An Urban Home-Raising and So Much More
The Be the Change Project and House Alive Natural Builders conducted a three-day cordwood cob house-raising workshop in early May in Reno, Nevada. Registrations and interest in the months leading up to the “One-Day Cob House” event were great and we gathered on Friday morning with 60 people and high hopes. Cob is known as a slow and laborious building technique and this effort, as far as we know, was a first. Friday was a set-up and skill building day and included a tour of our project – an electricity, car, and fossil-fuel-free urban homestead – to strengthen the container of the weekend and share the broader vision behind our project and this most unusual of natural building workshops. Saturday was the build day – 6:30 a.m. start! Sunday was a light day of cleanup, some base coat of plaster, reflection and goodbyes. We raised a 184-square-foot cob cabin that weekend but what we really built was a beloved community.
It was three o’clock on Saturday afternoon when I left the building site on my bike to get a line level from my house (our “Be the Change Project”) two blocks away. Five minutes later I was pedaling my way through marble-sized hail ricocheting off me and the road. My heart sank as I figured our ambitious effort to raise a cob house in one day was doomed.
We had risen at dawn that morning – all 60 of us - and started building at 6:30am. Progress was good at about 10 inches an hour. We assembled the roof on the ground without a hitch. The workshop participants were a wonderful, interesting, and hard-working group from all walks of life: a team that builds houses for the homeless, a couple from a Jewish urban farm and education center in Berkeley, a family with three girls from the foothills of California (the girls orchestrated the Friday night talent show all on their own), older women homesteaders, young single guys just getting started in natural building…
But alas, the weather was against us. May in Reno is a tricky time of year with any kind of weather possible. I had checked the weather forecast daily for the past 10 days and saw it go from good to bad and worse. While Friday, the first day of the workshop where we did skill building, harvested clay, and gave a tour of our project, was pleasant with sunshine and a light wind, Saturday called for afternoon rain and temperatures dropping throughout the day. And that’s just about what we got.
“All well”, I thought as I biked back to the site, “We gave it our best.” Our planning and organization was outstanding; our lead instructors, Coenraad and James of House Alive, are some of the best around; our group of 60 was outstanding with a healthy mix of folks with cob, Earthship, and carpentry experience. “Maybe tomorrow we can get the rest done.” I thought. “We can tarp it, hope for better weather, and pile into the main house to get warm. After all, a cob house in two days is pretty amazing, too.”
But then, I heard it: cheering! 60 joyful voices raised up against the hail in a chorus of whoops, whistles, and hollers. They were celebrating the hail and the hard weather that was pushing against them. I turned into the site, leaped off my bike, and dashed to the building. Hands blue and pink from the cold were piling cob higher, muddy shoes were dancing atop batches of cob, cordwood was being handed up the walls, and people were straddling bales and barrels and ladders to get to our highest layer of – all with smiles. It was going to work. We were going to do it. A cob house in a day!
Cob Building Workshop Wrap-Up
We called it quits on Saturday at about 6:30pm and considered the day a great success. We had raised walls six and a half feet high and built and hoisted, with 100 hands, a roof to top those sturdy walls. We were tired and cold but also effervescent and joyful from a good day of side-by-side meaningful work. The cabin will host interns, guests, and maybe even a new resident to be part of our growing community. With earthen plastering, light straw clay infill of the box-beam, and an earthen floor, there is still much to do. But it will be done with the help of many more hands and hearts learning and experiencing the joys of natural building and the joys of a living community. It will also be an object of great beauty, something most of our modern homes (and by extension, our modern lives) sadly cannot claim.
Most folks were gone by one on Sunday (it was sunny and warm, by the way) but a small group of us locals and friends remained. We were lazing about munching on leftovers and reflecting on the weekend, still in awe at what transpired. Someone mentioned the hand blessings done by Katy. Another shared how one participant found the workshop by Googling “Cob Party.” We laughed about the face painting and agreed the African drumming group was incredible. I remarked about how cool it was that James (of House Alive) flew to Reno from the Galapagos Islands just to be at the workshop and wound up co-leading it. And what about those kids who organized the campfire talent show! I think all of us sitting there at that moment would have agreed with what another friend said the next day, “I feel like anything’s possible with this community.” We feel so blessed.
There will be another “One-Day Cob House” build next year, near Reno. Contact me if you’re interested in being part of another phenomenal workshop.
