Andrew MorrisonWelcome 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.

Click here if you are NEW TO STRAW BALE BUILDING and want to know the basics about straw bale construction.

I have a ton of information for you including: photo gallery, step-by-step instructional videos, information about straw bale workshops around the world, free straw bale articles, free straw bale social network, and a full straw bale building blog.

Be sure to sign up for my e-mail updates and my free 16 day straw bale e-course so we can keep you posted of the latest developments in the ever-changing world of straw bale.

Happy Baling!
Andrew

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My Latest Blog Entries Are Below

How to Lose Money as an Owner Builder

Now that I have your attention, I want to talk about a common mistake that a lot of straw bale homeowners make early on in the process. Often the most fatal mistake of any job is underestimating how much it will cost to build that beautiful home you worked so hard to design. Common examples of this are not including enough money for framing materials or electrical fixtures. Not so common is the mistake that comes before the numbers are even run: who will build the house.

I have heard many people say they will build their own house so they can save money only to find that they end up spending far more in the end than they would have if they hired a professional.

This is something most would be owner-builders don’t want to hear. The fact of the matter is that building a house is time consuming and hard work (both labor wise and mental organization wise). Since most would be owner builders have a job, it means either time off work (lost wages) or working on the weekends or off days (lost sanity). The longer a job takes, the more expensive it will be for a number of reasons. First, if a loan is involved, the bank will often only allow up to 1 year for the home to complete. After that the penalties start piling up. In addition, the interest on a construction loan continues to pile up until the job is done. Another “hidden cost” is that material and labor costs continue to rise over time. If you priced out electrical fixtures at $2000 and they end up costing $2500 by the time you buy them, that is money you did not plan on spending.

What does this mean for a would-be straw bale owner builder? My suggestion to those who are looking to save money is to be one of two things. The first is an “informed owner.” As an informed owner, the client is aware of the details of building a bale home and can walk the jobsite and identify wasted money and effort. By working with a contractor who is willing to support you in this role, you can save money on the job together.

Another option is to be an “owner baler.” Distinct from an owner builder, this type of client recognizes that the work of building an entire home is beyond their scope; however, running or hosting a bale-raising workshop is not. By installing all of the bales with free labor, or even laborers who paid to be there, the client can cut costs and still get a professionally built home. All the contractor has to do is give you the frame on time so that the bales can be installed on the posted dates. Your job is to do the same: deliver the home back to the contractor on time so he or she can continue to move forward in line with their critical path.

This is a new concept for owners and contractors alike, so it takes the right relationship and contract to allow these ideas to flow smoothly. It is possible and it is a better way to save money on a construction site.

Load Bearing Straw Bale Construction

For many years I have expressed my bias about building a post and beam structure over a load bearing structure. Well, the time has come for me to back peddle a bit and sing some praises of load bearing construction. Having built a few load bearing structures in the last couple years, I have started to see the gold they offer.

For starters, they are quite a bit easier to work with when using “unskilled” labor. I say that with all due respect of course and use the term to identify home owners or friends who want to help, but have little or no skills in the arena of home construction. I have found it very satisfying to spend a few days with a bunch of people raising walls for someone’s home. This is perhaps the image most commonly associated with straw bale construction and although that may have caused some damage to the movement in a weird way, it is really fun to build with a bunch of friends.

When building a simple design, load bearing construction can save significant amounts of wood in a home as well. There have long been discussions about the truth of this statement and I can now say from experience that I believe it to be 100% true. The homes we have built as post and beam have used significantly more lumber than those that are load bearing. In today’s world of dwindling natural resources, this is more important that ever.

The speed at which the buildings go up is actually increased as well. A few people willing to work hard can raise an amazing amount of walls in a short period of time. If all of the window and door bucks are made ahead of time as well as the top box beam, the installation of those items is quick and the overall construction time is fast. I was amazed by this fact and really saw it as truth on my third building project this year.

There are more advantages and in truth, there are disadvantages as well; however, I am a true believer in the potential of load bearing construction. It is especially significant when building smaller buildings like storage sheds, studios, cabins, or guest homes. No need to use so much wood on small, simple structures.

Changing the Name “Straw Bale Construction”

I have thought for years about a new name for straw bale construction. In truth, my thoughts have been casual over that time. I am at a turning point where I would like to invest in the depth of this group to ask the question: What is a better name for straw bale construction?

