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Objections to straw bale construction: shipping bales

 
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Let us consider the shipping issue:

Compare: A conventional house requires hauling the wood. Often that wood has been hauled several times: Forest to mill. Mill to distributor. Distributor to job site. Straw would usually go from farm to site.

However there is more (weight) of straw than there is wood, I think.

The cost of transport isn't that great. When I buy compost, I typically am paying $400 to haul it 140 km for a walking trailer load (30 Tonne) So that's about 10 cents per tonne/km 30 T of bales at 20 kg each would be 1500 bales, roughly enough for 4000 square feet of wall.

When I bought wheat straw bales for a project it was $800 for 500 bales delivered locally. That was 10 years ago.

I'm currently paying $3/bale for flax, and $1 for delivery from about 100 km away in loads of 200 bales.


***

Waste product:

Hold off there: Here straw is getting good prices (about 1/3 to 2/5 the price of hay)

A: Bedding.

B: Supplemental feed. Cows won't gain weight on pure straw, but they can get calories out of it. Here a mix of grain and straw is often used in winter. Or straw is used as an ingredient mixed with silage, either after the silage is made, or shredded and put in the pit at the start.

C: Fuel
 
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One of the points with sustainable architecture is to use materials that are local, inexpensive, and appropriate for the location. Often we become enamored with a particular material or design and want to go out and build it, or build with it, and often, that material or design is inappropriate for the location we want to build on (perhaps it is a cultural penchant for building follies?).

In my area, straw became immediately inappropriate as soon as the first dozen straw bale homes went up (thirty or forty years ago) and farmers saw there was a market (same thing happened with log homes and foam blocks). Now, it is even more complicated by the reduction in availability of small balers (straw bales for building are becoming a specialty item) and advancements in utilization of straw as feed or fuel. Additionally, a lot (most) of the farm acreage has been built over around here in the past forty years. Deals can still be found, especially if friends, neighbors or family are in the equation.
 
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Andrew Parker wrote:One of the points with sustainable architecture is to use materials that are local, inexpensive, and appropriate for the location. Often we become enamored with a particular material or design and want to go out and build it, or build with it, and often, that material or design is inappropriate for the location we want to build on (perhaps it is a cultural penchant for building follies?).

In my area, straw became immediately inappropriate as soon as the first dozen straw bale homes went up (thirty or forty years ago) and farmers saw there was a market (same thing happened with log homes and foam blocks). Now, it is even more complicated by the reduction in availability of small balers (straw bales for building are becoming a specialty item) and advancements in utilization of straw as feed or fuel. Additionally, a lot (most) of the farm acreage has been built over around here in the past forty years. Deals can still be found, especially if friends, neighbors or family are in the equation.



For sure, one should never become so enamored with any particular technique that one ignores how well that technique applies to the site in question (among other qualifying factors). That is a lesson central to all of permaculture; not just green building. If there are no suitable straw bales to be had for cheap and within a max couple hours drive, then definitely choose another material. When I began this thread, I never meant to suggest otherwise; I was just surprised how many people in the continental US might actually find themselves in that situation. Seems to me it wouldn't be that many, and that therefore the straw bale critics were harping on a moot point.

I also acknowledge the many posters who have pointed out that grain grown in a more ecologically-oriented way doesn't necessarily produce that much excess straw, and that we should shift the primary focus of our subsistence away from grains in the first place. As I've written, the sooner our grain production is both reduced in scale and transformed entirely into small-scale, Fukuoka-style, preferably non-subsidized plots, the happier I will be. But that simply is not yet the reality, and in the meantime there remains, at least in my area, an awful lot of excess straw being sold cheap. Clearly much more than is needed to bed animals alone, since all the farmers still maintain large lofts full of stacked bales awaiting customers.

