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are affordable straw bales still available?

 
Susana Smith
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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.
 
David Spohn
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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.
 
Dillon Nichols
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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?
 
Erica Wisner
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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
 
R Scott
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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.




 
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