Blog: Straw Bale

The Birth of a House

I often think that building a house is similar to the birth of a child.

The conception is the time when my clients dream about what type of house they would love to have. They look at websites and read books or magazines to gather as many ideas as possible that fit with their imagination and values. Then there is the gestation period – the drawings phase – where I work with my clients to get their ideas and dreams down on paper and fleshed out.

Then comes the actual birth, starting with the foundation and getting the house out of the ground. From there it’s like the child that grows up. Different phases continue on the house, the walls get built and the roof goes on. Then the building continues to grow with the addition of decks and siding and the windows getting put in. It keeps growing, with kitchens and bathrooms, flooring and trim, paint or plaster, until it is fully grown and the move-in date has arrived.

And just like raising a child, it’s a lot of hard work with many hard decisions, and a big investment of resources. In the end, all of that hard work pays off and my clients get to enjoy the fruits of their efforts! And the best part is, every house that I build is just like a child, unique in it’s own special way.

This photo shows the framing being done on a straw bale house near 6 Mile, just outside Nelson, BC.

Hybrid Post & Beam

Working with rounds is a lot different than working with square timbers. Layout is completely different: working off of chalk lines and carving the rounds down to square posts at the joinery took a lot longer than just working with square timbers.

Making the braces was a challenge in precision – getting the square part carved perfectly to fit the housing and then adding 45 degree cuts in the end really gave me a challenge! I cut all of the log joinery using a chainsaw to rough out the joints and then cleaned them up with an angle grinder fitted with a sanding disk.

The customer really liked the round look, so we used round logs for the posts and braces to give the house an open concept log home feel. However, since the square beams were faster to layout and cut, the hybrid of both square with round was the solution we came up with to work within budget.

This home will be an off-grid straw bale home, with clay plaster.

 

Exterior Clay Slip

After the baling was done, we shaped the walls using a large weed whacker for rough shaping and the Lancelot for fine detail shaping. Having the bale walls fairly smooth and plumb will make the plastering much easier later on.

It’s possible to achieve beautiful finish plaster on top of undulating bale walls, but it is a lot more work and uses a lot more plaster, which involves extra labour and cost. No one wants that. It’s much better to take the time to even out rough spots on the wall at this stage. Continue reading Exterior Clay Slip

Lancelot

Here is Raina using a Lancelot tool on a bale wall. Notice the important safety helmet and earmuffs. Good job, Raina!

The Lancelot is actually a small chain saw, so it’s not a joke about using safety gear. These are great tools for carving out channels in the bales for electrical wiring or for installing I-beams. Continue reading Lancelot

Finished Stacking

A standard wall consists of bales stacked seven courses high. Going any higher than this requires extra stabilizing measures to ensure that the wall will not bow.

The peaks of the gable ends in this house ended up being eleven courses high, so we built a wooden I-beam and installed it on top of the seventh course, securely attaching it to the timber frame structure. We then stacked the bales in the triangle of the gable on top of this I-beam, which added the necessary structural rigidity to that section of the wall. Continue reading Finished Stacking

Stacking the Bales

Oh, the joy of stacking bales! It goes so quickly at this stage that everyone in a work party gets excited and everything flows really well. Getting a good system going to ensure there are people busy on each wall as well as a few people making custom bales for around window or door bucks is important to keep up this fast pace.

The work party on this part of the baling consisted of about 5 to 10 people at any time of the day, and the main part of the baling was done in about a day and a half. Continue reading Stacking the Bales

First Course of Bales

The bales are stacked starting with the entire first course (row), going all the way around the perimeter of the building. This is the beginning of the exciting part, as all the preparations begin to pay off and you see results a lot more quickly.

The bales are placed tightly together, and custom sized bales are tied for the areas next to window or door bucks where the dimensions do not exactly fit the length of a bale. Ensuring that all the people who are stacking bales are maintaining a uniform standard of placement also makes it much easier to shape and finish the walls later on for the plaster stage. Continue reading First Course of Bales

Window Buck Placement

The placement heights of windows can be determined ahead of time in the design of the plans, although the nature of bale building means that the most efficient height placement of windows follows the heights of courses (rows) of bales. This way, fewer labour-intensive custom sized bales need to be made.

If you know ahead of time the size of the straw bales you will be using, this can be factored into the design plans. But if bales are sourced after plans are drawn and end up being a different height, slight adjustments in window heights may be useful to ensure a faster baling process. Continue reading Window Buck Placement

Prep for Baling

It’s exciting to start stacking the bales, and taking the time to pay attention to the preparations for baling ensures that the whole project will be a success.

The second floor of this house is to have straw bale insulation, and a proper foundation for the bales is vital to keep out unwanted critters and ensure moisture drains out of the wall in the rare event that water enters due to extreme weather or a roof leakage. Continue reading Prep for Baling