Photos by Shannon Welles
Experimentation and observation are key to my years of successful gardening. I want to list a few books and authors that are instrumental in my approach to gardening.;
I spent NO MONEY to build this Drought Pod and it is fueled by my food waste.
I've read many books and perhaps my favorite author is Ruth Stout. What I especially like about Ms. Stout is her observation of the forests around her home and the role that heavy mulch plays in nature and the fact that Mother Nature does not till the soil. Secondly, she is funny and her approach to gardening is light and forgiving. I highly recommend her books, even though they are difficult to find. I think Barnes and Noble has reprinted her best seller. Search the used sites first!
Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza is another great book. Her approach to building a garden is forgiving and resourceful. Starting with cardboard, layers of available, mostly free materials are used to build garden soil. I used this method at my Ecohut to block out weeds, add layers of whatever organic materials I could drag home and created an awesome, rich garden soil up to 12" deep.
The great thing about building a garden is that most of the materials one needs to build an organic, rich, microbially diverse garden soil are free. These materials are considered waste materials and would otherwise be taken to a land fill, but are free to you if you can haul it home.
How I Developed the Drought Pod
I started in 2006 at my Ecohut with a barrel in the ground that I briefly described in my first blog post. I used horse manure in a bottomless barrel, submerged into the soil about 12" and created a simple form of horse manure compost tea, along with cardboard and heavy mulch to grow about a dozen awesome tomatoes. The tomatoes were planted directly beside the barrel so that the roots could tap into the compost tea inside the barrel.
By planting beside the barrel, and not directly into the barrel, the tomatoes never had 'wet feet' and could tap into the nutrient rich moisture as they so chose.
Passive Moisture-Retention System Using Straw Bales
As I was moving hay bales one hot summer day, the only naturally wet spot in the garden was under bales of hay that had been stacked there for a while, waiting to be broken apart for mulch. The realization that the only wet spot in the garden is under a bale of hay led me to my next experimental project.
I shallowed out the soil about 6" deep, the width of the bale, for the length of the row and then arranged my straw bales in a long row in that recession. The bales are placed on their edge, with the wires NOT in the soil to keep them from coming apart. As the bale very slowly breaks down, the wires continue to hold the bale together. I have bales in my garden that are going on 5 years that are very slowly dissolving into the soil but still performing their intended purpose: moisture retention.
A drip hose can be placed under the bales as the row is being installed, so that both rows can be water simultaneously.
The importance of the bale as organic mass is huge: weed elimination, moisture retention, and the most important function of keeping the root system cool on a hot day. These bales only need replacing ever few years.
Additionally, I added squares of straw between the rows as heavy mulch for weed control, etc.
I don't believe you can have too much mulch, plus the elimination of tilling from year to year is priceless. This is a no-till system. Everything is created on top of the existing soil.
Using this system, I added steel posts and cattle panels on both sides of this straw bale row and planted tomatoes on both sides of the row. I trellised the tomatoes for space utilization with great results.
Let me state here the importance of compost tea. I'm a big believer and heavy user of compost tea in my garden for both root stimulation and as a foliar spray. In another blog, I will describe how I make compost tea.
A dense mass of organic material stays wet much longer than an equal amount of organic material distributed over a big surface area. For example, I just brought to my garden a water logged bale of wheat straw that had been left out in the rain. It must have weighed a couple hundred pounds. I cut the wires and am using the flakes and cardboard, as mulch around my Drought Pod.
How to Build a Drought Pod
Walking home one day, someone had discarded a 40 gallon plastic barrel that had been fashioned into a compost tumbler. The barrel had been drilled with lots of holes and a lid made into the side of the barrel. These type compost tumblers rarely work as dreamed, then are discarded. I had no intention of using it as a compost tumbler, but because of a video I watched on YouTube called KEY HOLE GARDENS IN AFRICA, I realized I could create a similar effect with this barrel. Any type container can be used to create this effect. Be creative. Recycle.
I hollowed out the soil about 6" deep where the barrel would sit, then lined that depression with spoiled alfalfa hay. The barrel was placed atop the hay, then INSIDE the barrel I layered, lasagna style, from bottom to top:
1) 6" spoiled alfalfa hay
2) 6" veggie waste compost
3) one gallon of rabbit manure
4) two gallons of worm castings plus worms
5) 4" of veggie waste compost
6) enough spoiled alfalfa hay to cover this organic mass
7) approximately 3 gallons of super rich compost tea
What I have created, instead of a compost tumbler, is an in-ground worm composting station for all of my food waste. This organic mass should stay wetter than a sponge, but not soaking wet. Generally, whatever moisture is in my food waste is all I will need to add for a very long time.
