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Straw bale walls with framed windows and doorsBuild a High Efficiency Low Cost Strawbale Home
by Staff Writer

Building homes with straw bales has been a growing phenomenon for the last fifteen years. Surprisingly, this isn’t a new idea. In the late 1800s, settlers in Nebraska pioneered this resourceful homebuilding technique primarily due to a lack of traditional building materials. Many people are suspicious of this green building method and comment that it is a fad and won’t last; perhaps they should visit Alliance Nebraska and tour the Burke house, a straw bale structure built in 1903.

Whether you are considering a straw bale home because of the lower-than-average cost per square foot, the high insulation value, or because straw is a renewable resource, there are some obstacles that need to be considered. Conventional financing is difficult enough to obtain these days, but expect surprise from your banker when you mention you want to build a straw bale house. Once you have secured the funds, be prepared for additional hurdles regarding building codes. Inspectors aren’t trying to make your life difficult, but your home may be the first straw bale building they have worked with. Once your new castle is finally built and you're ready to move in, insuring it may lead to further problems. Insurance companies are not likely to value your home as highly as a traditional stick-built home -- if they agree to insure it at all.

I don’t want to scare potential builders away, but the realities of alternative building methods often come with unwanted hassles that should be considered before the first dollar is spent. That said, I absolutely recommend that you build a straw bale home! On the plus side, how many of your neighbors have walls with an R-value of 48? Each inch of straw bale offers an insulation value of R2.7. You will enjoy the most quiet, insulated, economical home you have ever owned.

There are two common types of straw bale homes: those with load-bearing walls and those with non-load-bearing walls. Load-bearing walls support the roof’s weight on their own, whereas a post and beam structure supports the roof’s weight on a house with non-load-bearing walls. Many choose to build a post and beam structure so they don’t have to be concerned with bale compression due to the roof's weight, and settling that can crack plaster and allow water infiltration. Inspectors will be less concerned if the wall structure isn’t load-bearing anyway.

Before you can set out the first bale, you'll need a foundation. Although other methods exist, I recommend you plan to use a poured concrete foundation with rebar spikes sticking up every 16 to 24 inches to secure the first course of bales. The eventual plaster coat that covers the bales and adheres to the foundation will provide an excellent seal against rodents, insects, and weather. The home's floor can be wood (over a crawl space) or a poured cement slab.

Once the foundation is in place, wooden frames for doors and windows need to be constructed. They will be joined to the straw bales with spikes and wire mesh so that the finished opening is reinforced and watertight. As the courses of bales are laid out, they should be set with a running bond so that the seams between bales don’t line up. Each bale should be pinned to one below or beside it with two spikes made from iron, wood, or bamboo. These spikes help reinforce the walls and hold them in place until they are plastered. Voids in the wall should be avoided at all cost since they leave space where water can condense; condensation promotes rot and mold growth. A mixture of clay and straw can be used to fill any voids before the wire mesh is attached.

Once the walls have been completed, wire mesh is attached to the inside and outside of the structure. The mesh should be secured to the bales and support pins inside the wall as often as possible. Plaster not only keeps the elements out, it provides the final bracing for your walls. Earthen and lime plaster are two natural alternatives, but cement-based stucco is another popular option. If the roof isn’t already finished, you can now move on to finishing the inside of the structure in any manner you choose. Many modern straw bale homes appear to be built out of conventional materials -- until you see the low utility bill.

Do your research first, but don’t be scared away from utilizing alternative building materials. If you aren’t ready to sink your retirement into building a straw bale house, build a garage, greenhouse, or garden shed first. The flexibility of straw bales will allow you to form any shape, so don’t be afraid to get creative. Every straw bale home should have at least one arch… are you ready to start building?