I would like to introduce another point, however, which is one of which I wasn't aware when I started my own straw bale construction (or when I started this thread). While it is certainly a good practice to choose building materials that are low impact, I think a lot of natural materials builders - including the authors of the straw bale and other books that guided me during my design process - are TOO hung up on embodied energy. I have since become aware that energy analysts believe that only a small portion - I have read different estimates, but some are in the single digits! - of the energy consumption represented by a building is actually embodied in its materials. The rest is lifetime operation and maintenance. If then a large majority, perhaps over 90%, of the energy is consumed in using a building over its lifetime, rather than in its construction, I think quibbling over materials is misplaced. It then follows that a structure with the lowest costs for "the big four" - heating air, heating water, cooling air, and drying clothes - plus the longest expected lifetime is the most desirable, and one shouldn't get too upset over the materials.

A well-designed passive solar straw bale home with a clothes line, a rocket mass heater, ceiling fans instead of A/C, and a solar water heater (i.e. like my own) will certainly meet these criteria. I will use next-to-no energy to heat, or to cool, or to dry clothes, and at most 50% energy to make hot water. And with proper maintenance, assuming I've done a good job as designer and builder, it should last for centuries. The oldest straw bale structure in the world is now over a century and still going strong; nearly double the lifespan of the modern mass-produced home. With this perspective in mind, I would probably have gone ahead with my design even if I'd had to ship in bales from a few hundred miles, rather than a mere dozen.

Of course, this perspective can also be used to argue against straw bale walls, too. If one doesn't particularly value the other virtues of straw bale architecture - aesthetic appeal, fire resistance, sound proofing, more $ into the local labor market vs the continental mass-market construction materials industry, lends itself nicely to high-air-quality living, etc. - or if one simply cannot commit the years to being one's own owner/builder/architect, then one might argue that a super-insulated passive solar home using conventional materials and techniques with the same features is nearly as good and a whole lot easier to achieve. Assuming that one could produce a structure good for centuries using those techniques, I would agree and be perfectly happy that more people are investing in smarter/better homes.

There are only two caveats, as I see it. First, most conventional builders will not deliver the same quality and features unless you educate them; they simply wouldn't know how. So you will still have to be fairly intimately involved in the design process to be sure you get what you want, not to mention hire specialists to build your rocket mass heater and such. Second, even if you pay for top quality construction and ensure the right detailing and the smartest design, will a conventionally-built home last for centuries? I just don't know. Seems like it could, but we have as yet few examples to point to. As it is, all but the most expensive conventional homes are expected to fall down or be bull-dozed in 60 years, even by the people who build them! I've certainly rarely seen an older home that was still in good shape. Does it have to be that way? And to do them better, would it cost so much more that one starts to look back to alternative/natural materials construction instead?
 
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Matthew,

Thought provoking write-up.

Some questions:

Where are you getting any field data that shows the life expectancy of strawbale construction to include all maintenance records to date of any build you say is "still standing" over decades? Have you monitored these buildings to prove they last longer than mainstream builds since I have found no data? We have a new effort by many nations to start monitoring but, some mandatory, but no quantified data I can find to justify SB or any earth construction method as superior a design criteria? BIMS: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_information_modeling.


You said above that you have determined that strawbale produces healthy buildings, no rot in the walls nor IAQ issues.....I presume. Where is the supporting data since I am positive it can be one of the worse construction methods out there along with many earth construction methods, depending or whom and how it was executed. Much a result of a lack or monitoring or testing requirements the site manufactured "natural DIYs" procurement are not verified to what manufactured products are. Without the ASTM testing as a start it is impossible to verify results, yielding lots of unknowns and VERY limited empirical data in the "natural building" trades. The most I have seen by John Strobes, PHD, on SB, if one did not know and follow more than likely wrong or, SB 2015 IRC Appendix S or R. Lots of books, people wanting to make money on, with no real life cycle data.