You may have seen my post where I offer the feedback that many buyers are turned away by the name straw bale construction because of the instant negative images that pop into their heads. They never bother to even visit a home for sale because of those images. Once they see the home, they are usually drawn in and amazed at the beauty of the home but if they won’t even come to visit, many buyers are lost.

If we really want this material to move into the mainstream, which I do, then we have to understand how the mainstream thinks. Most people, in my experience, do not want to build a house out of straw because they think it will mold, it will smell like a barn, it will grow grass, etc! That knee jerk reaction is preventing many people from realizing the potential of this great building material.

Consider adobe. What a romantic name. If I said I was building a house out of mud and straw, most people would laugh and walk away. But if I say adobe, images of the Southwest immediately pop into most people’s heads. So, what is the romance name for straw bale? I ask that you start throwing out some options and let’s see if we can agree on something new to draw in the millions who want what we can offer but are turned off by the name.

Plastering Without Mesh or Lath

When using Earth or Lime plasters, it is not necessary to use any mesh or lath. There are advantages to using mesh nonetheless, and there are disadvantages as well. The biggest advantage of using the mesh is the ability to shape the walls and reinforce the plaster in the process. The biggest disadvantage is that more plaster must often be used to even out the walls, especially if the mesh is rigid like a welded wire mesh, for example.

The rigid mesh will hold an even plane even if the surface of the bales undulates beneath it. This leaves deep areas that need to be filled with mud in order to remain even with the swells. In such cases, it can actually be more frustrating to use the mesh than it would be to plaster directly onto the bales. If you plan to place your mud directly on the bales, be sure you do a good job of weed whacking. Any loose straw will make the process more difficult as large sections of plaster will get too heavy and simply peel away from the wall. That is a mess and very annoying. So either way, you can end up frustrated! Plastering is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t. Once you get the skills from several projects, it gets easier, but it is nothing less than an art that must be learned and improved with time and practice.

Securing Straw Bales to the Foundation

Here is a response to a student doing a case study of straw bale homes in North Carolina. He had a good question about how the bales of an existing structure in Alabama might be connected to the foundation. I think the details of the connection are worth mentioning here as well.

I am glad to see that you have chosen such a cool topic for your case study! Perhaps the most important distinction to make is that the homes are made with straw bales, not hay bales. Hay would be a food source for many critters and would also run the risk of fire because of the higher moisture contents within hay bales. Straw on the other hand has no food value and is extremely dry, typically around 8% moisture content during installation.

The old style of construction has changed significantly in recent years so how the bales were attached to the foundation in the building you are studying is hard to say. In today’s homes, we use a system that bolts 4×4 sills to the foundation. Those sills are place on the interior and exterior faces of the bales so each bale is held up n both sides at the bearing points. The space between the 4x4s is filled with gravel and/or rigid insulation. 20 penny nails are then driven into the sills at 4″ on center staggered from one side of the sill to the other (both sills are nailed and treated as separate entities when measuring the layout of the nails). The nails are only driven in until firmly secured in the sills and about 2″- 3″ of nail is still exposed above the sills. The bales are then placed on the nails and held tightly in place by the “grab” of the nails. That is the easiest and most effective way of connecting to the foundation.

More on Fire Ratings

This is a response to a comment about bale buildings and their ability to resist fire. The author of the original email challenged the fact that conventional buildings only have a twenty minute burn time and that they do not actually have a chimney affect like I describe. I disagree and you can see my response below.

Thanks for your email. What I refer to in the twenty minute burn time is the rating of the drywall. A standard wall assembly is designed to resist fire for 20 minutes and then the drywall will be burned through. Once in side the drywall, you do have chimneys, albeit small ones that run for at most 10′ and at least 8′. Fire blocking is not required until you reach ten feet in height and wood plates at 8′ or 9′ are the standard in most homes. Consider a “chimney” of 1/2″ drywall (one break in the drywall will allow the flames in), dry 2×6 studs 1 1/4″ of plaster on top of densely packed, silicone rich material with extremely low amounts of oxygen in the material. This is where the comparison is a clear winner for bale building.

The recent fire testing results support this claim. I have seen conventional homes on fire and they get out of control very quickly. In contrast, a plastered bale home will smolder for a long time before any flames actually take hold. That’s where I am coming from on this. I know it seems counter intuitive to think bale homes could last longer than conventional homes when faced with fire, but that is what I have seen and what the studies have shown. Thanks again for your email.

