Welcome to StrawBale.com
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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I received the following email a few days ago. It is a really sad story about how insurance companies can take us all for a ride, straw bale or no straw bale. The owners of the nearly complete straw bale home need an attorney’s help to battle their insurance company who is refusing to pay out for damages after a non straw bale related fire destroyed their home. There are important lessons to be learned in this sad story. Please read on and if you are an attorney who wants to help, please let us know by commenting on this post. I will put you in touch with the owners. Thanks in advance
Hi Andrew – At the end of February, our 80% complete straw bale/steel frame home burned to the ground. There was a propane tank leak, and it didn’t take long for the air to catch fire. Of course most people would like to blame the straw; however, there is little evidence of this being the problem. After the fire, there was tons and tons of piles of straw that did not burn. In fact, right next to where a very thick steel I-Beam twisted under the heat of the fire, lay clean bales with just one scorched side. I was quite surprised how well the straw held up to the heat, while the OSB SIP panel roof and the wood floor trusses completely disappeared.
I am writing to tell you that our insurance company is being very ruthless. Having found no blame on our part, nor the straw … and calling it a combustible accident … the only thing they can cling to is giving us a percentage of our policy … NOT the dollar amount of our loss. As this will force us to go bankrupt and not be able to rebuild unless we can get our full policy, I thought it couldn’t hurt to reach out to the straw bale community in hopes there is an attorney among us that would be willing to fight on our behalf for little compensation.
What is most profound to me after all this tragedy is remembering all the “fire” jokes about straw for years when I would tell people about my dream. So the first thing that happened when people found out about the fire was was that they felt their fears were vindicated. But when they see the photos, and see sooo much straw left and not but a couple scraps of wood …. it’s definitely something to make you stop and think.
In a way… the fire confirms to me that straw is a very safe product if the site is kept clean, and there aren’t any combustibles like propane tanks and wood!
I have a photo that shows how far away from the house the fire burned. It actually caught our conversion van on fire but the straw wall between the house and the van got only slightly scorched. It’s the only wall the firefighters didn’t use the back-hoe to tear apart bales because by that time they figured out that breaking the bales apart was spreading the fire, not stopping it. Had they known to keep the bales together, the fire would have gone out sooner. You can see all the photos of the damage at http://s211.photobucket.com/albums/bb71/CadillacMeaghan/2009-02-28%20Fire/.
We had just gotten half the slab heated with the in-floor, and were using a propane salamander to help get the rest of the house warm so we could plaster the following week. The fire never would have happened if we had been able to get to plastering.
I hope this won’t happen to other people. It started way back in July when we wanted to order our SIP roof panels, but the bank wouldn’t pay for them until they were on site, and the SIP supplier wouldn’t ship them unless they were paid for. So we were at a stand still until the lumber yard agreed to buy them for us on NET30. I shed a lot of tears back then, knowing what that was doing to my timeline. The Roof did not show up till the first week of November, and the panels were installed during the first snow storm. That is why there was no plaster on the bales. That would have stopped the fire after it had consumed all the propane in the air. Unfortunately, you can’t plaster when it’s freezing. Of course, the bank wasn’t so concerned then, but they are now! A small delay in the timeline proved to be the thread that burn downed the house.
Amazingly, the fire department not once blamed the straw and in fact said it made their job harder to put the fire out because the bales didn’t want to burn fast enough.
Thanks for any advice you could give us.
What is the perfect bale to use in a straw bale house? I am asked this question a lot. Most times, the question refers to what type of straw is the best. Some people say rice, others say wheat. I always tell people to buy what is most local as long as it is dense, dry, and clean. The other side of this question is in relation to the size of the bales to be used. Many people want to know if a 2 string bale is better than a 3 string bale for home construction.
Once again, I believe the best bales are those most local to your construction site. In general, most farmers are moving towards bigger bales and so that will have an impact on what you can find in your area. Three string bales stack more easily in the field and are more stable when moved by a squeeze (farm machine that moves large blocks of bales). For that reason, more 3 string bales are available today than 2 string, in most markets. So, first concept: buy local.
