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Natural building in the heartland  RSS feed

 
Harlan Kalijan
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For a while now I've been wanting to leave the west coast behind and move back to Iowa to be closer to family and friends. Lately I've also been extremely interested (bordering on obsessed) with natural building techniques and materials. My big master plan is to move back, save up to buy a few acres, and build a place of my own. I've found myself gravitating towards the idea of using earthbag domes, ideally with earth berms and living roofs, however the weather is a concern. Here's my conundrum: supposedly earthbags don't provide much insulation unless you fill them with scoria, perlite, or other similar stuff that there isn't a lot of in the midwest. On the other hand, straw bale is a great insulator and is in ready supply, but is also supposedly more expensive.

So my question is what is the best material for this sort of thing in the midwest? It needs to be:

  • Cheap, because that's what I am.
  • Reasonably local.
  • Relatively easy for a novice to work with. I know I'll need some professional help, but I plan to do a lot of this on my own (and with the help of friends who owe me favors or can be bribed into hard physical labor with beer.
  • Able to handle Iowa's extreme weather, especially the frost/thaw cycle. There was snow on the ground at the start of May and just a couple weeks later there were triple digit temperatures all over the west half of the state! It has to be something that can stand up to this. Tornadoes and other severe weather are also a concern, although I suspect that earth berms will help some.
  • Easy to ventilate, so that humidity and radon aren't problems.


  • Also if anyone has any information they can share about building codes in Iowa and how easy (or not) they will be to work with, please share. I'm still in the "hey this sure is a cool idea" phase, and am trying to learn as much as I can, so any info will be appreciated.
     
    Miles Flansburg
    steward
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    Location: Zones 2-4 Wyoming and 4-5 Colorado
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    Howdy Harlan, welcome to permies!
    I did a quick web search and did find some links to folks who have built strawbale homes in Iowa, so that looks doable. I would think there would be lots of straw around there.But not sure what the cost is.
    Not sure about earthbags.
    Hopefully others here, with more experience, will join in your search.
     
    Ben Stallings
    Posts: 160
    Location: Emporia, KS
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    Hi, Harlan. You need to visit Fairfield, Iowa. There are dozens of natural buildings in and surrounding the town, ranging from strawbale to rammed-earth brick to hemp/concrete composite brick to timber frame to cob to modified conventional stick frame with recycled insulation, and many of them have been in use for 15 years or more, so you can get frank answers about what works well and what doesn't in Iowa's climate. Your best contact is probably Mark Stimson, whose bio and contact info you can find here: http://www.mum.edu/sustainable-living/people/faculty

    Enjoy, and happy building!
     
    Harlan Kalijan
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    Ben Stallings wrote:Hi, Harlan. You need to visit Fairfield, Iowa. There are dozens of natural buildings in and surrounding the town, ranging from strawbale to rammed-earth brick to hemp/concrete composite brick to timber frame to cob to modified conventional stick frame with recycled insulation, and many of them have been in use for 15 years or more, so you can get frank answers about what works well and what doesn't in Iowa's climate. Your best contact is probably Mark Stimson, whose bio and contact info you can find here: http://www.mum.edu/sustainable-living/people/faculty

    Enjoy, and happy building!


    Fairfield was one of the first places I thought of. I've never been there even though I briefly lived barely an hour away. I think I may have to work a trip down there into the itinerary the next time I'm back to visit. Thanks for the link; I'll make sure to hit Mr. Stimson up and pick his brain some.
     
    S Haze
    Posts: 229
    Location: Southern Minnesota, USA, zone 4/5
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    Hi Harlan!

    I hope your move works out. My area is so de-populated yet more land than ever is plowed and sprayed every year. To turn things around we absolutely need more able-bodied, conscientious, free-thinking people here.

    You could check out the clay-straw technique for walls. I'm not sure how it compares to straw bale in cost but it seems appropriate in this climate (cold winters, warm humid summers) The house I'm building utilizes local round wood timbers for much of the structural support but beyond that isn't so natural or locally sourced, but the cement blocks were rescued from someone's pasture!

    Watch out for heavy clay soil too. It's a bit challenging because it doesn't drain well and can hold a ton of water meaning it can move a lot due to frost or shrink if it does dry out.

    As for the building codes you probably need to know exactly where you're building. Here in southern MN, I can do whatever I want (well, maybe it has to be to "code" but there's no inspection) but a mile away inside city limits I think you need to get permission/inspection to nail a picture on your wall in the same township as I am.

    I hope the beer bribe trick works well for you, very limited success here!

    ps what region of Iowa are you going to? I'm not sure exactly where Fairfax is without looking at a map.
     
    Harlan Kalijan
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    S Haze wrote:Hi Harlan!

    I hope your move works out. My area is so de-populated yet more land than ever is plowed and sprayed every year. To turn things around we absolutely need more able-bodied, conscientious, free-thinking people here.

    You could check out the clay-straw technique for walls. I'm not sure how it compares to straw bale in cost but it seems appropriate in this climate (cold winters, warm humid summers) The house I'm building utilizes local round wood timbers for much of the structural support but beyond that isn't so natural or locally sourced, but the cement blocks were rescued from someone's pasture!

    Watch out for heavy clay soil too. It's a bit challenging because it doesn't drain well and can hold a ton of water meaning it can move a lot due to frost or shrink if it does dry out.

    As for the building codes you probably need to know exactly where you're building. Here in southern MN, I can do whatever I want (well, maybe it has to be to "code" but there's no inspection) but a mile away inside city limits I think you need to get permission/inspection to nail a picture on your wall in the same township as I am.

    I hope the beer bribe trick works well for you, very limited success here!

    ps what region of Iowa are you going to? I'm not sure exactly where Fairfax is without looking at a map.


    I'm not familiar with clay-straw, but I will look it up.
    Fairfax is a little town just outside of Cedar Rapids, but I think you meant Fairfield which is about an hour and a half south of there. Ideally I would like to be near Des Moines, but it's still far enough in the future that that could change. I'm guessing the code situation is similar to what you describe; in town it's probably pretty strict, and once you're outside of town you can probably do just about anything you want.
     
    Jeff Reiland
    Posts: 67
    Location: Central Iowa
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    Did you ever get to Iowa?
     
    Harlan Kalijan
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    Jeff Reiland wrote:Did you ever get to Iowa?


    Hey Jeff,
    Not yet. Due to concerns (plus it's a huge sell to the wife, who's a born-and-bred city girl), it's probably still at least a couple years away, but I haven't lost hope!
    Having done some research and emailed a few people who are much more knowledgeable than myself, I'm leaning towards strawbale. However someone I spoke with also suggested cobwood, aka cordwood masonry. That was apparently a fairly common vernacular style for the upper midwest 100-150 years ago or so. It would require a lot of time with a chainsaw, but I imagine that would be kind of therapeutic after a while.
     
    I agree. Here's the link: http://richsoil.com/email
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