You know the story of the three little pigs and the one with a straw house had their house blown away?
The pig with the brick house told the story and he’s a liar.
Strawbale houses are one of the best forms for building a house ever! I covered the ‘why’ in my last blog post so I won’t reiterate here. My goal is to build my house out of strawbales (and maybe alongside earthbag portions, but we’ll see!) and to incorporate it in the permaculture garden designs that people will someday hire me for!
But to build said house I have to, you know, know what I’m doing.
I spent years researching books and watching videos on how to do it, and I finally got a chance to actually see if the books and videos were right about how easy it seemed to build a house. Enter Monticello College, a college in Monticello Utah that teaches liberal arts on a ‘living campus.’ They were hosting a workshop and I had the ability to go!
So I packed up my car, threw on my favorite podcast, and took an 11 hour solo road trip off to Utah!
The college is new and working from the ground up—literally. Their entire campus is a living experiment of permaculture. No cars allowed beyond the parking area. Everywhere were berms and swales and a lot of, well, poop. They let their goats run wild around the lands to help create actual soil and biodiversity into the normally lifeless red clay soil. Don’t worry, it didn’t smell! You just had to watch where you stepped or learn to shrug at the inevitability of stepping in poop.
I was greeted by Professor Shannon Brooks and a few of his students in the main building, who guided me to their small woods near the build site, and told me to set up anywhere, so I scouted a perfect circular clearing surrounded by baby oak trees with a view of the fenced off garden. A perfect place for a tent right?!
It was except I ended up putting it up during the worst monsoon storm of the week.
Through driving rain and sudden gusts of intense wind I managed to set up my tent. Did I cry? Almost.
After the 30 minute storm passed I mopped up the puddles that had formed in the tent when I couldn’t get the rain fly up fast enough, and joined everyone for dinner. There were about 20 people or so on this build, with about half being students of the school. Most people came from Utah, but a few were from Idaho, Maine, and Arizona. I was the sole SoCal girl there.
Now, I have a confession to make. I have a mild form of insomnia. So knowing that I’d have to be working every day at 7:30 am for the next seven days, I did the smart thing and took a sleeping aid. Had I not had them, I would’ve never been able to do this.
So at 7:00 am I was up and ready to work (mostly). The structure we were building was ambitious: a 1600 square foot dormitory completed in 6 days. A tall order! But with enthusiastic humans and at least a handful of people who actually knew what to do, how hard it could it be!?
My friends, it wasn’t actually that hard!
Shocking, I know! All day while I ran around learning and observing I thought “There has to be more complicated things than what we’re doing.” There wasn’t. So let me walk you through, in detail, Day 1 of the build. The foundation had already been made, so all that was left was to begin building the strawbale house!
Step 1: Attach the footers
Footers are the long beams you see. You make them the width to hold a strawbale, which is 18 inches wide, and it’s what the strawbale will be resting on (not the foundation). A group screwed in the outside beams (beams closest to the edge of the foundation) to lock them in place while another nailed the other side of the beams together. Spacers were put in every foot or so, and nailed to each side of the beams, creating one solid base!
Step 2: Put in tension lines & toe ups
Tension lines were made with a three foot portion coiled and a 3 foot section left free. The long side was slipped under and through the footers every 2 feet. Tension lines are important for the later process of strapping down and compressing the strawbales.
Toe ups is a fancy term (but is it really?) for ‘hammering a bunch of nails in a zig-zag manner into the footers.’ This is what will be used for the first row of strawbales to attach to and grip nice and tight to the footers. You can also use rebar (usually put in the middle of the footers that you then slide the bales onto) instead of nails.
(Dr. Brooks showing us how long to make the tension lines)
(tension lines under the beams. Note that the beams are slightly raised--just enough for them to slide through!)
(This is Steven, one of the hardest workers ever, hammering in the toe-ups into the beams)
Step 3: Put gravel into footers & build box beams, window frames, door frames
This was something I would have done a bit differently. We put the gravel in last, but because we had the toe-ups in, it made cleaning up the gravel that splashed everywhere harder to dust off and we had to spend some time pushing it through the nails where they got stuck.
You fill it with gravel in case any extra moisture gets stuck. It’ll drain its way down into the gravel. Plus I mean, who doesn’t like gravel?
(gravel inside the footers! You can still see some gravel fragments we haven't swept off yet.)
In between helping shovel gravel, I also helped make window frames and door frames. Since strawbales are so wide (18 inches) You don’t just make one window frame for a window—you make two.
(the door frames are ready! those triangular pieces are just to give it strength until we're ready to put the door in. Note that' it's a double door frame--just like the windows! Beside it is a newly made box beam!)
Once the frames are in place and the house built, you have the choice to put the window frame on the outside wood frame for a nice deep interior ledge you can put your favorite cat on or position it into the interior frame so that you can put planter boxes or something on the outside of the house.
The disadvantage (in my opinion) of putting the window closer to the interior house is that it leaves a deep overhang and you won’t be getting as much light into your home. Just something to consider!
I dunno, you might be batman and want to make it harder for people to see into your layer.
You do you, superhero.
Step 4: Make the box beams
I didn’t make the box beams as I wasn’t on that team, but they were building right next to me so I got to see how they were made! It was very easy! Take 20 foot long boards, make sure their 18 inches apart, hammer in two ends, attach plywood to one side, put spacers in and voila, you have a raised bed! Er, I mean box beams!
These are what go on top of the last row of bales. The tensions straps will loop over these and the boxes themselves will be what the roof will be sitting on!
(Just one of quite a number of box beams!)
Step 5: Realize you maybe have more people than expected and get ahead of the curve
Everyone worked so hard and so well together that we ended up not only finishing our original goals, but also getting the door frames up and setting up the first couple of rows of bales on the toe ups! How crazy is that?!
(installing the door frame to the footers! You have a choice of putting the door on either one--with the same result as the windows. Have a minor overhang outside, or one inside.)
And that was it for day one! If the steps seem easy—they are. And if you have 10 people or more along with a good game plan and organization, there’s no reason you couldn’t do the same or more—especially if you’re building something smaller!
A caveat to this build is that there was only ONE interior strawbale wall and no plumbing. If you’re doing plumbing you’ll want to do that when you’re doing your foundation.
You can absolutely make all of your interior walls of strawbale—but know that 18 inch bales will take up a LOT of space. So you have three more options.
One option is to half the depth of the bail (I’ll go over how to re-size bales in the next post) so that it only takes up a few inches more space than a standard wall. A halved bale will still have as good an insulation as a standard wall filled with fiberglass or spray foam filling (all of which leeches toxic chemicals in your home over time. Bleh).
Another option is to order pre-made walls already filled with straw (it’s shaved down to fit the size of standard wall). I don’t know how much these cost, but I’ve a feeling it’s not cheap.
Your last option is to simply make standard wood frame walls (like a typical house is) and then fill it in with eco-friendly insulation (wool, newspaper, and shredded clothing being some options that are available and highly effective!).
I hope you found this informative and makes you a little less wary of building green! I can’t tell you how fun this build was—and with helping hands, how easy it is! Next week I’ll be talking about resizing and stacking bales, putting on wire mesh (and if you should), and how to sew the bales and mesh together!
If you have any questions about building with strawbale please don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below or e-mail me! I’m always happy to help you!