If you are a self proclaimed DIY Architect and builder, you need to include any and all time cost spent on the learning curve in your cost analysis since the best in the world, or even the average, did not just decide to be one one day, build a one off and call it better than all. In most cases, the DIY should have hired a pro. For example, I am a thirty year aircraft bachelor degreed design engineer and I still struggle with the best designs in the world. Most jurisdictions require it in part due to deaths and for many other good reasons. Add at least $7/SF for pro Engineering services to equate to mainstream. If you cannot be hired at that, you are probably doing something wrong, just do not have massive design experience to market......When you sell a few hundred in a very competitive market, pay the errors and omissions insurance, take the liability in court from bad designs, etc, you will put value to your time and skills.

Also, some builders only have certain trades that can perform certain labor, the bigger cost is labor not materials. After around 10 takes offs you start to realize that as a building design pro. Cost and time is everything! Add labor intensive time into the equation properly you may have spent far more for more junk, knowing what you don't, than a mainstream purchase or builder designer.

Anyway, I be interested in seeing the floor plan and model, drawing's you produced?
 
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Matthew Nistico wrote:why would anyone desire to ship bales across the country to build a straw bale home?



As many others said, it can be a question of availability. Where I am near Moab, Utah, the nearest straw is over in Grand Junction Colorado, 90 miles away. There are two growers who bale for building straw. These 2-string bales are only $3.25 at the farm, but shipping them those 90 miles more than doubles the price, up to $7.
 
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Terry Ruth wrote:Matthew,

Thought provoking write-up.

Some questions:

Where are you getting any field data that shows the life expectancy of strawbale construction to include all maintenance records to date of any build you say is "still standing" over decades? Have you monitored these buildings to prove they last longer than mainstream builds since I have found no data? We have a new effort by many nations to start monitoring but, some mandatory, but no quantified data I can find to justify SB or any earth construction method as superior a design criteria? BIMS: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_information_modeling.


You said above that you have determined that strawbale produces healthy buildings, no rot in the walls nor IAQ issues.....I presume. Where is the supporting data since I am positive it can be one of the worse construction methods out there along with many earth construction methods, depending or whom and how it was executed. Much a result of a lack or monitoring or testing requirements the site manufactured "natural DIYs" procurement are not verified to what manufactured products are. Without the ASTM testing as a start it is impossible to verify results, yielding lots of unknowns and VERY limited empirical data in the "natural building" trades. The most I have seen by John Strobes, PHD, on SB, if one did not know and follow more than likely wrong or, SB 2015 IRC Appendix S or R.  Lots of books, people wanting to make money on, with no real life cycle data.

If you are a self proclaimed DIY Architect and builder, you need to include any and all time cost spent on the learning curve in your cost analysis since the best in the world, or even the average, did not just decide to be one one day, build a one off and call it better than all. In most cases, the DIY should have hired a pro. For example, I am a thirty year aircraft bachelor degreed design engineer and I still struggle with the best designs in the world. Most jurisdictions require it in part due to deaths and for many other good reasons. Add at least $7/SF for pro Engineering services to equate to mainstream. If you cannot be hired at that, you are probably doing something wrong, just do not have massive design experience to market......When you sell a few hundred in a very competitive market, pay the errors and omissions insurance,  take the liability in court from bad designs, etc, you will put value to your time and skills.

Also, some builders only have certain trades that can perform certain labor, the bigger cost is labor not materials. After around 10 takes offs you start to realize that as a building design pro. Cost and time is everything! Add labor intensive time into the equation properly you may have spent far more for more junk, knowing what you don't, than a mainstream purchase or builder designer.

Anyway, I be interested in seeing the floor plan and model, drawing's you produced?



I built and supervised two strawbale homes, one post and beam, one roof supported by the bales. These were built twenty-five years ago. They are standing healthy today. They have had no maintenance on the walls, but a fresh coat of paint. They are not flat roof, I wouldn't recommend that.