Buy you a moisture probe for a more accurate assessment of the moisture content.
Another tip I highly recommend is to use an old food blender, put all your veggie waste in that blender and add some water to make a slurry of the veggie waste. Then dump that slurry into this worm station for easier consumption by the worms and general composting breakdown.
The Garden Pod Perimeter
Around the perimeter of the pod, I lay down cardboard to discourage unwanted plant growth then I add stall mix from a horse farm (wood shavings and manure the older the better), compost, powdered manures, anything to create a planting base for your garden plants. This bermed soil should be at least 8" to 10" deep, and acts as a planting medium for your plants.
This bermed soil is moderately moist, because the bulk of the moisture and nutrients will come from inside the pod. Then plant DIRECTLY beside the pod, and as the plants grow the roots will intentionally seek out moisture and nutrients through the holes in the barrel. By planting on the outside of the barrel, the plants never have wet feet and are able to tap into the moist nutrient ORGANIC MASS inside the barrel. The bermed soil will actually be on the slightly moist scale, while the inside the barrel, the organic mass will be wet.
Once the organic mass inside the barrel is complete and the soil bermed around the Drought Pod, mulch heavily with spoiled alfalfa (preferable), wheat straw, berlap bags, anything to create a heavy mulch which will reduce evaporation and most importantly keep the roots cool.
Just remember this is no-wrong-answer gardening. There are no absolutes. I'm not telling you how to garden or to create this project, I'm just telling you how I created this. Be resourceful, use free manures for the compost tea, get veggie waste from your neighbors.
The Drought Pod is ideal for small spaces where one doesn't have room for garden rows.
As Ruth Stout said, "Plants don't know if they are planted in a straight row or not."
I have spent $0. on this project. It will grow food for years. No tools are necessary. The Drought Pod may be my best experimentation project to date. Here I am in Mother Earth News.
This first photograph is April 16, 2014 the day I planted the tomatoes.
This photograph was taken yesterday, May 30, 2014. 45 days in the ground.
I hope this makes sense and motivates you to experiment in the garden!
Until next time.
Moving to a new house can be stressful and moving in a green way may be the least of your concerns on top of the whole long list of other things you have got to do before you move. However, moving house in an environmentally friendly way doesn’t have to be as difficult as you might initially think, and simple changes can significantly reduce your carbon footprint, making a positive difference to the environment.
Moving house is a great opportunity for you to get rid of any unwanted clutter that you have accumulated over the years. While this can be a long process and one which might not be very enjoyable, it is your chance at a fresh start – after all, there is very little point in transporting unwanted goods into your new home that are only going to gather dust for the next 10 years!
Be ruthless and eliminate everything that you don’t want. However, don’t be ruthless in the sense that you get rid of your possessions completely - recycle them, give them to a charity or sell them to people who might find more use for them. Perhaps arrange a car boot sale or yard sale a few weeks before the house move or if you prefer sell them online on websites like Gumtree and Ebay – you never know much money you might make. A bit of extra cash is always a bonus, especially with all the expenses that come with moving house. Recycling old possessions is a much greener option than just throwing them out. Furthermore, fewer possessions will require less vehicles to transport to your new home – reducing your carbon footprint even further.
Reusable Containers and Cardboard Boxes
If you can, get hold of any reusable containers to pack your belongings in because this is a much greener way to pack rather, than using cardboard boxes and tape (which can’t be recycled and takes a very long time to decompose). Ask any friends and family if they have any storage containers that you can borrow for the move, or perhaps find a company that offer a plastic box rental service.
If you are going to use cardboard boxes to pack your belongings in, then keep it green by going to your local store to see if they have any cardboard boxes that they no longer need. They will most likely have some spare and will be happy to give them away. You can collect them over time so that you have enough for all of your possessions.
