When a Straw Bale House Isn’t Green

Finished NicheI wonder if any of you knows when a straw bale house isn’t green. Ok, it’s a bit of a teaser title and opening sentence, but there is a reason for it and there is truth in it. A straw bale house isn’t green on its own because the wall system is only one part of a bigger system, and a small part at that. It’s a great advantage to have R-40+ walls made from a natural material, but please, PLEASE don’t think that is all it takes. Make sure to bring all of the details into play during your design process so that you actually get a functioning “green” home. Let’s talk about the details.

Insulation Envelope: As I mentioned above, the walls are only one part of a greater system. Having R-40+ walls is amazing and the energy efficiency of the walls is very high; however, how’s the rest of your envelope? After all, as we all know, heat rises, so the insulation in your ceiling/roof is equally, if not more important than the insulation in your walls. I recommend the highest levels of insulation you can muster. For 12″ rafter, vaulted ceilings, this may be somewhere between R-42 (high density fiberglass) and R-72 (closed cell spray foam). Foundations are another space that is often overlooked. Be sure to insulate well below your house as well. You may choose a full depth or shallow frost protection option. Either way, be sure to maximize your insulation.

Material Choice: The types of materials you choose to build with has a major impact on the level of “greenness” you will achieve. For example, is your framing material certified sustainable, recycled, or otherwise low impact? How about your plumbing and electrical fixtures; are they high efficiency units? There are a lot of places you can dig deeper to find more efficient and healthier materials to work with so take the time to talk with the experts in your area to discover the best options available to you.

Size Matters: This is probably the most obvious place you can have an impact on how “green” your home is. After all, the bigger it is the more materials it will require to build and the more energy it will consume over time. Reducing your home’s square footage to what you really need, more than what society tells you that you should have will make a huge difference. Be honest with yourself and let go of the “I’ve made it” mindset in which you need a big house.

Tiny HouseLast weekend I spoke at the Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs, CO and it was amazing to see the interest in living tiny. We had somewhere around 45,000 people attend the three day event! At the Jamboree I presented a portion (a sneak peak, perhaps) of an upcoming workshop I’ll be releasing soon called “Create Your Freedom” in which people realize their passions and dreams and then create a life that not only supports those dreams but also uses those passions to fuel a career for the individual. In that presentation I spoke about the importance of living in what I call “Human Scale.” To me, it’s not so much about living tiny as it is about living within the scale of our humanity.

As such, I’m not suggesting that you have to live in 200 square feet (although you can if you want to. that’s my 207 SF house in the above picture…), but I am suggesting that you build to a more reasonable size home than our society has put forth. Keep in mind that the average square footage of a home in the US these days is over 2600 SF, even with shrinking household sizes. In other words, less people are living in each larger home. That’s not sustainable and it’s certainly not green. After all, do you really need 1000SF PER PERSON to be happy? That’s where the numbers fall in the US right now: 1000SF per person. That’s not Human Scale, that’s greedy.

Do you have stories about downsizing? How about ways in which you made your straw bale home truly green? Share your stories and comments below and keep the conversation going!

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28 Responses to When a Straw Bale House Isn’t Green

  1. Melanie Sun, August 16, 2015 at 6:03 am #

    Andrew,
    I’ve been looking for a way to create green, off-grid housing (built by the owners) for survivors of domestic violence that would also help to create the ability for them to acquire a job in the alternative building industry.

    Any information you care to share would be amazing!

    Melanie

  2. Marlene Clausen Sun, August 16, 2015 at 6:20 am #

    Be sure to look at some of the lower cost, easier ways to “go green.” First, of course, is solar and getting off the grid completely. Don’t plan on buying or selling with the utility company. Look into a secondary market for “depleted” EV batteries. They are usually replaced at about 30% capacity and fully charged they can power the average home for about three days. In addition to any active solar, look into passive solar systems for roofs and floors.

    Plan for installing a grey water system, composting toilets, and gutters, downspouts, and rain barrels to catch rain water.

    Plant gardens indoors and grow herbs and vegetables. They use the grey water collected and scrub household air AND taste great!

  3. Melanie Sun, August 16, 2015 at 6:44 am #

    Not sure how green the fibre glass or spray foam insulation will be? How about sheep’s wool or recycled newspaper?

  4. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Sun, August 16, 2015 at 7:32 am #

    That’s a great point Melanie. I’m personally not a big fan of spray foam because of the toxic qualities. It does, however, offer the best Rvalue per inch available on the market today. As such, one needs to decide if it’s better to go with a natural product now that will provide less insulation down the road, thus require more energy, or a less natural material no that will require less energy over the life of the building. My personal preference has always been to go with the natural materials.