One is covered outside in one to two inches of shockcrete, one in standard stucco. The bales are in fine shape. I don't need a degree or certification to know which way the wind blows. I lived in one until last year. I had no problems with it, it was wonderful. figuring the heating/cooling system was difficult because it was off of the charts. I had difficulty added to the sale because of the ignorant designations from two lenders that they were "inferior construction". That is not fact. Any fool can see first hand the superiority of the construction system as dictated by the building codes. I never had termites, but in the conventional section of the house. I just never had ANY problems in twenty-five year with the strawbale construction. The bales don't rot. No wolves blew it down, all of the criticism was hot air and ignorance. One reason that I chose strawbale was that it is extremely forgiving during construction. It doesn't require a journeyman, or craftsman.
 
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Terry Ruth wrote:...Also, some builders only have certain trades that can perform certain labor, the bigger cost is labor not materials....



Amen to that!  This has by far been the biggest single lesson of my own DIY natural building experiment.  Labor is everything!  If you don't have a supply of dependable, affordable labor lined up, then you are in for some very frustrating times.  Natural materials construction can be extremely labor intensive!  You won't necessarily require much in the way of skilled labor, provided you have the skills and can dedicate the time to teaching and closely supervising your labor force (and by closely supervising, I mean that every hour someone is on the job, you are on the job with them!).  Unskilled labor will get you a long way, but you will need a lot of it.

In my case, building next to a college campus I figured that hiring part time casual labor wouldn't be a challenge.  College kids are always looking for a little extra money, right?  Wrong.  They say that, but most seem to have very plenty, because in my experience they have no real hunger for earning more.  They have very little time they are willing to commit and no idea how to do anything even remotely similar to real work.  When I was a college student at this same campus, back when the world was young, this was not the case.  I was actually serious about needing extra money, and I did physical, dirty work to make my cash on the side when there was no other easy job available.  But these days, at least in my own experience, that just doesn't seem to be the case anymore.

I have also hired unskilled labor from among the local area under-employed population, with very mixed results.  Any way you look at it, your owner-builder natural materials project is going to take a long time to complete.  Make your peace with that, hire a small core of people - no more than you can personally supervise at one time - and get things done in a relaxed, methodical way.  And be prepared that you might have to spend a long time, and sort through a lot of chaff, in order to find your small, dependable core of workers.

Do not be tempted to speed things up by hiring too many workers at once.  This can also be a problem with big volunteer day events.  Too many people that can't be effectively trained and supervised in the time available are a liability, not an asset.
 
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John Goode wrote:I built and supervised two strawbale homes, one post and beam, one roof supported by the bales. These were built twenty-five years ago. They are standing healthy today. They have had no maintenance on the walls, but a fresh coat of paint. They are not flat roof, I wouldn't recommend that.

One is covered outside in one to two inches of shockcrete, one in standard stucco. The bales are in fine shape. I don't need a degree or certification to know which way the wind blows. I lived in one until last year. I had no problems with it, it was wonderful. figuring the heating/cooling system was difficult because it was off of the charts. I had difficulty added to the sale because of the ignorant designations from two lenders that they were "inferior construction". That is not fact. Any fool can see first hand the superiority of the construction system as dictated by the building codes. I never had termites, but in the conventional section of the house. I just never had ANY problems in twenty-five year with the strawbale construction. The bales don't rot. No wolves blew it down, all of the criticism was hot air and ignorance. One reason that I chose strawbale was that it is extremely forgiving during construction. It doesn't require a journeyman, or craftsman.



@John Goode - I am happy to hear of your positive straw bale experiences!  But I have a question: what is "shockcrete"?  I've Googled it and found nothing.  Based on the name, I am guessing it is a concrete product of some kind...?  And you said the other house used "standard stucco," which is also a cement product.  Am I reading you correctly?

