- Important: All passwords were reset on 06/15/11. Old passwords will no longer work. Click here to retrieve your password.
- Subscribe to Our Free Dewsletter
We are non-commercial, all volunteer and supported by our readers. Please help sustain the Dew by making a donation.
The Straw House I Built
Or rather, helped build. Partially.
Last week I attended a straw bale house building workshop in West Virginia. The workshop was hosted by Andrew Morrison of StrawBale.com, who runs similar workshops all over the world where one can go and assist with the building of a bale house and learn all about it to go home and build one’s own. He’s really great, super knowledgeable, funny, and an excellent teacher. He seemed to be everywhere at once, always available for questions, but never hovering or breathing down anyone’s necks.
Actually, straw bale houses have been built since the invention of the baler, in the 1850s. Pioneers building in Nebraska had too few trees for their homes and began using bales, the insulating properties of straw being well known. Early attempts were not sealed in any way and hence were subject to rot, and one schoolhouse built with hay bales instead of straw was reportedly eaten by cows, but they soon began to be covered in plaster. A well built straw bale house, properly sealed, will neither rot nor burn, and can stand for at least a hundred years (and probably much longer). Straw is a waste product and is often burned by farmers, so it makes a very sustainable building material. Moreover, it’s incredibly insulating and bale houses require no air conditioning and very little heating.
The house I went to work on is being built by Jack and Nancie Hines of Wheeling, WV. When our crew of 22 would-be balers arrived last Monday, we found it looking about like the photo top right, except that the basement was closed in already, most of the windows were framed, and there was a crazy stack of some 400 straw bales inside.
Our first jobs were to frame the last two windows and the front door, to install the ‘toe ups’, which are beams along the floor on which the bales sit, and to fill that base area with gravel. Then the first bale went in.
After that it was baling madness all around. It looks like you could just stack them like bricks, but that’s only the case in some spots. In many places they had to be retied to the correct size, which involved sewing new twine inside and then tightening by means of turning the bale on its end and humping it. Yes, humping. The jokes were flying, as you can imagine. Also, the bales had to be notched to fit snugly around all the beams of the frame, an operation carried out with a chain saw.
To make a secure wall which won’t fall over, the bales have to go in very snugly. The frame was built about 4″ shorter than the height of seven bales, so the first six had to be compressed and the seventh jammed in with much force. We often had someone sitting in the eaves above to press down on the bale and someone else swinging from the rafters to kick it in place. I found a lot of use for my new taekwondo skills.
By the end of the second day of work all the bales were in and we were utterly exhausted, filthy, and scratched up. Long sleeves and pants did absolutely nothing to keep out the straw from the most awkward places.
Then came the detail work. All exposed wood had to be covered with roofing felt to protect it from the plaster, and then the whole house had to be covered in wire mesh for the plaster to stick to, inside and out, and the mesh sewn to the bales through the building. Picture a VERY big sewing needle. This spot is a niche in the living room wall, a common feature of bale houses.
The windows were relatively ordinary, until it came to the inside. Imagine your window framed by straw bales – it’s at the far end of an 18″ deep box, which reduces the light a lot. So what one does is sculpt the walls, pulling away straw and shaping them with mesh until there are lovely soft curves at the top and sides, and a firmly packed window seat on the bottom. It’s a tricky job and I’m proud to have been on the team that did the first window in the house.
See those fuzzy blobs in the photo on the left? Those are dust particles floating in the air, a non-stop aspect of the project. A couple people with allergies had to wear respirators, and I would surely have been among them if not for the wonders of the paleo diet, which has put an end to allergies in my life. But I digress.
The final step, which didn’t begin until yesterday, was plastering. We mixed a natural hydrolic lime plaster and managed to get one exterior and one interior wall covered. Also really tricky work, but we started to get the hang of it after a while.
After this coat is completed (by a hired crew) and cures, a second, and then a final coat will go on. Then Jack will be building the interior walls, putting in an earthen floor, and finishing all the electrical and plumbing work. I’ll be keeping an eye on their Facebook page to see it come together.
I can’t say enough about how great the whole experience was. The group ranged in age from my Sappho, six – (left) to people in their 60s, and they came from everywhere, including Brazil and Serbia. We all threw ourselves into it and developed an amazing camaraderie. Sappho played with the other children while I worked, darting all around, climbing the scaffolding, leaping out of windows onto heaps of straw, and occasionally even working a little.
And in the evenings we sat around the campfire, singing, dancing, drinking, and not caring how filthy we all were.
I’ve come home exhausted and happy, my car full of straw, and my head full of dreams of building maybe not a whole house, but at least a little school hut in the back yard. Perhaps, I’ll throw a baling party and you can all come help.
- Editor's Note: This story originally published at The Verdant Gryphon. Photos: All the images in this story were provided by the author.
Worthy of Comment
Also on the Dew
Above my family homestead in the East Tennessee foothills is an old, abandoned cemetery. I admit I've never seen it, but I think about it often. I imagine the worn stone markers neck deep in leaves in the fall or peeking out of the winter snow like early hyacinths. In my imagination, I never bothered to name these people, much less engage in meaningful character development. I don’t know them in any sense of the word; I just know that they are up there, tucked deeply in an earthy hollow waiting for whatever comes next. I don’t expect anyone comes to vis Read on →
At this time in my life I am beginning to view so much of what is happening around me through an increasingly cynical prism. As a friend is quick to point out, though, that behind every committed cynic there is a disappointed idealist wondering what happened to a world that once seemed so good and full of possibilities. I blame Shakespeare for part of my mental dyspepsia. It all began back in university when a supercilious professor dressed down a fellow student for misspelling the bard’s name. Now after reading Bill Bryson’s book Shakespeare: The World As Stage, I find that the Read on →
May you always do for others And let others do for you. Words of advice, if not instruction, for the years and decades ahead, from Bob Dylan in "Forever Young," a song he wrote in 1973 and recorded twice for the next year's album, Planet Waves . The first version is slow and reverential, underscoring the serious nature of his father-to-son advise, while the second is uptempo and snappy, bringing enthusiasm to the same words on what awaits in life. Dylan, with energized backing from The Band, makes the directive, "May you grow up to be righteous" sound exhilarating. In the notes Read on →
"... if you believe in God, then intellectually you cannot believe in man-made global warming ... You must be either agnostic or atheistic to believe than man controls something he can't create." -- Rush Limbaugh Conflict between faith and science is as old as science itself. In 1543, Copernicus's great work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, laid the groundwork for a new model of the cosmos, with the sun, rather than the Earth, at its center. Attempting to preemptively defuse the controversy the new worldview would unleash, Copernicus's publisher anonymously attached a preface. Addressed to the pope, it stated boldly Read on →