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Straw-bale Construction questions

 
Kathleen Sanderson
Posts: 985
Location: Near Klamath Falls, Oregon
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Has anyone here done much with straw-bale building? 

As some of you know, my DD and I have been living with my grandmother since 2003.  Grandma died in February, and we plan to have this place up for sale soon.  With the economy the way it is right now, there are no guarantees that it will sell, but if it does (God willing), I plan to buy a larger piece of land and build an energy-efficient, off-grid, passive-solar house.  Have to have enough money and time to get it done in one building season, so I've been debating the merits of various construction methods.  I like mike oehler's PSP, but am not sure that would fly with the local building department (I *will* check with them before I rule it out, though).  If that doesn't work here, I'll probably build with straw bales, as they've issued permits for that here before.  I've blocked out a plan that I like, that could be built in two parts -- a small house with everything we'd need except bedrooms (we could sleep in the sitting area for a while, and there would be a large closet by the front door for some of our stuff), followed by an addition with two bedrooms in it.  Dimensions of the first stage would be 24' X 32'. 

So my question is, do you think that is too much for mostly one person to tackle in one building season?  I'd hire the foundation (insulated cement slab with rocket stove flue running under it) and the roof out, but would do most everything else myself.  My thought is that I'd have a metal-roofed pole barn put up, and build the straw-bale house underneath the roof.

Kathleen
 
                          
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As long as you are up to a bit of carpentry to do the floor and roof plates then even on your own, the bale walls shouldn't take more than a couple of weeks. If you joined one of the straw-bale internet sites then you should be able to get volunteers to come along and help you. Also, try finding where the other builds are and go along and talk to them, most self-builders are justifiably proud of their homes and will provide you with a wealth of information in general and with respect to building in your chosen area.
 
                    
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It would be better if you were two people, as two can get four times as much done as one.  We did two strawbale buildings.  One is a loadbearing type, the other is post and beam and strawbale in between the posts.  I recommend the load bearing. Have not figured out the advantages of the post and beam, but there are several for the load bearing.
Once you have the preliminaries done, slab, foundation, subfloor, whatever you are doing, setting up the bales goes fast.  Two days. 
where are you located? 
the most work intensive part is the plastering.  Now that I know how it is done it would not take my quite so long.  From my experience, it is a quick and frugal way to build. 
If you pm me your e mail I will send you some pictures.
 
Kathleen Sanderson
Posts: 985
Location: Near Klamath Falls, Oregon
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Actually, it's very likely that I will have some help.  My aunt's brother and his lady friend were here yesterday, and offered to come help when I'm ready (they live three hours away!).  My nephew and his little boy are living with me (nephew is building a tiny house on a trailer frame for them to live in until they get their own place again), and will help if they are still here (little great-nephew probably won't be very much help, though, as he's only seven).  My mother will probably help, especially if we end up with land closer to her than we are now -- a lot of the cheap land I've found so far is in her area.  And I have a lot of friends who may volunteer here and there.  But I don't want to assume that I'll have help, which is why I said I'd be working alone. 

I've down-sized the house I plan to build -- it's 12' X 28' inside measurements, so 336 s.f.  The design is planned to be added onto later -- bedrooms on one end; a back porch turned into a mud-room/pantry; and a front porch turned into a sun room.  It's very small for two people (especially when one of them is autistic), but I can get everything essential into it and still have room to move around, so it will work.  Have to have money for the well, septic (even though we'll probably use a sawdust toilet), a barn, a root cellar, solar equipment (small system) and fencing. 

An appraiser just looked at this place this morning, and recommends we ask $89,000 for it -- that's a fifty-thousand dollar drop over what was originally paid!!  Ouch!!  I'm glad Grandma wasn't alive to hear that!

Kathleen
 
Robert Ray
gardener
Posts: 1350
Location: Cascades of Oregon
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Hi Kathleen,
Here in Deschutes County code requires the structure to be in-fill or post and beam style construction I'm not sure about Klamath County code. Anything over 200 sq feet requires a permit here.
I participated in a strawbale build in Sisters and one near Silver Lake. The Environmental Center in Bend might be a place to locate some willing helpers,  depending on how far away you are. Even if it s a few hours away it might be worth a look.
I think 12x28 is a modest sized building that one could easily do in one season. 
 