If so, then I am guessing that your two projects were out in the Western desert somewhere, am I right?  Lucky you, then, that you can get away with using cement products in such arid environments.  Building in the humid South, I had to pay extra close attention to every last detail when it came to protecting against water in its liquid and gaseous forms!  That included choice of materials, like for instance using only lime or lime-and-clay plasters, avoiding any conventional (i.e. latex) house paints, using vapor-permeable underlayment instead of plain tar paper to isolate wooden members from the bales, etc.  It also included meticulous attention to flashing, drip edges, roof overhangs, etc.  I have a 3' roof overhang over all walls, and the best flashing I could possibly engineer over every nook and cranny.

Of course, if conventional house builders paid as much attention  (and expense) to these same sorts of details - especially generous roof overhangs and flashing - then conventional homes would last a lot longer, too.  The wood with which nearly all conventional homes in North America are built will rot  just as surely as straw bales if exposed to water; it just takes longer.

To which point, Terry Ruth previously questioned the empirical data showing that homes with straw bale walls can last and remain habitable for many decades.  That is a fair question.  As I already referenced, the original straw bale buildings were turn-of-the-20th-Century innovations, and some of those are still standing.  They were NOT constructed by the most skilled builders to the best possible standards.  To the contrary: they were patched together quickly by amateurs on the cheap.  I have read that some were lived in un-plastered for years before being finished.  I take that as adequate demonstration that the technique has potential to create multi-generational structures.  Though to be fair, every building will only be as good as its builder, and with DIY projects the builder quality will inevitably vary to a wider degree than one expects of conventional, building-code dictated structures.

Otherwise, I doubt much empirical data exists.  I say this for two reasons: 1) the vast majority of straw bale homes have been built in recent decades, which is to say since the technique was revived in the 1970s, and so there hasn't been adequate time to demonstrate their full potential; and 2) the vast majority of those homes have, by necessity, been built by amateur owner-builders like myself, from whom little quantifiable data is likely being collected.  How could it be otherwise?  So long as building codes don't allow for straw bale wall construction, the cadre of trained, professional straw bale builders is never going to become a reality.
 
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Gerard Bonneau wrote:I just have to weigh in on this.  We built a strawbale house from '95 to '97 on our acreage here in Wyoming.  I have not regretted it.  Yes, there are some things I would do differently, but strawbales make a lot of sense in dry (less then 30" a year) climes.  Our bales were purchased from a local farmer, and were trucked about 30 miles.  They cost less than $2.00 each.  They weren't 'custom', whatever that is.  Basically, we eye-balled them to make sure they were dry, clean, not moldy, tightened them up as needed and started stackin' 'em.  Strawbale construction is not rocket science, and from all I've read on the web, I have the impression that people are over thinking it a wee bit.



@Gerard Bonneau - Congrats on your success story!  I agree with you: straw bale construction requires some careful planning and a little creativity, but is forgiving in many ways.  No Ph.D. in rocket science required.  For that matter, no building experience required (I had none), though it would sure help.  And yes, I used pretty much the same eye-ball method of straw bale materials certification, and it worked just fine for me.

Gerard Bonneau wrote:...I had to satisfy myself that bales were sufficiently fire safe (I was a firefighter at the time) so I doused one with gasoline in my driveway, and lit it.  The upshot is: bales are self-extinguishing as long as their ties don't come apart, introducing more air into the straw.  My bales are wire-tied, which isn't typical anymore, but was still common in our area at that time.



Wire-tied straw bales, eh?  How fascinating.  I've never seen that.  I can quickly think of several pros and cons to building with such bales.  But anyway, thank you for pointing out the advantage of bale construction in terms of being very hard to burn.  I should point out that, even with bales tied with regular twine, they can't fall apart - and so more easily burn - once they are inside a plastered wall.

Gerard Bonneau wrote:...It was simple to do, but not easy in the sense that it was done quickly, or without lots of sweat labor...  If I had to do it over again, I would build on a basement, use a full bale width wood frame, and plan the wall openings so no bale notching was needed.  I would also put steel on the roof instead of asphalt shingles.  They blow away too often in my area.  Other than that, I'm pretty happy with it.  It is easy to heat, easy to cool, and you can't hear the wind howl like you can in a frame dwelling...  It only cost $35 bucks a square foot, at a time when new construction was going for $90 to $100 a square foot.