  5. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Sun, August 16, 2015 at 7:34 am #

    Absolutely great stuff Marlene. We use a composting toilet ourselves. We have a Separett system which we are very impressed with. No smell, convenient, excellent design elements, and easy to use. I believe that the amount of potable water that is lost each day for flushing our wastage is a crime!

  6. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Sun, August 16, 2015 at 7:38 am #

    That’s a wonderful vision Melanie. If they build the home themselves, then they would get hands-on experience which is always a great start. One thing that they might be able to incorporate is tours of their homes for locals interested in living green. They could introduce the public to the systems they use in their house and give them feedback from actual users on how those systems work. From there, they could teach, they could step out and help others build, or…? As long as they are passionate about what they are doing, they are good at it, and that passion intersects with a need in the marketplace, then they can’t help but be successful. The same is true for your vision!

  7. Kandi Wood Sun, August 16, 2015 at 8:01 am #

    Hello Andrew!

    I live in Ontario Canada (in the snow belt) ,about 2 1/2 hours north of Toronto.

    Having built my own Straw Bale home in 2006/7 (well, actually I contracted a natural home builder to do it mostly), I wanted to share some of the ‘green’ attributes of my home and some of the ‘not so green’ ones too. I build a bungalow style, wheelchair friendly, no stairs.

    The style is modified post & beam with bale infill and yes, the highest insulation in the roof we could find. I chose a steel roof (yes, very expensive) HOWEVER, shingles last 7 – 10 years on average here, so rather than have to redo my roof every decade pretty much, I chose a ‘one time’ roof, to reduce the amount of shingles I produces for the landfill.

    The house is slab on grade (yes, a lot of concrete for the foundation); I chose to use Kemiko concrete stain directly on the slab and the floors look AMAZING! I am stunned at how low maintenance they are and all I do to clean them is use a steam cleaner… No Chemicals required!
    There is not a scrap of carpet in my house… another important factor in being ‘green’ as carpet is one of the biggest culprits of VOC, never mind it’s ability to harbour all kinds of dust and mites etc , etc

    Heating: I installed geothermal heating system and chose to go out into the field, horizontally (because I could). It took me a long time to ‘get my head around’ how ground source head could possibly heat my home.. but it is mind blowing how it does. The Geo heats water in a domestic hot water tank, which then sends that thru the radiant infloor heating system. Believe it or not , I keep my house at 16 degrees C in the winter (62 F for you USA folks) and have a woodstove for ‘cosy’ effect if needed. I am constantly blown away at how warm 16 c is when it comes up thru the floor, as opposed to forced air, radiator or baseboards. If I wanted it to be at 18c or 20c, that is very ‘doable’ for the system too. (any hotter and I’d be changing in to my bikini….)

    Two years ago I installed a 40KWH solar array on the roof , but not to generate my own electricity, rather to supply the grid , which I get paid for from Hydro! It would not make sense for me to supply myself, as I generate 8 – 10 times more than I use! This will provide me with a passive source of income going forward and contribute to green energy production!

    This house does not need air conditioning. Visitors are blown away when they come during summer, when they walk into my house. I’ve had one even ask me why I keep it so cool and that it must cost me a fortune to do so!! I just smile and tell them there is no AC in this house. They can’t get their head round that…. Today we are expecting 40degrees C with 90% humidity. it’s 11 a.m. just now and 20 c in my house with no humidity. The max it has ever in the 8 years I’ve been living here, got to was 24 c, which was during a 3 week heat wave about 4 years ago. I do have a dehumidifier for when it gets crazy humid.. but have not had to use it this year yet.
    I open all the windows up at night and shut them all down by 9 a.m. in the monring. Incredible how the house stays so cool! My dog can’t wait to come in on days like this!

    The size is 1458 sq ft. Now, this does not fit with ‘tiny living’ however it is not either the 2500 sq ft ++ size either… As I fully intend to be here for the rest of my life, I wanted to make it large enough to accomodate visitors and friends.

    So, these are just a few of the main attributes of my straw bale home. I won’t prattle on any more, but if your readers are interested in learning more do visit my web site, where you’ll be able to see pictures and even sign up for a sneak preview of my book I wrote on the whole building process!

    Thanks for all the great info you always impart to us Andrew!
    All the best
    Kandi Wood

  8. Kandi Wood Sun, August 16, 2015 at 8:14 am #

    BTW, for those of you who live in Ontario there is a Straw Bale /Natural Building home tour on October 4, 2015. This usually happens annually, and most years I have my home on the tour. It is $10 for a day passport and you can view as may homes as you can drive to in that day. Here ‘s the website:

    http://naturalbuildingcoalition.ca/

    Hope this is OK Andrew, for me to post this??

