Straw Bale Construction in Thailand

Gabriella recently connected on Planet Straw Bale with an American man living in Thailand  who had built his own straw bale cottage. She asked him to share his story and he has accepted that request. Below, you can read how his interest in straw bale construction, which started some 20 years ago in Texas, finally came to fruition in Thailand. It’s a cool story. As you can see in the photos, this is a humid area of Thailand, so I’m excited to hear how the building fairs over the years with no special or mechanical dehumidifying additions. This will truly be a test of straw bale homes in humid climates. Here’s his story…

I first became aware of  building with straw bales about 20 years ago when a  house was built using them in Wimbereley, Texas.  The concept captured my imagination and stayed  with me over the years.  I now live outside Chiang Rai, Thailand with my wife and two children ages 12 and 31/2 yrs. It was during my first visit to Thailand in 2005 that my serious interest was rekindled.  I was working off and on in Iraq and during this time I researched straw bale construction via books and the internet. As Thailand is a large rice producer, with up to 2 crops per year here in the north, there was a lot of rice straw left standing in the fields after harvesting, either by hand or machine, and most of it was burned to clear the way for more planting.  I thought, why not use this neglected resource and build a small cottage.  I  chose to build on the land next to our existing house  and to make it small, approximately 550 sq. ft.

Of course the local village folks who knew of my plans were very polite not to be negative and some were even enthusiastic about my plans.  One man, nearby, a minor govt. official, even told me he grew up in a house with a clay render and he could remember that it seems cooler to him now.  Some local folks of course just chuckled, so to speak, and some were bemused I think.  They had never heard or seen a straw bale house.  Most built now are of cinder/concrete blocks, although the rich still prefer wooden structures in the older style.  Those are quite expensive. Work began with the clearing of the land and foundation in 2008.  The foundation was cement with rebar, using 80X80X30 cm footing, 7.5 inch columns supporting a 40X25cm rim and then columns above the footings and linked to the rim to support the wooden rim joists and roof.  I then built the walls using bales of 90-110 cm long by 40cm x40 cm.  Shortly after finishing this phase the rainy season started and I was able to get one coat of render.  I experienced no problems with the rain as my roof overhangs are about 1 meter.

I had returned to work in Iraq until late 2009 and upon returning to Thailand I finished the exterior and interior rendering and other items.  The render is a clay, sand mix.  The clay sourced from the site, left over from foundation, septic tank dig, etc.  Sand was from about 5 miles away from a site on the river.  I did use some lime in some of the mix to experiment and also some bagged pottery clay from nearby.  I also used some burnt rice hulls in some of the mixes as well as using them to replace about 12% of the sand in the floor pour.

The inside isn’t finished yet, I would like to get some proper clay to use over the whitewashed walls on the interior.  I installed a hydronic type cooling system on some of the interior walls, consisting of plastic tubing which is then run outside to a meter and half deep well.  The system is a closed one and the water in the ground well will cool the tubing coiled in there through which the water in the tubing will circulate.  This should cool the thermal mass of those walls somewhat to help reduce the interior temps during our hot season.  The electrical is in yet not connected to the main supply as yet. Currently I’m working to develop some efficient way to use rice husks/hulls in the ceiling as insulation.  I have only about 5 inches of space to fill so they may not provide the total amount of R-value I would desire.  I would really like to use as many natural materials as possible so will see how this works out.  I haven’t settled on a finish for the ceiling, again would like to stay with a natural material if at all possible.

My bathroom and shower area will be of slate on the floor and walls.  The shower wall will be about 6ft. High with the slate and the rest of the bathroom walls about 4ft with the slate.  The walls will be about 7 ft. high to allow for moisture and air circulation and finished above the slate with lime and sand render.  The slate seems to be a very low embodied energy material and is available locally.

In March of last year a quite large earthquake centered north of us in Myanmar struck the region.  I felt it and the numerous aftershocks very strongly as I lay in bed in our original house.  The bed was shaking and walls moving, etc. for several seconds.  The aftershocks were strong at first and then tapered off of course.  Anyway, I immediately thought of the render on the straw bales and how it held up.  To my relief, as I checked the house the next morning, all I found were a few very fine, hair line cracks in the render.  These were easily repaired by an application of the lime wash I had used previously.  They are invisible now.

I would like to team with an organization to promote the use of straw bale construction here in Thailand.  There is a growing need to reduce the carbon produced by the use of cement and other  high energy embodied materials worldwide and with the abundance of rice straw in S.E. Asia this material could help to do this.