Kathleen Sanderson
Posts: 985
Location: Near Klamath Falls, Oregon
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I haven't checked yet, but strongly suspect that Klamath County also requires either in-fill or post and beam construction.  For such a small structure, that's overkill, but that's part of the reason I think I'll do a pole barn and then build the straw-bale walls under that. 

It's possible that by the time I figure the costs of building here versus somewhere with no codes (and shallower wells), it might be worthwhile relocating.  Don't really want to do that, but if we can't afford to build here, I may have to.  (A lot of the less expensive land around here has REALLY deep wells, which could take my whole building budget.)

Kathleen
 
pete mac sween
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I am very interested in building a home using straw bale but I don't have any experience with this type of construction as of yet. But I do have nearly 30 years in the construction industry as a brick layer and then later as a structural steel worker. I am considering building using steel columns and beams as this would allow for longer spans and less framing as opposed to using wood. I know there will still be a need for some wood for toe ups, window and door frames and some other items. My questions are concerning condensation and I would like to know if anyone else has built any type of strawbale using steel framing, and if there are any precautions I should take or any problems that I might run into. This project will be built in Ontario Canada so lots of cold and snow and I need to find out about this before I begin construction. Any feedback is welcome and hopefully helpful.
 
Brad Vietje
Posts: 66
Location: Newbury, VT (Zone 4)
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Hey Pete,

I live in a straw bale home with natural earth plasters in northeastern Vermont that was essentially finished in 2011, but not using steel framing. We are at +44.5 degrees, and have many of the same issues you will have in Ontario as far as heating degree days (roughly 8,000 here, and about -25F this morning) and moisture issues which are VERY different than the straw bale houses of the American Desert Southwest! We re-used a 160-year old timber frame and built a straw bale "wrap" around that, with the entire frame exposed inside the continuous bale wall structure.

I hope you will take this as gently and kindly as it is intended... If you have been building with traditional no, conventional building materials and methods for many years, you may have to re-think some of the conventional wisdom that has served you well for so long. More specifically, there could be a number of issues integrating lots of metal elements into a bale wall system, since metal surfaces can be cold surfaces or thermal bridge elements that could cause condensation and moisture management issues if you haven't really approached your design details from all the angles. In other words, some things that work well in classic "stick-built" or metal framed buildings may not work real well in a natural building strategy like straw bales (or cob, etc...)

Most of the design and construction books tend to apply mostly to building straw bale structures in warm, dry climates, and there are many small details that have to be adjusted to work well in a cold, damp climate. One of the best classic construction books that covers building in different climates -- Serious Straw Bale, by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron, is now getting out of date, since so much has been learned about building for colder or wetter climates (and I hear Paul no longer builds houses full-time, though he trained a lot of builders in the Northeast, and built a house for a friend of mine in a nearby town. As an example, wrapping the bales in chicken wire is no longer considered beneficial, though many books tell you to do it.

Brand-new, completely up-to-date, and very detailed, is the Natural Building Companion-- A Comprehensive Guide to Integrative Design and Construction, by Jacob "Deva" Racusin and Ace McArleton of New Frameworks Natural Building, in Northern Vermont. They are 2 of the 3 natural building experts that worked on our bale wall system, good friends, and expert teachers. The book is not cheap, but will definitely be well worth the price in all the mistakes they will help you avoid! Ace & Deva also teach at the Yestermorow Design Build School (also in Vermont) http://www.yestermorrow.org/, where you might learn more on these topics.

Ace and Deva, as well as Ben Graham, of Natural Design/Build have also done extensive testing of natural building methods, so they have used infra-red cameras, blower door analysis, and have otherwise applied modern science to address the anecdotal claims about efficiency, air quality, air sealing, etc... If you want to get it right, I can't recommend the book -- or one of their classes -- highly enough.

Info on the book is found here: http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/the_natural_building_companion/
 
Brad Vietje
Posts: 66
Location: Newbury, VT (Zone 4)
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Pete -- a tad more info...

I read a few sections of Serious Straw Bale over coffee this morning, and even though a few parts would be changed if a new edition were to be published, it's still a darned good book with a lot of very useful information.