    Thanks
    Kandi

  9. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Sun, August 16, 2015 at 8:16 am #

    Thanks Kandi. I imagine your house will inspire others as well!

  10. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Sun, August 16, 2015 at 8:17 am #

    Absolutely! It’s great to hear about these types of things. For some people, it could be the first time they step into a bale house. It’s always good to experience a bale home before one takes any steps towards building their own!

  11. Kandi Wood Sun, August 16, 2015 at 8:25 am #

    I forgot to include the website for more info on my house:

    http://EcoStrawHouse.com

  12. Phil Sun, August 16, 2015 at 9:16 am #

    Have you ever thought of doing a straw bail roof to get that huge r value up top too ? There are millions of acers of dead trees around the west to make some stout supportive rafters or trusses to hold the weight, while sequestering carbon that would otherwise just rot and off gas in the forest, or worse yet, burn.

  13. Reed Phillips Sun, August 16, 2015 at 9:38 am #

    Andrew, I am looking to build next summer and been looking for straw and I have been asked if I would like Barley, wheat, and one other which is better for build a house? And I am building the exact same house as Kandi Wood with the exception of square footage, so It is great that she posted on here so I can get some helpful information. I would love to host a workshop but I am paying as I go so it will be in stages hopefully it doesn’t take to long to finish. Thanks Reed

  14. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Sun, August 16, 2015 at 9:39 am #

    The R-value is really good for a bale roof; however, the structure required to support it is really big. Although there is a lot of dead standing timber in the NW, this may not be a great way to utilize it. Instead, it may be better used by milling it to replace some of the fresh timbers cut each year for standard framing. That will of course depend on its quality from an engineering stand point.

  15. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Sun, August 16, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    Hi Reed. The bale material doesn’t matter so much as the quality of the bales. Be sure the straw is long (the individual stalks within the bale should be 24″ or longer), dry, tight, and consistent in shape. If you have all of those things, you will be fine to use whatever is most local. Have fun and Happy Baling!

  16. Fred Daran Sun, August 16, 2015 at 11:46 am #

    Hi Andrew,
    A short question if I may: is the fan on your Separett composting toilet producing any noticeable/annoying noise? A continuous hum in the bathroom would be a serious problem with my spouse…
    I didn’t know that company and just checked it out, ‘love their Villa model (urine separation, automatic valve, simple set up). Thanks for any comment!

  17. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Sun, August 16, 2015 at 11:53 am #

    Hi Fred. There is sound associated with the fan, but it is very subtle. The amount of noise depends on whether the fan is on low or high, but even on high it’s is barely noticeable. If you decide to go with the toilet, let them know you heard about it from me. Separett is used to us sending people from the Tiny House world to them. It will be good for them to know that the bale folks are also interested! Like I said in the post, we really like the unit.

  18. Fred Daran Sun, August 16, 2015 at 12:28 pm #

    Thank you very much for this great info Andrew! (That was FAST!)
    We are actually living in Europe, but I’m a long time follower of yours and have been promoting Strawbale.com with family & friends across Spain, France, Belgium and Sweden to the point of getting a freaky reputation :o)
    Best regards and thanks again for sharing your beautiful work.
    Frederik

  19. Laura Sun, August 16, 2015 at 12:52 pm #

    When people ask me if my strawbale home is going to large I answer “who is going to clean it, you?” I want a one bedroom smallish place for the first section and if we can afford it later add a master wing and bath.

  20. Greg Vizzi Sun, August 16, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    Hey everyone,

    I accidentally found a natural insulation product that is green as well as fireproof. It’s called rock wool. It’s made of actual rock in a volcanic process. Here is their web site: http://www.roxul.com You can get this stuff a Lowes and Home Depot.

    Greg

    http://www.natures-wisdom.com

  21. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Sun, August 16, 2015 at 1:13 pm #

    Thanks for the support! As you likely know by now, Separett is a Swedish company. This the great design. Be well.

  22. Richard Sun, August 16, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    Thanks so much for this article. It is one of my pet peeves to see people building 3,500 SF homes with straw bale walls and claiming they’re green! Green not. It’s eco-chic extravagance. So thanks for pointing out that bale walls, which account for about 20% of a house’s substance, are only one part of the picture.

    Perhaps you’d also like to address cost issues and perceptions. I still hear people talking about straw bale construction being so cheap it’s a good way to build an inexpensive house! Well, if you do every last thing yourself, maybe, but that’s true for any type of construction since labor is about half the cost. It’s never been cheap construction if you hire somebody to do it for you. Today we have another nasty cost problem: the price of bales. When I started this, bales were $3, then $6. Today I can’t find bales for less than $12 (in California). At that price, bale construction becomes a luxury type of construction. At what point do we admit that bale construction is just too expensive to be practical? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that inflammatory question!