Things I would do differently:

  • Use a different supplier of bales, as the one I could find at that time had a very old baler capable of producing one size of very hairy and not so squared off bales.  Have found one with a new baler which would produced better bales.  I would have some smaller length bales made also as it was difficult to cut and retie my bales for the gaps.  Those I used created much extra work in the stuffing of gaps and joints and the rendering as well.
  • Reduce the size of the foundation as I overbuilt, thus reducing costs and cement usage.  Maybe experiment with a bag foundation.
  • Use a different roofing system.
  • Source and use a mortar mixer for the render rather than mixing by hand or using a cement mixer which I did.
  • Consider 30 cm wide bales.
  • Local labor is available only sporadically, so source outside labor for the biggest jobs.
  • Try a earthen floor in the living area/bedroom.

19 Responses to Straw Bale Construction in Thailand

  1. Frederik Fri, May 4, 2012 at 1:13 am #

    Cooling the walls in a hot, humid climate does not sound like a good idea… Hot air can carry much more water than cold air. In an air conditionning system, the air drops its humidity load on the cold evaporator and water is drained away – in large quantities if the air is humid.
    Those cold walls will be dripping with condensation water I’m afraid.

  2. Andrew Morrison Sun, May 6, 2012 at 8:43 am #

    I have the same concern. My hope is that because the coils are embedded in the plaster that the clay will pull any condensation out and dump it to the air. Of course, the air would have to have less moisture in it than the clay, and that may be wishful thinking in the humid climate. We will get to see how it works out over time I suppose.

  3. John Chalk Fri, June 15, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    Hello in Chiang Rai;

    I enjoyed your story very much. I too have been a fan of strawbale construction for 20+ years. I was originally going to build with strawbale on a property I have in Santa Cruz Mtns. of Northern California. But with 50 – 70 inches of rain yearly, it just isn’t viable being so wet, damp and prone to mold five months a year. I eventually decided on Cordwood construction as I have redwoods and douglas fir trees on the acreage (Labor intensive; but cheap and nearly free with Alaska mill, post & beam frame, log-splitter and sweat equity) I currently live in Seattle due to work; thereby my dream is on hold. Your story is of particular interest though as I have been visiting Thailand for over 10 years now and plan to retire there eventually part-time. Knowing the rainfall in Thailand during monsoon season, even with one meter overhangs, don’t you get wet walls? And I’m curious as to whether you have experienced mold or rot issues? Also is it possible to further insulate the roof area or use a “diy form” of SIP panel construction in the ceiling area? I agree that with all the rice fields if strawbale construction could be modified to incorporate precautions against mold, moisture and compromise to bale exposure, it holds great potential as a sustainable building material locally. Please keep us posted on your progress and thanks for sharing. Cheers; John C.

  4. Bjarne Nordhuus Thu, June 21, 2012 at 5:49 am #

    The fear for humidity from outside in Thailand is to be considered with knowledge of how steam works. Building in tropic area is the opposite of arctic area as far as the vapor is concerned. Most of the day the home is without air-con and the level of moist inside and outside of the wall/roof have time to equalize. Without having examined the case closely I have seen straw-bales in the agriculture area here in Petchaburi Thailand being stored more or less without good protection from rain and sun. It seems as the straw bales function over a period of time without handling from the farmers. The straw takes more than most of us imagine. But it has to be able to get back to its nature before the straw is broken down to humus again. My work was buildings in Norway. A lot of the roofs there is depending on the sun to dry up the insulation during summertime. The vapor-stop is never as good as the drawings show. Some go into the insulation and need to be pushed out by the summer and the sun.
    I am working with plans for building house of straw here in Petchaburi. I hope to get local contractors to participate and that somebody whom want to learn also come and learn. The district prison have a field where they produce bricks and build houses of bricks from clay. I hope they can send 1 or 2 to learn the straw-building.
    My son work with strawbuildings in Norway. Hopefully he have time to join me here in Petchaburi when we start the plastering. For the time being I do not know how to reach people who can be intrested in learning strawbuilding. I hope the TESABAHN (municipality) can help.
    Best regards bjarne nordhuus

  5. Ron Kinsey Sat, June 23, 2012 at 12:51 am #

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments:
    John, I have never had the rain get onto my bales. In one spot, about a square meter in size, I have had wind on two occasions blow some mist onto the wall, the render dried out within hours. I have sprayed the walls with water several times prior to adding a coat of colored lime wash, I was suprised at how fast it dries into the atmosphere !! Also had overspray from watering around the area plants and it dries just as quickly. The walls are as dry as the proverbial bone, have had some spots where the render was chipped off by accidents, and the clay and straw that was exposed was also dry as a bone. No odors of decay or mildew in three years now.

