Retrofitting a Home With Straw Bale Construction, Part 2

http://www.motherearthnews.com/green-homes/straw-bale-retrofit-part2-zbcz1404.aspx

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.