Here’s the advantage for two string bales: they are easier to work with. They are lighter, smaller, and generally easier to work with than 3 string bales. I prefer two string because I can handle the bales by myself whereas three string bales take two people to move and stack, especially after a long day of baling. The R-value on a 2 string bale is less than a 3 string bale; however, it is already so high, that the difference is not that noticeable. Unless you live in a VERY harsh climate (either hot or cold) the difference between 2 and 3 string bales will be hard to notice.
The advantage of 3 string bales is that they are more solid when stacked. As mentioned above in the field stacking ability of 3 string bales, they are very sturdy because of their larger base surface area. This translates into strong walls as well. I prefer 3 String bales when building load bearing for just this reason. In addition, because they are wider, you can cut deeper niche into them which is also a nice feature.
The reality is that both 2 string and 3 string bales have their advantages. See what is available to you locally and then decide which advantages best lines up with your plans to build. You may find that it really doesn’t matter to you which size you use. In which case, stick with the local kind.
This is really cool. William McDonough is shown in the small video below describing the design for a true eco city in China. Although he has a pretty flat and dry delivery, the 3:20 second video is worth watching. There is so much that can be done in development if we are only willing to think outside the box. The before and after photo of the proposed city site is amazing and absolutely gives me hope for what is possible.
Check out the video here and see what I mean. Consider some of the topics as possibilities for your own home, obviously on a smaller scale. There is much to consider here.
Plastering is hard enough, so don’t beat yourself up trying to figure out how much plaster you will need. The first option I HIGHLY recommend is to contact the management at the place from which you intend to order your material and ask them to calculate the order. You can give them your building’s dimensions and other details they request and they will give you a very accurate bag count and sand quantity. In fact, they will most likely be more accurate than you will with the formulas below.
There are two major players in the Natural Hydraulic Lime Plaster arena. The East Coast is covered by De Gruchy’s Lime Works located in Pennsylvania. They will happily help you estimate the material order and are also able to send out samples of materials and colors to help you choose the final coat material and color. They ship directly to you and if you use my vendor code (95501NHL) they will give you a discount on any purchase you make. Check out their website at http://www.palimeworks.com/lwus/. You can also purchase a cool plaster application gun that allows you to spray on your plaster, speeding the application process!
The West Coast is Handled by one main distributor: TransMineral USA, Inc. located in California. They supply many retail stores with the plaster and can also drop ship larger orders directly to you. The folks there are always happy to help clients get the order right, the first time. You can check out their website at www.limes.us. Let them know that I sent you and they may be willing to help you out a bit on the product pricing. I can’t make any promises right now, but it is possible.
So if you insist on doing your own calculations, give the following numbers a shot. Best of luck and don’t forget to plan for the necessary excess of mistakes and dropped mud. The following is based on an estimated wall surface of 900 Square Feet. I have also used the NHL 3.5 as the material as that is the norm for my climate. DO NOT assume that this is the right material, and therefore ratio, for you. Ask the folks above to help make that determination. Also, I have given you a couple different options for the sand/lime mixing ratio. The more lime, the stickier the plaster. The more sand, the less expensive the plaster.
SCRATCH & BROWN
Scratch Coat: 1 part NHL 3.5 to 1.5 parts sand (mixing ratio) at 3/4″ = 1440 lbs.
Brown Coat: 1 part NHL 3.5 to 2 parts sand (mixing ratio) at 1/2″ = 728 lbs
Total Scratch & Brown = 2,168 lbs / 55 lb bags = 40 bags
Scratch Coat: 1 part NHL 3.5 to 2 parts sand (mixing ratio) at 3/4″ = 1092 lbs.
Brown Coat: 1 part NHL 3.5 to 2.5 parts sand (mixing ratio) at 1/2″ = 560 lbs.