    Bjarne: I too have seen that rice straw will be left in the weather for several seasons without rotting, in fact saw a pile near the mill and the top 6 inches was grey but under that still golden. Let me hear of your progress in Petchaburi and remember, get your bales from a good machine!! I have several acquantences from Norway living here in Thailand by the way.

    Frederick and Andrew: those are valid points and thanks for pointing them out to me. Here in northern Thailand we have lots of humidity in the rainy season, but in the dry season and hotter months of April thru May and say mid Sept thru Oct it can be quite dry, and very dry Nov thru March. I will use the system only on the hottest days during those times when humidity is low being my plan. I really don’t expect to be able to drop the wall temps over 3 degress celesius at the most, and it may turn out that the experiment was for naught after all, I sure don’t want wet walls. I will just wait and see.

  6. Steven Patton Sat, August 11, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    I also live in Chiang Rai Province, 20 kilometers southwest of Chiang Rai City in the mountains at 4500 feet. I have followed Andrew Morrison website for three years now. I have a house site prepared and ready for the foundation. I live on a coffee farm with the Lisu hill tribes and this will all be hand labor. Can you give me the contact for the straw bales and any other insites? Where are you located in Chiang Rai? Gathering resourses and hauling everything up the mountain is going to be a chore. What mix did you use in your foundation?

  7. Sudarat liu Sun, February 17, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

    Hi, I’m stay in thailand and i really interested to understand more on how to build a straw bale house. Can I know how can I start to build my own straw bale house? I will be appreciate if you can advice on this matter. Thank you!

    Best regards,
    Sudarat

  8. Andrew Morrison Mon, February 18, 2013 at 11:26 am #

    Hi Sudarat. I would suggest that you check out my instructional DVDs if you want to learn how to build a bale house; however, if you are just interested in getting some general information on the topic, you can find lots of free information on my website. It will just take some time to read it all! 🙂 If you want to check out the instructional DVDs, click on the “Store” tab on http://www.StrawBale.com.

  9. Mandi Wed, March 27, 2013 at 1:00 am #

    Hello,
    I am in Cambodia and have been researching Rice Strawbale homes. Some friends are coming here to build one for a family this year and we would love to connect with the Texan in Thailand (I’m a Texan in Cambodia :). We are willing to travel and meet with him over dinner to learn and discuss if he’s able/willing to share more with us. Hoping this works out and can’t wait to build!

  10. Andrew Morrison Wed, March 27, 2013 at 6:46 am #

    Hi Mandi. We originally connected with him through Planet Straw Bale so you might want to join and message him there. I don’t have a direct email for him to share. Hope that helps.

  11. John Mon, October 21, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    Hi
    I’m just wondering how the building has stood the test of time ?
    I’m considering a build in Chiangmai.

  12. Andrew
    Andrew Sun, October 27, 2013 at 9:54 am #

    I have not heard an update. I would love to know as well.

  13. rae houghton Sun, March 23, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    would like to get contact with Ron Kinsey.
    anyone with information please pass on to me if they can. have just left chiang Mai and next trip would love to visit if possible the straw bale house / shed he has built.
    thanks
    Rae

  14. Erwin Alber Fri, April 18, 2014 at 6:14 pm #

    Thank you for the interesting article! I live in Thailand an am planning to build a rice straw bale house near Hua Hin. I however wonder if termites might invade the bales and eat the rice straw. Does anyone know of this happening in a straw bale house?

  15. Andrew Morrison Mon, April 21, 2014 at 8:06 am #

    I have not heard of termites being an issue with the straw. In places like Australia where termites are bad, the wood structure itself is the biggest challenge to defend, not the straw.

  16. Jay Mon, November 2, 2015 at 4:53 pm #

    Hi Andrew, thanks for sharing your story and information. Would u happen to know where I could purchase straw bales in Chiang Mai?

  17. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Fri, November 6, 2015 at 11:00 am #

    I do not know. Sorry that I cannot help you with that.

  18. BARRIE CUSENS Fri, April 8, 2016 at 8:14 am #

    Hi Andrew,
    I read you article with some interest. I am in the process of planning a new house build in Chiang Mai. And have been researching various echo friendly building methods. I was wondering if you had any problems getting planning permission for straw bail or adobe with the Thai authorities.

    Many thanks
    Barrie

  19. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Sun, April 10, 2016 at 11:25 am #

    I did not work directly on the project, so I cannot say. From what I know, it was pretty straightforward and there were no major challenges to approval.

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