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are affordable straw bales still available?

 
Posts: 37
Location: northern VT
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I've been hearing that straw bales for building are becoming more scarce and expensive, due to farmers switching to round bales.
Anyone know if this is true?
Anyone got specific leads on straw sources?
What is the likelihood I'd be able to get straw bales enough for a small house this summer in New England?

I'm actually considering light clay straw (or woodchip clay, which I haven't yet learned much about) as an alternative, since it seems to me that the timing is less stringent than for strawbales.
IE, I'd have to wait for the new harvest of straw in late summer, then work quickly to get the walls up and the exterior plaster on, before they can be rained on.
Whereas for claystraw I could start the walls right away as soon as the foundation and roof are done, using straw from round bales cut last year.
Also the actual labor of putting the claystraw into forms might be more suited to my physical strength than having to lift and carry all those bales, mostly by myself, in a short period of time.

But since I put a lot of time into learing about strawbale, I'd like to think it through one more time before making a final decision either way.

Any information or suggestions welcome.
 
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Location: Alberta, Canada
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I can't speak for New England, but I don't doubt that small square bales suitable for building are getting harder to find in some areas. However, my understanding is that there are farmers who now make square bales specifically for construction, and some of them even store them in a shed so they're ready to go when you need them. Not sure how affordable they are, or whether you'd find something like that in your area.

As you mention, materials for clay straw or clay chip are probably easier to source, and it's probably less labour for a small crew. I don't see a lot of downsides to it, unless you want it done really fast, or you don't have time to let it dry before plastering.
 
pollinator
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In my area, people doing strawbale generally get the bales via semi-truck from far, far away... Definitely pushes it down the list of options in my opinion.

Your point about timing is true for load-bearing strawbale; for a wood/timber/playdoh/WHY framed house that's simply insulated with strawbale, you have a bit more flexibility. Still much less than the alternatives you mention.

I'd expect strawbale to go faster than light-clay, based on some experience of the latter... Can anyone who's done both comment?
 
gardener
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I've done a little bit with both. Not full buildings, but smaller-scale retrofit projects, and visited works-in-progress.

It REALLY matters if the house is designed for bale - and for that particular size of bale. If so, then it's like Legos, pretty quick.

If not, then you are re-shaping a lot of bales around door & window bucks, odd dimension walls, etc.
Re-shaping bale is fiddly and frustrating, and you definitely want dry storage over the project while fiddling. Even if you make plentiful sacrifices to the storm gods, it's hard to get through their heads that you are asking for NO storms.

If it's possible to get the roof up first, either with temporary poles or a timber load-bearing system, then you have a lot more flexibility in the timing.

Storing the bales is the critical part in either case.
Using straw-clay or similar just lets you pick and choose, since you are breaking into the bales, you can discard moldy ones with less guesswork. But if they're moldy, you still don't want that in your walls.

However, straw-clay does have some advantages from what I've seen.
It is very combustion resistant (even more so than solid bale, which is already pretty slow-burning, comparable to wood).
It seems to handle weather better, in the few cases where I've seen it left semi-exposed. It would not be an exterior cladding material of choice, but it's not bad for a project that may have hiccups in the construction schedule.
You can make the density you want, based on how thick you make the clay mix, and how tight you pack.
And you can even incorporate other material (cellulose fiber, dung, reeds, etc) if hay is not plentiful locally.

For thicker straw-clay, in short-season building projects, Lasse Holmes has had some good results with something he calls "licks" (light-clay straw adobe bricks). You can form bricks, dry them, and then build a wall where the core is these dry bricks and the wet material is outside. Makes it easier to do a thick wall, for high insulation value, with good drying times so you have less risk of damp rot/mold, and can plaster sooner.
(He did wood-lath cages, to avoid pulling and moving a lot of formwork. But you can also do formwork and stuff it, if you are willing to take more time and trouble in order to use less wood in the project).

-Erica
 
pollinator
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Some areas are definitely harder to get bales. Some areas you just need to order them in advance, many farmers will only bale as many square bales as they have sold and then YOU have to pick them up out of the field. It saves $$$ but you have to have a truck and trailer and the ability to drop everything to go load bales.