Total Scratch & Brown = 1,652 lbs / 55 lb bags = 31 bags
Alternative 1: 1 part NHL 2 to 2 parts sand (mixing ratio) at 1/8″ = 164 lbs or 3 bags
Alternative 2: Ecomortar F premix at 1/8″ = 14 bags (This is much easier to use than mixing with sand. I strongly recommend the pre mix bags.)
Many of you have been waiting to see when I will be teaching hands on workshops this coming summer and fall. Well, the wait is over. I have finally posted the majority of my workshop dates on my website. I still plan on adding 2 or 3 more dates and am still in contact with several potential hosts to make those workshops a reality. In the meantime, I have confirmed dates in 4 different states from coast to coast. I also will be offering a special 3 day workshop focusing entirely on plaster with Natural Hydraulic Lime plaster. Participants will get hands on experience with all three coats, something impossible to do with most workshops due to the waiting period in between coats. Because I have several structures in several different stages of construction, we will do the scratch, brown and finish coats all in three days! I am really excited about this opportunity to teach a skill that is all but impossible to learn from a book. Hands on is by far the best way to learn, especially when we are talking about plaster.
To sign up for any of my workshops, please visit my website and click on the registration page. Here’s the web address: www.StrawBale.com/store. If your excitement is so high that you can’t wait for a new page to load, then just check out the dates below! I have included the dates without confirmed hosts as well in case you would like to step up and host a workshop during those dates. Being that the potential hosts are still unconfirmed, the dates are still available.
2009 Seven Day Intensive Straw Bale Construction Workshops
May 11-17 Williams, Oregon
June 15-21 Midpines, California
August 10-16 Scipio Center, New York
September 7-13 Grants, New Mexico
2009 Three Day Complete Natural Hydraulic Lime Plastering Workshop
May 29-31 Jacksonville, Oregon
2009 Available Dates for Interested Workshop Hosts
September 28-October 4
First of all, I want to extend a word or two of support and sympathy for our brothers and sisters down under as the fires of a heat wave have torn through their beautiful land. Having personal experience with wildfire, I know the challenges and hardships they can create. Several years ago, a roughly six thousand acre fire was stopped on my doorstep, literally. The crews were able to steer the flames and squash them down into a manageable slot and snuff them out just a few hundred feet from the front of my house. We were evacuated at the time, and I remember the impact of the flames and smoke on my family and my animals. I remember having elk in my field, something that does not happen around here, because the smoke had flushed them out of the higher elevations. I can imagine what our brothers and sisters in Australia are experiencing and I send my emotional support out.
Be sure to remember as these fires move through that straw bale homes are very safe in fire prone areas. They have a high level of fire resistance. They have been proven to resist fire much longer than conventional homes. When the impact, speed, and fierceness of wildfire comes knocking, it is comforting to know that a bale home can keep you and the ones you love safe. Of course, this is not to say that you could ride out a fire like the one shown above in a bale home, but that home will offer you more security against fire than a conventional home and that may just be the difference between saving or losing the ones you love.
Once again, I hope for rain and I send you thoughts of happiness and safety from up North.
There are so many options for anchor bolts these days that it is hard to know what to use. I believe I have found the best option for most straw bale projects. Keep in mind that with both interior and exterior toe ups, there are a LOT of anchor bolts in a bale house. Because of this, expense has to be considered; however, it should not be the main factor.
The standard J-Bolt, shown above, is used in most sill/toe up to concrete foundation application. The problem with the j bolt is that it has to be set in place before the concrete is poured. This means that the finishing of the concrete is harder to accomplish in a flat, even surface. Having to trowel around each of the many bolts is a pain, especially those located for the interior toe ups. Secondly, the interior toe ups are not usually installed until later in the building process and so the anchor bolts, sticking out of the foundation, become a major tripping hazard.
I have moved toward using the above pin style anchors by Simpson Strong Ties® instead of the J-Bolts where permitted by code and or design (be sure to check with your engineer or code official). These bolts are easy to install after the concrete has set up and right before you actually need them. Much safer all the way around in terms of tripping, ect.. Be sure you don’t have any radiant floor heating tubes in the area as hitting one of those when installing a bolt will ruin your day.