Amen to that!  There's nothing quick nor easy about a natural materials building project.  I also agree that notching bales sucks!  It was necessary for my own post-and-beam design, but it is the most time-consuming parts of the initial bale raising.  Plastering is a bitch too, but that is a whole other stage of construction.  I am curious how one would design a framed bale wall with zero notching...?

For sure, a load-bearing bale wall requires very little notching, but I would recommend against that for most builders in most situations - having a frame with a roof in place before stacking bales is a wonderful, wonderful thing.  It just makes things so much easier.  And it is a lot easier to sell to a building code official!

One could also stack the bales inside our outside of the posts, rather then notching them around the posts, as you and I did.  That would be much easier, but then the posts are visible, and the positioning of window and door attachments gets awkward.  To clarify, mine is a modified post-and-beam wall frame, wherein the door and window jacks are the load-bearing 4x4 posts.  If you were already instead planning on having independent door jacks and window jacks, then I guess it could be done.

If I had thought I could have afforded it, I would have loved to do a traditional timber frame, and then wrap a bale wall around the outside of that, so that the timbers stood proud of the inside of the bale walls.  That would have been nice!  In that scenario, you might detail the bale walls as if they were for a load-bearing design, with free-floating window bucks and such.  Only the bale wall caries no load, so you don't have to mess with pre-compression and such.  This might actually be an optimal configuration, though it would consume more wood, not to mention more expensive wood and more expensive expertise and equipment for the timber framing.

After having gone through all of the work building bale walls, I am also intrigued by the technique commonly known as Light Clay Straw.  I am wondering if, supposing I had it all to do over again, that might have been a better choice?  You can make those walls as thick as you like, so you can achieve any desired R value.  The end result is very similar to a bale wall, though with less of that "lumpy" aesthetic appeal.  I have met people with Light Clay Straw experience who've said "oh that is a lot of work."  I'm sure it is, but I can't help but think it must still be less work than building with bales...?
 
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Someone above asked to see my original floorplans and schematics.  Here are my original concept drawings:










And here are the final resultant blueprints:









 
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To answer those questions: Shockcrete is the label that my swimming pool building friend gave the material that he uses on pools, “The hardest stuff there is.” We applied the swim pool, pea gravel mixture down a hose at 200 psi and a pool crew smoothed it out in an afternoon. The material penetrated any gaps in the bales and is on there at an inch and a half to two inches thick, nearly like slump block, on the outside. That would probably be a great deal of extra structural support, but no data. The stuff isn’t going anywhere for a very long time. The earthen plaster (lime and dirt from the front yard) was hand applied to the interior, thick and shapely.
There can be ways to solve labor expense. I contracted a carpentry firm to do the roofs.  On the load bearing house, the top box and the rafters were assembled in the street, then a crane lifted the whole thing up over the telephone wires and then placed it two inches above the bale wall. I lined it up. They dropped it. All of the settling was done immediately. I never had to crank that roof down.
The window framing was hired out to a carpenter as a side job on the post and beam one. I paid by the window. The bale supported roof bearing house was done as usual, by the bale book with some 2x6 window and door framing. It was just very simple to do. The electrical labor expense was cut dramatically as placing those wires at proper height and 2x4 stakes is just so easy and only needs a contractor to verify after an amateur does the work and the box.
I hired some guys from a rehab that needed the support at a difficult time to sew on the chicken wire. Any mistakes in bale walls can be fixed with a sledge hammer and a level. Sweat equity is still key to big percentage of expense of labor.
You’ve got me pegged, guessing about my location in a dry climate.  However, the greatest part of the wall construction took place during the monsoon. I had to make very sure that the bales didn’t get wet. Humidity was way up and straw is lousy to work with when forearms are sweaty and its 102F. Mold can occur from that, if not allowed to dry. I saw a complete mess and ruin when a habitat for humanity house’s wall got soaked during construction. On the other hand, I left a stack of bales out in the back yard for nearly 25 years uncovered. The outside of the stack turned mold, but the interior of the bales and interior bales in the stack were intact. Some moister percolated up from the ground and animals nested in them, eventually. The wire rusted/decayed after about 15 years and that is when any troubles began and the water began to penetrate the then looser bales. I put them out there in 1996 and gave the old straw away in 2019. If you protect your bales from the rain, they will stay dry and intact. The first strawbale books showed houses at 100 years old in Kansas. The stuff will last one thousand years, just keep it dry. The structure of the bales keep them dry.
A good overhang, no flat roof, secures the bales best from decades of weather. My overhangs incorporated the southern sun, warming through windows in winter and shading in warmer months.
There were several contractors around here that started as carpenters that tried the strawbale as a custom home business here, but it fizzled after a few projects. I don’t know which factors caused that. I figure that was individual circumstance. I’ve heard no reports of any problems soiling the integrity of the strawbale home, except somebody cutting corners. I haven’t heard it all, however.
 