But bales are not cheap to make. A wire tied bale has 20-25 cents worth of wire per bale, there is 5-10 cents of twine in a twine tied bale. There is 25-75 cents worth of diesel burned per bale. Plus general wear and tear. That is just to get them on the ground, the price doubles every time someone has to pick them up and set them down.
 
Susana Smith
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Location: northern VT
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Thanks all for the info!

R Scott, the farmers' perspective is always important, and it's helpful to have actual numbers. I was hoping I might be able to order bales as early as possible, but hadn't been able to find them. I'm not yet in the area so that makes it harder. I had wanted to do this even a year in advance but found nothing at the time I was looking. And I would have arranged to pick them up.

I just discovered that when I started looking for bale sources I must have been way too early or a little too late in the year, because now availability is starting to appear in the Straw List, http://www.hayexchange.com/straw.php ,
just not in the area codes that would benefit me, ideally 802 (VT), or 603 NH, even 413 western MA or 518 western NY state, possibly 483,450, 514, 579 in canada though I'd have to look into what's involved in buying there and bringing it across the border. There were actually 2 sources listed in 450 area code with 3x3 bales, ie somewhat larger than what I had wanted, maybe these are the square bales mentioned by David?, I'll have to look into that further.

Erica, I'm so glad to hear about Lasse Holmes!
I myself came up with that idea recently, to dry some claystraw and then put dry bricks of it inside fresh walls.
I always say, when I invent something that other people have already been using for years, it's sign that I'm on the right track :-)
Do you know if he has any more info about it available online or otherwise? All I found from him online was rmh related. It would be great to go up to alaska to learn directly but that's not possible for me at the moment.

My main questions to start with are how thick can the outer claystraw be, considering that it will only be exposed to air on one side?
What if anything to put between bricks --not fresh claystraw as it might be impossible for it to dry there?
And what has he learned about ideal thickness of bricks and drying time etc?

I've also thought about doing regular formwork claystraw walls, then spend that winter making and drying bricks, then in the following summer add a layer of dried bricks on the inside, to double the thickness of the walls.
This would involve refraining from plastering the interior that first winter, but that might happen anyway.




 
steward
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As far as I am aware, straw bales are still affordable. From what I can tell the major cost of straw bale is the labor cost. From this article, it looks like labor is about 25% the cost of straw bale housing.
 
pollinator
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I've had good luck getting cheap bales by requesting the year in advance--most farmers are still doing straw, but like mentioned, are doing rounds or half ton bales--the 6 string ones. I've had two farmers do a load of two string bales when I asked the year before and I was buying at least 100 bales--they will usually bale a whole field as two string with the promise of purchase.

Bales go much quicker than clay straw mixes in my experience and are a lot less messy. Also you have to think if you have access to clay on site, if it is good for making slip, or if you use bagged clay how expensive that is.
 
author
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This thread raises a lot of really important issues, but this post will just address the cost of straw bale construction.

There’s a lot of confusion around the cost of building with straw bales, and that confusion has a lot of sources.  One is that when owner-builders report what it “cost” them to build a straw bale house they rarely include their own labor in the price  Yet in most construction—natural building and conventional—labor accounts for around 2/3rds of the cost of a building.  

Today, if someone spends around $100K on building materials (foundation, framing, insulation, electrical, plumbing, roofing, siding, interior finishes, windows, doors, etc.), there’s a pretty good chance that hired labor would have cost another $200K.  It has probably been this way for a very long time.  

Case in point.  I recently saw an inspiring article about a 99 year old man who built a straw bale home for his family in Douglas, Wyoming, back in 1948. He still lives in that home!  The story didn’t get into details except that the walls were straw bale, it was initially a single large room, and that he mixed the concrete foundation by hand.  I’ll bet that in 1948 he did pretty much everything else by hand, too, because many of the labor-saving power tools we take for granted today weren’t available then. Think cutting lumber with a hand saw and driving nails with a hammer.  The owner-builder kept meticulous records, and spent just $2,500 for that straw bale home.  Impressive, right?