Concrete stakes are essential to just about any foundation project. In fact, they are used on almost all concrete projects that a home owner is likely to encounter. If you recognize the stakes in the image above, then you must have used them before. If you don’t know what they are, allow me to explain. Concrete stakes are used to hold the concrete form boards in place prior to and during a concrete pour. They stay in place until the concrete has hardened enough to remove the forms. At about $5 each, they are not cheap, and an average home foundation can easily use 200 or more of them. Making sure that you are able to get each one out after the pour is well worth the effort, but does not always happen.
If you wonder why the stakes would get left behind, check out the photo below. The way the stakes are installed, they will end up exposed to the concrete when it is poured even though they are placed on the outside of the form. The concrete will flow out from under the form boards and around the stakes and if they are not removed before the concrete hardens, they will become a permanent member of the foundation. The picture below is a bit of an extreme situation as the forms are usually cut more tightly to the ground; however, even a little space for the concrete to flow around the stakes can cause them to stick, forever.
So how do you stop concrete from flowing out from even the smallest holes in the forms? You can waste your time trying to stop it at every little opening as you pour, but you will likely end up losing the battle and also missing the finishing time window for your pour. I have a better way: foam pipe insulation.
This material is designed to go around plumbing lines and it works just as well around concrete stakes. It can be cut with a razor knife and placed in seconds. I cut it tight to the bottom of the form and to the ground. It does not matter how much concrete spills around it as the foam can stay in place (on the outside of the form boards), and I can still pull my stakes out from inside the foam. The image below shows an example of where I needed to support a form board that would float over a widened footing. I had to stake the form board in place, but that meant having a stake right in the middle of the footing. With the scrap foam, I isolated the stake from the footing and still supported the form board. When the pour was complete, I allowed the concrete to harden and then pulled the stake, leaving a small piece of foam in the footer. This foam was tiny compared to the oversize footer and so the strength of that footer was not compromised. Without the $0.99 worth of foam, I would have sacrificed a $6 stake.
No matter what the job, from a small pad to a sidewalk or a house foundation, there is no reason not to take the extra time to protect your stakes from over poured concrete. The tip above is quick, easy, and inexpensive. In all, it is well worth the effort.
The biggest concern with building a straw bale house is protecting it from the elements. Water damage is the worst enemy of bale construction and as such, is protected against with the up most attention. There are several ways to deal with water issues in a straw bale home. Rain splash, direct rain contact, humidity, leaky wall openings, and water line breaks are all potential sources of water damage. Each can be handled, to an extent, with proper planning and construction.
Let’s start with the obvious: rain. This is perhaps the easiest form of water to deal with in a straw bale home. Large overhangs, preferably 2′ or more, will direct the majority of the rain away from the walls by protecting them from direct contact. With the application of gutters on the eaves, you can virtually eliminate rain from contacting the walls. The gutters also give you the opportunity to collect your rain water for future use. If you have a multiple story building, be sure to add roof lines at each story. Intermediate roof lines serve the same purpose of directing rain away from the walls. Without them, the roof on the second story will not provide enough protection for the first story. Areas with high wind driven rain or horizontal rain, are a different situation and are harder to build straw bale homes in.
Pipe leaks are another common place of water damage in straw bale homes. These are also easy to deal with. KEEP ALL PLUMBING OUT OF THE BALE WALLS. Sorry to yell, but that needs to heard. I keep all of my plumbing to interior walls where possible. If that is not possible, I build what I call water isolation walls, like in the example above. By stopping the bales before we encounter plumbing, we are able to isolate it entirely from the bale walls. The area where plumbing has to be on an outside wall, like a kitchen sink, can then be insulated with extra insulation and the wall framed out to meet the same plane as the face of the bales. This eliminates any risk of the water leaking directly into the bales. The 3 1/2″ toe ups also eliminate the risk of the bales soaking up the water off of the floor from a broken water line.
