Straw Bale House in the City, Part 2: Building a Test Wall

Reader Contribution by Adam D. Bearup and Hybrid Homes
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The Straw Bale in the City 3-part series walks readers through the codes, costs, and construction of a straw-bale build on a non-rural property. Part 1 covers issues with building codes and managing expectations of city inspectors. Part 2 looks at straw bale design through the lens of a test wall, while in Part 3, readers learn the density and moisture considerations that can plague straw-bale construction without proper planning while also covering costs of this project.

I had mixed feelings after my conversation with the building inspector. As I worked on our current job sites for the next few days, I continued to make phone calls and send emails to various engineering companies, in search of a company that was comfortable being the third party inspector on a straw bale house project. Not one of the companies returned my call or email.

I reached out to the building inspector to let him know that I was not yet successful to get an engineering company to return my calls or emails and he said, “Well, the building permit is here and ready for you to pick up when you find a place to help you out.” I informed the developer of this and she asked, “Well, did you pick up the building permit?” To which I replied, “No, it’s a waste of money to go pick it up without having an engineer, we need a plan B.”

The developer wanted to further discuss with the building inspector his requirements for inspections, as to make sure there was not an oversight.  She found out for herself that the inspection department has the right to require the third party inspections. Furthermore, she was able to call out the inspection department on their requirement that the engineers be licensed in straw bale inspections, which to her knowledge did not exist. Yes, this would make it impossible to carry on with such a project, as there is not a single engineer or inspector that exists which would comply with the requirements of the inspector.

I started to think about past projects and how many times, those projects became extremely difficult because I would get a thought in my head that we could succeed no matter what. Time and time again, I would find myself saying, “How did I get myself into this?” I couldn’t take that path again, so I started to reflect about what options I had as the builder.

My first thought was that I could step away from the project. This option would mean that all of my efforts to that point would have been with no compensation but I had learned a wealth of information and could stomach the loss. My second thought was that we could find an engineer that would help us and that we could move forward with the project. I was trying to keep the positivity, but my mind kept coming back to the low budget that we had. We barely had the funds to build the house as is, let alone involving a third party inspector who would likely cost a small fortune.

My final option was to try to figure out why the inspection department was so adamant about involving the engineer as the third party inspector. I called the building inspector once again to better understand his unforgiving requirements, and in our conversation, he said, “Well, if you had built this way before, we would be more comfortable that things would be ok.” At that moment, the thought of building a mock-up straw bale wall popped into my head.

Building a mock-up would be a chance to build with straw bale prior to being on a job site, and eliminate any unforeseen issues. Inevitably, something always goes wrong on a job site when working with new materials and processes. My hopes were that we could coax the problems out of the process inside of our family barn, a.k.a. ‘The Laboratory’, instead of on the job site and earn the approval from the inspector to carry on with our straw bale build.

I dove head first into the mock-up idea. I went to our local feed store and bought thirty bales of straw. I was reluctant to do this at first because I was about to spend more of our own money to see if this process was worth pursuing. I chose thirty for straw bales because that was the number of bales that we needed to go eight feet high and fit between the support posts in our area of the barn that I call the Laboratory. My next stop was to a big box store to get the other items that we needed to build a straw bale wall and corner to code. I had everything we needed and thought that we could find the sill plates and other items around the Farm; after all, I am a builder and had plenty of lumber and miscellaneous reusable parts on hand.

I decided that we would build the straw bale wall and corner exactly like we would build the walls on site. That meant fastening the plates to the concrete floor, drilling in rebar pins, and laying out pea gravel before we set any straw bales. We built a window opening so that we could be sure of how to surround the windows and cut the straw bales. As we set each bale, we tied them up as we needed to and added the pins as we went. I was excited to see this go up with relative ease, although, in my mind I kept saying, “Ok, where is it, where is the problem? This is too easy, something has to present itself.”

Bob and I were building the mock-up wall when I looked up and he was gone after running the chainsaw to cut a straw bale. I thought, “Oh no, I hope he didn’t get himself with the saw.” So I went into the workshop and I found him safe and cleaning the chainsaw. He said that he was amazed at how loose the bales were and that the lose straw was binding up the chain on the saw. We didn’t think much about it and we went back to work.

This entire time, we worked as researchers, so we continuously asked each other, “How did that go, what did you learn, is there a better way to do that?” We didn’t use the Internet for information unless absolutely necessary so that we could try to recreate an actual job site environment and create our own solutions to any problems that we might encounter.

We were about three courses high when we decided to open the code book to look up something. While we were flipping the pages in the Straw Bale section of the code book, we noticed something that would change our minds and stop us in our tracks. To find out what that was, watch the video that was created from this straw bale wall mock-up.

 

 Part 1 covers issues with building codes and managing expectations of city inspectors. In Part 3, readers learn the density and moisture considerations that can plague straw-bale construction without proper planning while also covering costs of this project.

Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project MichiganAdam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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