If the material-to-labor ratio we see today was true nearly seventy-five years ago, then he would have paid around $7,500 for that home had he hired contractors to build it.  In fact, the median price of a new home (built by contractors) in 1950 was $7,354.  This story suggests powerfully that saving money comes not from the use of straw bales or any other particular materials—although some will cost less than others.  The real savings flows from building it yourself.  

Keep in mind that homes were quite small back then—the average home in 1950 was less than 1000 square feet, tiny compared to the average size today of around 2,500 square feet.  

A well designed, well built, well cared-for straw bale home will perform as well-as or better than other building systems, last as long or longer, be healthier for the occupants, store more carbon, and be beautiful, too.  Using more local materials helps local economies.  I hope more people build with straw for all of these reasons.  But unless they can contribute quite a bit of labor to the project, straw bale building isn’t necessarily less expensive than conventional alternatives.

Costs vary widely by region, whether building codes and permits are involved, and whether built in a rural or urban area.  Many design features influence this cost.  The building site, wall height, whether the building’s footprint is simple (rectangular) or complicated, the finish level for both interior and exterior walls, etc., all factor in.   And that’s just for the plastered straw bale wall assembly!  

Remember, straw bale buildings have much in common with other buildings. They all have roofs, floors, windows, doors, ceiling insulation, partition walls to create rooms, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC.  Here in North America most straw bale buildings are post-and-beam—the straw bales are used for insulation and a lath for plaster—so most straw bale buildings also use lumber, too (there are a lot of reasons for this—the subject of another discussion).  The article that Dave Burton references is absolutely correct—the plastered straw bale wall portion of a building’s cost is usually less than 25% of the building’s total cost.

What does all of that mean in terms of dollars?  Here in rural S. Oregon a modest, entirely contractor-built straw-bale house built in 2019 will likely start around $200 per square foot—which is also the low-end of the scale for any “green” building in this area.  Remember, up to 60 – 70% of this cost is labor—hiring contractors to do the work.  My colleagues in more urban areas like Portland or the San Francisco Bay Area report that prices are much higher—starting out around $300 per square foot.  Green buildings—whether made of straw or conventional materials—both cost around 20% - 30% more than conventional structures designed and built to satisfy minimum code requirements.  But green buildings made with straw also store carbon, and if carefully designed and built, can be Net-Zero in terms of energy use, and make a larger climate-change difference sooner.  

Whether something is “affordable” depends quite a bit on expectations.  When people read somewhere that they can build a straw bale home for “$20 per square foot” or some other very attractive low price, it’s easy to form the impression that straw bale buildings can be built inexpensively.  We need to view cost information more critically by asking a few questions.  When was the article written; in the mid-1980s or last year?  Did the cost figure include labor?  Was it a code-level, permitted building?  Was it a simple design (e.g. rectangle with a gable or shed roof)?  

The take-away is that if you can build your own home (of straw bales or any other material) you can save a lot of money!  But if you’re not able to contribute labor, and you want an “average” sized home by today’s standards, building with straw bales probably isn’t going to cost less than other comparable homes in your area.  
 
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I guess there are as many questions as there are answers in this discussion ;) What is "affordable" varies so much. Availability is so dependent upon location. For us building in SW Michigan in a rural area, I drive five minutes to a farm and pick up bales. They were $3 each for two string bales two years ago. Haven't checked since. Estimating we will need 300 bales for our build. 1,600 sq. ft. house and about $1,000 for the bulk of the walls sure seems affordable, but location, location, location. I'm doing the work, including harvesting the timber for the timber frame right here on our land. Some elements of the house will be coming from trees that had to be cut to clear the footprint for the house, so zero material transport ;) There's a cost in terms of time when you're doing your own labor. Everything takes ten times longer than with a professional crew...
 
pollinator
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I thought that the price also depends on what kind of straw you are talking about and whether or not it is very good at for other purposes. My understanding is that northern California has a lot of rice straw, which isn't very nutritious for animal fodder. Leading me to believe that straw bale is a good option for me in southern Oregon. And I'm mostly concerned with good insulation, not thermal mass.
 