    Finally size. We’re way over-housed, and it’s one reason why houses cost so much. Here in California, people build huge boxes that cover the whole lot, and live inside. Why, in this heavenly climate? We should be able to live in half the house people need in cold rainy places, and live much of the time outdoors in sheltered outdoor rooms — like our ancestors did from the 1800s right up to one generation ago. What people think they need, and what they buy, is crazy and irrational.

  23. Rik Sun, August 16, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

    Going green can mean going communal also. I have plans for an old fogies home with a common area and four private “rooms”, with part of the building bermed, part glass, and the rest, particularly interior walls (for noise abatement) straw. Geothermal is good, passive solar in combination will be ideal. Concrete floors, while hard for those old feet, not right with radiant heating, will be the most overall comfortable solution. The clerestory windows will flood the interior with light and allow for improved ventilation. Earth covered roofing will be close to permanent, allow for outdoor living six to eight months of the year and provide near perfect insulation. Thinking of housing as part of the human condition is what will really lead a mass change to housing patterns. Aesthetics are going to be very important as we will likely always want to impress the passerby if not the neighbor, but good, green living does not have to be given up to live beautifully.

  24. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Sun, August 16, 2015 at 2:24 pm #

    Great points. I would suggest an earthen floor over the concrete to make it more comfortable. Concrete is too hard for just about anyone and certainly for those in their Golden Years.

  25. Keith Russell Sun, August 16, 2015 at 3:19 pm #

    At the planning stage for a modest 2 bedroom house here in West Wales. 80m2, strawbale insulation in I-beam framed walls, same roof construction possibly insulated with Warmcel, with re-used Welsh slate roof. A floor slab of foamed glass aggregate topped with limecrete, with wet UFH and ASHP. I realise that the timber is all milled, but trees don’t grow here like they do in Canada.

  26. Phil Sun, August 16, 2015 at 6:44 pm #

    Hi Andrew,
    I didn’t know the NW had a lot of standing dead? here in Colorado most of the state is dead, i went to wolf creek last fall and you could drive up the pass and not see a live tree for miles, Grand lake, steamboat, vail, creed, all deader than dead…
    I have talked to engineers before about setting up for 6 x 6’s as wall framing that you could sawmill quickly on a scrag mill or something because so many of the dead trees are to check out to cut into 2 x’s, but they are kind of set in their ways.
    As far as grading out structurally , I rarely run into logs that cant saw and stamp as #1 or #2, once in a while the slope of grain will kick it out but it’s probably less than 10%.
    If they can get to them before heavy checking or rot sets in I know they do cut a lot of studs with the standing dead at several stud mills in CO and WY, unfortunately half or more will still end up rotting or burning where it stands because there simply is not enough loggers or truckers on the planet that can cut that many trees fast enough.

    on the green building note, the regulations and things they make us do to be “livable” or “code” is the biggest problem, I could build a nice 1000sf house that would last a lifetime with all materials found within 5 miles of me, for almost free, but it wouldn’t pass all the so called modern day standards, i find it incredibly frustrating to not have the free choice to build and live in whatever I want, guess that will have to wait till retirement when I can move far enough out in the boonies that no one cares

  27. Kevin Thu, August 20, 2015 at 11:13 am #

    Hi Andrew,
    Well its been many years since I took your 2 week course in Jacksonville, OR, but we have finally broke ground this year and are on our way. A couple ways we have made our design greener. Size, is first and foremost. We had plans engineered initially for a 1500+ sqft. But time (due to multiple delays) gave us the opportunity to rethink our priorities. After a few years of living in a travel trailer, and following the Tiny Home movement, we realized living small is very doable and desirable. Our home will be about half this size now. We will put more emphasis on a nice outdoor living area; we prefer to be outdoors as much as possible, even in winter. We have also utilized passive solar design principles in the design as well as max insulation on all six sides. Perhaps one of the most important things we did, to us anyway, is to source bales from a local organic wheat farmer. I live in the middle of wheat country, but most is pretty industrialized non-organic, and some GMO. We really wanted to support local organic pioneers in our area by giving them a little more incentive to keep doing what they are doing organically. This farmer is also very intrigued with our project and wants to stay connected to it. Many neighbors and construction folks I know are intrigued as well. So, we feel pretty good about the in-roads we have made in our area which is not, at this time, very green minded. But there is hope.

  28. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Thu, August 20, 2015 at 11:54 am #

    This is a great update Kevin. I love what you have incorporated into your home and how you are inspiring those around you. Very cool my friend. Congratulations. I hope you will send me photos and updates as things move forward. I’d love to see the project grow!

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