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Officially, the blown concrete material is called "shotcrete".
 
Matthew Nistico
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John Goode wrote:...The material penetrated any gaps in the bales and is on there at an inch and a half to two inches thick, nearly like slump block, on the outside. That would probably be a great deal of extra structural support, but no data.



Oh, for sure it will add huge amounts of structural support.  That is why load-bearing designs often use it, despite it creating a vapor barrier over your bales.  BTW, that is half of what I meant about you being in a "forgiving" dry climate.  Yes, the threat of rain on your bales and exposed walls during construction is scary.  But also, water inevitably accumulates inside any finished wall, no matter how well built and detailed, if given enough time.  Both leakage and condensation are threats.  It must then be able to quickly dry out again, which makes cement materials (or any other non-water-vapor-permeable membrane) particularly dangerous in the long run.

But again, builders have been known to get away with using cement stucco on bale walls for long years without problems, provided the climate is dry enough.  And you indicated that only one side of your walls have cement; the other side is open to water vapor egress through lime and clay plaster.  In your case, that will likely be enough, but I'd never be able to get away with it here.

John Goode wrote:...On the load bearing house, the top box and the rafters were assembled in the street, then a crane lifted the whole thing up over the telephone wires and then placed it two inches above the bale wall. I lined it up. They dropped it. All of the settling was done immediately. I never had to crank that roof down.



Wow.  Okay, so there's that approach, LOL!  I've never heard of that, but it sounds a whole hell of a lot easier than the usual technique.  You said that was 25 years ago?  Have you been able to monitor the house recently?  If there hasn't been settling and plaster cracking yet, then I think it's safe to say there isn't going to be.

John Goode wrote:...I hired some guys from a rehab that needed the support at a difficult time to sew on the chicken wire. Any mistakes in bale walls can be fixed with a sledge hammer and a level.



I'm glad that you had a good experiences, but frankly that sounds like precisely the type of scenario that I would do anything to avoid.  Been there, done that, and never going back.  After making slow progress employing a handful of friends-of-friends laying the foundation and raising the frame through Spring and Summer, I grew despondent that I'd be able to finish the bale raising and put on the first coat of exterior plaster before Winter arrived.  So, I put out flyers to recruit more laborers from the general population of underemployed, poverty-stricken locals.  Big mistake.  And I was paying good money, too, in the vain hope that this might inspire my workers to take the job seriously.

This was 100% my own fault, as I was breaking the #1 rule that every single book on DIY natural building book had spelled out: to be an effective owner-builder, you CANNOT work with deadlines.  Yet I'd set an arbitrary deadline for myself inside my own head.  The result was a menagerie of low-quality workers coming and going, far more than I could effectively supervise or direct.  I ended up hiring another supervisor just to manage all of their fucking smoke breaks.  In retrospect, there is no reason that I couldn't have found something else useful to do that Fall - though at the time I honestly couldn't come up with anything - and then taken up the bale raising at a leisurely pace the following Spring.