At the end is a short section about mixing/matching different construction techniques, which while helpful, doesn't specifically discuss metal framing elements.

If you can get a copy of this book through your local library or buy one, it will be a very good resource for planning your building projects.

The Natural Building Companion will probably be the best single source, and comes with a DVD with pretty extensive video instructions, and information for planning a building project. It is a technical manual for builders, not a coffee table book for owners or dreamers, but the details are well written and easy to follow. For integrating metal and straw, I can't think of a better guide. It can be bought on-line for 35% off the price (59.95 USD), with free shipping at the following link (I have no connection to Chelsea Green):

http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/the_natural_building_companion/

Good luck in your building adventure! I hope you will post photos as the project moves forward.
 
pete mac sween
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Hey Brad thanks for the info. I know there is going to be some issues with construction of this project and that is why I am asking questions. I have thought about having the steel exposed on the inside and then wrap the bales around the outside but it will not look the same as wood, so I am planing to keep the steel hidden inside the walls and plaster over the posts and beams, keeping the steel as close as possible to the inside of the building as possible. I do not want to have any steel exposed to outside elements because this will bring in cold and moisture. The main reasons for wanting to frame with steel is due to the fact that I can have longer spans VS building with wood, the longer spans will save construction time and a lot less work in shaping, cutting bales, plus a lot less work in the framing process. I have been looking for info on this kind of project but have not found anything. I don't expect the steel to any cheaper than a wood frame but there will be less work and the baling will probably go along faster.
 
Brian Knight
Posts: 554
Location: Asheville NC
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I think youre on the right track Pete. Keeping the structural members completely inside the building envelope and conditioned space should make for a long lasting, trouble free steel frame. The real challenge is keeping the bales from rotting in your cold, wet climate.
 
Tam Deal
Posts: 63
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I'm in Ontario also, so at least I know the environment. Here are four thoughst, for what they are worth


1 While you don't come at this from a woodworking background, post wise wood is more than strong enough for most anything you would consider. As is concrete where a tie in to a foundation is concerned. Wood is a lot faster to work with and will not bridge cold up from thr foundation as readily a steel. However, you can't weld to it, so in certian designs, and sections, it would not be the material of choice, but in many cases it would be. Eliminating vertical steel, since bail houses, are really just bale walls, would more or less eliminate any compatability issue you might be concerned with. You know steel, but I buy it also, and at my prices it is a lot more expensive than wood. In almost all cases, the wood required just to flesh out the build will be more than adequate structurally also. So there is hardly no way not to end up doubling up. With steel, wood, bales, and possibly something spread over the bales, you could be building the structural side of the deal 4 times. I am just talking about posts/wall, obviously beam wise, steel has huge capabilities.

2 While I can imagine that with steel many things would be possible that are not possible with wooden beams, if in the end, you are going to cut up the space with walls anyway, for the usual reasons, then the total number of steel spans required could be reduced to certian show spaces, and stuff like an open basement, where an open space has it's advantages. All the walls on the ground floor of most houses can be framed in a day with a small crew, so time is not really a reason to leave wall out, And could save you a lot on expensive strutural elements. The design has to be right to start with, so you don't want to move every wall at some later point. But the time it takes to put in systems and finishes, normally constrains a lot of messing around anyway.

3 As you know, a great deal of very run of the mill home building in the suburbs around here, already uses a few pieces of big steel to open up the basement, and the odd "great" room. So there is nothing new about steel in residential building. And while straw has it's unique points, there are many similar problems with wood, drywall and loose insulation, as far as thermal bringing, and condensation problems are concerned. Right down the road from me on the bay, Some rich guy built a fancy waterfront home, since burnt down, with several large steel arches in it. They are still standing. So the detailing is probably pretty standard these days.

4 I don't know what kind of "look" you are after, but a lot of the sophisticated work does not dodge the materials used. There is no reason to hide steel, though the way to write it into a project so it looks hip, may not be in the standard play book. But if you can make a feature of it, as they do in modernist, industrial, loft, etc... spaces, then you will eliminate a lot of the problems you asked about. In many cases you might be able to lower cost since the detailing could be easier. If I were building with steel I would make a feature of it. I would have it around for cranes, and other functions were it might add to the space, and the fun factor.
 
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