Rather than using lots of bubble wrap, which causes a significant environmental problem by taking up space within landfills worldwide, use recyclable materials such as old newspapers and magazines to protect your more fragile possessions. Over the weeks, before the move, collect as many as possible – even offer to take them off the hands of neighbours, friends or perhaps your local convenience store. Alternatively, old cloth or your clothes will work just as well to protect any valuable items– so any of the clothes clutter that don’t sell or give to charity, save them and use them to protect your possessions.
Green Household Movers
Make sure that you complete some research to ensure that you choose an environmentally friendly removal company. With the environment becoming a major concern in today’s society, there are now loads or different removal companies around to choose from. Such companies will focus on using bio-fuel vans as well as smaller trucks that are more fuel friendly. For example, Abels international removals use vehicles that are built to have very little impact on the environment.
Environmentally Friendly Cleaning Products
Finally, when it comes to cleaning both your old house and your new home, use environmentally friendly cleaning products. Did you know the average American uses roughly 25 gallons of toxic, hazardous chemical products every year in their home, of which a major portion of these can be found in household cleaning products. Not only do these cleaning products have a negative effect on the environment, but also on your health. Therefore, purchase ecological cleaning products from the supermarket, or alternatively use buckets of hot water with a splash of vinegar –you’ll be surprised how effectively this will clean things as well as protect the environment, your health and your wallet!
From 2012-2013, my partner April and I took on the work of building a new home for ourselves. After living in a less-than-warm cob house in a cold northern Missouri climate, we quickly decided in favor of using straw bale for the wall construction to provide insulation in our new design. That left the frame in question, but we quickly decided that it had to be a traditional timber frame, and I'm glad we made the choice.
Advantages of Straw Bale Building
The union of straw bale building and timber framing is a harmonious one, and there are numerous advantages of employing the two systems in collaboration. Straw bale and timber frames are highly compatible, beautiful, and the efficiency and longevity of using these natural building techniques is superior in a cold climate setting.
The use of straw bales in home construction is actually rather "new", relative to the historical longevity of other natural materials, especially stone, cob, adobe, wattle and daub, and others. All of these long-lived materials have one thing in common -- they are all massive, and do not provide much in way of actual insulation values (R-values). If your goal is to maximize insulation and minimize the amount of fuel you burn to keep comfortable, straw, and specifically straw bales are an excellent option to pursue.
A two-string straw bale is typically quoted to be an average of R-27.5 for its 18" of thickness when used on-flat. (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 1998). Though there are other materials with a higher R-value per inch, I would argue that straw bale is a highly effective choice of insulators, considering all other factors involved.
Straw: A Local Building Material
Those other factors include local availability, fire resistance, ease of use, moisture regulation, and longevity. Straw is widely available across the country, and not too surprisingly, the same places where wheat and cereals are grown are those same places where people usually benefit from living in a well-insulated home. That includes places like the cold north, midwest, and northeast United States.
In an era where nearly everything is shipped great distances during its manufacturing and delivery, choosing the local option is increasingly important to cut down on carbon emissions. In the case of our straw bale home, we were able to acquire all of our bales from a farmer a mere 7 miles away -- that's one trip with a truck and trailer (plus fuel to cut and bale the straw), compared to an almost unaccountable distance most industrial products have traveled.
Fire Resistance, Ease of Use, and Moisture Regulation
Straw bale walls have been subjected to valuable fire-rating tests by the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM), and the results have proven valuable. Two different clay plastered and lime plastered walls have successfully passed code-recognized testing, and proven to be much superior to conventional stud and fiberglass walls in terms of resistance.
The advantages of straw bale extends past local availability, good insulation values, and fire resistance. Working with bales requires few specialized tools, making the work very accessible to unexperienced individuals. Clay and lime-plastered bale walls are vapor permeable, meaning in the best case scenario, the home will self-regulate moisture and remain comfortable throughout the changing seasons. Acoustic isolation is another benefit attributed to straw bale walls, and depending on where you are building, this could be an attractive boon.
Last but not least, straw is 100% biodegradable, and at the end of a straw bale building's lifespan, the material can gracefully return to the earth, leaving no toxins behind. We can drill more deeply into these advantages, but since my goal is to provide an overall illustration of the benefits of straw bale when combined with timber framing, let's look ahead.
