We recently came into contact with the wonderful, dynamic and hilarious Sabine. Born and raised in Germany, she and her husband both live in Australia now. We were so taken by her enthusiasm and story that we asked if she would be willing to share her experience with building her dream straw bale house by writing diary entries for us to share with you. We see her as an inspiration and example of one taking the plunge to live out a huge dream. As she says, “I think if I can do it, an almost 50 year old woman with no building experience, everyone can”. We hope you enjoy her first entry…we sure did!
Hi, my name is Sabine. I want to tell you about the straw bale house we want to build. We (my husband Tim, I and our two cats) live in Tamworth, NSW, Australia. We were both born in Germany, (my husband and me, the cats are Australians!), lived 6 1/2 years in New Zealand before we 2 1/2 years ago moved to Tamworth. I’m a trained piano teacher and a little bit of a concert pianist, Tim is a doctor. Next year is my 50th birthday and also, we will build our straw bale home. In fact, we wanted to start this year, but the wheat caught rain to the wrong time, there was not one dry piece of straw to be found in the whole district. Poor farmers! For us it turned out to be a blessing in disguise- we now have time to plan things more thoroughly At the moment it is planned that Tim will take time off for the wall raising but will otherwise work . He will do what he can, but his focus needs to be on his patients. I will do as much as I can on the building site. There will be Mark, our friend and builder, and I look very much forward to be the builder’s apprentice.
Andrew and Gabriella kindly encouraged me to start this diary. I think if I can do it, an almost 50 year old woman with no building experience, everyone can. I will faithfully report on our progress, joys and setbacks.
How it all started.
I do not recall ever visiting a straw bale house in Germany where we lived before we immigrated to New Zealand. But somehow it was there – a fleeting thought in our minds how wonderful it would be to be sheltered by those thick walls and they looked absolutely gorgeous too, but alas, it was too expensive even to think of building one!
Then we moved to New Zealand. It gets really cold in Alexandra, -8*C in winter is quite common. We bought 5 acres. The house that came with the land was a longish affair with the living room on one end and the bedrooms on the other. It was timber framed with plaster outside and gyprock sheets inside. It had no insulation in the walls, gaps under all doors- even to the outside. The windows were single glazed and the house stood on stilts. Have you ever lived in an open chimney? In winter the cold air moved up through the gaps between the floorboards, (it was explained to me that you need to leave gaps between each board to accommodate the movement of the wood), to the ceiling, (where, on very cold nights we needed to keep the manhole open to prevent the drum that held our water supply from freezing). The metal stove in the living room was not quite up to it’s job. In the mornings we had ice flowers on the inside of our bedroom windows. The idea of building something more solid (and warm!) became somehow a lot more appealing.
We started visiting straw bale houses, and yes, they were absolutely gorgeous! I felt protected. I like the stillness. I like how they smell, Their walls breathe and so do I. They were created in thoughtfulness. They are individual houses. (I’m in love).
2 1/2 years ago we moved to Tamworth, Australia, and started to look for property. Which was full of interesting experiences. One of the first properties we liked we showed to the council’s fire officer, he took one look and said: “Guys, you get grilled, you just can’t have the certificate.” (You will have heard from the dangerous bush fires in Australia).
Then we learned that a piece of land needs to have a proper building entitlement! (Did I mention that NSW in Australia has the second highest rate of bureaucracy, toped only by California, USA?) And so on.
An half year ago we finally found our personal piece of paradise. And bought it. It’s a bush block, at Bowling Ally Point. Nundle is our closest town (ca 10 km’s away), it’s 75 acres, some gold digger’s trailings at the bottom and grooves of eucalypt trees and bushes on grassland. Basically it’s one big hillside. One can see the Peel river and Chaffy’s dam. Tim found a name, Rock n’ Roo!
The floor plan happened.
I was thrilled to learn that I’m allowed to design my own house here in Australia, (I’m not sure that is even possible in Germany). We saw quite some show homes and always left with: Yes, but… (You do not really want to stuff your children in these cupboards you call bedrooms, or? Why do I need three living rooms? Why does your car (garage) has all of the passive solar gain instead of your lounge?)
I had made some sketches of houses for the blocks we wanted to buy and didn’t, one day I was sitting on our block of land and thought: Yes, I would love to just spread out and enjoy the views and it somehow clicked and the whole floor plan just appeared in my mind. So I put it onto paper. I showed it to Tim, he looked at it and said:”Yes, that’s fine.” Later I did change the master suite a little bit to better accommodate the lay of the land. I didn’t want something posh. I didn’t want something that said: “Look, my owners are really important persons. Look how great I am. If you must, come in, do, but for heavens sake leave your shoes outside!” I wanted just a simple house. I wanted it to say: “I’m a house. I do shelter people, that’s my job. Come in, make yourself comfortable. Be welcome!!”
From the practical point of view I wanted something that was comfortable and not “too big” for me and my dear husband (we do not have children). On the other hand I wanted it to be able to accommodate our friends when we entertain. The small sofa in the living room is great for us alone, but it can be part of a larger circle together with the window seats when we have guests.
