Retrofitting a Home With Straw Bale Construction, Part 1

Reader Contribution by Cadmon Whitty
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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