Advantages of a Timber Frame
When comparing a timber frame to a conventional stud frame, the myriad advantages make an easy argument. Like straw bales, materials for a timber frame are best acquired locally. Whereas most dimensional lumber used in conventional construction and available at every home supply store across the country comes from only a few (and frequently overexploited) regions (namely, the northwest), a timber frame encourages local use of readily available materials. Shipping large timbers is cost-prohibitive, and it only makes sense to work with local sawmills to produce wood for a frame. I would argue that choosing the timber frame route encourages working within your area, creating stronger connections with your neighbors and local economy.
A Frame For Generations
Another big benefit not to be underestimated is the inherent and potential longevity of a timber frame structure. Timber frames are more durable and long-lived than any than any other framing system, hands down. 500-750 year old timber frame homes are not uncommon in Europe, where maintenance and care of these structures is common. When the wood in a frame is well-protected from the elements and maintained during its lifetime, there is no reason a house should not last well beyond your lifetime. This is in stark contrast to the disposable model of conventional home building today, where homes are simply not expected to last.
Like straw bale, timber frames offer superior fire resistance ratings. Heavy timber construction is given a two hour fire rating by NFPA, the National Fire Protection Association, which is vastly superior to a stick frame insulated with fiberglass. In fact, you may be eligible for lower home insurance costs based on the higher fire rating.
Between the longevity, durability, increased fire resistance, and excellent potential for use of local materials, timber framing is a highly desirable natural building option.
The Meeting of Straw Bale and Timber Framing
I've pinned down a few individual advantages of both straw bale and timber frames. But why do they go so well together?
If kept dry, a timber frame should last almost indefinitely. To maximize your home's energy efficiency, your insulation should be uninterrupted. This is where straw bale and timber frames make for a beautiful combination. A straw bale wrap provides a continuous wall of insulation around the timber frame, providing excellent energy efficiency and protecting the framing from weathering. With a sound roof and foundation, this combination should result in a very long-lasting home. The use of large timbers means that the straw bales do not need to be notched, saving on labor, and leaving the frame exposed on the interior is aesthetically appealing and a functional way to divide living spaces.
The benefits of straw bale and timber framing are highly complementary, and the best aspects of each can be fully realized when the two are in combination. This is why I have come to believe that this is a building system very worthy of pursuit, especially in colder climates.
In 2012 we were asked to help build a Cordwood Chapel at the Kinstone Permaculture Academy near Fountain City, Wisconsin (SW Wisconsin). We were grateful for the opportunity to work with a wonderful group of people who were in the process of establishing an infrastructure that would help fulfill the goal of spreading the news about permaculture, natural building and all manner of things.
Over the last two years, we have held workshops to teach people about cordwood construction, while getting some serious work done on the 12' chapel walls. Kinstone is alive with activity and is host to many and varied classes (plant identification, permaculture certification, bee keeping, gardening, harvesting, cordwood, straw/clay, and so on). Check out Kinstone Academy's workshop calendar.
Cordwood Construction Pictures
Here are some pictures of the building and some of the amazing folks who lent a hand.
Two cordwood wall builders are happy with their patterning.
After a hard days work the crew is having a good time posing.
The framework is double 8" x 8" cedar posts.
The river wall depicts the nearby Mississippi with recycled colored bottles.
Sawdust mixed with lime is packed into the insulation cavity to create an R-24 value (as tested by the engineering department at the University of Manitoba). The cordwood infill is all Northern White Cedar.
The roof is set for thatching. It has a ring collar that ties all the rafters together.
The thatch was applied by Master Thatcher William Cahill of www.RoofThatch.com
The inside of the Chapel. There are nature motifs throughout (sun, stars, moon, plants, trees, flowers, wind, river, etc.) The motifs are based on the poem of St. Francis of Assisi, The Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
The Chapel rests comfortably under a blanket of snow.
This summer (2014) we are holding three Cordwood and one Cobwood Workshops at Kinstone. We will be building a sauna and a cobwood kiosk (cobwood is cordwood log ends with cob (sand, clay, straw) mortar). The complete list of workshops is available at Cordwood Workshops 2014.
We are also hosting a three day workshop in Bonner's Ferry, Idaho.
For books, articles, photos and information go to Richard Flatau's cordwood website: CordwoodConstruction.org.
Read "Retrofitting a Home With Straw Bale Construction, Part 1" to learn how Cadmon assessed his home for straw bale retrofitting.