Additionally, if we get visitors from Germany they will most likely stay for a while. Tim’s sister has 4 kids! So we need to be able to accommodate up to 6 people. For this reason I made big window seats in two of the bedrooms. The seats fold out to queen sized beds for visitors. If no one is around we enjoy the window seats and have enough space in the bedrooms to do things.
Why straw bale (serious)
I wanted to do the right thing. I would like to be environmentally responsible. I’m not fanatically green, but there are things I can do:
The rain water tanks, for example. I would love to use rain water only.
We do not need a sweeping lawn around the house to create a (snake) safe area for children to play. Most of my garden will have drought resistant, native plants. I would love to have some roses, fruit trees and a veggie garden. I can water my fruit trees with grey water. We will have little dams for watering, fire fighting and to provide water for the birds and wild animals. It will cost us a little, but we need to prevent the house from being flooded from torrential rains and we will need the machinery anyway, to level the building platform.
We will produce our own energy. That might not have been feasible on a building block in town but living rural it is. I do not want to know every watt by first name, so we will install energy efficient lighting and a lot of light switches to use only the lights we need. And we buy energy efficient appliances . I think depending on the personal situation everyone can do something.
Straw bale just fits in with this. I do not wish to be boring, you already know of the many advantages of straw bale buildings, they are described often enough. Our bales will be grown locally. We will have lime render. We will save energy through proper insulation and double glazing. We will have a concrete slab, though. It’s a matter of balance.
Well, it’s my personality, I think. If I would be a house, I would be a straw bale house. See, I’m not a stucco villa- I haven’t used makeup for ages! I’m not one of these cheap, flimsy houses that stand around every corner -excuse me? I’m not a grand house- well, I’m just not. I’m not a castle- come on, I’m not that old. But a straw bale house? Big bales to keep warmth in and coldness out, being down to earth, warm and welcoming, fire resistant, protective, made from natural materials, breathing – yep, that’s me, (well, I don’t wear plaster on my face and I didn’t hear the joke of “having straw for a brain!!)
It somehow just feels right. And: I can do it. I’m quite certain I can’t build a straight brick wall, I tried it once with wood-improving a chicken house-well, the chicken didn’t mind too much, but with straw bales I can build it. I know, I can’t do it all by my own, I’m not that crazy, but I can get my hands on. Somehow the idea of not designing the house by myself or not being involved into the building process didn’t even occur to me- it will be my house, after all. I can’t wait to get started.
Diary, The first two weeks of May 2012
Since 6 month I’m now thinking more and more desperately how to heat the house. Something I did forget to put into the floor plan is a room for all the technical stuff- the hot water system in particular!! How very stupid!! Really, I could milk mice!!!
I have put in a really romantic little corner to accommodate a fire place. Who wants to sit in front of a boiler, instead?? Additionally, I just can’t fit the hot hot water tank above the fireplace to take advantage of the thermosiphon properties of hot water, (we have a cathedral ceiling in this area). Where I would be able to get the tank above a fire is where I don’t want to sit, besides, what do I do then with my romantic corner??
Under floor heating or radiators? Masonry heater, boiler or hot water jacket additional to solar heating?? Something that uses energy is out of question, because we will relay on a stand alone solar system to produce our energy. How much heat do I need to keep the house warm??? My missing understanding of physics doesn’t help, either.
I have sleepless nights and I really have to kick myself into doing anything else but brood over the problem. I even refused to accompany my husband to Sydney (he has a seminar), because I just can’t let go of the problem!
I’m a little bit under time pressure because we have the building entitlement only up to the 20th of January 2013. Up to this date at least the slab must be poured. Before I can start with any work on the building site I have to have the Construction Certificate from Tamworth’s City Council. The time for consideration of proposals can vary greatly…
Third week of May 2012
Well, there is always a choice. I can sink into “poor me” or I can take action. I decided on the latter. If I can’t find solutions for a problem I have to ask for help. I think I need to get rid of some false pride!
Just recently I found out that Katharina, my cousin in Germany has an interest in architecture. I asked her to find a place for the masonry heater and she did!! I wouldn’t even thought about the spot, but it will work out just beautifully! She has the same architecture drawing program as I. Wolfgang, her husband found a possibility to transfer data via a swiss online data storage facility. Oddly enough, I can’t “speak computer” in german because we have our computers since we moved to New Zealand, I’m only familiar with the english expressions !
I had some discussions with Tim, my husband. He stepped back to let me do the designing, but he wants to be involved! We bounced back and forth ideas about the heating system and now there is plan A, but also plan B and C, if it doesn’t work out.
On the property we found places for the sewage system and the rain water tanks (we will rely on rain water only for our domestic water).
Last weekend there was a Sustainable Living expo here in Tamworth. One of the local plumbers presented a water storage system by the name of Latento I very much like to have. It uses phase change materials to enhance the storage capacity so it doesn’t take up too much space, it is effective and very well insulated. My school education might not be very good but I can read (!), and ask questions. I also asked one of the teachers from Tafe for help regarding the proper lengths of the eaves.
What else? I need to discuss under slab insulation with Bill, our structural engineer. He is not happy to about the idea, he says it can be done but one needs to ascertain that the house doesn’t slip. Would it make more sense to build the house on top of a suspended concrete slab and insulate the area below? What’s the earth’s surface temperature in winter in NSW, Australia?? I need to do more reading.