The Cost of Straw Bale Construction

Cost of ConstructionWhen people talk about the cost of straw bale construction, they often get things a bit muddled up. On one side of the equation, there are those who say a straw bale house only costs nine cents to build and can be heated with a candle and some flatulence (caution: do not mix the two!). On there other side are those who say that straw bale construction is too expensive to even consider when compared to conventional construction. I’m here to set the record straight, hopefully once and for all.

reclaimed Glass HouseThe first thing to wrap our numbers around is the quality of the home in question. Just like any type of construction, we can build a straw bale home on the cheap if we use salvaged and reclaimed materials and don’t charge for labor. There are ways to use such materials to build a beautiful home; however, that home cannot be compared apples to apples with a home built with new and high-end finishes. So for the purpose of this discussion, we are going to consider a house made with new materials and mid to high-end finishes.

Energy EfficiencySecondly, we need to know about the comparison data we are using. For example, when people say that a straw bale home is too expensive when compared to conventional construction, they are not typically comparing apples to apples. The comparison they make is based on the home’s square footage; i.e. a 1500 SF bale house costs 10% more than a 1500 SF conventional house. That’s true; however, the conventional house does not offer the high energy savings and carbon sequestration that a bale home does nor the long term savings (life cycle savings) associated with that energy savings. We need to level the playing field to get an accurate comparison, otherwise, we may as well compare apples with bowling balls to see which one is more cost effective.

Here’s the skinny, when all things are laid equal: straw bale homes compare very well with conventional homes. In fact, bale homes are typically about 5% less expensive than conventional homes when all of the details are in line. That is just the beginning too because the natural materials in the home that achieve the high R-value and energy efficiency also keep the inhabitants healthy. There is no need to be concerned about high VOC (volatile organic compound) levels and the long term effects of such materials on the people living inside.

Knowing that your bale house will likely be 5% less expensive than a conventional version, let’s look at ways to make your home even more cost effective.

  1. Size Matters: Build a smaller home that is within Human Scale. Don’t build a mansion that you don’t really need. Build something comfortable and affordable in both construction costs and long term expenses.
  2. Finishes: Pick the right finishes for your home. There are several ways to approach this. Here are two. 1) Build with high-end, high-quality finishes that cost more up front but have a longer durability rating and thus lower life cycle cost.  2) Build with lower end, less expensive finishes that will need to be replaced sooner but cost less upfront. You can make the replacements over time and thus offset the impact of the higher costs. NOTE: One place I recommend you do not skimp is on your plaster. After all, the plaster not only needs to look good, but also protect everything underneath it. If your plaster fails, your bales may be compromised and that will be much more expensive to fix than any plaster quote you receive. I suggest you contact Michel at www.Limes.us and ask him about the Natural Hydraulic Lime (NHL) they sell. It is the best plaster around in my opinion. Tell him I sent you and you will get a 5% discount on your order too!
  3. Labor: This is perhaps the highest cost in a straw bale home (or any home for that matter). This is especially true in a bale home because there is a lot of labor that takes place in the stacking, shaping, prepping, and plastering of the wall system. Consider hosting a workshop to heavily reduce your labor costs for this portion of the build. Another option is for you to do as much of the work yourself as you are able. Keep in mind that time away from work means time away from making a living and that is the cost of your labor.
  4. Design: It may seem like a waste of money to hire a designer or architect to draw your plans (I hope this isn’t true for you actually), but it is in fact the opposite. Having a quality set of plans in hand with well defined construction derails will likely save you thousands of dollars in mistakes and time delays during construction. It is much easier to make changes on paper than it is in the field.
  5. Contractors: Hiring the right contractor, from GC to subs, is essential. You don’t necessarily need someone with experience in straw bale construction; however, what you must have is someone with solid construction experience WHO IS EXCITED about building with bales. If your contractors are annoyed by the fact that you are building with bales then don’t hire them. They are not doing you any favors. Hire the ones who are excited about the concept and love the idea of “doing something new.”

