lot of experience when it comes to living in alternative structures, both on and off the grid. She has done everything from living in yurts to a camping tent, to handmade cabins in the Pacific Northwest. All of these experiences have given her a true appreciation for walls with good thermal insulation! She plans a move to the Southwest in the very near future with her partner and is thrilled to be moving to a climate that is so ideally suited for straw bale construction.
Analisa shares that upon receiving the email that she was the winner of the free workshop, she was ecstatic and that she couldn’t have been more excited. She has chosen to attend the Crestone, Colorado workshop since she is very interested in the Load Bearing technique. She let us know that she learns best through experience and that a hands-on workshop is the way to go.
Her own goal for building with straw bales is to start with a single-story bale studio, maybe a round one. Eventually she wants to help design and build a small single-story straw home, probably around 1,000 square feet. Analisa plans to use the sun to heat it in the winter, and the thick walls to keep it cool in the summer. She loves permaculture and organic gardening so she plans on incorporating those practices into her homestead as well.
Analisa is passionate about helping others. She is currently finishing an internship for her Master’s in Counseling degree (she was a therapist at a homeless shelter for teens). Analisa plans on opening a private healing practice. She has a Holistic Coaching and Expressive Arts Healing website is www.heartsong-wellness.com. Her personal blog, called “A Year of the Living Heart,” is www.analisalee.wordpress.com.
This is a very generous offer from Carol Atkinson. She traveled the world and prepared this report about her study of straw bale projects from the United States to Canada and Europe. Please click here to view the report.
If so, and you would like to be photographed in your home and interviewed, please let me know. I was recently contacted by a woman working on an ad for Northwest Credit Union who wants to feature a SMALL straw bale home and the owners for the ad. She would pay $500 as well!
This could be a great thing for Straw Bale in the Northwest.
She needs to interview/photograph you THIS SUNDAY (April 24th) so please contact me right away or contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her name is Ariana. Please tell her that you heard about this through me (Andrew) at strawbale.com so she knows where you are coming from. Have fun!!!