Though I didn’t know exactly how, I decided that if my family and I were going to move into a 50 year-old Albuquerque house, I would substantially change it — and I would do it with straw bales. I’d pledged to make it more energy-efficient, more valuable, more aesthetically attractive. I would do it on a shoestring budget. And with my previous experience of bale construction in mind, I promised myself that I would think differently about how to do it.
Rewiring a House Yourself
First, I put my ‘rewiring-from-the-outside’ idea to the test. It proved to be even easier than I’d thought. I walked around the inside of my house with a drill, and wherever I wanted an outlet — or a light switch or wall fixture or even a hook-up for my computer — I made a small hole that punched through the thin sheetrock on the inside and the old layer of stucco on the outside. Then, I ran wires around the exterior of the house, and as I pushed a loop of those wires through the holes I’d made, an electrician-friend quickly placed an electrical box on the inside of each loop and attached the plug or the switch to it.
The work was easily completed in a couple of weekends, there was only a bit of patching around the new outlets to be done (and some sweeping up, which my awe-struck children happily did as they watched their new rooms get all the outlets they needed for their electronics), and I knew the exterior wires I’d just run would get covered by the bales. Once my friend had connected the wires to the main electrical panel, I had a newly-rewired house, accomplished at a fraction of the cost it would otherwise have been.
Doing the Straw Bale Retrofit
Next came the main work: setting the straw bales. I had the advantage of having worked with straw bales before, and I’d put up privacy walls about 8 feet tall. But here I was looking at a two-story house and I faced unknown questions.
Would 20 feet of straw bales stacked on top of each other just crush the bottom bales? What would happen when I came to window openings, especially ones I wanted to make bigger? How could I attach the straw bales to the existing structure so they wouldn’t peel off in some windstorm? And what sort of a foundation would the bales need to rest on?
But I needn’t have worried. After I’d poured the foundation (see above) I cut small holes through the old stucco to find the house studs, and attached metal straps to those studs which I wrapped around each bale as I put it against the wall. I was delighted how solid the wall felt. Even after I’d gone higher than I had ever done with free-standing privacy walls, the bales continued to feel completely stable which allowed me to create wood openings by each window and rest them on the outside of those bales. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, what people down the street must be thinking as their crazy neighbor attached bales to his house then jumped and pushed on them to seemingly pull them off again.
Next, I put new windows in my wood openings. Once I’d done that, I took out the old ones that were now on the inside of the bales, and I put wood around the space between the new and the old. The result (see the photo below) was beautiful!
The next challenge was attaching the stucco netting to the straw bales. When building other houses and walls, I’d had access to both sides of the bales and could simply sew the netting by pushing big two-foot needles threaded with baling wire through one side of the straw and back again. Now, though, I only had one surface available because the other side was attached to my house. This, I realized, was going to be a case where I really needed to think differently; there was no manual to consult and no-one else who had done this before.
Putting my thinking cap on, I first tried threading pieces of wood behind the strings of the bales. Then I could staple the netting to the wood with little difficulty.
That worked well in most places, but there were still plenty of loose areas. I really felt stumped this time. But luck, rather than thinking, came to my assistance because just then I stumbled over some leftover reinforcing wire—and realized I could pin the netting to the bales with it. I cut the wire, bent it into a spider-like shape, pushed it into the straw and it held amazingly well.
Finally, there was the hard work of applying literally tons of stucco – which is a mixture of sand, cement, and lime – to all the outside surfaces, before I could call the job finished. Weeks of hauling bucket after bucket up the scaffolds, and mixing load after load of heavy mud took place, but we were rewarded by watching the new ‘skin’ of my house being created after having spent so long putting together the underlying structure. Once the color coat had been applied, the process was finally complete.
The Finished House
My house had been transformed. The walls were now thicker, and they were super-insulated. New windows made the place even snugger, with window wells becoming a beautiful place to grow plants. The additional electrical outlets made life easier for both my children and me. It was much cooler in the summer, and cost much less to heat in the winter. And the entire structure had taken on a softer and less box-like feel. The old house I had tentatively bought a few years earlier, it had truly been transformed into a home – and could now serve as an example of how to think differently about the possibilities of transforming other old places into new structures.
If you're in New Mexico or are interested in making a trip, Cadmon’s got a straw bale retrofit workshop in Albuquerque. Check out the workshop details on his website. Please let Cadmon know your thoughts about this post in the comments below, and if you’re interested in learning more about straw bale construction check out PajaConstruction.com.