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Did you come up with other ways to save money on your build? Do you have stories about how cost effective your build was and how little money you spend from year to year? Don’t be shy…brag away! After all, what you learned is worth sharing. You can inspire and help others along their own path. I hope you will join the conversation in the comments section below.

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25 Responses to The Cost of Straw Bale Construction

  1. Kim Tiller Mon, August 24, 2015 at 7:58 am #

    I’ve been considering Strawbale construction for my workshop with attached living quarters. Along the entire south side I’d like to attach a greenhouse. I’m concerned how to protect the strawbales from the high humidity and sprayed water associated with a greenhouse. Do you have any suggestions or should the connecting wall be constructed of concrete instead of straw? Thank you

  2. Erin Mon, August 24, 2015 at 8:01 am #

    I’m wondering what percentage of the total cost is saved by building the house yourself instead of paying a general contractor. A plumber and electrician would still do those elements, as well as hiring someone to pour the foundation.

  3. Greg Mon, August 24, 2015 at 9:19 am #

    Another cost savings to consider is the size of your HVAC system. My understanding is that because of the energy efficiency of Straw Bale construction, you need smaller heating & air conditioning units thus saving money when purchasing/installing smaller units. And of course, smaller units will require less energy when they are running.

  4. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Mon, August 24, 2015 at 11:24 am #

    For sure Greg. In fact, most bale homes don’t even need HVAC units. They have radiant floor heat and are cooled naturally.

  5. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Mon, August 24, 2015 at 11:26 am #

    A GC typically charges 15% above the cost of all labor and materials.

  6. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Mon, August 24, 2015 at 11:27 am #

    I would likely build that wall from a thermal mass material like stone or concrete so that the heating capacity of the greenhouse could be utilized to heat the home. Look in Trombe walls as they would be a good choice.

  7. Donna Closue Mon, August 24, 2015 at 3:56 pm #

    My husband and I are in the process of building an octagon strawbale house. we have excluded the air conditioner. we will install a wood furnace in the lower level toheat the whole house. we put in in radiant heaters in each room upstairs as back up heat. we have a cupola at the top of the house with 2 working windows to draw the cool air up from the lower level in the summer. we have tried to make it as efficient as possible. the lower level is built into the hillside on the north and the southside is strawbales also. the upper level is all straw except for the east side that has the garage attached to it. there are windows all around as the view is amazing where we are. the cost is way over budget at this point but the energy savings should make it cost effective in the long run. we have hired a GC to put it build it for us. He had never built a strawbale home before but was very excited to build this one.

  8. Peter Ghys Mon, August 24, 2015 at 5:27 pm #

    G’day Andrew,
    There sure is a lot of talk about costs of straw bale. I’m not sure if it’s the same here in Australia; I suspect the distance that we may need to get the bales carted may make a difference. Size is an interesting question; we don’t really want a big place ourselves but at the same time need to consider longer term resale. Since we will be building on a largish (3.6 acre) block, I would expect that in the longer term we will would like to sell to a larger family – hence a 2 bedroom house isn’t going to make the grade.
    That begs the question – what is the market like in the USA for straw bale houses? Are people other than straw bale enthusiasts/greenies/environmentally conscious people open to buying them? If not, the resale market is smaller, so may be haredr to make money back at the end. Of course, here in Australia the market will be even smaller. 🙁
    Anyway, we are pushing ahead. We got Owner-Builder approval last week, and our architect has sent the plans to our engineer for his side of things. Hopefully slab before Xmas.
    And also hopefully a workshop late next year to do the walls. 🙂
    Regards, Peter Ghys
    Melbourne, Australia

  9. Trevor Rotchell Mon, August 24, 2015 at 10:36 pm #

    Hi Andrew, I helped build the workshop in Caledon Ont about 4 years ago.

    I am curious about the potential efficiencies of mechanizing the plastering.

