In the last ten years or so, the field of straw bale has gone through a tremendous growth period. The techniques have gotten more refined and simple. The amount of folks that want to take an active role in the design and construction of their homes has greatly increased as well. As a result many of the designs tend to be more simple and practical, catering specifically to the skill level and limitations of the individual or group. Modest budgets can further these limitations, yet there are many simple and relatively low cost details that can be incorporated into the simplest of designs, to bring a higher level of warmth and uniqueness to any project.
The main detail I speak of is the arc or arch. One of my favorite characteristics of straw bale is the very organic nature of the bale walls. They are not very conducive to straight lines and 90 degree corners. In fact it is pretty darn difficult to create a precise 90 degree corner with straw bale. It can be done with time and fuss. So naturally, there is more rounding within the corners and openings. This single detail can then be easily echoed throughout the home in many ways through arcs and arches. This list is probably endless, so I will focus on primary ones that stand out most and are fairly easy and inexpensive to incorporate.
On the interior, framing arches on room transitions such as hall ways, entry ways, and dining rooms can provide a sense of security and safety. The arc has intuitive and instinctive structural integrity. In nature we have micro arcs in the form of domes, such as geodesic molecules, the building blocks of all of life, and at the macro scale we have the sky. Both of these possess an integrity that subconsciously helps us to feel safe. This could be carried over to ripping arcs into exposed beams and rafters. In the case of rafters, a sense of the sky dome is portrayed and can very easily suggest a feeling of openness.
Extending the arc to the windows and doors is yet another option. This can be done by specifying radiuses and round windows, and arched doors. This can have a very dramatic effect on your design to set it apart from the normal everyday square holes in conventional construction. Although, truth be known, it is more expensive to buy arched windows and doors, so other alternatives can be sought. These can include: rounding out door and window openings on the interior by shaping the straw to the desired form. This can be a very fun and exciting part for the owner builder. It is a good way to personalize your home. Just make sure it is kept simple and relatable to the overall home. Niches and notches set into the bale wall for knick-knacks, books, and spices etc. can further this dialogue within the home.
On the exterior of the doors and windows the arc language can be evoked onto the window and door trim. Arching the sill and header trim can soften the extreme angles on your rectangular windows, integrating them nicely into the natural softness of the straw bale exterior.
The arc can also be carried out into the plan of the building. The floor plan that is. This manifests in curved walls. Nothing breaks up the monotony of an enclosed space like rounded or curved walls. Creating them with the actual bales is quite easy. Bales that are tightly tied can be manipulated with a large homemade mallet fairly simply and yet still keep their overall integrity. Interior stud walls can be rounded as well. Careful design consideration should be applied with these examples though. For the bale walls, keep in mind the wall to roof connection and how that is affected by the planer change in the curved wall. For interior curved walls pay attention to the space that is created on either side of the wall. One side is concave and the other is convex. Make sure you can functionalize both of those unique spaces.
So if you are interested in building with bales or just the idea of it all intrigues you, remember above all that simplicity is best. And that doesn’t mean cheap, small, or basic. Nature in all its complexity and chaos, when broken down, is quite simple. So as you daydream, plan, design or build your straw bale home all it takes is few ideas and tricks to turn a very simple and unexciting design into a warm and unique space that doesn’t send your budget souring into the starry dome above.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Keefe, from an early age, discovered his creative spirit in art. In 1996, he received a B.A. in Liberal Arts focusing on drawing, Music and Philosophy from San Francisco State University. In tandem, he was actively involved in a grassroots environmental project for five years at the University of California in Berkeley. He became interested in the field of straw bale as he began his graduate studies in 1999 at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture. Focusing to integrate his work in the environmental and sustainability field with his creative imagination, he received a Master of Architecture and Ecological Design in 2001. Soon thereafter, he founded a company called Organicforms Design which offers ecologically and artistically based design utilizing natural and sustainable materials. Since then, he has worked and completed several exciting design/build projects in Southern Oregon. In 2002, he began to focus primarily on straw bale research and design as the lead designer on the innovative project, The Straw Bale Village in Jacksonville, OR. Please visit his website at www.OrganicFormsDesign.com
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