I live in a home that now has very thick, slightly undulating walls, and deep window wells where my wife grows beautiful plants. It is incredibly energy-efficient: It’s warm in winter and cool in the summer, and my gas and electric bills are a fraction of what they used to be.
My house has a new electrical grid, but even though I’m not an electrician, I could do much of the work myself. And if you look at it today from the outside, you’d never guess that 15 years ago, it used to be just another old, falling-apart, high-energy-use house which looked like all the others on my block.
That’s because I live in a house that I retrofitted with straw bales.
Building houses with straw bales isn’t a new concept at all: There are homes in Europe constructed with a mixture of straw and mud that are 1,000 years old, and straw houses began popping up in the U.S. a century and a half ago. As I’ll explain, I’ve been building straw houses for a while. But taking an existing house, and stacking bales around it, that was something I’d not heard of before experimenting with it myself – and liking the results so much that I began doing it for other houses.
Here is my journey.
Starting my Straw Bale Construction Company
In the early 1990’s, I founded a straw bale construction company in New Mexico that specializes in building houses and walls using straw bales. As I first built a few, then later dozens of houses, along with several hundred privacy walls using bales, I saw first-hand the advantages of this building method. Their extremely energy-efficient, they have obvious aesthetic beauty, they’re easy to construct and straw bales are a locally available as well as an annually renewable resource, and “green” building with them a great option.
I became increasingly enthusiastic about the potentials in straw bale construction. And somewhat to my own surprise, I discovered that the process of practically inventing this new method of creating houses and walls with bales was forcing me to think differently, very differently, about the whole concept of how to build a house.
Assessing an Older Home for Retrofits
Several years later, I found myself needing a new place to live and some office space for Paja Construction (my New Mexico straw bale construction company), but I did not have the finances to buy land and build on it as I had done so often for my clients. As I searched around Albuquerque, I noted that there were thousands of old houses for sale —and they tended to be rectangular boxes with outdated electrical wires, ancient plumbing, inadequate heating and cooling, and almost no insulation.
In particular, I had my eye on a 50 year-old Albuquerque house. It had plenty of advantages: Friends lived just down the road, there were parks close by for my children, the area was filled with schools and shops, and the price of the house was right. But I cringed at the long list of problems in this potential home. The place needed all new electrical wiring and I couldn't stand the thought (or expense) of tearing out all the sheetrock to put in those new wires — let alone patching it all up again. The windows were single-pane and leaked like sieves, but to replace them I'd have to tear apart both the inside and outside of the home. The stucco was cracked and peeling. The heating system was a mess, and neither the walls nor the ceiling had insulation to speak of, so a good portion of my monthly bills would go to heating Bernalillo County rather than the inside of my home.
Could A Straw Bale Retrofit Help Your Home?
Though I didn’t know exactly how, I decided that if my family and I were going to move into this house, I would substantially change it — and I would do it with straw bales. I would make it more energy-efficient, more valuable, more aesthetically attractive. I would do it on a shoestring budget. And with my previous experience of bale construction in mind, I promised myself that I would think differently about how to do it. Along the way, loads of questions began popping up in my mind:
Could I really place straw bales directly against the outside walls of my house? That would insulate those walls and would allow me to re-stucco the place.
If I was going to cover the outside walls with bales, before I put them in could I do my electric rewiring from the outside rather than having to tear up all the inside sheetrock? That way, I could run the wires on the exterior, drill through the thin walls where I wanted an outlet or switch box---then simply cover up all the wiring with the straw bales as I retrofit.
Could I put a whole new set of windows on the outside edge of the bales? Doing so would create beautifully deep window wells on the inside, and since the straw bales would cover the old window openings I wouldn't have to worry about patching anything outside.
Could I make the house more beautiful by using straw bales? Would the natural curves and the organic feel of straw bales placed against the outside take away that 'ticky tacky' look?
With all those things in mind, I nervously began to put my plan into action.
Read “Retrofitting a Home With Straw Bale Construction, Part 2” for a breakdown of how Cadmon transformed his house using straw bale construction.
If you're in New Mexico or are interested in making a trip, Cadmon’s got a straw bale retrofit workshop in Albuquerque. Check out the workshop details on his website. Please let Cadmon know your thoughts about this post in the comments below, and if you’re interested in learning more about straw bale construction check out PajaConstruction.com.