    1) do you think dunking the bales in slip would help the next coat of plaster to adhere and thus save time on all the had troweling?

    2) Is it worth the expense of renting a rig to spray the plaster?

    3) I have seen small plastic “dog bones” that you add to concrete as it mixes and results in reinforced concrete. Is there a benefit to doing this step with plaster. Or is the shredded straw pretty much as good.

    I know you can;t say 100% yes or 100% no to my questions but I am seeking your sage advice.
    Also, that week was a great time, like a very tiring summer camp
    Trevor Rotchell

  10. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Tue, August 25, 2015 at 12:00 pm #

    Hi Trevor. Nice to hear from you. Spraying plaster can be a good way to go, depending on the wall to be covered. For example, if there are a lot of windows and details on the wall, it may be hard to use the sprayer efficiently due to all of the “cutting in” around the details and openings. A larger wall with less details and more solid plastering would be a great candidate, pon the other hand. For someone who is skilled with a spraying machine, the extra cutting in won’t really matter because they have the skills to do it well with the machine. For the rest of us, that stuff has a big impact.

    I don’t think dipping the bales is worth the effort personally. The slip helps a little bit, but not enough to warrant all the extra work of dipping and working with heavy, messy bales. In terms of adding to the mixture, I don’t even bother with the chopped straw anymore when working with Natural Hydraulic Lime from http://www.Limes.us. The product is so strong on its own that the extra straw is not necessary. It doesn’t hurt to add it if you want (as long as you get the moisture levels right as the straw draws a lot of moisture out of the plaster).

    Hope that helps!

  11. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Tue, August 25, 2015 at 12:04 pm #

    Hi Peter. Glad to hear things are moving forward for you. That’s great! The resale market here in the States is indeed smaller when considering a bale house. That said, they tend to sell well, assuming they are well built and a quality home. There is a small niche market for bale homes, but one that is pretty active in the resale market all in all. The reality is that most people who build with bales don’t sell them. They are “forever homes” for the most part so when a home dies come on the market, it is usually purchased pretty quickly. It’s all about the quality of the home and its design. You are right that a really small and somewhat awkward design will have a harder time selling; however, even a small bale house can sell well if it is presented in the right light. Further, if you design the home with the potential for growth and additions “built in,” then you can market it even better.

  12. Donna Clouse Wed, August 26, 2015 at 9:53 am #

    do you wet the bales before you put the stucco on?

  13. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Wed, August 26, 2015 at 10:12 am #

    Absolutely. It’s a must.

  14. Ted Thomas Wed, August 26, 2015 at 3:13 pm #

    Hi Andrew!

    We’re working with Chris Keefe right now to continue planning a long-dreamed-of SB home in KY. Would love to know of any your know of closer than Berea, KY, which is the closest we found so far in this area.

    Also… SB is a fire resistant technology, and there are a lot of fires out west in the drought. Do you know of any SB homes which have been “baptized by fire”? If so, how did they do?

    Thanks!

  15. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Thu, August 27, 2015 at 10:39 am #

    Hi Ted. Good to hear from you. I don’t have any leads on a closer location than Berea. Sorry. I have not heard of any recent bale homes in the line of fire out here. Personally, I hope that remains true; however, I understand your desire to see how they fare. In the past, they have performed very well in wild fire areas. Good luck with your project!

  16. Beth H Tue, September 1, 2015 at 9:20 pm #

    I saw a beautiful straw bale house Designeed by Brian Waite of England. It had an A frame and 2 stories. Does anyone do that desin here in the USA?

  17. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Wed, September 2, 2015 at 6:31 am #

    Hi Beth. I’m sure you can find someone to design a similar building. They could not simply use that design as it would be plagiarizing; however, it may be possible to contact Brian and ask him to make the necessary changes for that exact house to work on your property. You might try contacting Chris Keefe at Organicforms Design, David Arkin and Annie Tilt at Arkin-Tilt Architects, or Touson Saryon at Integral Design Studio to see if they can help you with your plan ideas.

