Saturday, February 5, 2011

Straw bale letter

I get a lot of requests for advice on straw bale houses, based on the fact that Aimee and I once built one. It still stands after 8 years and is the home of a Unity College faculty member in Monroe, Maine. I'm usually moderately discouraging of straw bale unless the climate and local agroecology suits.

(Straw being an agricultural by-product.)

I have permission from the writer to print this particular letter anonymously, and my reply below.

Interestingly, the writer also said this in a more recent letter:

"By the way, you basically talked me out of the straw bale house idea. I looked up the humidity issue elsewhere and it seems
like too big of a risk."

Another satisfied customer.



I appreciate you having your slideshow of your straw bale house on the internet. I hope that it's okay that I'm emailing you.

I would like to know if you are willing to share your house plans.

Here's why I need them:

I lost my job a few months back due to the economy.

So I need to downsize to something affordable and I need to spend no more than about $20,000. I have a man who will be doing most of the building work at no cost.

I am really interested in a straw bale house because I have many sensitivies to chemicals and I understand that these houses are better for people like me.

I will have to figure out how to adapt the plans because of the climb to the sleeping area. Therefore if you have any plans for a house that doesn't require climbing that would be great too.

Thanks so much for your consideration

Emelda Higgenbotham :)



Hi Emelda:

Unfortunately, I didn't really use a plan for the bale house. There was a very simple line drawing used to work out the dimensions. After that, because the building was built with recycled and waste materials, we proceeded opportunistically. I changed aspects of the design as I went along based on what was available in the building waste section of the solid waste transfer station that day, or what I could buy cheaply from building materials section of the classifieds.

It's very much a glorified shanty or favela. Five-star, as such things go, but not really what you might call planned.

I would also counsel against assuming that because a building is built with so-called natural materials, it will be safe from a health and wellness standpoint. There are some incredibly powerful allergens and toxic chemicals found in straw, especially in warn, damp climates. (Maine is warm and damp in the summer -- I would guess our summers to be like Florida winters in some ways.) A design fault in this building led to the straw in one wall composting, setting up a dreadful mold problem in the kitchen wall, that was only fixed by removing the straw and replacing it with clean, inert, silicon fibers (also known as fiberglass insulation). The mold produced was potentially toxic and might easily have made the occupants very sick, were they sensitive. Additionally, the straw walls attracted all kinds of animal pests, several of whom come equipped with very powerful toxic chemicals. The highly developed cubic foot of wasp nest now found in one bale wall is just one example. One toxic sting can kill faster than plutonium, if an individual is sensitive.

I have a blog page, where I occasionally add material and host comments, meant to try to get people to think sensibly about straw bale -- not romanticizing it but balancing pros and cons. You can find it at

My advice to anyone considering on spending $20,000 on a building in which they plan to live in any area would be to carefully assemble the relevant facts and withhold judgment until you have them assembled and can organize them and create a decision tree. It's going to be complicated, and some math will be required. Here's a rough list for a starting point.

1) Start with the "sideboards" of what is permissible and possible in your jurisdiction: Look at building codes, planning rules, and insurance requirements. These vary from place to place, by county, state and ecosystem. Work through these and create a rough list of the biggest rules that you know apply, are enforced, and that will affect your choices. Some rules are not enforced, and a contractor will usually be able to tell you which ones, others will be enforced more vigilantly. Fire code is generally what most affects home-build projects, but planning requirements, rules for wells and septics, and insurance company rules on heat systems and electrical wiring will all affect what you can and can't do. Whatever you plan to do must maneuver around and through the items on this list somehow.

(Added later: And be safe! The rules are there for a reason in most cases. Except composting toilet rules. Composting systems are unreasonably prohibited by a lot of building codes.)

2) Then consider the ecosystem and the site to determine the best balance of price, availability, and durability of materials. What is a durable, cheap, abundant material varies by climate and region. Adobe is abundant and durable in Arizona, straw has held up well and can be cheaply found in Nebraska, raw timber and stone and clay can be found virtually free in Maine, while sawn timber costs only the price of labor if you can get the trees for free. Stone has proven over time to be the most durable building material in Maine's climate, and can be had for the price of labor, your own or a hired person's. Waste or recycled or surplus building materials can be found on building sites and in the more permissive waste management facilities and in classified ads in any state. My guess is that timber is more available in Florida than you suspect, and may last better than straw. I can only imagine what the extremes of heat and airborne moisture found in your region can do to straw.

3) Then fit the building to the site, whatever you plan to build with. Take advantage of sunlight in winter for heat, shade in summer. Arrange the buildings and lawns and gardens and trees, new or existing, to make foot travel around the site interesting and satisfying, especially if you plan to live there a while. In Maine in winter, at our "new" house, a 110-year old Maine farmhouse which we were able to buy with the money we saved by living in the bale house for three years, I've learned particularly to cherish our southerly aspect. We sit on a south-facing terrace that is a natural remedy for seasonal affective disorder and cabin fever, both of which are endemic.

4) Crunch numbers. Time and money are limiting factors for all except the wealthiest, and even they run out of time -- [which must be] nature's justice. You will need to budget both. Anticipate eventualities and contingencies: "How will I finish this building if I get that job I'm after?" Have reasoned quantitative plans for all of the most likely eventualities.

5) Don't depend on "experts." Contractors and tradespeople can be brilliant individuals, but as in all walks of life it's self-evident that most are average and some are bad -- the bell curve. I've seen work done by so-called professionals that would make me ashamed to think of for the rest of my life, had I been the corner-cutting, cack-handed fool that had done it. But then, too, I'm become more forgiving of my own mistakes as I get older.

6) Build. Just do it. It's natural. Women especially can find it very satisfying. But be patient with yourself. It takes time. One stone cemented to another, a timber here, a recycled window there, can be tedious, even an act of faith, but you get there in the end. Have a schedule, and include breaks. Have a place to sit and weep. You'll need it. But be prepared to sit and admire too, on occasion.

7) Enjoy. You'll usually only do this once or twice in your lifetime. I've built four major buildings at this point, three Maine barns and a house, and a handful of sheds. I've refurbished several buildings as well, including the one I'm sitting in now. I consider myself lucky to have spent so much of my life doing something so real. If you're really unlucky, someone will give you a job and you'll have to go back to the cubicle or office.

That's the best, most honest information I have for now.

I can imagine with your injury and current unemployment that building a building to live in is a very positive decision, and good for you, but I wouldn't expect it to be an easy path!

If you don't mind, I'd like to anonymize your letter and post it to my sustainability blog and maybe the farm blog too, along with this response. It makes more sense if I'm to write stuff like this down, to share it a little more widely.

I'll be sure to take out your name and email and other identifying markers.


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