Green Building

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.

framed houseWait, straw? What kind of crazy person builds a house out of straw?

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.

first baleThe 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.

chainsawAfter 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.

top baleTo 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.

more balesBy 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.

meshThen 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.

windowsWe also installed the windows and electrical wiring.

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.

shaped windowSee 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.

plasteringThe 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.

sappho hammeringI 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.

Here's Yelena, the Serbian architect, sitting in the eaves after having 'accidentally' dropped half a bale on my head.
Here’s Yelena, the Serbian architect, sitting in the eaves after having ‘accidentally’ dropped half a bale on my head.

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.

My feet, way up high on the scaffolding - my fear of heights quite vanished for the week.
My feet, way up high on the scaffolding – my fear of heights quite vanished for the week.
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Editor's Note: This story originally published at The Verdant Gryphon. Photos: All the images in this story were provided by the author.
Gryphon Corpus

Gryphon Corpus

Gryphon Corpus lives in Easton, Maryland, where she owns a hand-dyed luxury yarn company, homeschools her daughter, and dreams of building a little straw bale house of her very own. You can check out her yarns at www.verdantgryphon.com