Jim Reiland
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Thanks for your thoughts Peter.  If I could retract part of my post I would, and rewrite it to say that there really is no fixed relationship between material and labor.  A tract home that is identical to hundreds like it on the same street may have 30% or 40% labor and the rest materials, while a custom built (one of a kind) home with lots of details may be closer to 75% labor and 25% materials. Local materials are generally less costly than brining in exotic granite from India, exotic wood from Brazil, etc.  The more important thing to keep in mind is that labor counts for something, and often quite a lot!
 
Jim Reiland
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Hi Stacy,

In my experience bale price is more a function of bale size (two or three string?), quality, and how far the bales need to be transported.  

There are established markets for straw, and bales that didn't get stored in time and got a little wet might still be used for erosion control (an application well suited to rice straw since weeds that grow in the same conditions as rice--under water--don't thrive in drier conditions), if not for animal bedding.  There are emerging markets too--in fact a rice particle board plant is being built near Winters, CA right now.  I believe this is for use in the furniture industry. In the not too distant future, we may see straw used as it is in parts of Europe: as a blown-in insulation similar to cellulose, and in prefabricated straw bale wall panels that create multi-story straw bale buildings in Germany, France, and Great Britain.

Bales suitable for building just need to be dry and dense--at least 6.5 lbs./cubic foot.  Bales delivered locally in the Rogue and Willamette Valleys ranged from $4 to $6 in 2018 and 2019, and I'm told the prices were similar for projects near the Sacramento Valley for both wheat and rice straw bales.  I imagine that wheat bales out of Klamath Falls would have similar prices.

When I bring rice straw bales to S. Oregon, the bales cost closer to $10 or $11 each because of transportation.  There are reasons to bear this cost if you're OK with less-than-local bales.  Rice straw bales can be particularly dense and rice straw contains more silica than other straws so it resists decaying if it should ever get wet.  While all the other straws are from grains harvested in the late summer and are available straight from the field in time for an August-September bale stack, rice straw isn't generally harvested until late fall, and the bales are stored for use the following year. If I can't find local bales for a spring time bale stack I have been able to pull dry bales from storage in N. California for a bale stack in March, or April, or May.  

Straw bales offer great insulation, but plastered straw bale wall assembly comes with the thermal mass included--they can't be untangled.
 
D Nikolls
pollinator
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Since my last post a few years back I've found that 2-string oat straw bales are available locally(upper van isle). Price was $7/bale last year, picked up direct from producer.

This leaves me wondering if the strawbale builders I previously talked to on the island are not aware of this source, or if there is something suboptimal about these bales.

Anyone know of a downside to oat straw?
 
Stacy Witscher
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Thanks Jim for clarifying for me. Regarding the price per square foot, does that include finished kitchen and bathroom? I'm hoping to build a detached bedroom, no standard kitchen - maybe a mini-fridge - that kind of thing. Would the price still be $200 a square foot?
 
Jim Reiland
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Hi Stacy,

As to the $200/square foot (rural S. Orgon, entirely contractor-built prices circa 2019), I’ll go out on a not very long limb and say “maybe.”  

Yes, it would usually include kitchen and bathroom.  

There are so many variables that factor into cost that it’s really difficult to say without knowing the building site and seeing engineered plans.  All of this is addressed in Chapter 2 Designing with Straw Bales.   Small buildings cost less overall, but the price per square foot can be higher because kitchens and bathrooms have a higher per square foot price than do bedrooms and other living spaces.  Two-story buildings, buildings with complex roofs or foot prints, or buildings with curved walls cost more, but may be entirely worth that extra cost.  A building clinging to a steep hillside will require a more costly engineered foundation than the same building on flatter ground, and the people working on it won’t have to wear safety harnesses or work from scaffolding, which will cost less too!  

Remember, $200/square foot is the low end for a custom straw bale home built in rural S. Oregon.  My urban area colleagues wistfully remember those prices from a long time ago!

I wish there were a straight forward answer, but unless the exact building you want has been built recently on a similar piece of ground, all we can do is make an educated guess at cost, making a lot of potentially not accurate assumptions, guided by averaged building costs for somewhat similar straw bale buildings in the area.

gift
 
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