Although I look a little crazy in this shot, I am just fine. (Thanks for your concern though) I am pointing out the tiny corner detail in the first piece of counter flashing. Notice that the piece that is cut is not cut all the way to the corner. It has a little extra flap that is folded into the window on top of the sill. This piece, when covered by the next level of counterflashing, creates a total seal in the corner. A small bead of silicone caulk can be a friend here as well. Check out the next shot:
The sill and legs of the window frame have been completely counterflashed and THEN the window is installed. Once the window is set, then it is time to go back and flash the window in its entirety, including the head which is left out of the counterflashing. This extra step is worth the effort. Windows are notorious for leaks and are certainly a place you want to spend some extra time protecting.
Now the hard one: humidity. The reality is that humidity cannot be stopped. It can be drawn out of the air with dehumidifiers, but it cannot be eliminated. If you live in a high humidity area, straw bale construction is probably not a good idea. If you live in a climate where the humidity gives way to hot and dry days, for an extended period of time, that may be enough for the bales to dry out. The deal is that humidity pervades everything and so cannot be adequately controlled. If the bales reach a moisture content by volume of over 20% then they will sustain mold growth and will rot. Exactly how the relative humidity rating of the air translates into moisture content by volume per bale is not clearly defined, at least not to me. If you consider your climate tropical, I would say no to straw bale construction. If you are right on the edge and unsure, I suggest you build a small structure first and install moisture meters to monitor the moisture content. After a year or so, you will have sufficient data to make a more informed decision.
Ever wonder how to get plywood to the roof when you are working by yourself? How about making sure your concrete stakes don’t become a permanent member of your concrete foundation? There are always little tricks of the trade that make the job easier. Many of them are made up on site out of necessity and others are passed down from builder to builder. Here’s a couple that I’ll pass down to you.
Let’s start with how to get plywood to the roof. There are a few ways to get plywood to the roof by yourself. The first is for low roofs only. You can build a jack stand for the plywood. Now I’m no artist, but I’ve given you a sketch of what I am talking about since it sounds crazy when I try to describe it without the picture. It is a simple design, so don’t let my description fool you.
Take two 2x4s long enough to extend above the roof line by about 2′. Attach another section of 2×4 across them to hold them together at a height that will allow you to stack the plywood on it so that the top of the plywood sticks up above the top of the jack stand at the roof line. (Is that a run on sentence?) Now add an angled piece from one long section to the other just below the horizontal 2×4 to brace the whole assembly and stop it from racking. Add a 2×6 on the flat to the horizontal 2×4 and firmly secure it to the 2×4 so that it gives you enough room to stack your plywood. Now you can stack your plywood from the ground and pull it up from the roof. Simple.
Be sure to lean the assembly like you would a ladder. It should not be straight up and down as that risks tipping over. You can also secure it to the fascia with a few screws so it doesn’t go anywhere unexpectedly. Finally, don’t stack more plywood than you can use in one sitting as wind can grab the sheets and send them flying if you are not around to keep an eye on them.
Another way to accomplish the difficult and sometimes dangerous job of getting plywood to the roof is to carry it up a ladder. Sounds nuts, right? It is unless you utilize a simple tool: a C-clamp. Place the C-clamp on the top of the plywood and clamp it down. Now the sheet has a handle. That one is so simple I am not even going to give you a drawing for it! This is a great option for only a few sheets that need to go up in the air, but I would not want to do a whole roof like that. That is a lot of weight and struggle for not a whole lot of time or money saved.
The easiest way, although not a trick of the trade, is to have the lumber yard deliver the plywood to the roof with a boom truck. The key here is to have your roof fully braced and able to handle the load. Make sure you distribute the load well too if it is a big roof. Build braced acceptors of 2×4 that will act as tables for the plywood. These should be secured to the roof and allow for the forks of the boom to slide out once the plywood has been placed. They should, of course, be built with a level top surface so the plywood does not slide once placed. Check out the example just to the left of the dormer, near the roof valley, in the above photo.
In terms of the concrete stake idea, well you’ll just have to wait on that one!