I was recently asked about the viability of retrofitting an existing structure with straw bales. I get that question a lot and figured it was time to blog about it. Any structure can be wrapped with bales, it is simply a question of how much extra work will be required to make that structure function properly once wrapped. Consider that you will be adding about 2′ to the exterior of the house and that all bale walls need to have adequate roof overhangs to protect them from rain. So, unless your house originally had 4′ overhangs, you will have to extend the roof to accommodate the bales. This means opening up the roof system and “sistering” new rafters to the old ones with enough attachment to support the cantilevered rafter tails. A good rule of thumb is that should be a two to one. If the overhang is 2′ then the attachment needs to be at least 4′ long. Of course then the sheathing will need to be attached and the roofing material feathered back into the existing roof.
Another area of concern are the window and door openings. These will end up recessed into the wall by the thickness of the bales, leaving a large sill that could collect water. Your options here are to move the windows and doors to the outside of the wall using standard bucks, or to slope the sills and cover them with some protective material that will quickly drain any water away from the house. Some options are concrete, granite, or finished wood sills. Doors don’t have this option because they don’t have room for sills.
Finally, will the bales collect moisture against the existing building? If the building is wrapped in a non breathable material like metal siding, the chances are high that the bales will end up soaking in the moisture that collects against the metal surface. A drainage system is a good idea in this case. Something like the product on this website (www.mortarnet.com) is a good idea in this application. Regardless of whether the back of the bales is separated from the existing structure by a drainage channel, the bales need to be fire proofed which means a layer of plaster needs to be added to the bales. This is easy on the face of the new wall, but the back of the bales will not be accessible once the bales are installed. For that reason, each bale needs to have plaster or a clay slip applied to the back before it is installed. This is a slow process, but an important one. The bales could otherwise present a fire risk if not covered. This is most important when using the drainage system but should also be done without a drainage system for added protection.
It sounds like a lot of work, but the results are beautiful and efficient. You may have to work hard to accomplish the wrap, but you will be paid back for years and years with lower utility bills, a more beautiful home, and a higher resale value should you ever decide to leave. I hope this gives you some ideas of what is needed for a bale retrofit.