The good news is that, as you say, bale walls are forgiving.  It is amazing, but I actually came out of that experience with a quality product: a well-built straw bale structure that adhered at least 95% to what I had designed.  The bad news is that I blew through way too much money in the process and damned near had a nervous breakdown doing it.  And would have lost my long-held part-time job, too, had my boss not been accommodating.

So no, I would have to recommend being much more choosy about one's source of labor.  But every project is different, and ever builder has a different style and different needs.

Oh, and I didn't use any chicken wire.  I did volunteer some help on someone else's straw bale home who did cover their bales with chicken wire as underlayment for the plaster.  Applying plaster, I found the wire to be an extraordinary annoyance.

I applied my plaster directly to the straw with great results.  I am wondering if the chicken wire is necessary for your blown-on concrete?

Glenn Herbert wrote:Officially, the blown concrete material is called "shotcrete".



Ah, so that is why Google couldn't find it for me ; )
 
Matthew Nistico
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Returning to the original topic of this thread...

Based on the ratio of people's pro/con responses to my original post, I must conclude that a significant portion of North Americans live in areas without convenient proximity to sources of cheap straw bales.  I wouldn't have guessed it, and I'm still guessing that they are in the minority, but clearly they are out there.

Okay, so I stand corrected.  Which is hard to do in a wheelchair ; )

I could only advise people in such locations to look for a locally available, inexpensive natural material - round wood, stone, earth, rice hulls, etc., and not straw - to form the basis of their natural building design.

I still maintain, though, that this is due to the increased cost factor of ordering straw from afar.  I don't think the increased embodied energy is significant enough to be the deciding factor.  Especially not when compared to a conventional building project, where it is a given that most materials have been shipped back and forth across many state lines - and perhaps even across oceans - on their way to your work site.
 
John Goode
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"Oh, and I didn't use any chicken wire.  I did volunteer some help on someone else's straw bale home who did cover their bales with chicken wire as underlayment for the plaster.  Applying plaster, I found the wire to be an extraordinary annoyance.

I applied my plaster directly to the straw with great results.  I am wondering if the chicken wire is necessary for your blown-on concrete?

   Glenn Herbert wrote:
   Officially, the blown concrete material is called "shotcrete"."
SHOTCRETE didn't need chicken wire, but it was very handy to apply the interior earthen plaster by hand. I just couldn't get it hot enough to slap it on consistently.
 
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I realize this is an old thread, but what the hey. I never get tired of that joke, and I would like you all to know that it is a true sign of conspiracy that nobody laughs at it. All to prevent me becoming a straw bale stand-up comic.

I didn't look through the entire thread, so maybe someone else has already mentioned this. I read in the book titled, "The EcoNest Home: Designing & Building A Light Straw Clay House," that details some light straw clay building methods, that Barley straw has better natural resistance to water and therefore rot than other straw. I have also read in the book, "A Modern Look At StrawBale Construction," that ensuring the straw has sat and dried thoroughly enough before framing or being stacked is an important step in mold prevention.

Maybe finding dry straw that has been cut a few months prior, or specialty straw like Barley might explain the willingness to do the transportation.

Embodied energy aside, I think the biodegradability, non-toxic decomposition, and low cost for some R-20-30 wall insulation make it a great option.
 
John Goode
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Answering your question: The structure is still good, more than twenty years.

Thinking back now, I got the laborers from a rehab that I had previously been a counselor in. They were checked out and approved by a current counselor, I gave them additional support, they were appreciative for the work and the extra money in their live-in patient status. I think that it actually helped that they were learning something new about construction and so were engaged. I paid them fairly, too.
 
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