In many parts of the world, including the United States, straw bale houses have caught on as a form of alternative, sustainable building. Far from being a flimsy house of straw a la The Three Little Pigs, straw bale homes are sturdy houses with walls thicker than those of many adobe homes. Consequently, they have much higher insulation ratings than conventionally built homes, saving people lots of money on utility bills.
Many people wonder about the safety of straw bale houses. There are houses that were originally built in Nebraska during the turn of the century that are still standing. With their thick walls, they are very wind resistant, and fire-resistant as well. Packed straw does not burn well.
Also, contrary to popular belief, straw is not something that animals such as mice enjoy eating. Straw is the waste product of the grain. The part of the grain that animals eat is hay, a fine distinction that is not always readily apparent with our frequent interchangeable use of the words.
The basics of straw bale building are simple. As with any home, you have a choice of a variety of foundations. Choose the one that works for your area and your budget. Keep your design simple, and imagine that the straw bales are really huge building blocks. Basically, you simply stack the bales into the wall formation that you would like.
In the less expensive version of straw bale building, you then drive bamboo stakes or rebar down through the bales to hold them together. The bales support the roof. If you are building a large structure, you can also use bales for interior walls, however, in a smaller structure, two feet thick walls are simply too space consuming. If you want to build for a low cost per square foot, it is best to keep your house fairly small, as post and beam construction, which uses much more wood, is generally recommended for larger houses.
With regular straw bale construction windows are often carved out of the bale structure with a chainsaw. The entire process is a very creative one, and always gives interesting results. While straw bale houses vary immensely in their level of sophistication, I have never seen one that did not give off a friendly aura. Straw bale buildings seem to be cozy by nature, regardless of size.
After the walls have been raised and given a chance to settle, they are covered with chicken wire, and then a stucco mixture. This is very fun to apply, but can be time-consuming if done entirely by hand. This is where having a straw bale building party comes in handy. Many people are downright fascinated by the process, and when you tell them that you will be a homeowner without a mortgage, their fascination usually increases.
The cost of building a straw bale home depends on many factors. There are various methods used to build them, and if you are looking to build one that has a low cost per square foot, then you will need to use a method that uses a minimum of lumber. Other factors that influence cost are the cost of the straw and the cost of delivery, plumbing and electricity, choice of flooring and roofing and foundation, and fixtures such as windows and doors.
To save money, many people scavenge windows and doors from older structures that are being torn down. Others shop at their local Habitat for Humanity store, which offers reusable windows, doors, tiles and all other manner of home fixtures for a very inexpensive price. Another big money saver is sweat equity, in other words, doing most of the labor yourself.
The more you learn about straw bale building, by reading about it, attending conferences and participating in straw bale building opportunities, the more you will be able to save on labor costs. People who are not pressed for time, and who feel confident in learning the process step by step often build their entire house themselves.
Of course, the support of friends and other straw bale aficionados can also take away quite a bit of the cost of construction. You can ask people to help you build the walls, which is a process that may only take one day if you are well organized. If you are knowledgeable enough, or wish to let an instructor use your home as a model, you can save lots of money by using the building of your home as a workshop that other people pay to attend, while they are building your house.
That way, not only do you get free labor, but you also get a portion of the fees from the workshop. Whether or not this option will work for you will depend on where you live and what the demand is for straw bale building in your area. Of course, if you are enthusiastic, you can always generate interest and demand!
Be creative in selecting the materials for your house. Use resources that are available locally and that are easily transportable. Keep the plumbing and electrical wiring very simple as well, as this can be one of the more costly aspects of building. With large straw bales running around three dollars apiece, the walls themselves are often the cheapest part of building!
There are many additional resources on this subject, both in print and on the Internet. If you do a web search, you can even find free straw bale house plans posted on the Internet, often along with photos of the actual house that has been built from them. Most people who build using straw bales are highly committed to sustainable building, and are usually pretty forthcoming with information.
Straw bale building is a perfect example of a do it yourself project that has plenty of support available from a variety of sources. Should you decide to build one of these friendly homes, you will never find yourself alone, wondering what to do next. Be sure to check out the many newsgroups that are available, where people who have already built straw bale houses offer free advice to new builders.
It can be very empowering to learn that you can build your own shelter. Not having a mortgage to pay is a very freeing experience for many, giving people the chance to explore different careers without worrying about finances as much as they would otherwise, or allowing one member of the family to stay home and devote more time to the family or his or her craft.
If you are interested in this mode of building, don’t hesitate to check out the many resources available. You may find yourself living in the most beautiful house you’ve ever spent time in, without a mortgage. Who can ask for more?