Repairing Cracks in Natural Plaster

I recently responded to an email about cracks in lime plaster. The person reported seeing cracks through all three coats of plaster along the joint between the top of the bales and the wood box beam. She has tried a lime wash patch, which made things worse or at least more noticeable, and she was asking what to do. My response is below.

It sounds like the joint between the wood box beam and the plaster is opening up. This usually happens when the wood has not been separated from the plaster. In other words, if the wood was not covered with roofing felt, the plaster would be adhered to the wood. The problem here is that wood moves at a different rate than straw so you get stress fractures at the joint between them. Another potential problem is that the joint was not reinforced with plaster lath or some other structural mesh.

For the same reason stated above you need to span the joint with a structural mesh so that the plaster can hang on to that and the different rates of movement are absorbed and moderated by the mesh. The mixing ratio of the mud could definitely have an affect on things as well. My first assumption, not having seen or heard about the construction of the building, is that it is related to the items above, not the mixing ratio. If so, the only fix is to deal with the problem. If it is a lack of roofing felt, you may need to tear out the plaster and start over in that area.

Shy of such a drastic fix, you could try using fiberglass mesh tape (like drywall tape but get the higher quality plaster tape) placed over the crack and then embedded in fresh mud. This should give the plaster enough strength to withstand the movement of the plaster beneath it. I would certainly try that first.

A Hidden Cost of Building with Bales

When you build with bales, one thing is almost 100% guaranteed: you will be plastering your walls. Knowing that, you may be surprised to discover that there is a cost that you should definitely put into your budget that may otherwise be overlooked. That cost is the electrical bill during the plastering phase.

Be sure to put in enough money to cover the cost of any heaters that you may use to dry the plaster, especially if you plaster during a cold or wet time of year. As an example, we used two plenum heaters in a 3200 SF house we plastered last month and the electrical bill came in at $650. That is a lot of money if you are no expecting the bill. A few little missed amounts like that and you will quickly find yourself in a financial hole! Consider how long you will be plastering and estimate how much electricity you are likely to use. You may need to ask the local rental yard how much electricity the heaters you rent will use in a given day, or how much propane they will need to run. Over estimating is a good idea, especially with the rising cost of energy these days.

Construction Practices Impact on the Environment in the U.S.

Did you know that in the United States construction accounts for 36% of total energy use? That is a huge number when you stop and think about it. Perhaps if the products we used were biproducts of another industry (like, hmmmm……STRAW) we could lower that number a bit.

But hang on, it gets worse. 65% of the United States energy consumption is related to the construction industry. The U.S. uses more energy than the rest of the World as is, and 65% of that energy is used by the construction industry.

The process of building is also responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. Most people talk about cars when it comes to greenhouse gases, but rarely consider the home they build as an impactful source of pollution. What may seem more understandable, 30% of the raw materials used in the United States go towards construction. Again, if we could focus on the use of bi products like straw, fly ash, and recycled materials, we could have a significant impact on the shape of things in the States. In fact, if people recycled their product waste instead of throwing it away (as is often the case on job sites) we could reduce the 136 million tons of garbage produced annually by construction projects. That’s 30% of the total waste output for the U.S. each year.

As you may already know, the World’s water supply is in trouble and is not large enough to sustain the growth we are seeing worldwide. With that in mind, consider that construction projects account for12 % of potable water consumption in the United States. That is a lot of water and much of it can be seen cleaning out wheelbarrows and washing down the sidewalk after a day at the job site. Conservation has to become the mantra for contractors if we plan to keep our great trade alive without killing the World in the process.

Birds in your Plaster?

There is a conversation happening right now on another list serve about woodpeckers destroying plaster on a house. This is not the first time I have heard of this. If you use earthen plasters that are based on local soils, you may encourage local birds to try and nest in your walls.

This is especially true of you have bank swallows as they may see your house as one huge river bank! In order to avoid this, be sure to get your finish coat of plaster on the walls as soon as you can. The finish coat has the color and so the birds will no longer look at your house as a possible home.

Woodpeckers are another type of bird that have been seen smacking their heads into walls, at least here in the Northwest. Flickers, a dominantly ground based woodpecker, love to widen holes made by other birds in search of possible food. Other woodpeckers may focus on rafters or other wood members. This may be an indication of wood rot or termites. No matter what type of bird you have attacking your house, it is a good idea to investigate the area they are interested in BEFORE you move them on their way. Be sure to see them as an opportunity to learn about the health of your house and then be sure to remedy what ever is encouraging the birds as soon as possible.

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