Laying Straw Bales Flat or On Edge?

straw bale workshop siteI am often asked what the pros and cons are of laying straw bales flat versus laying them on edge. To me the differences are many and important. Every house I have built I have laid the bales flat. Every time I have worked with folks who have opted to lay bales on edge, the feedback has always been the same: “I would never do that again.” Here is a quick run down of the cons to stacking the bales on edge.

1. Bales on edge cannot be notched around any posts or obstructions due to the string locations.
2. Bale walls have a lesser R-Value due to the thickness reduction of the wall.
3. Bales stacked on edge do not have exposed cut or bent straw and are thus slippery, making plastering more difficult.
4. Any niches cut into the bales will immediately destroy the strings, making the bales more likely to drop loose straw during the construction phase.
5. Anchoring the bales to the frame is harder due to the orientation of the bales.
6. The wall becomes narrower (an advantage from a certain point of view) and the bales taller. The combination makes for a weaker wall when pushed out of plane (perpendicular to the wall face).
7. The inability to notch the bales requires that the framing be set either inside or outside of the bale wall. This creates either a framing difficulty for the roof if the frame is inside the walls or a potential cracking/leaking point of contact where the plaster meets the frame on the outside.

Well, I guess that’s enough. You may understand now why all my homes are built with the bales on the flat!

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4 Responses to Laying Straw Bales Flat or On Edge?

  1. Avatar
    Sarah Thu, September 10, 2015 at 11:59 pm #

    Hello. I don’t see the other option discussed much – laying them flat but facing inwards. Say a bale is 450mm x 400mm x 900mm, We like the idea of laying them so that our walls are 900mm thick. Have you ever worked on a house that used this method, or is there a reason that no one does this form of wall??

    I hope this makes sense. Thanks.

  2. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Fri, October 9, 2015 at 10:21 am #

    Hi Sarah. Thanks for asking. The biggest issues are as follows:
    1. There is no way to tie each bale together with the next in a running bond pattern (picture a brick wall or legos).
    2. There is a LOT of added foundation and roof required to cover and support the bales.
    3. The R value gained is a bit of a diminishing return. In other words, once you have a wall with R-40, R-80 doesn’t feel that much different, nor provide that much more savings to justify the added cost in item #2.

    Hope that helps. If you are dead set on having really thick walls, you may consider building with jumbo bales (the REALLY big ones) as they stack quickly (with machinery) and tie together well (like massive bricks).

  3. Avatar
    Andy Sun, July 11, 2021 at 4:40 am #

    Hi Andrew,

    I do wonder if you could have included at least some positives for bales on edge, and aimed for some element of balance. Lots of people do use bales on edge and are happy with their choice (e.g. https://www.thelaststraw.org/bale-orientation-survey-results/). It’s also worth noting that many of your concerns only apply to load bearing construction and designs requiring notching. The greater r-value claim would also be disputed by some.

  4. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Thu, July 22, 2021 at 7:24 am #

    Hi Andy. I have been building with straw bales for 20+ years and have developed some “ways of doing things” that I find work the best. Laying bales on edge is not one of those things. I’m sure some people like laying their bales on edge, and I expect they would share that feeling. I find that the downsides outweigh the positives, and so I have written as much. If I HAD to build with bales on edge, I’m sure I could find a way to make it work, but it is not the best approach in my experience.

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