  18. BRENT Tue, October 6, 2015 at 4:17 pm #

    Hi Andrew, I have been following you for a number of years now and want to thank you for everything that you do within the “straw bale community”! Your knowledge and expertise goes a long way for those of us who are DIY’ers! I became aware of SB construction in 2007 and slowly began researching the concept. I am looking at putting an addition onto my house that was built in 1968 as my family is growing and we simply do not have the money to pick up and move to a larger place. My question is in your personal opinion do you think SB Construction is a viable option for an addition to an existing home? I am attempting to put a plan together to present to the bank to use the equity in my home to assist in funding the project. I was thinking of electric in-floor heating to avoid buying a new furnace but that is one of my unknowns as I wonder if it would affect the heating system in the house. I am wanting to put in a master bedroom w/ensuite plus two bedrooms for the children. The total square footage in my current design is 500 sq ft. I plan on tackling this project with my own two hands and help from my wife, sons and friends. Any advice that you may have is greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance Andrew!

  19. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Fri, October 9, 2015 at 10:44 am #

    Hi Brent. Thanks for your kind words and I’m glad that you have found the site and information informative. Straw bale additions are very much a viable option for an existing home. The connection point is the most “difficult” to handle as you need to be sure that the buildings are tied together well (obviously) and that the joint is well flashed and protected from weather. This is not that hard in reality for most homes, especially if the existing home has some type of wood siding or other material that can easily be flashed against.

    Have fun!

  20. Rob Tue, October 27, 2015 at 7:53 am #

    In an area where snowdrifts are likely to accumulate against the wall, does it make sense to clad the lower 36-48 inches of the exterior with tile or stone, to reduce moisture infiltration? What about including house wrap under the cladding, just for the bottom few courses of bales?

  21. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Tue, October 27, 2015 at 9:31 am #

    Hi Rob. Because the walls are so well insulated, I don’t see snow drifts as anything other than insulation for the walls. In a conventional house, the drifts present a problem because heat from the interior escapes through the walls and melts the snow. In a bale house, there is no such heat loss so the drifts don’t melt on the wall side. Instead, they melt from the outside in and that does not present an issue for the bales. Hope that makes sense.

  22. Ed S Thu, November 10, 2016 at 2:14 pm #

    Andrew, looking at an existing straw bale house built in 1994 that has no central HVAC system in place. It only has a mini – split unit in the living room and a wood burning stove nearby. The three bedrooms and two bathrooms have no vent or registers and do not get any direct heating or cooling. How much do you think it would cost retrofit a HVAC system in the home and would it be too expensive to under take in a 22 year old strw bale home? thanks

  23. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Fri, November 11, 2016 at 5:40 pm #

    Hi Ed. There are a lot of factors involved in the answer. For example, if there is adequate access for ductwork (a crawlsapce/basement versus a slab on grade), the distance the ducts will need to travel, whether they could be installed in interior walls and ceiling/floors, and so on. You could be looking at $10,000 for a full system. You may be better off installing a couple more mini splits so that the house is properly conditioned. It doesn’t take much to heat/cool a straw bale home, so that might be the best approach.

  24. Lauren Fri, December 16, 2016 at 8:23 am #

    Andrew, we live in southern Indiana. We are considering on building a SB home. Our summers are hot and humid and our springs can bring a lot of rain. Do you see a problem with building a SB home in an area with high humidly levels 3-4 months of the year along with high precipitation?
    Thank you,
    Lauren

  25. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Fri, January 6, 2017 at 5:59 pm #

    Hi Lauren. I would recommend installing a good recovery ventilation system in the home to help mitigate the moisture. Whether it’s an HRV (heat recovery ventilator) or ERV (energy recovery ventilator) will depend on your exact location. We have built bale homes in Tennessee, Georgia, West Virginia, Missouri, and other moist locations with great success. Good luck.

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